Testing English as a Foreign Language for University Admissions


According to recently released figures [2] from the OECD, the number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship more than doubled in the period between 2000 and 2012, to a total of approximately 4.5 million. Of those 4.5 million students, 44 percent were studying in one of six major English-language destinations: The United States (16%), the United Kingdom (13%), Australia (6%), Canada (5%), New Zealand (2%), and South Africa (2%).

In addition, many institutions of higher education in countries where English is not the primary language of instruction now offer programs taught in English, especially at the graduate level and targeted heavily at international students. According to a 2013 report [3] from the Institute of International Education, as of June 2013 the total number of English-taught master’s programs in Continental Europe was 6,609, a 42 percent increase since 2011. With institutions in Asian host countries also rapidly developing English-language programs, it seems fair to assume that at least half of the world’s globally mobile student population is today studying either wholly or partly in the English language.

It is also reasonably fair to assume that 50 percent or more of the world’s 4.5 million international students are traveling from countries were English is not the official language. Indeed, of the 4.5 million students enrolled outside their home country in 2012, 53 percent were from Asia, according to the OECD’s 2014 Education at a Glance report. With the exception of students from India (5.8 percent of the global stock of international students), the vast majority of internationally mobile Asian students are coming from education systems where English is not widely used. In the United States alone, 78 percent (525,025) of all enrollments from the top 25 source countries – representing 82 percent of all international enrollments in the country – are from non-English-speaking nations.

With so many non-native learners moving across borders to study in English, the issue of linguistic preparedness has become a significant one and has emerged as an issue of much debate among stakeholders and professionals within the international education sector. The debate is complex, but the major areas of concern center around how well prepared international students from non-English backgrounds are for academic study, and whether or not institutions have been softening standards in recent years to boost enrollments. This becomes an especially pertinent area of concern when one considers the financial and reputational (vis-à-vis global league tables) windfalls that can come from enrolling significant numbers of international students.

In this article, we offer insight into the two organizations that dominate the market for standardized English-proficiency testing, with an examination of data trends and a survey of the English-language threshold scores required by different institution types in the United States.

Tests of English as a Foreign Academic Language

There are many tests of English as a foreign language currently available to test takers, but two dominate when it comes to university admissions. These are the Test of English as a Foreign Language [4] (TOEFL), owned and operated by New Jersey-based Educational Testing Services (ETS), and the International English Language Testing System [5] (IELTS), jointly owned by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge English Language Assessment.

According to ETS, the TOEFL test is used by more than 9,000 colleges, universities and agencies in more than 130 countries to help them make admissions decisions, making it “the most widely accepted English-language test in the world.” A reported 27 million people have taken the TOEFL test over the years.

The IELTS partnership reports similar participation and user numbers through its website. It states that the IELTS test is also accepted as evidence of English language proficiency by over 9,000 organizations worldwide. Last year, more than 2.2 million IELTS tests were taken globally.

Both tests have a long history, TOEFL dating back to 1964 and IELTS, in its current format, having been on offer for over 25 years.  With its beginnings in the United States, the TOEFL examination has traditionally been viewed as a U.S.-centric test of English proficiency, while the IELTS test with its Anglo-Australian roots has traditionally been used by UK and Australian institutions. Today, however, both tests are widely accepted by institutions all around the world.


The TOEFL test is designed to measure English skills relevant to an academic classroom. There are two variations of the test: Paper and Internet.

Paper Testing

The TOEFL paper-based test [6] (PBT) is being phased out by ETS, with 96 percent of TOEFL test takers worldwide now taking the internet-based Test (iBT). Unlike the iBT, which measures all four communication skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) the PBT does not measure oral academic skills.

The test includes four sections: Listening Comprehension, Structure and Written Expression, Reading Comprehension, and the Test of Written English (TWE). It is scored on a total scale of 310 to 677, with individual sections marked from 31 to 67/68 and converted by statistical means to the overall score. The TWE is reported on a scale of 1 to 6 and printed in a separate box on the TOEFL score report.

Internet Testing

The TOEFL iBT, administered via the Internet, is specifically designed to measure test-takers’ ability to use and understand English at the university level. It tests all four key linguistic skills as relates to academic tasks.

The iBT test is administered in four sections, each of which is scored on a scale of 0-30 for a total score of 120. The test lasts approximately four hours and can be taken multiple times. ETS uses the following descriptives and threshold levels for each skill. In-depth descriptives for the different levels identified below are available here [7].

ibt-scores [8]

The test is graded using both human raters and automated scoring, combining human judgment for content and meaning, and automated scoring for linguistic ability.

ETS cites on its website the numerous measures it employs to ensure consistent, quality scores. These include: off-site scoring at central locations, anonymity of test takers from scorers, and multiple raters’ judgments contributing to each test taker’s oral and writing scores.

ETS recommends that test scores are valid for two years and that individual higher education institutions set their own score requirements for admission.

The test is offered more than 50 times a year and is offered in test locations around the world. [9]


With its British and Australian roots, the IELTS test is recognized by all universities and most other education providers in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, as well as most universities in Canada. Today it is also recognized by a majority of institutions in the United States (3,000 higher education institutions and programs, according to IELTS).

It is offered in two formats: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. The distinction between the Academic version and the General Training version lies in the subject matter of the Reading and Writing components.


As with the TOEFL exam, there is no pass or fail for the IELTS test. Candidates are graded on their performance using scores from 1 (Non User) to 9 (Expert User) for each part of the test – Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking – with .5 increments between each band. The results from the four parts are then averaged to produce an Overall Band Score. Each band corresponds to a level of English competence, defined by IELTS, both for the four individual sections and also for the overall score.

