The View From Campus: How testing requirements at U.S. universities are changing

While many will look back on 2020 as a tumultuous year where a global pandemic wreaked havoc on the world, it has also been a year of significant change in U.S. higher education. Since March and April many students have been unable to take the standardized tests that most colleges and universities require for admissions. As a result, U.S. institutions of higher education have begun to change the testing policies for students.

Let’s take a quick look at what’s happened. For most international students considering the United States as a destination for studies, there are two types of tests normally required:

  • English proficiency tests
  • Academic ability or aptitude tests

English proficiency tests

As you well know, studying in an English language education system requires a certain level of familiarity with the language. That’s why you’ve either already taken IELTS or will soon be. By far, IELTS is nearly universally accepted by US colleges. IELTS is, in fact, accepted by more than 3400 U.S. institutions.

Academic ability tests

If you are seeking an undergraduate (bachelor’s degree), in past years most U.S. colleges required international students to take either an SAT or an ACT test. Designed initially to test U.S. students’ academic skills in verbal and quantitative reasoning, mathematics, writing, and, in the case of the ACT, science, these two exams have been seen as a reliable standard of measuring those abilities for years.

If you are considering a master’s or doctoral program, the two tests most commonly required are the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) or GMAT (General Management Admissions Test). Graduate/post-graduate business schools in the U.S. have in the past relied on the GMAT to assess applicant’s general preparedness for programs like the MBA. Some have also begun to accept the GRE as well.

If you are thinking about professional programs in the U.S., like medical, dental, or pharmacy school (as well as other doctoral level studies) that require a professional license to practice in the United States, there are a different set of exams required: MCAT (medical doctor), DAT (dentist), PCAT (pharmacist), etc.

The rise of test-optional policies

One of the few bright spots that has emerged out of the pandemic regarding U.S. university admissions is the increased popularity of test-optional policies. Because many testing centers overseas (and in the United States) have not been able to offer academic ability tests where all who want to take the exams can, many colleges and universities have decided, in the interests of equity and access, to not penalize students who could not take these exams, and have become test-optional.

For this current 2021 admissions year, over two-thirds of all U.S. four-year (bachelor’s degree) universities are test-optional or test-blind. Most major state university systems have made the shift in the past few months mostly in response to the lack of availability of the SAT and ACT for prospective students due to the pandemic. Here’s a list of 915+ “top tier” U.S. colleges that are not requiring the SAT or ACT for the coming admissions intakes.

Final thoughts

In the end, while these academic ability tests have become increasingly optional this year, English proficiency tests are still needed. The most significant reason for this is that U.S. immigration regulations require that to start a degree program (associates, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral) international students must have the required English language proficiency. Tests like IELTS are the primary way, at present, for U.S. colleges to assess English ability.

If your scores aren’t at the minimum levels for degree studies from the outset, that doesn’t mean your dream is over! Many U.S. colleges offer conditional admissions and/or full-time intensive English or pathway programs that give you the opportunity to settle in to the country while improving your English ability before you start your degree program.

Good luck to you!

IELTS Test Day Advice: Writing (Part 2)

In Part 1, we had some IELTS Writing advice for you about choice of stationery, model answers, task weighting, and understanding questions.

In this part, we’ll take a look at four more handy tips.

5. Always have a plan

Previously, we said how important it was to take a close look at the question before you begin writing. Once that’s done, it is wise to spend some time planning. Like in most high-stakes situations, failing to plan could mean planning to fail in IELTS too. Making notes almost always helps to write a coherent answer, so feel free to use the blank space on the question paper to jot down a plan.  

6. Learn to meet the word count within an hour

Managing time efficiently is something that demands considerable practice before you can be ready to sit the real test. IELTS recommends that you spend about 20 minutes on Task 1 and the remaining 40 odd on Task 2. What’s equally important is to successfully meet the recommended word count, failing which you’ll lose marks. Keep in mind that you need to write at least 150 and 250 words respectively. 

7. Include all key features / bullet points (Task 1)

In IELTS Academic Task 1, the pictorial data on your question paper will have key features – the most important and the most relevant points in the diagram. Similarly, in the letter-writing task in IELTS General Training, test takers are told what information to include, in the form of three bullet points. Failing to include all key features or bullet points in your response will definitely mean getting a lower band on Task Achievement.

