English Language Tests for Postgraduates
This article is for international students entering postgraduate education in the UK
There are several English language tests which universities accept as proof of English level from international students. While IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is still the frontrunner for entry to UK universities as it is widely accepted and known to all admissions departments as the standard language requirement, there are other options such as TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language), Cambridge CAE (Certificate of Advanced English) and CPE (Certificate of Proficiency in English) and the new PTE (Pearson Test of English) Academic. It is important to remember that all these tests are an indication of a student's ability to begin higher education in the UK; they do not guarantee that you will pass your course. We will look at the main similarities and differences of the tests, test techniques and strategies, and then focus on the IELTS test format.
Overview of the main tests
TOEFL - Test Of English as a Foreign Language
Unlike IELTS, the TOEFL is both computer based and paper based, depending on the test centre. On the computer based test the speaking is marked by voice recognition software. All four papers (listening, reading, speaking and writing) are done in one session which lasts four hours 30 minutes. The test integrates skills so the tasks you have to do will require a combination of skills, such as reading and listening followed by answering a question by speaking. Results are available to view online after a few days and you receive a paper score report approximately two weeks later. The test must be done at test centres.
IELTS - International English Language Testing System
The reading, listening and writing papers are done in one session of two hours and 40 minutes, and the speaking is done separately, seven days either side of the other sections. The speaking test is done face-to-face with a real examiner and the papers test each skill separately unlike TOEFL or PTE. There are no rules for retaking the exam and results are available to the candidate 13 days after taking the test. Whereas many exams are becoming computer-based, IELTS is still a paper-based test, so if you don’t like typing on the PC, this test could be a viable option. The test must be taken at IELTS test centres which you can find here.
Minimum IELTS score for entry to UK postgraduate courses varies from between 6 and 7. The minimum requirement for postgraduate entry in most UK universities is 6.5. Higher scores will be required for disciplines which require higher degrees of literacy (e.g. English Literature may require IELTS 7.5). For those who don't get the required scores most universities run intensive English language courses to bring you up to the right level. You will have to pay a fee for these courses as well as finding the money to cover the additional living costs incurred during the extra time spent in the UK . Courses can be anything from two to 20 weeks and in some specialist areas, such as business studies, the English language course may be even longer. Details of requirements for these courses will be different in each university and you will need to check their web sites for details.
The following table shows which scores are equivalent to each other, as well as the equivalent IELTS score*:
|Paper Based||Internet Based|
*The comparison between IELTS & TOEFL scores is based on similar tables on a number of leading UK university web sites. It is not endorsed by either TOEFL or IELTS.
TOEFL assesses students' ability to understand and write North American English and the testing format is largely multiple choice, to suit the American University examining system. Because of this and because the old written TOEFL did not include assessment of writing and speaking, some UK universities require higher TOEFL scores than the IELTS equivalent listed here. Whichever of these tests you take the results will only be accepted by universities if they are less than two years old - if your qualification is older than this you will need to take a new test.
Cambridge Certificate of Advanced English (CAE) and Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE)
The Cambridge tests are the only ones which include a specific paper on grammar as well as the four skills, all of which are tested separately like the IELTS papers. The tests can be done either on paper or on computer and last four hours 30 minutes (CAE) and five hours 40 minutes (CPE). The speaking is done separately face to face with an examiner, as in IELTS. The tests are run at specific test centres on specific dates, details of which can be found here.
PTE is the new test on the market and is similar to TOEFL in so far as it is a computer-based test, including the speaking, with integrated skills tasks based on reading, listening, speaking and writing. The test is done in one session and lasts three hours. One of the main advantages of the PTE is that scores are available within five working days and can be emailed directly to the universities you have applied for. PTE Academic test centres are listed here.
Techniques and strategies
In terms of scoring highly on any of these tests, it is necessary to have some kind of preparation since there are certain test strategies and techniques which are important to understanding how each test works. You need to be familiar with the types of questions, the type of texts and recordings and how the test is marked.
IELTS, TEOFL and the Cambridge tests (CAE and CPE) are well established tests with lots of practice materials in the form of textbooks and websites, whereas the PTE Academic is new and therefore there are not many practice courses or materials. Many language schools and private tutors offer group and one to one classes for the tests. Make sure you research the schools and tutors thoroughly before signing up to classes. Remember that schools should be accredited by the British Council and English UK and that experienced tutors should have the DELTA qualification (Diploma in English Language Teaching for Adults) in preference to the lower level CELTA (Certificate in teaching English to speakers of other languages) qualification.
However you can also self-study for the tests. Here are some hints and tips:
- Make sure you know the exam format. Go to the web links below to find out more about each test.
- Do some practice tests. This will ensure you have a complete idea of the exam and the level of difficulty you will encounter. You can buy practice test books designed by the exam writers. You can also see sample exercises on the tests’ websites.
- It sounds simple but make sure you expose yourself to as much real-life language as possible. Listen to lectures online, read academic articles, practise talking about your interests and issues and practise your essay writing skills by writing regularly.
- Work on the exam skills you need. Practise your spelling and check it is accurate, practise processing large amounts of text in a short time, brainstorm essay titles and ideas, practise describing visual information like graphs or maps (this can help you in the reading, writing and listening sections) and practise understanding signposting language.
- Use the resources available to you. There are a lot of resources on the Internet (not all of them are good or suit your learning style) so do some research and choose a resource which will maximise your preparation time.
After researching the English language tests and deciding which one to take you should make a study plan and be realistic in order to achieve the score you need. IELTS recommend that you are likely to need 3 months full-time study to increase by 0.5, but this of course will vary depending on each student. Remember that even with an IELTS 6.5 studying a postgraduate course in English in the UK will be challenging and you should try to continue improving your English throughout your course.
Information on preparation for the tests can be found here: