A Complete Guide to Language Proficiency Tests: TOEFL, IELTS, and PTE

by | Jun 2, 2022 | Admissions

If you’re applying to colleges and universities abroad, you might be required to submit language proficiency test results as part of your application.  With the assumption that English may not be your first language, the tests show university admissions committees that your proficiency in the language is at an adequate level to cope with college-level lectures and classes.

Different colleges require different language proficiency tests, and they will specify the test scores you need for admittance. The most common English proficiency tests required by universities abroad include:

  • The International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
  • The Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic)
  • Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations)

These tests come in different formats—some paper-based and others internet-based. They’re typically taken under supervision at an assessment center or approved institution. Many universities abroad will give you a conditional offer of admission if you don’t have the required English proficiency test scores. Once you submit the required test scores, you will receive a non-conditional offer of admission.

English proficiency scores may also be required for applying for some scholarships, student visas, and even for getting a job abroad. If you’re interested in applying for certain colleges, programs, or scholarships, check their specific language requirements before registering for any English proficiency language tests.

Let’s explore everything you need to know about common language proficiency tests:

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a globally recognized English certification. It’s most commonly provided as a computer-based test (TOEFL iBT), although a paper-based test is available exclusively in regions without access to the internet.

TOEFL iBT Home Edition is an online version that you can take from the convenience of your own home.

The TOEFL iBT is divided into four parts and takes three hours to complete. Each section is given a score of up to 30 points—totaling 120 points.

  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Writing

You read texts and listen to recordings about diverse topics in the first two segments, then answer multiple-choice questions about the content. Your answers are recorded and submitted to an online scoring network, where they’re assessed by three to six examiners. 

Universities typically seek scores in the range of 70–90. Some universities also have a minimum score requirement in one of the four areas. TOEFL iBT costs vary significantly based on the country and test center where you take the exam.  For instance, on average, the TOEFL iBT costs $220 in Kenya and $192 in Nigeria. The TOEFL certificate is valid for two years.

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is among the topmost widely used English tests worldwide. IELTS has an academic version of its test that is tailored to academic and professional requirements.

The test is divided into four sections:

  • Listening
  • Academic Reading
  •  Academic Writing
  • Speaking

The entire exam takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes. IELTS Academic can be taken on a computer or on paper. To avoid any misunderstanding, computer-based implies you’ll take the exam on a computer, not from your house. In both cases, you must register and take the exam at an authorized testing center. The speaking section of both versions is conducted face-to-face with a qualified examiner.

As of 2022, students can register for IELTS Online—which can be taken anywhere as long as they have internet access and match the basic prerequisites. The IELTS certificate is valid for two years.

The IELTS test scores are graded on a 0–9 scale. Most universities require IELTS score ranges between 5.5 and 6.5. The costs of the tests vary from country to country. For instance, the average cost of IELTS in the US is $215–240 and $270 in Kenya.

The Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic)

The Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) has risen in popularity—more and more universities are recognizing it as evidence of English proficiency from prospective international students.

The PTE exam has three sections:

  • Speaking and Writing
  • Reading
  • Listening

The PTE Academic test takes two hours to complete. It’s available as PTE Academic Online—which can be taken by students from all over the globe as long as they have internet access.

The exam is scored on a 10-90 scale using the Global Scale of English. Most universities abroad require international students to have minimum PTE scores of 50–60. Just like IELTS and TOEFL, the costs for the PTE Academic vary from country to country—the average cost of the exam is 200 USD in the United States and 357 AUD ($246) in Australia. The PTE certificate has a two-year validity period.

Which Language Proficiency Test Should I Take?

Unfortunately, there’s no definite answer to this question. The right test for you depends on the university and programs you’re interested in. While some universities accept all three tests, others accept only one of them.

Look up the English language proficiency test requirements by your preferred universities before making a decision. You’ll also have to consider the exam dates and test centers available near you. It’s also advisable to try free online test materials to see which one is easier for you.

Generally, it doesn’t matter if you opt for IELTS Academic, TOEFL iBT, or PTE Academic. All of them are excellent in proving your English proficiency to university admissions committees. When you’ve decided on which exam to go for, prepare yourself by studying and taking prep tests.

How to Prepare for Language Proficiency Tests

Here are some tips to help you prepare and pass a language proficiency test:

  • Give yourself time: Depending on your fluency level, you will need three to four weeks to adequately prep for English proficiency tests. Aim to take the test at least five to six months before you apply for university admission. Doing so will give you enough time in case you need to retake the test.
  • Take prep tests: There are many practice tests available online. Use them to get familiar with the kinds of questions that may be asked and their format.
  • Surround yourself in English: The best way to improve your proficiency in any language is by immersing yourself in it. Switch to speaking only in English, read books written in English, watch English TV shows, and so on.


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