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If you’re a soon-to-be international student, chances are good that somewhere down the line you’ll need to prove your English language competency. If you’ve attended school in English for a couple of years already, you may be eligible for an exemption. Otherwise, you’ll have to show that you’ve got the communication skills necessary for college or university.
Why, an English language proficiency test, of course! There are lots out there, but the basics are the same: demonstrate your language skills in four key areas: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These four components are related, but believe it or not, they’re different skills!
Each school has its own requirements for English language proficiency. In fact, different programs at the same school may have different pre-requisites. You’ll want to consider what program you want to study, and where you want to go, so you’ll know what test to take — and what scores you’ll need — to get admission to your dream school.
You may also need to pass an English test as part of your immigration journey to Canada or elsewhere. You’ll need to prove your language skills when applying for permanent residency or citizenship — not just when you’re studying.
Now let’s take a look at some of the most popular English language tests you may encounter.
IELTS — the International English Language Testing System — is one of the most common tests for students coming to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. IELTS will test the four areas of English skills, scoring each between 1-9. An overall score of 6 or 6.5 is usually sufficient for admission to a Canadian school.
The test was developed by language experts to be unbiased and fair for test takers of any background.
There are two types of IELTS tests:
If your goal is to study somewhere, you’ll need good scores on the Academic test. If you’re just looking to immigrate to another country to live and work, you can choose the General Training test instead.
In either case, the test takes about three hours to complete. Reading, writing, and listening are all done together; the speaking portion can be booked up to a week before or after the main test.
IELTS has test locations in over 140 countries and territories, and as of 2022, the test will be available online, as well. The online test is specifically for students!
Want to practice before taking the real test? You can try IELTS Progress Check, the official IELTS practice test. Be aware that a practice test costs about $50, so be sure you’re ready before you buy. A better bet is the IELTS sample test questions, which are totally free, and let you get a sense of what the test will be like.
IELTS costs about $300, plus applicable taxes.
Check out the IELTS test
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TOEFL — Test of English as a Foreign Language — is one of the most popular English tests for students studying in Canada. It’s run by Educational Testing Service, a non-profit that administers many similar tests, including the GRE for business and law students.
Like IELTS, TOEFL comes in two main flavours, depending on your goals. Each test is administered and scored a bit differently. If you’re a student, you’ll want to take either version of the iBT. If you’re just looking to immigrate to live and work, you can get by with Essentials.
The iBT is rated between 0 and 120, with each of the four sections worth up to 30 points each. The test takes about three hours, regardless of whether you write it at home or a test centre.
Test dates are available year-round, and with test centres in 160 countries, you should be able to find a convenient time for you to take the test.
Want to prepare for your test, or get a sense of what to expect? TOEFL iBT offers plenty of free test prep options online, which even includes an official app.
Essentials is a shorter-form test intended for people who want to live and work in a new country, but not attend college or university. The test only takes an hour and a half, is taken at home, and focuses more on general-use English skills.
Chances are good that you’ll want to take either the Home or Paper-based TOEFL iBT if you’re looking to study abroad.
TOEFL fees vary by location, but you can expect to pay about $300.
Check out the TOEFL test
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The PTE Academic is part of Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishers of textbooks and educational materials. PTE Academic measures the four components of English language competency in a quick two hour test. PTE is big in Europe and the United States, and many Canadian schools accept it as well. You’ll get an overall score between 10 and 90, with 60 or 65 a satisfactory score for many Canadian schools.
Where PTE Academic differs most from IELTS and TOEFL is in the test structure. Speaking and writing are grouped together, with reading and listening as separate parts. Further, there are lots of question types throughout the test, including everything from multiple choice to essay writing.
Most people who write the PTE will do so in-person, though as of 2022, a new online version is becoming more widely available. Depending where you live, and when you take your test, you may be able to do it online.
To prepare, you can check out the free PTE practice app on your phone, or take a free prep course from a Pearson partner. Finally, you can purchase a test prep package if you feel you might need some extra help before your test date.
PTE costs vary, but you can expect to pay between $250 and $300.
Check out the PTE Academic test
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CAEL — the Canadian Academic English Language test — is a Canada-focused English language test, and it can be taken online, or at any of the 40+ CAEL test centres in Canada, the USA, India, United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, and China.
CAEL takes about three and a half hours to assess the four areas of language comptency. The entire test is done in a single sitting. Some of the questions on the test won’t be scored, but you won’t know which, so you’ll have to work hard on the whole test!
Scores range from 10 to 90, with an 80 representing expert fluency. A minimum overall score of 70 is generally enough to secure admission to a Canadian university.
Ready to prepare for CAEL? Take a look at the CAEL Path to Success (pdf), which will help guide you through the approximately eight hours of free online prep videos. You can even take a free sample test to get a sense of what you’re in for. Finally, in Canada, you can take a free pretest to get real feedback on your answers, as well as a discount on your test fee. (Be aware that the pretest options might be affected by COVID, unfortunately.)
CAEL costs $280, plus taxes, though the pretest can reduce this by $50.
Check out the CAEL test
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Duolingo is, first and foremost, a language learning app that makes studying a foreign language easy and fun. You can get started with the app on your phone in just a few minutes, for free.
Duolingo also offers an English language test, which launched in 2017. This test flew under the radar until the COVID pandemic began, when more traditional purveyors — like those above — weren’t able to administer tests. Schools still needed to certify English language skills, so in 2020, thousands of colleges and universities all around the world agreed to accept the Duolingo English Test as proof of English competency.
In most cases, this is a temporary change, lasting until the summer of 2022, but with the pandemic ongoing, the program may be extended. As ever, check with the schools and programs that interest you to learn whether they’ll accept Duolingo.
The beauty of the test is it’s entirely online, doesn’t require an appointment, and takes only an hour to complete. You can practice for free (with a Duolingo or Google account), and send your scores to as many schools as you like — a feature most other tests will charge you for.
The Duolingo test costs only about $60 Canadian — another reason it’s popular!
Check out the Duolingo English Test
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Here’s a quick breakdown to help you compare the tests:
If you’re looking to study outside your home country, odds are good you’ll need to pass an English language test. These five are the most common in Canada — but they’re not the only way to prove your English skills.
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Many schools, including the University of New Brunswick and Wilfrid Laurier University offer short programs to shore up your skills. If you complete the LEAF program at Laurier, for example, you won’t need to write an IELTS or TOEFL test. Check with the schools that interest you to find out if they offer a similar English language training program.Find the right Canadian schoolBack to the top
Best of luck with your English test — we can’t wait to see you here in Canada!
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