By Kelly Mae Ross
To determine how well prospective international students can communicate in English, U.S. colleges and universities often ask nonnative speakers to submit a standardized English proficiency test score. This is generally true for both undergraduate and graduate school programs.
There are multiple test options for prospective students, but the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, is one of the more widely accepted exams among U.S. schools.
The nonprofit Educational Testing Service, or ETS, administers the TOEFL, which is offered online and by paper in locations where testing via the internet isn’t available. On the internet-based test, students receive scores of zero to 30 on four different sections: reading, listening, speaking and writing. This means a test-taker’s total score on the TOEFL iBT can range from zero to 120.
Test-takers don’t pass or fail the TOEFL. Instead, U.S. colleges and universities determine their own minimum score requirements. Prospective international students may therefore wonder what is considered a good TOEFL score. The answer depends on the schools, experts say.
Many U.S. college admissions officers consider English proficiency test scores a key factor in international undergraduate admissions, according to a 2017 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Of the colleges surveyed, 80.3 percent said English test scores have considerable importance in international freshman admissions decisions – topping other factors like high school grades and the college essay.
Prospective students who want to apply to highly selective institutions should aim for a score of 100 on the TOEFL, say both Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of Florida-based International College Counselors, and Nat Smitobol, a master college admissions counselor for New York-based IvyWise.
In 2016-2017, four of the eight Ivy League schools required a minimum TOEFL iBT score of 100, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey. The other four schools did not report this information.
“One hundred is a pretty tough score,” Smitobol says. “That’s a successful speaker.”
But most schools don’t require applicants to score that high.
“There’s a range of scores that could be considered good,” says Daniel Kovacs, vice president of operations in North America for Kaplan International, an organization that offers English language test-prep courses. “Different universities have different requirements, but in general they range anywhere from 60 to about 90 on the iBT.”
Ranked National Universities – schools that emphasize research and offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs – required an average minimum TOEFL score of 78.1 for international undergraduate applicants in 2016-2017, according to U.S. News data. The average was a bit higher among ranked National Liberal Arts Colleges: 82.5.
Since minimum scores vary, prospective international students should check the specific requirements for the U.S. schools they are interested in, Adler says.
Some institutions may have minimum score requirements for each section of the TOEFL, though Adler says this isn’t common at the undergraduate level. For example, Northeastern University in Boston has a minimum TOEFL score requirement of 92, with reading, writing and listening subscores of at least 22 and a speaking subscore of at least 24, according to the school’s website.
Prospective students whose English proficiency test scores are a little low but otherwise have strong applications may be offered conditional admission. This generally means students will be fully admitted into a degree program after they boost their English skills to a certain level.
Some schools don’t require English test scores from international applicants who have had substantial prior experience with the language, such as attending a high school where English was the primary language of instruction, experts say.
Applicants may also be exempt if they achieve certain scores on the SAT or ACT. For example, at Columbia University in New York, prospective international students who score 700 or higher on the evidence-based reading and writing section of the SAT or 29 or higher on the English or reading sections of the ACT are not required to submit English language test scores, according to the university’s website.
Graduate School Admissions
Prospective international graduate students also have to show evidence of their English language skills. Exact standards vary, so applicants will want to check with a specific program about its minimum score requirements, Kovacs says. At some universities, minimum TOEFL score requirements vary by department.
Business is a field that many prospective international students are interested in and one that generally requires strong communication skills.
“Most top-ranked MBA programs require a minimum TOEFL score of 100-105,” wrote Jeff Beavers, assistant dean of graduate programs at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign’s Gies College of Business, in an email. “And for many of these same programs, the average TOEFL is 108-112.”
At the University of Illinois, the minimum TOEFL iBT score requirement for international applicants to be fully admitted to graduate programs is 103. Students who score from 79 to 102 may be conditionally admitted, according to the graduate school’s website.
Some graduate programs, such as Duke University’s Master of Engineering program, don’t list minimum English language test score requirements. However, students may be able to find information on a program’s website about the average TOEFL scores of a recent incoming class.
“TOEFL scores are achievable for international students,” Kovacs says. “Keep at it – don’t get discouraged.”