As an international student, applying to schools in the US can feel like a long and confusing process. Just when you thought you were done with standardized testing, English proficiency tests appear! But, don’t fear. Here at The Prospect, we know how you feel. Here’s the lowdown on the two most recognized English proficiency tests, plus a few details on other tests.

Who, What, When, Where, and Why?

Who is required to take English proficiency tests? As long as your first language is not English, you probably are. It’s very important to check with the schools you’re interested in applying to. It is probably in your best interest to take an English proficiency test because requirements vary a lot in different schools; you may not need it for a certain school, but you will need it for another. Some schools don’t require you to take an English proficiency test if you have a high score in the Critical Reading section of the SAT, but some schools may require both tests.

Universities around the globe, even in places where English is not the first language, are now requiring an English proficiency test for graduation.


Administered by the ETS (Educational Testing Services; they also administer the GRE), the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is probably the most recognized English proficiency test in the world.  It is accepted by more than 8,500 universities, colleges, and organizations around the globe, including top universities in the US, UK, and Australia.

The TOEFL is offered in two formats: the TOEFL iBT (Internet-based) and the TOEFL PBT (paper-based). The TOEFL PBT is slowly being replaced by the TOEFL iBT, and thus, the TOEFL PBT is only offered in places where the TOEFL iBT is not available. The fee for the TOEFL (either PBT or iBT) varies according to the test location, from around $160 to $250.


This test is administered up to 50 times a year in 4,500 different locations in 165 countries. It is graded in a scale of 120 points, and it has four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. Each section is graded in a scale of 30 points.

Structure of the TOEFL iBT

  • Reading: You will have from 60 to 80 minutes to complete this section. You will have to read 3 or 4 academic texts and answer questions about them. I considered this section to be an easier version of the Critical Reading portion of the SAT.
  • Listening: You will have 60 to 90 minutes to complete this section. You will listen to lectures, classroom discussions, etc., and then answer questions about what you listened. The Listening part is important because it proves that you can understand a class given in English in a college level.
  • Break: 10 minutes.
  • Speaking: You will have 20 minutes to complete six tasks. These tasks ask you to express your opinion on a topic. You can be asked to talk about your hometown, or to listen to something and then communicate your opinion about it. It is important to note that this section does not measure your “accent”; it measures your ability to communicate in English. Your score does not depend on whether your English sounds American or not, but on whether the person listening to your recording can understand what you’re saying. It is important to be coherent, and to answer the question asked. Truthfully, it doesn’t really matter if what you’re saying is true or not (if they ask you about your favorite books, for example). The important part is to get your idea across. Try not to say “umm” a lot, and to use the time they give you. If you have 1 minute and 30 seconds, for example, your score will go down if you only speak for 30 seconds, even if your pronunciation was flawless and you were completely understood.
  • Writing: You will have 50 minutes to complete two essays. These essays can be based on reading and listening tasks. Just as with the Speaking section, your essays should not be too short (or too long).

Particularities of the TOEFL iBT

Each person starts the test as soon as they’re given a spot, which means no one starts at the same time. Unlike the SAT, you’re not supposed to wait until the given time is over to go to the next section. However, in my opinion, if you have extra time at the end of any section, use it to review what you did and don’t rush through the test. This also means that people can be doing different sections at the same time, which can be really annoying, for example, if you’re trying to listen to a lecture about Modern Art, and the person next to you is talking about his favorite movie. Also, unlike the SAT, there is only one break. Not having frequent breaks can be tedious, especially after sitting down for two hours, so be prepared for that.

My Personal Experience

I had to take the TOEFL iBT earlier than I would have wanted to because of scheduling conflicts. This means I scheduled my TOEFL test the week before. Honestly, the most important part in preparing for the TOEFL is learning to take the test. I skimmed through my practice book and did a couple practice tests (check out TestDen) during the week and I still got a 112 out of 120 (29, 29, 27, and 27 in each section respectively). In my opinion, the hardest sections of the test are the two last ones.

If you are planning on studying in an American university in your home country, you will probably have to take the Institutional TOEFL (TOEFL ITP). This test can only be used for the university you’re taking it in. I took the Florida State University TOEFL ITP (they have a chapter in Panama) last year and I scored 660 out of 677. We only got one break, and you couldn’t move from your chair during this break (so eat before taking your test!). This test measures Listening Comprehension, Structure and Written Expression, and Reading Comprehension. Very few resources are available for this test online, so your best bet is going directly to the institution you’re testing in for help.


The TOEFL PBT is only administered in a few countries today, but I still want to include it in case any one finds this information useful!

The paper based-test has three sections: Listening Comprehension (30-40 minutes), Structure and Written Expression (55 minutes), and Reading Comprehension (25 minutes). The fee for this test is $170. There is also a TWE (Test of Written English) which is mandatory for anyone taking the TOEFL PBT. For the TWE you will have to write about one topic in 30 minutes. The total time it takes to complete both tests is around four hours.


IELTS is the International English Language Testing System. This test is accepted by over 8,000 organizations around the world (including colleges, universities, immigration departments, multinational agencies, etc.).

IELTS has two versions: Academic and General Training. According to their website, “the Academic test is for those who want to study at a tertiary level in an English-speaking country. The General Training test is for those who want to do work experience or training programs, secondary school or migrate to an English-speaking country.”

For college purposes, we will be reviewing the Academic version.

IELTS is offered in over 900 test centers in 130 countries around the world. It is graded in a scale of 1 to 9, 1 being the lowest.

Structure of the IELTS:

  • Listening (30 minutes): You will listen to four recorded monologues and conversations, and answer questions pertaining to what you listened to.
  • Reading (60 minutes): It has three sections with 40 questions. These questions include multiple choice, writing words, matching and summarizing.
  • Writing (60 minutes): You will be assigned two writing tasks of 150 and 250 words. In one task, you will be asked to respond to a particular situation (for example, by writing a letter or requesting information). In the other task, you will have to write an essay that responds to a point of view, argument or situation.
  • Speaking (11-14 minutes): This section may be done on the same day of the test, or up to 7 days before or after the other sections. You have a discussion with an examiner. This section has three parts. In the first part, you’ll discuss yourself and your family. In the second part, you will speak about a topic. In the third part, you will have a longer discussion about the topic. As you can see, this is an interactive section.

Other English Proficiency Tests

Cambridge FCE: First Certificate in English

Upper-intermediate level qualification test. It is accepted by many universities and companies around the world. It is divided into five parts: Reading (1 hour), Writing (1 hour 20 minutes), Use of English (45 minutes), Listening (40 minutes), and Speaking (14 minutes per pair of candidates).

Cambridge CAE: Certificate in Advanced English

“More than 3,000 educational institutions, businesses and government departments around the world accept Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE)as proof of high-level achievement.”

Cambridge CPE: Certificate of Proficiency in English

Taken by people who want to prove they have an exceptional level in English.

TOEIC: Test of English for International Communication

English proficiency test for workers that do not speak English as a first language.

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the author

Clarissa Gallardo is a sophomore at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Originally from Panama City, Panama (only place in the world where you can see the sun rise in the Pacific and set on the Atlantic!), she is majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Mathematics and Ballet. A member of the Honors Program and dancer at heart, you can find her studying at the library, scrolling through her Tumblr feed , dancing, or reading. Clarissa has a really bad case of wanderlust and is obsessed with white chocolate mochas, The Big Bang Theory, and Doctor Reid from Criminal Minds. You can follow her on Twitter and on Tumblr.

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