Score or Skills?

Learning English is a critical step in your journey to study in Tennessee. But learning English is just one piece of the puzzle. You also need to have the certain skills that help you be a good student.  Language tests measure your English, but how can you be sure that your skills are ready for college in America? Where should you focus your attention? Should you prepare for a language test, or prepare other skills you will need at university?

Every major university in the United States has admission requirements that include a language proficiency assessment for students whose first language is not English. Such assessments are excellent tools to measure language proficiency and gauge your academic readiness for studying in an English-medium institution.

Let’s be clear – language tests are carefully and thoughtfully crafted measurement tools. They help university admissions officers select the most qualified applicants for their school. The two most common types of language assessments are the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), each accepted by over 9,000 universities or organizations worldwide. TOEFL is produced by ETS, a US-based testing company. IELTS is produced jointly with the British Council, IDP Education, and Cambridge English Assessments.

There is significant pressure on you to perform well on these assessments. Even universities accept students with limited English proficiency can put prospective students into a situation where their focus shifts from skills to scores. Despite an international student’s tenacity and ambition, even the most determined student might not have the skills it takes to be successful in a U.S. college.

“So, if I score well on TOEFL or IELTS, that means I’m ready for university, right?”

Not really. Though these tests are accurate measures of language proficiency, you might not be completely ready for university. Even the best assessment, though accurate, cannot completely measure academic readiness. Some students perform poorly on important language exams, while others perform very well. How does the test know if you have the right skills to be successful in a university? It doesn’t. And that’s the point. Even the best test-taker can have what is called a “skills gap.” This means that essential skills are missing for success in university, yet have not been assessed on a language proficiency exam.

Some skills that you will need for college: organization, planning, attention span, study patterns, note-taking, research, self-discipline, goal-setting…and I could go on. It is so easy to overlook the importance of these as you prepare for university. Your focus is on one magic number – the admission requirement for your language test – and when you step onto campus for the first time, you may feel completely overwhelmed.

There is hope. A skills gap does not mean that you will fail in college. You might struggle, but if you start now, you can be even more prepared than the average American student. You can start improving your skills today.

Use your pre-collegiate education to get ready for university! A few ways to start improving now are listed below.

  • Use a calendar to organize your day. With so many digital platforms available, start experimenting with one that works best for you. Or use a more traditional method and buy a paper calendar or planner to carry in your bag or pocket.

  • Study in 50-minute blocks of time. Many college classes are organized into similar time slots, and studying in blocks of about one hour (50 minutes of studying + 10 minute break) has been proven to be effective.

  • Turn off your phone. Yes, it will be difficult. Turning off your phone is a way to clear your mind from distractions and focus on the task you need to accomplish.

  • Plan your free time. It’s important in college to enjoy your time out of class, rather than feel guilty about it. If you schedule your free time, then you can truly relax.

  • Read and write outside of class. Reading and writing for pleasure will make you a well-rounded student who is aware of and knowledgeable about more than just your subject.

  • Set goals and deadlines. This is an important life skill. When you have a goal, you have a sense of purpose (and a sense of achievement when you’ve completed it). When you have a deadline, you are giving yourself boundaries for success.

  • Make a lot of friends. Naturally, when you are in a new environment it will be essential for you to make friends, and this is one of the most important things you can do to be successful. Many schools have clubs or groups where you can meet new people and socialize. Surround yourself with people that challenge and support you.

Although not a complete list of the skills you’ll need to be successful in college, they are very different from getting a high score on a language test to prove that you are ready. These skills will make you a better student, now and in the long-term. Focus on your language skills? Yes, of course? Ignore the other skills you’ll need? Of course not!

Todd M. Beard, Lipscomb University, English for Academic Purposes