Almost all Indian students dream of going to prestigious global universities and colleges, acing exams like IELTS, GRE, GMAT, SAT, TOEFL, LSAT, and others that unlocks advanced learning and cross-cultural experiences. These exams meant for overseas studies, each with their distinct focus and rigor, measure a spectrum of skills from linguistic proficiency to analytical acumen, shaping the path for academic studies abroad.
IELTS and TOEFL are the most popular for English language proficiency. GRE and GMAT are for graduate programs, which test quantitative, verbal, and writing skills, with GMAT tailored for business school aspirants. The SAT assesses preparedness for college-level work, meanwhile, the LSAT stands as the critical reasoning battleground for law school aspirants.
IELTS (International English Language Testing System)
The IELTS is a test that gauges the English language proficiency of individuals who wish to study or work where English is used as the language of communication. Over the last two years, the exam has incorporated the option of taking the test on a computer in many locations, offering more test dates and faster results while maintaining the same test content.
This study abroad exam is divided into four sections: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. The Listening and Speaking sections are the same for all test-takers, while the Reading and Writing sections differ for the Academic and General Training versions of the test. The Academic version is intended for those who want to enroll in universities and other institutions of higher education. The General Training version is for those planning to undertake non-academic training or to gain work experience, or for immigration purposes.
IELTS scores are accepted by over 10,000 organizations worldwide, including schools, universities, employers, immigration authorities, and professional bodies. The Listening, Reading, and Writing sections of the IELTS are completed on the same day, with no breaks between them. The Speaking section can be completed up to a week before or after the other tests.
The difficulty level of the IELTS for high school students can vary. Those with a strong command of English may find the test straightforward, while others may need extensive preparation. On average, candidates may require about 6-8 weeks of preparation. The IELTS is scored on a 9-band scale, with each educational institution setting its own required score, which typically ranges from 6.0 to 7.5 bands.
Other related tests are Cambridge English Exams, TOEFL, PTE (Pearson Test of English), OET (Occupational English Test).
GRE (Graduate Record Examination)
The GRE, administered by ETS, evaluates candidates on their verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. These are considered essential for success at the graduate level. In recent years, the GRE has seen the introduction of the at-home testing option, allowing students to take the exam online under strict proctoring conditions due to the pandemic.
The GRE is primarily taken by prospective graduate and business school applicants from all around the world who are interested in pursuing a master’s, MBA, specialized master’s in business, J.D., or doctoral degree. The exam is accepted by thousands of graduate schools, including business and law, primarily in the United States but also in other countries.
The GRE is section-adaptive, meaning the performance on the first verbal and quantitative sections determines the difficulty level of the second sections in those respective areas. The exam includes verbal reasoning, which assesses reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and vocabulary usage; quantitative reasoning, which tests basic concepts of algebra, geometry, and data analysis; and analytical writing, which measures critical thinking and analytical writing skills.
For high school students, particularly those not from an English-medium background, the verbal section can be quite challenging. It is recommended that students prepare for about 3-6 months, depending on their initial proficiency. GRE scores range from 130 to 170 for both the verbal and quantitative sections, and 0 to 6 for the analytical writing section. A good score would be above 150 for verbal and quantitative and above 4.0 for analytical writing, but top graduate programs might require significantly higher scores.
Please specify if you would like to know about the GMAT, SAT, TOEFL, LSAT, or other tests, and I will provide a detailed description for those as well.
GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test)
The GMAT is a comprehensive test that business school applicants who want to study abroad as part of the application process. The test has been fine-tuned over the last couple of years to make it more user-friendly. It now offers more flexibility with test-taking options, including online versions, and has reduced the number of questions and the exam duration.
This exam is targeted at those who are serious about pursuing an MBA or other graduate management programs. The GMAT assesses analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and integrated reasoning skills. Each section is designed to measure different abilities that are considered essential in the business world.
The exam is recognized globally, with the majority of the test-takers aiming to study in countries like the USA, Canada, and the UK. However, a good GMAT score can open doors to business programs worldwide.
The GMAT is known for its challenging quantitative section, which includes data sufficiency problems that are unique to the test, and a verbal section that tests high-level reasoning skills. It can be particularly daunting for those who have been out of an academic setting for a while or for whom English is not the first language.
Preparation time can vary significantly from one individual to another, with suggested times ranging from 3 to 6 months. A score of 700 or higher is often considered the benchmark for top-tier business schools, though the average score for test-takers is around 550.
SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)
The SAT has undergone significant changes in recent years. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has moved towards a digital format for international students starting in 2023. The redesigned digital SAT will be shorter, with more time per question, adaptive by section, and students will receive their scores in days instead of weeks.
