Admission to PhD is 2-3. Language tests and GRE

    In the previous post, I started a small series on the process of enrolling in a graduate program at foreign universities (mainly the USA, but the information may be relevant in relation to other countries).

    This time I wanted to talk about one of the most important problems that arises in the way of an applicant - language and not quite exams.

    2. Language exams

    A lot has been written about language learning in Habré, including articles about passing exams. The topic is popular because TOEFL or IELTS are a nightmare for many applicants in all countries. I will not teach how to take the exam, in the end I will simply present a small list of useful resources. Instead, I will briefly talk about my experience of putting in.


    This is also a popular question, to which many articles on various resources are devoted, where, among other things, the difference between these exams is explained in detail. Personally, I think that TOEFL is more complicated (the topic of a separate holivar), but this is a matter of personal preferences. In terms of practicality, it all depends on where you are going to serve. IELTS is widely used as a tool for assessing language skills in Europe (especially in the UK, where TOEFL is no longer accepted by the migration service, and many universities have stopped accepting it) and Australia. In the USA and Canada, the results of both TOEFL and IELTS are most often accepted equally. Sometimes certification test results like FCE, CPE, etc. are also accepted. Although sometimes you can see exceptional requirements like the aforementioned Britain, as well as some US universities,
    The difference between TOEFL and IELTS is also noticeable when it comes to the minimum passing score. In IELTS, the score is set in the range from 0 to 9 in increments of 0.5 points, and in TOEFL from 0 to 120 in increments of 1 point. Accordingly, in the latter case, the obtained score of 86 at the required 87 looks so low, in contrast to IELTS, where the difference between 6.5 and the required 7 looks like an abyss. Since at the time of passing the tests I did not know where I would be submitting, as well as for greater freedom of choice, I passed both exams (IELTS 7.5, TOEFL 110).


    Even if you spent years in an English-speaking society and are fluent in language, you still have to spend some time getting acquainted with the test and a little practice (although if you got a bachelor's degree in an English-speaking country, then you do not need to take language tests). And all the rest need training if there is an intention to score a high score. The training options are very diverse - numerous language courses (in which I do not see the point), tutors, online courses, as well as self-study without any investments (yes, I believe that this is possible, although I could not prove it to my experience by virtue of laziness). The expected preparation time depends entirely on the current level of proficiency (but if the level is lower than intermediate, I would have generally delayed admission).

    My more or less focused preparation took about three to four years. For the first three years she was passive - I stopped watching films in Russian translation, listened to a number of books in English (for example, the entire series of books about Harry Potter), I tried to read as much non-technical literature as possible in English. As a result, the listening and reading sections in the tests were not at all difficult. It is more difficult with speech skills (written and spoken language) - for practice you need a native speaker or a professional speaker who speaks the language. Here I had to spend money on an online tutor for a couple of months, with whom I could talk and practice the oral part of the exam. At the same time, there are many resources where you can talk with foreigners for free. Actually, passing the tests,

    Passing the test and sending the results

    If you live in Moscow, St. Petersburg or another large city, then difficulties with registration and delivery should not arise, but it is best to register at least a month in advance, as there may not be any empty seats at the right date. From other cities you will have to go to the nearest test center, and in the case of IELTS even several times.
    The issue price is not the lowest - both IELTS and TOEFL will cost about $ 250. If the result is not high enough, of course, you can retake, but repeated retakes will result in a loss of money and time.

    IELTS results become known 14 days after the test, TOEFL results after about 10 days. In both cases, you will receive certificates of results, but for US universities they have no power - the results of all exams should go to university admissions directly from test centers. If you need to send an IELTS certificate, it will cost extra money (except for electronic sending, but this is not possible at all universities), as well as in the case of TOEFL - sending each result will cost $ 19. In both tests, you can send 4 certificates for free if you specify the required universities before the end of the test (that is, if you already know where you want to send the results). Letters with the results from the test centers are sent within 7-10 days, plus the time for delivery of the letter by the country's postal service - this period of time must be taken into account when planning the date of the exam. Some universities (for example, Carnegie Mellon) set a hard deadline for documents - if the test results did not arrive before the deadline, then they will not be considered. Therefore, it is usually recommended to take tests at least a month before the deadline, and preferably even earlier.

    3. GRE Exam

    Graduate Record Examination is another headache for those wishing to be among students at American universities. There are two types of examinations - General GRE and Subject GRE. The first is required in almost all areas of study and is most often included in university requirements. The second is an exam in the specialty and is required only at individual faculties. Recently, the ETS company stopped conducting the Computer Science Subject test, however, and before that it was rarely required to take this exam. If you want to submit documents for a program related to mathematics (pure math, applied math or financial math), be prepared to take the Mathematics Subject test, which is taken three times a year.