8. Answer all parts of the task (Task 2)

IELTS essay questions can have up to 4 sentences, with more than one part that’ll need to be answered at times. Since test takers need to provide a full and relevant response, leaving a part out unwittingly will lower their chances of securing a good band score. Solution? In order to be doubly sure how many parts the question has, reread the question several times, carefully considering the meaning of the text in front. If it helps, translate the question into your mother tongue. That way, you’re less likely to miss anything important.

There’s more IELTS Writing advice coming your way – watch this space.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Writing (Part 1)

There are 2 tasks to complete in the Writing section of IELTS. Task 1 can be report writing (Academic) or letter writing (General Training), whereas Task 2 is an essay writing exercise.

Here are some handy tips to help you get a good Writing band score.

1. Choose your stationery wisely

Answers in IELTS Writing can be written in pen or pencil, so doing some writing practice under timed conditions before test day is highly recommended. Among other things, it can also help you decide what you’d be more comfortable using on test day – pen or pencil. Should you discover that a pencil slows you down, practise with pen.  

2. Avoid memorised answers

Writing answers are assessed by qualified individuals with relevant teaching experience. All of them have to undergo intensive training before they can get certified as IELTS examiners. One of the things they learn during the time is to spot memorised or plagiarised responses. Of course, such ‘model answers’ invite a severe penalty, lowering the overall writing score of the test taker. So, don’t bother mugging up answers to popular topics!

3. Remember the weighting of tasks

Although each task is assessed independently, it is worth remembering that Task 2 contributes twice as much as Task 1 to your overall Writing band score. Put simply, it means that if you write a decent Task 1 answer and a very good Task 2 response, you should still get a good Writing band score. Sometimes test takers spend so much time on Task 1 that they aren’t left with enough time to do a good job of Task 2. And as you might imagine, the result is usually disappointing.

4. Analyse questions thoroughly

Answering without trying to fully understand the question should be a definite no-no in any exam. However, when panic sets in, common sense flies out the window. Off-topic answers are all too common in IELTS Writing, and they get penalised for irrelevance. Whether it is Task 1 or 2, never be in a mad rush to begin your response. First, read the question over and again, underline key words, and then identify what the question requires you to do.

We’ll be back soon with more IELTS Writing test advice. Meanwhile you can check other test tips we shared before.

How researching U.S. graduate programs is changing during the pandemic

This year, 2020, will be one most people would rather soon forget, right? Over the last few months, students who might have been thinking about studying abroad have been forced to reconsider their options due to travel restrictions, changes to admission requirements, and the economic impact of the global pandemic on personal finances. When it comes to researching master’s and doctoral degree programs in the United States, while the process is largely the same, there are some important changes to keep in mind.

Be flexible, things may change

When should you begin your search? Most U.S. experts now say you should start at least 12-24 months ahead of when you wish to start studies. With the quickly moving landscape on which countries are even open to accept international students, it can be hard to plan effectively for what your future might look like, let alone where you may be studying. However, in the United States there are over 1000 colleges and universities that offer master’s and doctoral programs.

What are your priorities?

As part of your search, before you go looking for academic programs that meet your needs, a necessary first step should be to ask yourself defining questions as to what’s most important to you. Our friends at EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s global network of advising centers in 170+ countries, have prepared a great resource on researching graduate study options to assist students. One of those tools to consider using is the Define Your Priorities worksheet. Some of those self-discovery questions to ask include:

  • Why do you want to study in the United States?
  • What are your short-term and long-term goals?
  • How will you pay for your graduate program in the United States?
  • What are your academic grades?
  • What are your English test scores?
  • What size institution do you like?
  • Would you like to attend a private or public institution?
  • Do you prefer living in an urban, suburban, or rural setting?
  • Would you like to live on campus or off campus?

Once you have identified those answers, you will have the most valuable criteria you need to begin you search in a more circumspect manner.

How can you narrow your options?

EducationUSA lists four search engines you can use to begin to find a possible list of the academic programs, locations, institutions that meet your needs. Those search sites will only give you so much information about the colleges and universities that match some of the broad strokes of what you need. Once you have identified those programs, to get much closer to what you need to know about each institution, you will need to review each school’s website where the real details are you need to know on costs, deadlines, tests, and admissions process.  

Especially this year when there really are no in-person college fairs and events happening, it is more important than ever to connect virtually with the U.S. colleges that you’re considering. Whether that be in a virtual university fair, a live chat with representatives from your top choices, a webinar with other international students who may already be attending those institutions, and/or a visit to a local EducationUSA advising center for more specific resources, you have several ways to narrow your options.

