11 Tips to Score High on Language Tests

11 Tips to Score High on Language Tests

If you want to be proud, with an internationally recognised Master’s degree from a graduate school with a worldwide reputation, knowing English and being able to prove it are two essential prerequisites.

Simply understanding some English or speaking a phrase or two is not enough. Students must demonstrate a level of proficiency in the English language sufficient to participate successfully in all the various activities that comprise a graduate education, including classwork, research, research presentations, group meetings, project teamwork and interaction with classmates and professors.

For that reason, business schools have set an English language test as the first requirement for being admitted to their Master’s programmes. In order to make the most of the programme and be a vital participant in the study process, non-native English speakers should be proficient in English.

There are two main internationally recognised English language tests which graduate schools accept. These tests are TOEFL, which is short of Test of English as a Foreign Language, and IELTS, which is the acronym of the International English Language Testing System. Both tests are aimed at those non-native English speakers wishing to study a Master’s programme delivered in English. The two tests are the most widely respected English-language tests in the world, recognised by thousands of colleges, universities and agencies in more than 130 countries across the world, including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.

Business schools set the English proficiency required for all non-native English speakers to be admitted into their Master’s programmes. They do not even exempt students from countries where the English language is recognised as an official language, such as India, Singapore, the Philippines, etc. The only exemption is for applicants whose native language is not English but who have received a Bachelor’s degree or a PhD from schools in the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or English-speaking parts of Canada.


The test takes around 4.5 hours to complete, including a mandatory 10-minute break midway through the test. The test is divided into four parts:

  • Reading: comprising questions based on three or four passages from academic texts;
  • Listening: including questions based on audio recordings of lectures, classroom discussions and conversations;
  • Speaking: comprising 6 tasks, requiring candidates to talk about a topic familiar to them, as well as about issues relating to the material in the reading and listening tasks;
  • Writing: requiring the writing of two essays – the first based on topics introduced during the reading and listening tasks, and the second requiring candidates to express and support an opinion.

See What You Need to Know About TOEFL Speaking (Infographic)

Check out: Introduction to the TOEFL Reading Section (Video)

Each section is scored out of 30 to give an overall score out of 120. Test-takers also receive performance feedback. The test is valid for two years. The cost of the test varies from 160 USD to 250 USD depending on the test centre location. It includes free score reports for up to four institutions, and additional reports for an extra fee. The test is usually taken through a web-based platform in certified testing centres. This is the Internet based TOEFL (iBT).

Check out: Guide to the TOEFL iBT (eBook)

However, a paper-based test (PBT) is offered at some centres where the standard Internet-based test cannot be provided. This lasts about four hours, with four sections:

  • Listening Comprehension
  • Structure and Written Expression
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Test of Written English

Test takers receive a total score out of 677 on the paper-based test, and a separate score on a scale of 1-6 for the written section.

Test yourself with TOEFL Practice Questions


The duration of the test is 2.5 hours, plus 15 minutes for the speaking test. There are two versions of the test: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Both are divided into four sections, with the same content for the Listening and Speaking sections, but different Reading and Writing sections. The Academic version focuses more on English in a higher education context, while General Training focuses more on workplace and social situations. The sections are the following:

  • Listening: comprising questions based on four recordings of conversations and monologues featuring a range of different accents;
  • Reading: including questions based on three passages – for the IELTS Academic, these texts may include graphs or illustrations, and may be taken from sources including books, journals and newspapers;
  • Writing: which includes two tasks as for the IELTS Academic, being a short formal essay and a task in which candidates must describe or explain a table, chart or other diagram;
  • Speaking: representing a face-to-face interview, in which test-takers must answer simple questions, speak about a familiar topic, and participate in a structured discussion. This last section can be taken up to 7 days before or after the other three sections (which are taken at the same time).

Check out: IELTS Speaking Interview (Video)

Each of the four sections is marked on scale from one to nine, with band one indicating a non-user and nine an expert user. Candidates also receive an overall score on the same scale. Institutions are responsible for setting their own target scores. There is no limit to the number of times the test can be retaken. The test is valid for two years. The cost of the test varies according to location but is around 200 USD, 190 EUR or 115 GBP.

As the most internationally recognisable foreign language worldwide, many say they speak English. However, simply knowing some English is not the same as being proficient in the language and using it at a level of full working proficiency, which is the level you need when studying a Master’s programme in English. That is why those who are overconfident with their knowledge of the language underestimate the test and spend insufficient time and attention on its preparation. These poor English speakers can be in for a really bad surprise when results arrive. This is the reason why the test preparation must not be ignored or underestimated.

TOEFL and IELTS Language Tests infographic

Watch video tips on How to Choose between TOEFL and IELTS


English language test tips:

  1. Don’t leave your exam preparation until the last minute – make sure you go over areas that you are not sure about.
  2. Do something each day – 10 minutes' preparation per day is better than 30 minutes' preparation once a week.
  3. Do things you enjoy – in your preparation for the oral or written parts of the tests, start by using words and phrasing you are most familiar with.
  4. When you address the topic, regardless if it’s technically true, it is important to use as much vocabulary as possible.
  5. Be critical of yourself – don’t accept mediocre preparation.
  6. Jump in and try using new words and phrases and new grammar.
  7. Use the Internet/TV/radio – listen to videos on your favourite subjects; watch films and TV programmes in English; read English-language material such as newspapers, books and academic publications; find grammar and vocabulary exercises – bookmark the ones you find useful so you can come back again.
  8. Try to think in English – do this during your short daily practice.
  9. Try to engage with native English speakers in your country.
  10. Find time to practise using past test papers that can be easily found online.
  11. Make sure you are a bit better than the exam requires you – to be that way you’ll be more relaxed when you take it.

And finally one warning:

Keep in mind that overconfidence can be a big disadvantage. It could turn out to be a real weakness. For this reason, preparation for the test must not be ignored and must be a key part of your overall preparation for your desired Master’s programme.

And of course, before taking an English proficiency exam, be sure to check which tests are accepted by the institution you are applying to. Make sure you have also checked the score you need, as each sets its own requirement.

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This article has been produced by Advent Group and featured in the 2015-2016 Access Masters Guide.


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