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5 Tips For B-School Applicants To Ace The TOEFL

The English proficiency test can be a stumbling block for international MBAs. This is how to ace it

Wed Sep 28 2016

By Chioma Isiadinso

If you're planning to attend business school outside of your home country, you'll probably have to jump through a few extra hoops to gain admission. While you plan your travel arrangements and research visa requirements, don't forget to make sure you meet the school's language requirements.

Many top business schools require you to take an English proficiency exam if you haven’t lived or worked in an English-speaking country for at least two years.

Different schools accept different tests, but whether you're taking the TOEFL, the IELTS, the PTE, the CPE, or something else entirely, you'll need to demonstrate your English proficiency before you submit your application. Here are five tips to help you ace any English language test:

1. Know your goal

Business school requirements for English proficiency vary widely. Some schools state explicit minimums, for example. Harvard Business School requires applicants to score at least 109 on the TOEFL, and INSEAD requires a minimum of 105.

At other business schools, there are no stated minimums. Even in prestigious schools such as MIT Sloan and Yale School of Business, students are not explicitly required to take English proficiency exams at all. Wherever you plan to apply, be sure that you understand the school's requirements for English testing.

2. Vary your approach

Don't limit yourself to a single studying style or strategy. Try to switch up both the format by using a mix of books, websites, videos, and podcasts, and the academic tone of the material you're using.

The bulk of the material on the test will be academic English, but varying the material you work with will give you a chance to become more comfortable with the language overall, and prevent you from getting too bored.

3. Don't neglect your speaking

Learning receptive language skills like reading and listening is almost always easier than developing your expressive language skills, meaning your speaking and writing, leading most to practice receptive skills more.

But when it comes to the TOEFL, and to business school in general, your expressive skills will be incredibly important.

Writing skills can be practiced with workbooks, pen-pals, and online communities. If, however, you don't live in an English-speaking area, practicing your speaking can be much harder.

In that case, you’ll have to be diligent about finding ways to practice your speaking, whether that comes through reading aloud, watching English-language videos and mimicking their speech, joining an English club or TOEFL study group, or even looking for online communities where you can practice speaking through Skype or phone calls.

4. Build a strong foundation

Building language skills is much like building a skyscraper. You have to have a very strong foundation, or your building will crumble.

Go through all of the practice tests and sample questions, but don't focus on memorizing specific questions or question types.

Instead, look at how the correct answers are constructed, and make sure you understand the grammar behind them. Analyze successful essays and short answer responses to learn the paragraph construction and transitional phrases that work for the test.

5. Surround yourself with English

Immersion is one of the best ways to develop language fluency quickly, and can be achieved even if you don’t live in an English-speaking country.

Whenever possible, your books, movies, TV shows, newspapers, music, and podcasts should be English-language. Even little things like changing your social media account settings to English can help get you in the right mindset for learning the language.

When you're gearing up for the TOEFL, every little bit helps. Preparing for yet another test may be the last thing you want to do when you're trying to put together a successful MBA application, but you’ll be kicking yourself if it’s the one thing that lets you down.  


Chioma Isiadinso is an education entrepreneur and co-founder/CEO of EXPARTUS, the first MBA admissions consulting firm to integrate personal branding into every aspect of the MBA admissions process.

She's also a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the author of the Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets.

Chioma publishes on the topics of personal branding, leadership development and business school admissions for college students, young professionals, entrepreneurs and executives.