What’s a good fit?

In the end, there may be several schools/programs that you research that you can see yourself attending. At this stage it’s time to do deep look at the institutions involved, the strength of the program, and the quality and areas of research conducted by the faculty. Only after getting this next level details will you be able to make the decisions on where you wish to apply.

How to prepare for tests?

And, finally, before physically applying to these programs, it is essential to know which tests might be required. Certainly, rest assured that for most all quality master’s and doctoral program in the U.S. will accept an IELTS score toward meeting the English proficiency standards set by each program. The question will be whether any other academic standardized tests like the GRE or GMAT are required. Because of the pandemic, there is an increasingly large number of programs that are test-optional this year when it comes to GRE or GMAT requirements. Even top business schools in the United States are, for this current 2021 recruitment cycle, not requiring GRE or GMAT scores.

IELTS Essay Types (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we examined two essay types that IELTS teachers commonly teach their students – Analysis and Opinion.

Here are three more types that frequently appear in IELTS Writing.

Type 3: Discussion Essay

This variety gets test takers to discuss in-depth two sides of a topic. For instance, the question might get you to discuss the advantages and disadvantages, or the benefits and drawbacks, of a situation or development.

Example Task

Shopping has developed from a necessary activity to a kind of entertainment.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this development?

Test Tip

Remember that when answering this type of an essay, it would be folly to fully develop just one side, leaving the other side underdeveloped. In order for you to meet the requirements of the task, it’s important that both sides are sufficiently developed.

Type 4: Discussion plus Opinion Essay

Here, test takers need to not only discuss two contrastive views on a topic, but also provide their own opinion. A variant of this type asks the test taker to decide whether the advantages of something outweigh its disadvantages.

Example Task

The heads (CEO, Director, etc) of companies are paid a lot more money as salary than ordinary workers. Some people say this is necessary, whereas others say it is unfair.

Discuss both views and give your own opinion.

Test Tip

You may lose bands if you only briefly state your opinion without making an effort to substantiate what you’ve said.

Type 5: Hybrid Essay

At first glance it’s easy to confuse this type with an Analysis Essay, because both of them follow the two-part question pattern. However, the key difference is that one of the two questions in a Hybrid Essay tends to look for the test taker’s opinion on the topic.

Example Task

An increasing number of advertisements these days are being aimed at children.

What are the effects of this on children? Should such advertisements be controlled in any way?

Test Tip

To ensure that you adequately answer all parts of the task, it’s best to dedicate one paragraph to each question.

Now that you’ve become familiar with some of the IELTS essay types, draw up strategies for each so that Task 2 will be a breeze on test day.

IELTS Essay Types (Part 1)

IELTS, one of the pioneers of four skills English language testing, is the world’s most popular English language test for higher studies and migration.

In IELTS Writing, test takers have to attempt two tasks:

  • Writing a report (Academic) / letter (General Training)
  • Writing an essay in response to a point of view, argument, or problem

Here are some essay types that IELTS teachers the world over have identified to help their students fare well in the Writing section.   

Type 1: Analysis Essay

In this type, test takers are told about a relatively recent development, such as the burgeoning population in cities or increasing use of motor vehicles. They are then asked to identify the problems caused by the development and to suggest possible ways to solve each problem. Alternatively, they may be asked to identify the circumstances that have paved the way for a new development and the resultant consequences.

Example Task

More and more people are migrating to cities in search of a better life, but city life can be extremely difficult.

What are some of the difficulties of living in a city? How can governments make urban life better for everyone?

Test Tip

One common mistake that test takers make is to write about just one significant problem, which can immediately invite a penalty. The task above, for example, talks about the ‘difficulties’ of living in a city, so at least two problems need to be included.

Type 2: Opinion Essay

Here, the task introduces a point of view or statement; test takers are then asked to express their opinion in relation to it. Questions presenting a statement and asking test takers to agree or disagree with it have appeared repeatedly in the IELTS test over the years.   

Example Task

Advances in technology and automation have reduced the need for manual labour. Therefore, working hours should be reduced.

To what extent do you agree?

Test Tip

Read the question closely to identify the part which has the statement or point of view. This can be tricky at times, especially if the question runs into two or three sentences. Also, state your opinion clearly and see that it stays consistent throughout the essay.

