By Joey, IvyWise Tutor
With students from around the world continuing to seek higher education in the US, determining applicants’ English proficiency has remained a top priority for colleges and universities. After decades of relative stability in the field of standardized English testing—ETS’s TOEFL is accepted by everyone, with the IELTS, the PTE, and others popular as well—the landscape shifted dramatically in 2015 with the introduction of the Duolingo English Test (DET). Users of the world’s most popular language-learning app asked the company to certify the knowledge they had gained, and Duolingo responded with an exclusively online exam that has since exploded in popularity.
Given its at-home administration, you won’t be surprised to hear that the pandemic positioned the DET to grow its audience: it was administered to 2,000% more test-takers in 2020 than in the year prior. Meanwhile, despite ETS’s hurried rollout of the TOEFL iBT Special Home Edition (which is now a permanent part of its TOEFL collection), limited access to test centers last year meant a necessary drop in TOEFL administrations.
Now that the DET is a clear competitor to the TOEFL’s prior universal dominance, ETS has responded with a new TOEFL Essentials exam this fall that mimics the DET’s most popular aspects. Class of 2023 students should keep an eye out for how quickly colleges accept this new test and what students say about it!
With the DET now accepted by all top-tier schools except rare holdouts like Princeton or programs like the Harvard Graduate School of Design that use it as a type of TOEFL supplement, how can you decide which exam is the right fit for you? What are the best ways to prep for each? And just what is the Duolingo English Test really?
The TOEFL debuted in 1964 and is an old-school exam in the style of the ACT, SAT, and AP exams. It’s been taken primarily by computer since 2005, but the familiarities persist in its structure: it’s a four-hour exam broken into discrete sections with a break halfway through. All the questions you’ll encounter are laid out for you from the beginning, meaning you’ll deal with some material that is likely too easy for you and other content that can be dispiritingly difficult. By seeing how you perform across all of this, the exam scores your skill in the core language areas of reading, listening, writing, and speaking.
The bright side for you is that an exam that has been around this long is a well-known entity. You will not lack high-quality practice materials (in both written and video formats), and you will be able to chart a path for progress based on your practice-test score breakdowns—especially with the help of a tutor. The TOEFL is also known for its focus on academic English, so practice for it translates directly to skills you’ll use in college classrooms and can boost your confidence that you’re ready to tackle higher education in English.
The downsides of the TOEFL, however, also emerge from its status as an old-guard exam. Students almost uniformly detest longer exams, which tend to be mentally (and even physically) exhausting. Even with its new Home Edition, the TOEFL feels less accessible and responsive than many would like: it costs around $200, it takes up to 10 days to get your scores, you can only send those scores to four schools before having to pay for each additional institution, and so on.
The shortcomings of the TOEFL are what the DET feels almost designed to respond to in ways that have helped make it so popular so quickly. Like the GRE and GMAT, it’s a computer-adaptive test, which means that it changes the difficulty level of subsequent questions in response to whether you’re getting answers right or wrong. Doing this allows the DET to determine your score in only an hour—a far less daunting length of time for students to tackle. (That said, the pressure to get the crucial first questions correct can introduce its own anxiety for test-takers.) The DET is only $49, scores are delivered in under 48 hours, and there is no cost to sending your scores to as many institutions as you’d like. (Duolingo also argues that its exam is just as predictive of success in academic English settings as the TOEFL.)
Naturally, there are tradeoffs for these benefits. The DET is harder to prep for both because of its newcomer status and its relatively unstructured format. ETS is also pushing hard for students and colleges to consider whether they want to be relying on questions largely generated and scored by artificial intelligence. Duolingo’s subscore breakdowns of literary, comprehension, conversation, and production can leave students feeling lost about how to improve. Additionally, the efficiency/mystique with which everything is done can leave test-takers baffled and looking to appeal when their scores are canceled due to an AI proctor’s eye-tracking algorithm prompted a human proctor to agree that they looked down at their keyboard too much while typing.
Deciding Which Exam to Take
When deciding between these exams, remember that the ultimate factor at play is your experience of them! Keeping in mind that universities consider a TOEFL score of 100 to be roughly equivalent to a DET score of 120, first try out the free full-length TOEFL practice test. And, after a quick signup, Duolingo will offer you unlimited (albeit shortened) practice tests as well. You’ll also have access to a guide that goes over the unique question types the DET uses, plus some tips for each that you’d do well to learn. (For instance, when prompted to describe an image, you should aim to tell a sort of story about its contents instead of just labeling what you see.) And while prep for both exams ultimately looks like engaging in natural language practice, be aware that you’ll have to chart more of your own course for the DET and do a lot more vocabulary-drilling—perhaps making it a better fit for self-starters who can study in small amounts over many months.
As our new decade unfolds, this rapid shift in the tides of English testing can certainly introduce uncertainty for students. More and different options, though, can only mean more paths for you to achieve high-scoring success!
At IvyWise we work with students in all aspects of their test prep, including help with English proficiency exams that may be required of international applicants. Our test prep experts will work with you to identify areas of improvement, develop a testing timeline and strategy that is customized to your needs, and work with you up until test day to ensure that you are as prepared as possible come exam time. Contact us today for more information on our test prep services.