Good command of English is one of the major factors for success in a Master’s programme taught in English. That is why testing the Master’s programmes applicants’ language skills is an important step of their application for admission.

Here is an overview of the most commonly accepted English proficiency tests as well as guidelines on how to choose an exam and what score is good enough.

Why are language proficiency tests required by universities?

Universities and business schools require English language tests so as to ensure that insufficient proficiency will not get in the way of students’ success during their studies.

Some Master’s programmes require aptitude tests such as GMAT and GRE in addition to language tests, leaving many applicants wondering why they should sit language tests when both the GMAT and GRE are conducted in English. Indeed, both types of tests – the aptitude tests and the language tests – are available only in English, but they are designed to measure different things. Exams such as TOEFL and IELTS specifically target your language skills, while GMAT and GRE although delivered in English, actually focus on your analytical and quantitative skills, among others.

Language tests have listening comprehension, writing, reading comprehension, and speaking sections, and they aim to give an assessment of your command of academic English. Programmes cannot rely on aptitude tests such as GMAT and GRE to fully evaluate your language skills because they don’t test listening comprehension and speaking abilities, which are vital skills if you want to participate in class discussions and understand lectures.

Most commonly required English tests

To help students keep to their application schedule, during the Covid-19 pandemic most of the tests are also available in online home editions. Make sure that you check out the latest updates on the official website of each test.


The TOEFL exam is available in two formats – one that is delivered via the internet, and one that is a paper test. Most TOEFL test takers (98%) worldwide take the TOEFL iBT test, delivered via the internet. TOEFL iBT has four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. Scores range from 0 to 120 and are valid for two years. The test takes about four hours.

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There are two kinds of International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests: Academic, for people applying to higher education programmes, and General Training, for migration and applying to other study programmes.

The exam uses a nine-band (1-9) scale to identify levels of proficiency. Test takers complete the Listening, Reading and Writing sections on the same day, with no breaks in between them. The Speaking section, however, can be taken up to a week before or after the other tests.

The total test time is 2 hours and 45 minutes. IELTS is a pen-and-paper test, but also available on computer in a growing number of countries. The exam is typically valid for two years although the test’s administrators suggest that different universities might have their own requirements.

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Cambridge English certificates

Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) runs two main English language tests for postgraduate admissions: C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency. Both can be taken either as a computer-based or a paper-based exam and take nearly four hours to complete.

Scores don’t expire, but bear in mind that most universities require scores obtained within the last couple of years. C1 Advanced, formerly known as Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE), is an in-depth, high-level qualification. Scores range from 160 to 210. C2 Proficiency, formerly known as Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE), is CAE’s highest-level qualification. Scores range from 180 to 230.

The exams have four sections: Reading and Use of English, Writing, Listening, and Speaking. It’s worth noting that the Speaking test is taken face to face, with two candidates (you and another candidate) and two examiners.

PTE Academic

PTE Academic assesses listening, reading, speaking and writing, all via a computer in a single three-hour test session. It includes 20 different question formats, ranging from multiple choice through to essay writing and interpreting information. Scores range from 10 to 90 and are valid for two years.


There are two main TOEIC exams used for graduate admission: TOEIC Listening and Reading and TOEIC Speaking and Writing. TOEIC tests focus on business English and are generally considered work-related English proficiency exams, but many Master’s programmes will accept them as an alternative to TOEFL, IELTS, or similar tests.

The TOEIC Listening and Reading test is a paper-and-pencil, multiple-choice assessment that takes about two and a half hours. Scores range from 200 to 400 for Listening and from 150 to 450 for Reading.

The Speaking and Writing tests are administered via computer and can be taken separately. TOEIC Speaking involves 11 questions that will take 20 minutes to answer. The score scale is from 0 to 200. TOEIC Writing involves eight questions that take about 60 minutes to complete. The score scale is also from 0 to 200. TOEIC scores are valid for two years.


This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2019-2020 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Leaping over the Language Barrier”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.