Read our next blog post on this topic to find out about some more IELTS essay types.

Life on Campus: Attending International Student Orientation

This time of year on U.S. college campuses there is a rush of excitement and anticipation for the start of a new academic year. This year, however, presents international students looking forward to starting a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree a different set of circumstances that the typical fall new student orientation.

Adjust to your new environment

More than anything else, once your arrive in the United States for studies, getting over jet lag (travel fatigue) is priority one. There are many strategies out there, but one that seems to work well is on your first day, to go to sleep at a time (in your new time zone) when you would normally do so. By any measure, getting yourself on a schedule is an important first step. The climate may also be very different that what you know, so your body clock may take some time in making that adjustment.

One item that may very well be in place at your U.S. college or university is for new international students coming direct from overseas, is a mandatory quarantine period. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) no longer requires or recommends this 14-day long period, some states, counties, or college campuses may still have a required quarantine time. Typically, this would mean staying in either university housing for a short period before you would be able to join in regular activities.

Get Settled on campus

Many new international student orientations this fall have gone virtual. Check out these two from the University of Cincinnati and Kent State University in Ohio that are self-guided online orientation programs that can be taken at your own speed. These virtual orientations may mean that initial movements on campus will be limited as facilities are re-opened slowly or in phases to further limit the spread of Covid-19.

One way to get to know your campus, if you haven’t already done a “virtual tour” of campus, is to get a virtual map of your college or university (from the website or college’s mobile app) on your phone and/or tablet and wander around campus to find the buildings you will be using most often.

Learn the rules

As a new international student on campus, one of the most important sessions you will need to attend is on immigration regulations. While not always the most exciting topic, pay attention to the requirements your college sets out in this session when it comes to maintaining your student status. Besides immigration rules, health insurance also ranks up there as a critical component that you may not know well. The U.S. system of health care relies on primarily private insurance to cover the costs involved. Most all U.S. colleges now require students purchase such coverage while they are in the country.

Other than immigration and health care, the most significant area of rules that can directly impact international students are the academic policies of your institution. From Issues of classroom attendance, the course syllabus, exam policies, plagiarism, to academic integrity violations, knowing these guidelines will ensure a smooth passage through your academic career.

Make lifelong friends

What really makes your time at a U.S. college memorable are the people you interact with on a regular basis. For many international students, there fondest early memories of being on campus are the shared experiences they had with other students from overseas. Yet, for many, the relationships you get to establish with your U.S. classmates are the most impactful. Not only will you get a chance to make American friends, but you will get to share your culture, your history, your experiences with them as they learn about the world outside their own borders.

Broadening your horizons at a U.S. college will be much easier than you think. Especially if you choose to get involved in clubs and organizations on campus, you will find multiple opportunities to make your experiences at your college more fulfilling than you might ever have expect. So, even if you’re a bit shy or worried about your English ability, take the chance, get involved!

Whichever way your U.S. college or university is starting its academic year, make the most of this time. Getting off to a good start makes all the difference in how successful you will be in your classes, on campus, and in the community. Good luck!



A Quick Guide to Comparatives

Drawing comparisons is something that we all do quite frequently in our everyday lives. But have you ever thought about the type of language used to make such comparisons?

Comparative adjectives and adverbs are what we use to compare one individual or thing with another individual or thing. They allow us to say which individual or thing has more or less of a particular quality. Here are some features of comparative language.

  1. We often use the word ‘than’ when we compare one person or thing with another.

    Examples:
    He’s taller than his brother.
    Dan is a better player than Christy.  
  2. Sometimes we use double comparatives (i.e. use the comparative twice) along with the word ‘and’ to emphasise how someone or something changes.

    Examples:
    Questions get tougher and tougher as the test progresses.
    The investigation was getting more and more complicated.
  3. When we wish to say that one thing depends on another, or that two things vary together, we use the word ‘the’ with comparative adjectives.

    Examples:
    The faster you drive, the riskier the journey up the mountain gets.
    The longer they walked, the thirstier they got.
  4. It is possible to make comparatives sound stronger with the help of intensifiers, such as much, a lot, and far. Similarly, a group of words and phrases called mitigators (e.g. slightly, a bit, a little) can be used to make comparatives less strong.

    Examples:
    This watch is a lot more expensive than my last one.
    This film is far better than the one we saw last week.
    The task gets slightly easier if you use this tool.
    We have a train to catch, so can you please walk a bit more quickly?
  5. Two common ways to form comparatives is by adding ‘-er’ or by adding the word ‘more’ in front of the adjective or adverb.

