Don’t Ignore Low IELTS/TOEFL Scores!  Don’t Enter University with 5.5 IELTS/60 TOEFL!

In the previous post, I posited that English-speaking universities tend to accept students with too low IELTS/TOEFL scores. Although it would be easy to blame universities for misleading students about the English level needed to succeed academically, international students are not always without guilt either.
I often see on IELTS/TOEFL groups students asking questions like ‘what university will accept me for a PhD with a band 5.5 on IELTS’, ‘what are the tricks to get a high score on IELTS/TOEFL?’ etc. So it looks that some students try to enter university at all costs, ignoring disappointing IELTS/TOEFL results and the fact that universities lower the requirements to attract more international students. It is sort of a double whammy for students’ academic performance.
Let’s be brutally honest. Students who cannot get 5.5 on IELTS or 60 on TOEFL are not prepared linguistically for university abroad and they do a huge disservice to themselves if they force their way into the university.
Students who struggle with meeting minimum requirements on IELTS/TOEFL can obviously find a way to outsmart the tests, they can also find a university that accepts students with 5.0 IELTS (45 TOEFL). However, they will not deceive academic reality which will bite them hard at university.  Serious studying in a second language is hard. This is particularly true for postgraduate Masters and Ph.D. students.   Unless someone does Mickey Mouse degree.
I read recently an interesting research article comparing the English language skills of Chinese masters students and British undergraduate students (Trenkic and Warmington, 2019). The Chinese students all obtained between 6.5-7.5 IELTS (80-110 TOEFL) so they were at B2/C1 level of proficiency. Rather unsurprisingly, the authors concluded that

‘international students seem to have significantly smaller vocabulary, are slower in language processing, understand considerably less of what they read, and are less able to summarise what they read in writing. This puts them at a disadvantage when they compete with L1 peers [native students] academically, in the context which requires a lot of independent learning through reading, and where almost all learning outcomes are assessed in writing’ (p.363).

That is exactly the context in which many international students find themselves at English-speaking universities. Lots of hard-core academic reading, long academic assignments and little help from university (independent learning). It is a challenging context for many native speakers of English. It does not surprise students with inadequate English struggle with academic learning.
Trenkic and Warmington (2019 p.363) found also that

‘language and literacy skills of international EFL students, but not of native English-speaking students, predict academic outcomes suggests that language and literacy skills cease to be predictive of academic success after a certain threshold is reached; unfortunately, this threshold does not appear aligned with the minimum language entry requirements’.

In simpler words, English language knowledge tends to predict academic outcomes until students reach a certain proficiency level at which other academic skills (e.g. study skills) take precedence. According to the cited paper, even students with 6.5-7.5 IELTS still did not get to that stage.
Trenkic and Warmington’s paper seems to suggest that the minimum language entry requirements should be raised above 7.5 IELTS (105 TOEFL) to make sure that students are linguistically prepared for academic challenges.
I don’t agree with that at all. I believe that students should score reasonably high on the tests, let’s say 7.5 IELTS, usually, there is no need for students to get 8.5 or 9 (I will explain that in another post).
Anyway, it is obvious from the research paper that students with 5.5-6.0 IELTS (50-65 TOEFL) face at English-speaking universities a tremendous challenge which they are unlikely to overcome.
Those who know me a bit probably also know that I have little fondness for standardized tests such as IELTS and TOEFL. These tests are hard and not fair.  They don’t always predict students’ performance at university (some students with 7.5 do academically better than the students with 8.5 IELTS). I also understand students who struggle to get the required score on these tests.
Still, the tests are a good source of information on general academic language knowledge. On the whole, students who get better scores on the standardised tests (IELTS/TOEFL) know general English better than the students with lower scores.
So students should aim, at least for 7.5 IELTS/100 TOEFL.
The problem is most international students barely make it to the required level. I perfectly know that many students with good English struggle to get 6.5 on IELTS or 90 TOEFL. Many students fall short of band 7 (100 TOEFL). That could be because of bad luck, topics unaligned with student’s interests, construct of the test, time limitation, etc. It is also possible that some students are simply ‘bad test takers’. Such students get nervous and anxious during the tests. Therefore, ILETS/TOEFL score does not always reflect their genuine language skills.
Students who cannot score 7.5 IELTS (100 TOEFL) should be honest with themselves and understand why they cannot get the score they need. If students feel that their inability to score higher on the test is related to the problems with the tests rather their language skills investing time and effort in improving scores on IELTS/TOEFL might not make sense. Many students will benefit more from developing other academic skills (e.g. knowledge management skills, authentic academic writing skills, research skills) than from an incremental improvement in their general academic language skills measured by IELTS/TOEFL.
Frankly, more often students don’t have the necessary language skills to get the desired results. If the language is the issue, the best advice I can offer is to postpone entering university until they markedly improve English.
I said that before, I don’t like IELTS/TOEFL tests, but they are here to stay and they have certain benefits. They force students to focus on academic English, learn how to prioritise learning, provide students with a sense of direction, motivate and offer feedback on performance. So, they help students reach a necessary linguistic threshold for studying abroad. Few students who learnt English at school can read and discuss authentic academic materials. IELTS and TOEFL tests are a bridge between general English and authentic academic English.
Trenkic, D., & Warmington, M. (2019). Language and literacy skills of home and international university students: How different are they, and does it matter?. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 22(2), 349-365.