IELTS scores have a recommended validity period of two years.

9-bnd-sclae [10]

TOEFL/IELTS Equivalency

Education Testing Services published a study [11] in 2010 comparing iBT TOEFL scores with IELTS band scores. The resulting comparison chart is based on the analysis of 1,153 individuals who took both the TOEFL test and the IELTS academic test in 2009. The table below shows the equivalency results for overall scores. The full report also provides details on equivalencies for scoring in all four individual skills.

comparison_3 [12]

English Language Admissions Standards

As both ETS and IELTS make clear in their literature, there is no pass or fail threshold for either test, rather they are designed as proficiency evaluations: the higher the score, the more proficient the test taker. Institutions set their standards as they see fit.

Both organizations offer guidance on their grading standards, but stop short of making specific admissions recommendations.

IELTS offers the following grading guidance for institutions:

ielts_test_scores_10 [13]

As the table above shows, a score of 7.0 or better on the IELTS test is generally considered adequate evidence of English-language competency for all academic programs. The least linguistically demanding programs might consider a score as low as 5.5 for admissions.

IELTS gives the following as examples of programs that might fall into the linguistically less-demanding category: animal husbandry, catering, and fire services. For most linguistically demanding programs, it offers these examples: medicine, law, linguistics, journalism, and library studies.

Additional details on IELTS scoring standards are available here [14].

ETS also offers a wide array of studies and data to help institutions and programs set their English-language testing standards. The following table is based on scores attained by all TOEFL iBT candidates in 2013, and reported in Test and Score Data Summary for TOEFL iBT Tests, January 2013-December 2013 [15].

intended-application_10 [16]

In the same publication cited above, ETS also publishes data related to native tongue and average TOEFL iBT scores, with the following disclaimer:

“[The] tables may be useful in comparing the performance on the TOEFL iBT test of particular students with that of other students from the same native country and with that of students who speak the same language. ETS, creator of the TOEFL test, does not endorse the practice of ranking countries on the basis of TOEFL scores, as this a misuse of data.”

The table below offers interesting insights on average English competency standards from selected high-volume source countries. Not surprisingly, the native tongues that perform among the best on the TOEFL iBT (Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu) are found predominantly in countries where English is an official language (India and Pakistan). Many European countries also have very strong levels of English proficiency.

toefl-ibt-total-and-section-score-means_10 [17]

English-Language Admissions Standards at U.S. Institutions of Higher Education

To gain an understanding of the English-language requirements set by different types of institutions of higher education in the United States, we took a look at standardized score requirements posted to the international admissions pages of the following categories of institution:

top-receiving-institutions_10 [18]

The table above shows the English-language admissions standards for the 10 university-level institutions that admitted the highest number of international students in 2012/13 (IIE Open Doors).

The four private schools on that list – University of Southern California, New York University, Columbia, and Northeastern – all set their minimum undergraduate admissions standards at 100 for the TOEFL iBT and 7.0/7.5 for IELTS. These are scores that both IELTS and TOEFL recommend broadly as showing sufficient preparation for higher studies in a linguistically demanding program. Northeastern may admit on scores below 100 & 7.0 but states that additional internal assessment and, potentially, English instruction would be required.

The big public and land grant institutions, with their missions of broader admissions access, generally set lower English-proficiency scores. These range from 79 & 6.5 to 88 & 7.0, with most on the lower end of the scale.

two-year-institutions_10 [19]

Not surprisingly, the top admitters of international students among community colleges advertise lower English-proficiency scores than top enrollers at the university level. Score requirements among the top 10 range from 52 & 5.5 to 79 & 6.5.

Most community colleges with larger international enrollments offer intensive English-language training. As can be seen from TOEFL iBT data charted above, students sending English-proficiency data to community colleges have, on average, the lowest scores of any applicants, including those international students applying to English-medium high schools.

While many international students apply to community colleges with an eye on keeping the costs of a U.S. four-year degree manageable through transfer arrangements, there would also appear to be a subset that sees the community college route as a more expedient and affordable way into the U.S. higher education system than expensive university- and third-party-run bridging or pathway programs. After two years of study at a U.S. two-year college many undergraduate programs will waive English testing requirements for transfer students.

lowest-acceptance-rates_10 [20]

As might be expected, the most selective institutions in the United States – as reported in 2013 by US News & World Report – have among the most stringent English-language requirements. All but MIT set their minimum iBT thresholds at 100 or higher and their IELTS thresholds at 7.0 or higher. Most admissions departments infer on their websites that they generally like to see higher scores than those set as their minimums.

highest-acceptance-rates_2 [21]

Some of the least selective schools in the country – as reported in 2013 by US News & World Report – have English-language admissions requirements set at a much lower level than their more selective counterparts. The admissions requirements among the schools listed in the table above range from 52 on the iBT at the City University of New York – Medgar Evers campus, to 79 at the University of Maryland, University College. These standards are broadly in line with those set by the community colleges highlighted above.


With ever increasing numbers of students traveling to English speaking countries for higher studies, and with a growing number of institutions of higher education in non-English speaking countries offering English-taught programs, the question of linguistic preparedness has become central to the admissions process.

Above we have highlighted the standards set by a range of different institution types in the United States. The threshold scores vary quite widely by institution type and rigor of program, with the most selective institutions generally requiring a score of at least 100 (out of 120) on the TOEFL iBT examination, and the least selective setting admissions standards in the low 60s. Additional to standardized testing, many institutions also have in-house testing requirements – typically conducted prior to the commencement of freshman studies – to assess if supplementary English training is required.


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