Most Master’s and MBA applicants get familiar with at least one admission test throughout their graduate school application, and some need to sit two. Knowing which exam to take first may give you an edge in the admissions process.
If you are not a native English speaker and you are planning to attend graduate school in an English-speaking country, or to participate in an English-speaking program, it is very likely that you will be asked to prove your competence in English. Graduate schools often require applicants to submit a language test certificate such as TOEFL or IELTS to assess their level of fluency.
Furthermore, if you are planning to attend a Master’s program, and depending on your intended field of study, you will have to take an aptitude test such as the GMAT (for business and management programs) or the GRE (different fields of study). The GRE, in particular, is also required if you are planning to enroll in a Master’s program in the US, in a non-business field. Finally, the GRE is a common requirement for any PhD program in the US as well. It is also important to note that although GMAT and GRE are aptitude tests and not language tests, they are conducted in English.
So, for those applicants who are coming up with their exam strategy and schedule, an obvious question that comes to mind is: “Should I take the language proficiency test before or after the GMAT/GRE?” The answer depends on your level of English fluency, and of course, on the application deadlines you need to respect. But before helping you answer this question for yourself, let’s take a look at the content and complexity of each of these tests.
A closer look at TOEFL and IELTS
Both TOEFL and IELTS are designed to assess the test taker’s ability to understand academic English. For example, although the Listening section is timed differently in each exam, both TOEFL and IELTS will test your listening skills and your ability to follow important ideas and factual information.
In the Reading section, test takers need to be able to show that they are able to understand, analyze, and interpret strictly academic texts (TOEFL), or mixed ones (IELTS). The types of questions asked in the Reading section also differ for each exam. While the TOEFL focuses strictly on multiple choice questions, the IELTS includes a variety of tasks such as filling in blanks, completing short summaries, etc.
Check out: Important TOEFL Vocabulary (Video)
When it comes to the Speaking section, some may deem the one in the IELTS more informal than the TOEFL Speaking section. If you choose to take the IELTS, you will have a scheduled face-to-face interview with an examiner, testing your vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. By comparison, the TOEFL Speaking section, which is computer-based, feels more academic since the students must also show their capacity to understand the connection between a passage and a lecture or conversation.
Finally, the Writing sections of both tests share some similarities. In both exams, students are required to write an essay detailing their personal opinion, usually on a social issue. Moreover, they will have to write a second essay. In the IELTS, the second essay is focused on the description of a graph or diagram, while in the TOEFL – on the analysis of the relationship between an academic passage and a lecture.
Understanding GMAT and GRE
These two graduate school admission tests are not very different in substance. Although they are split in several different sections, they both feature a quantitative part and a verbal part. The quantitative part, which deals with mathematical problems, is quite similar in both tests, but the verbal part is a bit different.
Check out: GMAT Test: Winning Study Strategies
In the GMAT, the Verbal section consists of three subsections: Reading Comprehension, Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction. By contrast, the GRE Verbal Reasoning Measure has three parts – Reading Comprehension, Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence. So there is no Sentence Correction part on the GRE, and the questions related to critical reasoning are fewer. Moreover, the GRE requires that test takers write two separate essays – analysis of an issue and analysis of an argument. The GMAT features only one essay task – analysis of an argument.
In addition, the GMAT has a fourth section called Integrated Reasoning. This section measures the student’s ability to evaluate information presented in multiple formats such as graphs, text, and numbers, from multiple sources.
Which admission test should I take first?
Now that you have an idea of what aptitude tests and language tests consist of, let’s discuss whether it is advisable to take the language proficiency test before the GMAT or the GRE. To make the best possible decision, you need to consider two factors – your level of proficiency in English and your application deadlines.
Some students think that if they can understand some English, they do not need to prepare much for their language test. However, this is usually not the most reliable approach and it can result in disappointment and poor performance on either test. As a matter of fact, TOEFL and IELTS do not test your conversational abilities, the vocabulary you use in daily life, or your understanding of an English-speaking movie. On the contrary, these are academic language tests, which means they test the candidate’s ability to perform well in an academic context. Therefore, the format and types of questions pose specific academic challenges.
On the other side, the GMAT and GRE are not language proficiency tests. They do not test your knowledge of the language as a foreign speaker, but your analytical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as your critical reading ability and knowledge of complex and sophisticated vocabulary.
Given that that these two aptitude tests can be challenging even for native speakers, our advice is to take the language proficiency test first. In fact, by preparing for the TOEFL or the IELTS, you will improve your vocabulary, grammar, and general reading skills, enabling you to be better equipped to tackle the challenges of the GMAT and the GRE later on. So, unless you are perfectly bilingual and have attended an English-speaking school, you should prepare for and take the TOEFL or IELTS before you attempt taking the GMAT or GRE.
However, if you have a stringent deadline for your university application and you are running late, you may have to make a choice based not on your language competency, but on the exam dates that are available to you. Although there are fewer test centers for GMAT and GRE in Europe, both tests are offered almost on a weekly basis. On the other hand, exam dates for IELTS and TOEFL are scheduled only about three times per month. Compared to GMAT and GRE, however, they have more test centers present throughout Europe. So, our advice is to plan your IELTS or TOEFL test day well in advance because the dates available for taking the GMAT and the GRE are more flexible, allowing you to decide on a shorter notice when to take the test.
Whichever strategy you decide to follow, make your decision on time. Figuring out your plan early enough will give you space to breathe and to prepare equally well for your aptitude test and for your English exam.