For International Students: Required Tests for Applying to U.S. Universities

Most U.S. universities require certain tests scores for applications from international students. The most important factors in meeting these requirements are time management and completing the required tests in a way that strengthens your application.

Time Management: plan ahead for test deadlines

Samah Damanhoori Notre Dame de Namur University student

Samah Damanhoori

U.S. university websites list the documents and test scores required for each major. For example, symptoms when I was applying for a master’s degree in creative writing, nurse universities were asking for a personal statement, a writing sample, and an English proficiency test. Studying and preparing for an English proficiency exam might take up to three or four months, so plan ahead.

What test scores are required for admission?

Required test scores vary significantly depending on the university. For example, a leading science and technology university in the U.S. requires a score of 90 or higher on the TOEFL exam even if you are applying for an undergraduate science major, while one private liberal arts college in the West requires scores in the range of 65–80 or higher on the TOEFL exam if you are applying for an English program.

English proficiency tests

An English proficiency exam is required for most international students whether you are applying for an undergraduate or a graduate program. Exceptions are often made for students who come from countries where English is one of the national languages, or for students who have attended English-language universities in the past. See the university’s website for details.

The most frequently required English proficiency exams are TOEFL and IELTS. If you are applying for an undergraduate program, usually the minimum required score is between 50–100 on the TOEFL exam or 4.0–5.0 on the IELTS exam. And if you are applying for graduate programs, usually the required test score is between 60–100 in TOEFL or 5.5–7.0 in IELTS. See the university’s website for details.

Some universities accept other exams, including TOEFL PBT  or PTE.

Which English proficiency test should I take?

First, you need to know which test you’re likely to do better on. For example, when I was applying to universities, I was hoping to get a score of 90 in TOEFL or 7.0 in IELTS. Initially I thought that the IELTS exam would be easier for me because the topics were not as academic. I tried the IELTS so many times, but I was not able to achieve the score I needed to apply. I actually found the the general topics on the IELTS exam difficult because they didn’t relate to my preparation for the test. For me, personally, the speaking and writing parts of the TOEFL exam ended up being easier, because the topics were more limited, predictable, and similar to what I had studied for the exam. I was able to score 95 on the TOEFL, a score that allowed me to submit a competitive application for the campus I wanted to attend, Notre Dame de Namur University.

In order to decide which language proficiency exam works best for you, try to take at least one practice test for both exams. Study for each before you take the test. Choose the test that works best for you. If you don’t get the score that you were hoping for the first time, don’t feel discouraged. That is a common experience. It often takes more than one try to get the test score you are aiming for.

How should I prepare for the English proficiency test?

In addition to taking practice tests, in the weeks before the exam, you might want to immerse yourself in English-language materials. For example, I read books in English, such as Everything You Need to Know about Science. I also read newspapers online: the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. When I saw a word I didn’t understand, I looked it up and memorized it. I also listened to songs in English that inspired me, such as “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and “What a Wonderful World,”

The night before the actual test, make sure to go to bed early. The day of the actual exam, eat a good breakfast and use the restroom before the test starts.

Required tests for freshman (undergraduate) admission

SAT and ACT tests: colleges and universities use these for admissions and merit-based scholarships .

These tests are both designed to meet the exam requirement for undergraduate admissions, but they are different. As with the TOEFL and the IELTS tests, you might want to take a practice test for both and see which one you score higher on. Most universities accept either one, but make sure to check the university’s website for details.

Requirements for international transfer students

For international transfer students, universities will usually ask for an ACT or SAT exam, English Proficiency test, and credit hours.

Required tests for graduate programs

Students applying for graduate programs in the U.S. are often required to take the GMAT or the GRE exam. See the university’s website for details. To study for theses exams, you need time and patience. There are both free and paid websites that can help you prepare for these tests. Some of the sites offer free tests, such as Khan Academy , Magoosh, and others.

Setting a test date

You need to plan ahead to set a test date. Usually you have to plan at least two weeks in advance, so you might want to register for an exam while preparing for it. Getting the results may take up to ten days.

Managing your budget

Exams cost a good deal of money and you might need to take an exam more than once, so budget for multiple tests.


Whatever your academic and career goals, taking the required test(s) is a necessary hurdle in applying to a U.S. university. If managed correctly, these tests do not present an insurmountable obstacle to an international student who is willing to do the work to prepare well for the exams.

Samah Damanhoori is a second-year master’s degree student in the English Department at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. She is also an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department. Samah is working on various writing projects, and a short story she wrote is being made into an animated short movie.

For more information on applying to Notre Dame de Namur University (NDNU), please visit the admissions page. Information on international students at NDNU is here.

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