On Application#2: English Proficiency Test

About one year, I talks about some gists in writing a motivation letter in my blog  An example: my motivation letter. It turns out to be very well received. Today, I am going to talk about another important aspect in the application: English Proficiency Test.

Checking the requirements of English is of course the first steps. According to the official KTH website, an applicant needs to show his/her certificate from one of these English tests:

With few exceptions, most graduate programmes in Sweden and Europe have the same set of requirements.

If you haven’t taken any English tests before and would like to apply for a master programme in Sweden, IELTS is probably the best option, for at least these 3 reasons:

  • It is the sufficient proof of English proficiency in most regions (except you are intended to study in US)

  • There is no limit in re-taking the test (Unlike TOEFL, which coerces 21 days between two consecutive tests)

  • Simple way of sending score by uploading your IELTS result online (Unlike TOEFL, which charges 40 USD for delivering your score to one school). Most importantly, it saves the time for delivery especially when the deadline is approaching!

On the same website, it is clearly indicated that the “bottom line” is:

You may start to question, how relevant the IELTS score to final selection is, given that you already met the minimum requirements?

First, it is perceivable that if two candidates have exactly the same capabilities in all other areas, having a higher IELTS score will be undoubtedly more advantageous. But if this premise does not hold true (under most circumstances it really doesn’t), IELTS score is no longer the single most important consideration. Your GPA, research experience, extra-curricular activities may be counted more heavily.

So, my advice is, if you already have a satisfactory score, you would better not spend more time in re-taking test for a 8.5 or 9 hit; instead, polishing your CV, motivation letters or enriching your research experience might be more reasonable things to do at this moment.

It is kind of hard to strike for a balance: the earlier you got the test result, the more secure you feel; but taking it a little bit later gives you more preparation time. To help you sort this out, let’s start from the deadlines:

  • Deadline for submitting document to universityadmission.se is 1st February
  • It takes 13 days after test date to get your IELTS score report 
  • IELTS tests can only be scheduled at weekend
  • January has 31 days

Do the math: 32 – 13 = 19, and the nearest Saturday before 19th January is 13th January:

But I strongly advice you not to plan your test in this way, because 1) risk of re-taking is there 2) you certainly need to reserve some time in January to write and refine your application materials.

If you are a proficient English user,  you may stop reading here, as the following paragraphs aim at offering tips and ideas, for those who want to secure a passing score of 6.5 while may not have sufficient time to prepare.

There are four tasks in IELTS: Listening (L), Reading (R), Writing (W), Speaking (S). First, take some time to think about your weaknesses and strength in these 4 areas. Although the variation of capability in individual calls the need of person-specific strategies, there are some universal routes that we can follow.

According to the test performance statistics by IELTS, similar pattern of scores is observed every year. In general, the candidates perform better Reading and Listening:

So, one common strategy can be: aiming at higher score (i.e. 7.0+) in Reading and Listening while securing 5.5+ in Speaking and Writing.

Reading

Reading comprehension is usually regarded as the easiest section, because it doesn’t require you to know any words beyond high school level.

But its importance should not be downplayed, either. Familiarise yourself with the format of exam by doing at least 3 sets of pastpaper, and revise your answers carefully with the explanations from IELTS. It is also important to estimate the speed in the mock exams, so that you have enough time to complete the test and refine your answers.

Listening

It is admitted that the Listening score heavily depends on your exposure to standard spoken English, which cannot be augmented easily within a few weeks.

Besides having sufficient training with the pastpaper, your attitude while doing the test plays a critical role. Here are two of my tips:

  1. Jot down the words/pronunciation of words that you heard, even if you don’t know them: because during the later session you might recognise them merely based on the primordial notes you wrote.
  2. Even if you miss a part, never let frustration occupy your mind for a single second. Keep concentrating, keep fighting.

Writing

There are already many developed materials for IELTS writing, here, instead of introducing any additional techniques, I would simply like to talk about how to avoid the most common pitfalls that lead to a low-score assay.

1. Under Words

You should always be alert about under words, which refers to below 150 and 250 words in task 1 and 2 respectively. Remember, such assays will not score high no matter how insightful they are. Below are my suggestions to avoid this:

  • Never spend more than 5 mins in drafting
  • Don’t spend so much time on the introductory paragraph. A good introduction should be powerful and concise; also, you have risk in not be able to complete your third argument if the introduction takes you a long time
  • When you are “out of words”, think of examples, rather than fill the holes with those long and florid phrases, which are apparently not compatible with your level and style 

2. Grammar

If an assay is full of grammatical errors, even the most thoughtful and meticulous argument cannot save it. So make sure:

  • Reserve  3 – 5 mins for checking
  • Most mistakes are not inevitable. Checking 1) subject-verb agreement 2) tenses 3) sentence structure (SVO) 4) SPELLING can eliminate most of them
  • It is important to strike a balance between diversity in sentence structure/vocabulary and having few mistakes. 

Speaking

Most may view speaking the hardest to be improved. But indeed it should be the opposite. One of the most effective ways is to prepare 10 to 20 short speeches about everyday topics before test. Believe me or not, I was asked to talk about the same topic “Describe the city you live in” during the two IELTS exams that I took in different years!