    General GRE is held several times a month, procedural issues (registration, delivery, receipt and sending of results) are about the same as in the case of TOEFL. The main goal of this test, at least, as declared by its authors and members of the selection committee, is to be able to objectively compare the intellectual capabilities of candidates from different countries with different educational systems.

    The test consists of three parts. First, two compositions are written, each allocated 30 minutes. Then the second part immediately begins: a vocabulary test (20 questions, 30 minutes), a mathematical test (20 questions, 35 minutes). This is followed by an optional break of 10 minutes and the third part: a vocabulary test (20 questions, 30 minutes), a mathematical test (20 questions, 35 minutes). The test is adaptive, that is, if a weak result is shown in the first block of a vocabulary or mathematical test, the second block will be easier, if the first was solved well, the second block will be more difficult. Each task has its own weight, depending on the complexity, which affects the final result.

    You need to understand that although grammar is important, GRE does not aim to test language proficiency. Therefore, writing in it is much more complicated than in TOEFL or IELTS. There are two works - in the first (Analyze an Issue) you need to analyze some problem, propose a solution, express your opinion and justify it, in the second (Analyze an Argument) someone else's reasoning is given and you need to analyze them, find errors, indicate them , determine what information is not enough for a reasoned conclusion, what alternative explanations may exist. In both essays, only texts with deep detailed analysis, written correctly and consistently, will give a high score. All possible topics are published on the site, but there are a lot of them - about 150 in each section.
    The vocabulary part (Verbal) is a set of different test items with answer options. For a successful passage, you need to have a fairly extensive vocabulary of words that are rare in everyday use (especially all kinds of synonyms), as well as logical thinking (since questions like “being true, which of the arguments will strengthen or weaken the reasoning in the text” are not uncommon). For those who do not speak English, this part is considered the most difficult.

    The mathematical part (Quantitative) should not cause difficulties for those who knew mathematics at school, and even more so for those entering computer science or mathematics, tasks almost all do not go beyond the framework of the school course. The main source of problems I had was a simple inattention, so in the real exam I double-checked the tasks twice, the benefit of 35 minutes for 20 tasks - this is more than what is actually needed.

    As with any other exam, you need to thoroughly prepare for General GRE, however, the preparation in this case will be different. Take a test to determine your weaknesses and learn "words, words, words." In addition, it is important to practice writing essays.

    The GRE test is evaluated as follows: for the composition you can get from 0 to 6 points in increments of 0.5; vocabulary and mathematics are evaluated from 130 to 170 points (in the new edition of the test). However, percentile is more important and informative - how many people who passed the test scored the result is not better than yours. Despite the fact that almost all universities write that the minimum passing score for GRE is not set, most of them, however, publish the average results of the accepted candidates, usually it is about 70-80% and higher. And with the interpretation of the results, the biggest problem for the applicant arises. Since there are no clear criteria for exactly how the test results affect the candidate’s chances, it is difficult to assess whether or not to risk submitting documents to one or another university. Some sources claim that the admissions committee are well aware of the problems that foreigners have with the vocabulary part of the test. For example, in Berkeley it is written that they look mainly at the mathematical part, and the vocabulary simply should not be too low, otherwise it becomes doubtful. At forums, members of the selection committee write that the test results do not affect very much, since the test is not an adequate indicator of the potential success of a graduate student, the main thing is that they are not too low. Others write that good GRE results combined with a high average diploma score almost guarantee entry into the middle hands of universities in which there is not much competition. In the list of references, I provide a link to a site where you can roughly assess your chances of admission, depending on the results of the exams.

    The further list of sources, of course, is extremely incomplete; there is no end to information about tests, about preparation for them, about various delivery techniques, tutors and courses on the Internet. I just provide links to resources that have been very useful to me and I want to share them with those who do not yet know about them.

    1. A site where you can find partners for colloquial training
    2. A site that assesses the chances of joining PhD Computer Science programs at various universities

    1. Official exam site
    2. NoteFull - online TOEFL tutors, in addition to paid material, contains a large amount of extremely useful free material, and also offers the opportunity to evaluate written or speaking skills for a small amount
    3. NoteFull's Youtube Channel - Many useful videos from

    1. Official exam site
    2. Emma's English Teacher's Youtube Channel (I found the video about the speaking part to be particularly useful)

    GRE General
    1. Official exam site
    2. The official preparation application - reproduces the actual exam situation
    3. General GRE Prep Blog - Contains a lot of free training material, plans for preparing for GRE (monthly, three-month, half-year), an excellent dictionary, a mobile preparation application (flash cards)
    4. Youtube playlist about the writing of General GRE

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