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English Language Tests for Postgraduates

If you’re applying for an English-taught Masters but English isn’t your first language, you’ll usually find that universities ask for proof of your language skills.

This proof can come in the form of several different English language tests that are widely recognised by universities across the world. They include:

This page will give you an introduction to each of these tests. Elsewhere in this section, you can read more detailed guides to the various English language tests.

On this page


These are the two most popular English language tests, each with a long history of being recognised by prestigious universities and immigration authorities around the world.


With around three million tests taken in 2017 alone, IELTS is the most popular English language test for higher education and migration.

It’s an exam that assesses your listening, reading and writing skills in a single 165-minute session. Unlike TOEFL and PTE, the papers test each skill separately. There’s also a speaking element that can be taken seven days before or after the rest of the assessment. The speaking test is done face-to-face with an examiner.

There are no rules for retaking the exam and results are available to the candidate 13 days after taking the test.

Depending on your location, you can take IELTS as a paper-based or computer-based exam. You’ll need to take the test at a certified IELTS examination centre.

Want to find out more about IELTS?

Read our guide to IELTS, including exam format, grading and costs.


The TOEFL is another common English test, recognised by over 10,000 institutions worldwide. Unlike IELTS, the TOEFL is predominantly an internet-based test (TOEFL iBT), although paper-based exams are available in places where internet access isn’t widely available.

All four papers (listening, reading, speaking and writing) are done in one session that lasts for three hours. The TOEFL takes an integrated approach to these papers, which means that the tasks require a combination of skills.

The speaking element of the test doesn’t involve a face-to-face interview like IELTS; instead, you’ll speak into a microphone and your answers will be monitored using voice recognition software.

You’ll be able to view your results around 10 days after completing the test. The TOEFL must be taken at an authorised test centre.

Considering the TOEFL?

Take a look at our guide to the TOEFL test, including exam format, grading and costs.


So, which is the right one for you? IELTS, TOEFL or one of the other English language tests mentioned below?

There are several significant differences between IELTS and TOEFL, and these may influence your decision:

  • Length – IELTS takes around two and half hours to complete, while the TOEFL test is three hours long
  • Speaking – The speaking portion of IELTS is face-to-face with an examiner, while you speak into a microphone during the TOEFL test.
  • Question format – Both tests use several kinds of question format, but the TOEFL test relies more on multiple choice questions than IELTS.
  • English variations – You’ll encounter a range of English accents on both tests, but you’re more likely to hear North American accents on TOEFL, as it’s administered by an American company.

IELTS and TOEFL are both widely accepted at universities across the world – from American institutions to British and Commonwealth universities. If you’re unsure which exam to take, perhaps try out a couple of sample papers and see which style suits you.

Other English language tests

The TOEFL and IELTS aren’t the only English language tests out there, and it pays to be aware of the alternatives. Cambridge Assessment English and Pearson both offer established language certificates that are recognised by institutions across the world.

Cambridge English certificates

Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) runs two main English language tests aimed at higher education students: C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency, both of which can be taken either as a computer-based or a paper-based exam.

Formerly known as the Certificate of Advanced English (CAE) and the Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE), these qualifications can be computer or paper-based. They’re targeted at different levels of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) – C1 and C2, respectively.

Like IELTS and the TOEFL, CAE exams test your skills in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The oral element is done via a face-to-face interview with an examiner. Both qualifications take around four hours and are taken in a single sitting at an authorised exam centre.

Whether you take the C1 Advanced or C2 Proficiency test, you’ll be graded using the same Cambridge English Scale. C2 Proficiency is at a higher level than C1 Advanced, and is designed for those hoping to achieve scores at the top of the Cambridge English Scale.

Universities base their English language requirements on this scale, so you’ll see the same score for C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency. You’ll usually need to have a score of at least 176 to be eligible for a postgraduate programme (this is roughly equivalent to 6.5 in IELTS or 90 in the TOEFL). If you’re applying for a course that demands a high level of literacy, you may need 191 (7.5 in IELTS or 110 in the TOEFL).

