Since most Master’s and MBA programmes are taught in English, international students have one extra hurdle to jump in the postgraduate study application process: taking the IELTS test or other similar standardised test.
When is proof of English language proficiency required?
If you are an international student and English is not your native language, you will likely have to prove to the admissions office of the university or B-school to which you are applying that you have mastered the English language in listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills. This is typically done by taking a standardised English language test and submitting the score to the institution(s) to which you are applying.
The most commonly accepted standardised tests are the IELTS test, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and the Cambridge English Language Assessment. In most cases, a minimum score on any of these tests is sufficient to show the admissions department that you can succeed in an all-English learning environment.
Initial steps in IELTS test planning
Before applying to a Master’s programme, check with the universities and B-schools on your short list and ask the following questions:
- Do I need to prove English language proficiency for the programme I am considering?
- Which standardised tests are accepted as proof of my English skills?
- What is the minimum IELTS test score required for acceptance into a Master’s or MBA programme?
With those answers, you should be able to determine the timing of your next steps to prepare for and take the test. Considering that you will need to book a testing location and date in advance, that you will need time to study and prepare for the test, and that it takes at least two weeks for test scores to be finalised and sent to the institutions of your choice, you must allow extra time in your admissions process planning for this process.
Do I need to take the IELTS test?
As mentioned above, if you are an international student and English is not your native language, it is highly likely that you will need to take a standardized English language proficiency test as part of your admissions process. However, schools usually provide an exception to this general rule. If your undergraduate studies were conducted in all or mostly English, this may be enough to show the admissions office that you are able to thrive in an all-English learning environment, and the standardised test requirement may be waived.
In some cases, the exceptions to this requirement are vague or subjective. For example, the MBA programme at Sacred Heart University (Luxembourg) states that minimum score of a TOEFL or IELTS is accepted, but they also accept “other proof of English language proficiency.” Just what other proofs are accepted is unclear, and since the decision of whether a standardised test is required for your Master’s or MBA programme application, you need to check directly with the universities or B-school programmes you are considering for the answer.
Another factor to consider is time. If you do not think you have enough time to contact the school and await an answer, you may want to go ahead and book an IELTS test date and location in advance to be on the safe side.
IELTS test format
The IELTS tests your English language proficiency in four areas: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The total test time is just under three hours, so plan enough time on the scheduled day to complete the test. The four areas you will need to study in order to score well are as follows:
- In this 30-minute section, you will listen to four brief recordings and then answer a series of questions about the content of the recordings.
- This 60-minute section asks you to read three longer texts and then answer 40 questions about the content of the passages.
- Your English comprehension and writing skills will be tested in this 60-minute section in which you will be required to write one or more short passages as well as a short formal essay.
- In this short (11-14 minutes) section, your speaking and conversational skills will be tested, including a two-minute speech on a particular topic and then verbal answers to a series of questions about that topic.
Preparing for the IELTS test
There are many online resources to help you prepare for the IELTS, including sample questions and practice materials found on the test provider’s own website. In addition, there are a number of online materials and paid personal tutoring options available.
The length of time you will need to prepare for the test will vary according to your own personal skill level. You may need less than a month just as a refresher in some areas, or you may need several months of intense study and practice to get ready.
Booking an IELTS Test
IELTS tests are administered at official testing locations only, so you will have to travel to one of those to take the test. Fortunately, IELTS has more than 1,100 testing sites in 140 countries around the world, so you should not have to travel too far to reach one. Plus, tests are administered year-round, so you likely will not have to wait an entire season before taking your test.
When you know you want to book a test, visit the IELTS website to find testing locations near you and dates with available seats. Some areas will have availability within a week or two. Others book up quickly, so you may need to register a month or two in advance.
As with all parts of the Master’s and MBA admissions process, planning is key. Do not wait until the last minute to book your test. Allow plenty of time for preparation, and also allow for any unforeseen circumstances that will delay your testing, like an illness or other unexpected emergency.
IELTS test scores
The IELTS test is scored by taking an average of each of the four test sections and then rounding that number. The result is a series of “bands” in which you can score, the lowest being Band 1 (non-user) and the highest being Band 9 (expert user). The final score you receive will range from 1 to 9.
Your IELTS test score is available approximately 13 days after the date you took the test. You can have it mailed to you, pick it up in person, or access the score online (for 28 days only). At the same time you book a test date and location, you can also choose up to five universities or B-schools where you want your scores sent directly. Additional locations can be added at the same time or later for a small fee. Schools will be mailed your score at the same time as you are, but allow for an additional day or two from when you receive yours in order for a school to receive and process it.
In nearly every case, organisations adhere to the recommendation that IELTS scores are valid for two years.
Check out: What You Should Know About IELTS Results
Minimum IELTS test score
The minimum IELTS test score accepted by any university or B-school – or even an individual programme – varies, but in general, a score of 7 or higher on the IELTS is a good goal. You can often find a programme’s minimum score on its website, such as the EADA Business School (Spain), which lists minimum of 7 on the IELTS score as a minimum for its International MBA programme.
Pay attention to any other IELTS test score stipulations. Not only can the requirements of one programme at a school differ from another programme at the same school, but there may also be other details you need to consider. For example, Loughborough University’s (UK) postgraduate admissions departments require a minimum IELTS test score of only 6.5, but you cannot score lower than a 6 in any one of the four IELTS test sections.
Check out: 11 Steps to Achieving a High IELTS Score
Retaking the IELTS test
If you feel you did not perform well on the IELTS test, you do not need to wait before you book another test date and location. But this will be a waste of time and money unless you put in the effort to study and practice in advance in order to raise your score significantly. Also, most universities and B-schools will not be impressed by only small increases in your test score. As long as you meet the minimum score the school requires, your final IELTS test score is unlikely to have any effect at all on your admissions consideration.
To conclude, the IELTS is an excellent option for students to demonstrate their English proficiency to a prospective school’s Master’s or MBA programme, and it is accepted widely. Be sure that your desired school and programme accept the IELTS test score for your admission application, and know what the minimum score is for acceptance. That will give you a goal for which to aim when test day comes.
Check out: IELTS vs TOEFL: What are the differences?