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Choosing the right English language test for university admissions





Date Published

03 August 2023

As a higher education institution on the global stage, you change students’ lives, giving them a better, bigger, brighter future, but only if they come to you with the communication skills they need to succeed.

With the right communication skills, students can participate to the full – both in an academic context and away from it – making them more likely to be happy, confident and ultimately successful. With less need for language support, students and educators can focus fully on course content.

Why are we sharing this with you? You are probably considering or already accepting several English language tests to meet the entry requirements for your applicants. But can you really be confident that they will help you to identify students who are ready not only to get in, but also to succeed?

Are test results not interchangeable?

Lots of test providers offer simple test comparisons, often in the form of what are known as ‘concordance’ tables. These tables show how their test scores compare to the scores of IELTS and other tests of English. But they don’t tell the whole story. So, what do you really need to know?

This quick guide gives you the key questions you need to ask about any English language test you are considering, and shows how IELTS sets the standard.

Nine questions to ask now

1. Did my applicant really take the test, alone and without help?

With IELTS, you can be confident that they did. IELTS uses advanced security measures, before, during and after the test, to prevent cheating and to confirm that test takers really are who they say they are. The layers of IELTS security include biometric scans and human invigilation on the day of the test, cutting-edge AI to detect irregularities in test takers’ answers, and many other tools and techniques which we would be unwise to reveal. Then, once results have passed our checks, universities and other recognising organisations can access them quickly and easily, and verify them using the IELTS Results Service, which delivers IELTS results electronically.

2. Does the score really correspond to the right level of ability?

It’s easy to claim that two tests are at the ‘same’ level, but proving it is more difficult. Universities worldwide understand the IELTS 9-band system and how it relates to their students’ levels of English. IELTS bands are linked to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), the Canadian Language Benchmarks and other international standards through detailed long-term research, much of it in the public domain.

3. Is it really a test of academic English?

Many tests are of general English, maybe with a few ‘academic’ questions thrown in, but are unable to show that students have the skills they need to study in English at tertiary level. The IELTS Academic test is designed for university admissions by university-based specialists, drawing on more than 30 years of research and consultation. Research shows a close match between the tasks used in IELTS tests and the kind of skills students will need at university, such as essay writing. IELTS offers separate Academic and General Training options, which means that the Academic test can focus specifically on the needs of tertiary education.

4. Does it test real-life conversation skills?

Students need to be able to participate effectively in academic settings, sharing ideas and collaborating with each other, such as in labs, seminars, and discussion sessions. A good test of English for higher education needs to make sure students can speak English in real-life situations, not just answer simple questions designed to be easily marked by a computer. All IELTS tests, whether in person or online, include an in-depth Speaking test with a highly trained Examiner. This ensures that test takers can use, speak, and understand English in discussions about academic subjects.

5. Is it reliable?

In language testing, ‘reliable’ means that the scoring is the same, wherever and whenever the test is taken. You need to be confident that each test you recognise can give you evidence of this over the long-term. IELTS publishes detailed evidence to show that our IELTS band scores are consistent from week to week and year to year, all over the world. All IELTS Examiners are specially trained, and their work is co-ordinated to ensure this consistency.

6. Is it ‘deep’ enough?

A short test can only give a general indication of a learner’s level of English, but to ensure that test takers have effective communication skills, they need to show their skills in a range of contexts and when dealing with longer texts. IELTS tests include many different types of questions, covering a wide range of language and contexts to give a thorough assessment of each test taker’s skills in a higher education context.

7. Does the test prepare students for higher education?

IELTS Academic is designed to elicit a full range of essential skills that are required in a tertiary academic setting. Multiple studies demonstrate that studying for IELTS using quality material and classroom/educator support does more than just prepare students for the test. Studying for IELTS in itself supports English learning. This is supported by a variety of studies conducted around the world that demonstrate the positive impact of IELTS on language learning.

8. Are students supported in preparing for the test?

Good test preparation shouldn’t just be about ‘cramming’ for the test at the expense of learning English. Of course, students need to be familiar with the length of the test, the kinds of tasks they will come across in the test, and the most effective test-taking strategies, so there are absolutely no surprises on test day. However, good preparation for a good test can also help students to extend their knowledge of the language and their ability to use it effectively in the real world. The joint owners of IELTS, the British Council, IDP IELTS, and Cambridge University Press & Assessment, provide a wealth of preparation materials written by experts to support test takers. This comes in a range of formats to suit all learners, including books, sample tests, videos, apps and blogs.

9. Is the test accessible?

Tests need to be convenient for test takers worldwide, and adaptable to meet the needs of people with a range of permanent or temporary disabilities. IELTS tests can be taken every week at test centres all over the world. IELTS offers a choice of test formats, including on paper, on computer and remotely online, and a comprehensive range of special arrangements to ensure that permanent or temporary disabilities do not prevent test takers from being able to demonstrate their true level of English ability.

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