Want to learn more about Cambridge Assessment English qualifications?

We’ve written a guide to the C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency tests, including exam format, grading and costs.

PTE Academic

PTE Academic is a computer-based test that assesses speaking, writing, reading and listening in a three-part, three-hour session (speaking and writing are assessed in the same section).

You’ll normally need to receive a score of at least 61 to meet the entry requirements for a postgraduate course. Some Masters may ask that you achieve a score of 67.

One of the main advantages of PTE Academic is that scores are usually available within five working days and can be emailed directly to the universities you’ve applied for. View a list of authorised test centres for PTE Academic.

Want to find out more about PTE Academic?

Read our guide to PTE Academic, including exam format, grading and costs.

Minimum English language scores

The minimum IELTS score for entry to UK postgraduate courses is usually 6.5, but it varies between 6 and 7. Higher scores will be required for disciplines which require higher degrees of literacy (e.g. English Literature may require IELTS 7.5). There will also be a minimum score for each individual skill, typically 0.5 below the overall requirement.

The minimum TOEFL score for entry to UK postgraduate courses is usually around 90, but it can vary between 80 and 100. Please note that there isn’t a standard equivalence between TOEFL and IELTS scores, and so the precise requirements may change from university to university.

The table below is based on research from ETS (the company that administers the TOEFL test) and the University of Manchester’s language requirements. It’s intended only as a rough guide and you should contact your prospective university if you have any questions about entry requirements and your qualifications.

English language test scores
IELTS TOEFL iBT Cambridge English certificates PTE Academic
7.5+ 102-120 74+ 191-230
7 94-101 66-73 185-190
6.5 79-93 59-65 176-184
6 60-78 51-58 169-175
5.5 46-59 43-50 162-168

If you don’t achieve 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. Courses can last between two and 20 weeks, but in some specialist areas may be even longer.

Preparing for an English language test

It’s important to prepare thoroughly, whichever exam you go for. There are certain strategies and techniques that are key to understanding how each test work. You’ll need to be familiar with the types of questions, categories of text and recording, and how your test is marked.

The qualifications on this page are well-established, with plenty of practice materials – both online and in the form of textbooks.

Many language schools and private tutors offer group and one-to-one classes to help you prepare for the test. Make sure you research the schools and tutors thoroughly before signing up to classes, however.

Remember that schools should be accredited by the British Council 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.

Of course, it’s also possible to successfully self-study for the tests. Here are some hints and tips:

  • Do some practice tests – This will mean you have a complete idea of the exam and the level of difficulty you’ll encounter. You can buy practice test books designed by the exam writers and can also see sample exercises on the tests’ websites.
  • Immerse yourself in as much real-life language as possible – Listen to online lectures and podcasts, and read academic articles as well as quality journalism. Practise chatting with friends and family about the topics that might come up in the exam (if you know a native speaker, even better!). Consider keeping your writing skills up-to-scratch by keeping a journal or blogging about what interests you.
  • Work on exam skills – Practise your spelling and check it is accurate. Get into the habit of processing large amounts of text in a short time, as well as describing visual information like graphs or maps (this can help you in the reading, writing and listening sections). Brainstorm essay titles and make sure that you’re comfortable using and understanding signpost language.
  • Use the resources available to you – There are lots of online resources on the Internet (not all of which are reliable or will suit your learning style), so do some research and choose a method that will maximise your preparation time.
  • Make sure you know the exam format – Pay close attention to the exam format so you know exactly which skills will be tested at each point in the test.

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 three months of full-time study to increase by 0.5, but this will vary depending on each student. You should bear in mind that even with an IELTS 6.5, studying a postgraduate programme in English in the UK – or abroad – will be challenging and you should try to continue improving your English throughout your course.

Please note that most universities will only accept language certificates that have been achieved in the past two years – even if such a qualification is still technically valid – so make sure that you factor this in when booking your test and applying for a Masters.

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Last updated - 12/08/2019

This article was written by FindAMasters, with contributions from Target English – specialists in language tests and academic preparation. It may not be reproduced without permission.