    Examples:
    She was taller than I had expected.
    We should get something cheaper than this one.
    We’d like to have equipment that is more advanced. 
    Can you please speak more quietly?

We’ll be back soon with another post on superlative forms.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Speaking (Part 3)

Over two parts, we’ve been talking about ways in which your IELTS Speaking score could be improved, be it steering clear of rehearsed answers, throwing on comfortable clothes, maintaining spontaneity, or seeking clarification from the examiner if needed.

Let us finish off with a few more tips for doing well in your IELTS Speaking interview.

9. Show off your English skills

Your IELTS Speaking score depends on the linguistic evidence you present to the examiner on the day – just how much language you produce and how accurately you produce it. Given this, it makes sense to spot every opportunity that comes your way to show off your language skills. See to it that you exhibit your entire repertoire of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation features. 

10. Make the most of prep time

Once the examiner moves you on to Part 2 of the interview, they’ll give you instructions, hand over stationery and the task card, and allow you some time to prepare before you’re asked to speak on the assigned topic. No matter how confident you feel or how easy the topic might look, do make use of the full one minute allotted to prepare. One useful thing to do during this time is to jot down trigger words that’ll help you remember the main points you wish to include.   

11. Don’t panic if interrupted

Not many test takers realise that examiners have strict timing for each part of the Speaking section that they need to adhere to. In fact, the onus is on the examiner to ensure that the Speaking section lasts 11 minutes at the least but doesn’t exceed 14 minutes. Naturally, they tend to interrupt if they feel they’ve heard enough of your response and wish to ask you a more challenging question. You’ve been warned: stay calm should you be interrupted in the first or last part of the test.

12. Pay attention to how you sound

In an oral test, your voice is perhaps your biggest asset, so use it to your advantage. Stop your mouth from getting dry before the test, as it’ll affect your performance. Once the test begins, hit a steady pace and speak calmly so that you sound natural and confident.

Remember these tips while you prepare for your Speaking test, and you should do just fine on the day. Good luck!

Preparing for your journey to the United States for study

The last six months have thrown the world as we know it into a state of disarray. Covid-19 has impacted every corner of the planet in ways we never thought imaginable. As a result, things in everyday life for students seeking higher education outside their home country have changed substantially. If you’ve been planning to study in the United States and have been admitted for study, gotten your visa, and are now ready to go, what do you need to know?

Get your documents in order

Now more than ever, because of recent changes in immigration regulations in the United States due to the pandemic, having your documents in order matters most. From your I-20, to your passport and F-1 student visa, to your admissions letter, academic and financial documents, everything must reflect who you are and what your institution’s plan is for classes this coming academic year. While the new rules do allow for new international students to participate in a mix of in-person and online courses (called a hybrid program), if your intended college has recently made the decision to go completely online, you may not be allowed in the country.

Communicate with your university regularly

Our friends at EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network of educational advising centers in 170 countries, traditionally hold pre-departure orientations for international students before they head to the United States for study. While most of these sessions have gone virtual due to the pandemic, they are still happening and can be great resources for students like yourself trying to make sense of a very confusing time in our world. As you get ready to begin your U.S. study journey, the most important people you need to maintain regular communication with are the international student office staff at your college or university. For many U.S. higher education institutions, the past few months have been ones that have been dramatically disrupted, like much of the world, by this global pandemic. Plans these colleges made in April for how the next academic year would look like for new students may very well have changed. As a result it is essential for you to be aware of what those plans are and know what you should do.

Know the immigration and airline rules

Entering the United States as an international student is a fairly straightforward process in normal times if you’ve taken all the required steps and are well-prepared for this last step of your journey to U.S. study. However, these are not normal times. You must know what the current procedures both for the airlines you may be flying into the United States and the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) division that handles immigration control at the borders. There have been reports that some airlines want passengers to have had a negative Covid-19 test before flying internationally. Depending on where you live you may need to look into getting a test before you fly.

Moreover, when entering the United States, the officials at CBP who interview each person seeking entry have to ask questions about your intended studies when you present your documents at the immigration checkpoint at the airport. The Department of Homeland Security which oversees CBP has put together important resources in its Study in the States site that discusses the current regulations. Be sure to review this guidance before you leave.

Good luck!

Pin It on Pinterest