The Weight of the IELTS in Applications

Common Language Requirements and Exemptions at Universities

Postsecondary institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and many other countries usually require proof of English language skills from non-citizen applicants who are not native English speakers and who come from countries where English is not the national language. Most degree programs will accept either the IELTS or the TOEFL, but we encourage all international students to verify the rules of their degree programs. Some international university applicants are exempt from language requirements. If you are a citizen of an English-speaking country, your English fluency will be assumed in most cases, but there are a few exceptions. In Canada, for example, residents of Quebec (where French is the primary language) may have to take an English language test. To cite another common example, Singapore may or may not be considered an English-speaking country for the purposes of language tests. Testing exemptions may be granted to students who have completed the International Baccalaureate program in English or to students who have earned a secondary or tertiary diploma at an institution in which the main language of instruction is English, but these policies vary.

How the IELTS is Used in University Admissions

IELTS scores will typically be submitted as part of the application package. Generally speaking, the IELTS is viewed as a baseline qualification for university admission, meaning that schools are primarily interested in verifying language abilities through minimum scores. IELTS scores that are substantially above institutional benchmarks will probably not give an applicant significant additional benefits in the admissions process, but scores below the stipulated levels can have serious adverse consequences. If a given program requires a total IELTS score of 7.0, for instance, an 8.0 will not make that applicant much more likely to gain acceptance, but a 6.0 will almost certainly lead to unfavorable outcomes.

Penalties for Low IELTS Scores

For the purposes of the present discussion, "low" IELTS scores are defined as those below the requirements of a given school, department, or degree program. At some institutions, substandard IELTS performance precludes admission, while at others, various types of remediation will be required. Institutions in the latter category may administer their own language examinations, but more commonly, low-scoring students must take and pass English language courses that are at least one semester in length. Full tuition charges usually apply to these courses, although some universities have established specialized departments for language remediation that may be somewhat less expensive. Passing IELTS scores are ultimately the most effective (and cheapest) route to university admission. Professional IELTS preparation is invariably more practical than remediation.

A Specific Example of Remediation

At the University of Edinburgh, all admitted international undergraduate students are either required or encouraged to study the English language prior to beginning their degree programs. The amount of preparation expected or suggested depends on IELTS scores. Students with total IELTS scores of 4.5 must take three terms of English for Academic Purposes, which last for a total of 44 weeks and cost almost £10,000. Students with IELTS scores of 5.0 or 5.5 will take a 32-week course at over £6,000. Study periods of 10 weeks and 7 weeks are required of students with respective IELTS scores of 6.0 and 6.5 (with no score below 5.5), and students who fully satisfy the university's IELTS benchmark of 6.5 total and 6.0 for each section are encouraged (but not expected) to study for 4 weeks. The cost of 10, 7, and 4 weeks of English language study at the University of Edinburgh is about £3,700, £2,580, and £1,430 respectively.

The IELTS and Student Visas

English language skills can be a condition of immigration to many countries, and some university applicants should therefore meet certain IELTS requirements to qualify for student visas. These standards are often lower than the score expectations of universities, but this is not always so. A Tier 4 General Student visa in the United Kingdom is linked to the B2 level of the Council of Europe's Common European Framework for Language Learning in all four areas of the IELTS (equivalent to scores between 5.5 and 6.5 each). However, a student does not necessarily have to take the IELTS to satisfy visa requirements. The UK will accept passing scores on all four portions of the Integrated Skills in English (Trinity ISE) examination as proof of the B2 level. International students should remember that university admission and visa qualification are two separate processes that may have different language requirements.