How TOEFL Scores are Evaluated in US Admissions

Thursday, July 5, 2018

AP Exams Test Prep Plan and Timeline From an Expert TutorFor International Students Applying to US Universities, TOEFL Scores Can Be a Critical Part of College Applications

By Joey, IvyWise Tutor

For some international students applying to US universities, TOEFL scores can be a big factor in the admissions process. It’s important for international students to understand if they need to take the TOEFL, when to take it, and how the scores are evaluated by admissions officers.

What Is the TOEFL?

In addition to standardized testing required for admissions consideration, international students whose first language is not English may also need to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). You should read each college’s application materials carefully to determine if you need to submit a TOEFL score along with your other application materials. Some schools will accept your English proficiency solely on the basis of having taken the SAT or ACT and achieving a certain minimum score, while others will want to see the TOEFL in addition to these other tests. The TOEFL consists of a mixture of fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, and essay-style questions and can be taken online at accredited testing sites throughout the world.

How TOEFL Scores are Evaluated

As with many topics related to college admissions, the question of the weight the TOEFL carries in an application is best answered with “it depends.” Different universities have varying policies regarding how the exam is reviewed, if it is required, and how results are interpreted. If you’re unsure about a school’s TOEFL score policy, don’t be afraid to reach out to the admissions office for clarification. However, broadly speaking, there are three ways a college or university may choose to evaluate exam scores:

A floor: Some schools make clear a minimum TOEFL score, which can act as a goal for aspiring students. There’s no trend to what sorts of schools do this; some large universities such as University of Iowa have a minimum TOEFL score requirement in place, as do smaller, specialized schools such as Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. (Both require a minimum overall score of 80.) A score higher than the minimum can of course only help an application, but not to an extent that it’s likely to “tip the scales” over other key factors.

A pole vault: Other colleges and universities may state that there is no minimum requirement, but instead use an average score as a baseline for prospective applicants. This is where more careful internet research (or contacting an admissions office outright) can be important. For example, at Middlebury College, one page on the college website states that it “has no minimum or ‘cut-off’ TOEFL score that would automatically eliminate an application”—but another page reveals that the “average internet-based TOEFL score for matriculating students is 109.” Use this average to evaluate your own score and where you stand compared to the graduating class statistic. To go back to the Middlebury example, prospective students should realize that the average TOEFL score for the College is above the 92nd percentile and take that into consideration when studying for the exam.

An option: In the same way that you’ll come across schools that are SAT/ACT optional, there are universities (like Harvard) that let you decide whether to submit your TOEFL scores. In these cases, their admissions programs might feel confident in learning about your English fluency via interviews or essays—or have decided that they have sufficient resources in place to help new students improve their English skills upon matriculating. Submit your TOEFL results to these schools if you feel they’re strong enough to boost your overall application. Other colleges will consider alternatives such as your sub-score in ACT English or SAT Reading. If this is the case for the schools you are applying to, you will essentially double your “bang” for your studying “buck” by focusing your efforts on improving at those tests instead.

If some of your best-fit colleges require TOEFL scores that you are struggling to meet, it’s time to re-think your study techniques. Invest in a good strategy book, and, if possible, work with an expert who is well versed in the exam. Our team of master tutors can help you study effectively, identify any gaps in fluency and comprehension, and ensure you feel confident and prepared on test day! Test prep is a valuable aspect of the college prep process for international students, and it should be utilized.


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