Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

TOEFL sounds like the food tofu, but what exactly is it? For those of us who grew up in the US, TOEFL has never been a familiar vocabulary. Furthermore, TOEFL certainly does not hold the same importance or contain the same implications that weighty three word acronyms like SAT and ACT do. However, for the internationals out there, TOEFL and the other array of language proficiency testing might bring just as severe a headache as the SATs and ACTs.

The reason that the language proficiency exam exists is pretty self-explanatory. The courses in American universities are taught in English, and the admissions offices in each school want to make sure that the language barrier is not preventing the international student from learning and interacting with the course materials.

That makes a lot of sense, right? Well, what happens when the international applicant comes from an English speaking country like Canada or Australia? What if the applicant attended international school, where the course instruction was in English, in a non-English speaking country? The seemingly simple rule of thumb for proficiency testing for international applicants all of a sudden doesn’t seem that simple anymore.

Although requirements vary from college to college, generally schools accept the TOEFL and perhaps also IELTS or PTE. Schools will often post the minimum score cutoff that is acceptable for its international applicants on each of these tests. Some schools offer waivers for international students who are native English speakers or have had at least a certain years of educational instruction in English. In addition, sometimes the school will accept the score on the critical reading section of the SAT or the ACT. It is important to always double-check the requirements on schools’ websites to verify. My suggestion would be to make a list of requirements for each college you will be applying to and go from there to plan out how you will meet the requirements.

Why are there so many different language testing options, and what are the differences between each one? According to, the speaking sections of the tests differ in the style of the questions asked. Since speaking is often more difficult to master for students learning English as a second language, it might be a good idea to review the speaking section of each test to make your decision. For example, during the administration of the IELTS, you are required to speak to a grader in person, whereas during the TOEFL or PTE, you are required to speak into a microphone that records the conversation. A good way to decide, albeit a little more time consuming, would be to take a practice test for each type of exam to see which format suits you the best.

To prepare, the Internet offers a vast amount of resources. TOEFL offers a simple to follow and realistic planner for studying up to the test day. There are a wealth of English podcasts and sample questions to build up basic skills and acclimate the student to a certain type of test question. For students that live in places where English is not a common language, it might be a good idea to actively seek out English speaking people in your area to practice with them and try to maintain fluent conversations. To make studying more enjoyable, instead of reading sample passages, pick up a novel or a magazine on a topic that you are interested in (or you could even peruse The Prospect). Reading for pleasure can help you build up to your vocabulary and grammar quicker than you think, and you might not even notice it until you suddenly realize that your skills have improve significantly. Another excellent source that provides both entertainment and educational value would be watching television. Radio stations, like NPR, have speakers with close to perfect enunciation, and they offer online streaming so you could access it in other parts of the world.

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Jinchen is a senior in high school from Texas. Often described as “bouncy”, Jinchen’s enthusiasm coats everything from deep philosophical discussions about amoebas to fresh homemade smoothies to new archeological digs. Jinchen can be spotted volunteering at the zoo or museum, planning new events, scribbling and doodling in her treasured journal, or staring at the sky and thinking about the meaning of life. She loves anything international affairs-related and has recently discovered her interest in engineering. Having lived on three continents, it is her dream to one day explore and travel around the world.

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