This exam is typically for high school students who are applying to undergraduate programs, primarily in the USA, although it is also recognized by some institutions in other countries. The SAT tests students in areas of reading, writing, and math, with a focus on skills that are needed for college success.
The reading and writing section assesses a student’s ability to understand and edit texts from a range of subject areas, while the math section covers a breadth of mathematical concepts, including algebra, problem-solving, and data analysis.
The level of difficulty can be steep for high school students, particularly those in systems that do not emphasize critical reading and problem-solving skills in English or the style of mathematics questions found on the SAT.
Students often prepare for the SAT for several months, and for those aiming at competitive colleges, a year or more of preparation is not uncommon. The SAT is scored on a scale from 400 to 1600, and while the definition of a “good” score can vary widely depending on the colleges one is aiming for, a score above 1200 is generally considered above average, with elite institutions often looking for scores above 1400.
TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
The TOEFL exam is a standardized test that measures the English language proficiency of non-native speakers wishing to enroll in English-speaking universities. The test, over the past two years, has adapted to the digital age by offering the TOEFL iBT® Home Edition globally, allowing test-takers to take the exam from the safety of their homes with online proctoring.
The TOEFL test is for students planning to study at higher education institutions, English-language learning programs, scholarship and certification candidates, and students and workers applying for visas. It is widely accepted in English-speaking academic and professional institutions, especially in the United States, but also in other countries where the instruction is in English.
The test covers four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing, reflecting the key language skills needed for an academic environment. The level of difficulty is such that it can challenge even proficient speakers, especially in the Speaking and Writing sections, which require test-takers to construct well-organized, detailed responses in real-time.
Students generally need about 2-4 months of dedicated study to prepare for the TOEFL, though this can vary based on their initial proficiency. The TOEFL iBT test is scored on a scale of 0 to 120 points, with most institutions requiring scores ranging from 70 to 100 points.
LSAT (Law School Admission Test)
The LSAT is a standardized test required for admission to most law schools in the United States and Canada. The test has been traditionally paper-based, but in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the LSAC introduced the LSAT-Flex, an online, remotely proctored version of the LSAT, and as of August 2021, they have transitioned to the LSAT i.e., the multiple-choice portions of the test administered in a digital format.
This exam is intended for prospective law students. It is designed to measure skills that are crucial for success in law school, such as reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning.
The LSAT is recognized primarily by law schools in the United States, Canada, and a growing number of other countries. The exam consists of five sections: one reading comprehension section, one analytical reasoning section, two logical reasoning sections, and a non-scored writing sample. The unscored writing sample is written at a separate time from the multiple-choice portion of the test.
For high school students, particularly those not accustomed to the types of logical and analytical reasoning questions posed by the LSAT, the test can be quite challenging. Typically, candidates might require 4-6 months of preparation, with some intense study programs lasting around three months. The LSAT is scored on a scale from 120 to 180, with top law schools typically seeking scores above 160.
Preparing for these tests can be a demanding process, requiring students to develop not only subject-specific skills but also test-taking strategies and stress management techniques.
ACT (American College Testing)
The ACT is a standardized test used for college admissions in the United States. It has also expanded its accessibility through online testing options in response to the pandemic. The ACT covers four academic skill areas: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science Reasoning, with an optional Writing Test.
The test is intended for high school graduates looking to enter undergraduate programs, especially in the USA, where it’s widely recognized alongside the SAT.
While the ACT is broadly similar to the SAT in terms of its function as a college entrance exam, it differs by including a science reasoning section and by typically being more straightforward in its question wording. The level of difficulty of the ACT is comparable to that of the SAT, and the choice between the two often depends on a student’s personal strengths and test-taking style.
Students typically begin preparing for the ACT during their junior year of high school. The amount of preparation time needed can vary, but a study period of 3-6 months is common. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, with the average score usually being around 21. Competitive colleges may require scores in the higher 20s or above.
Whether it’s the MCAT or the ACT, each test serves as a benchmark for colleges and universities to assess a candidate’s readiness for the rigors of higher education. For students in India or Asia, these tests demand a deep understanding of the subjects, quick problem-solving skills, and fluency in English.
PTE (Pearson Test of English)
The Pearson Test of English, or PTE, is a computer-based academic English language test aimed at non-native English speakers wanting to study abroad. It tests reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. Over the past two years, the PTE has also introduced the PTE Home, a version of the test that can be taken for UK Visas & Immigration purposes, and has increased its acceptance for study applications worldwide.
The PTE is known for its use of automated scoring, providing unbiased results, and is recognized by thousands of universities worldwide, with a strong acceptance in Australia, the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland. It’s also accepted for visa purposes in Australia and the UK.
The test is divided into three parts: Speaking and Writing (together), Listening, and Reading. There is also an optional 10-minute break between the reading and listening parts. Its questions often test two skills together, like listening and reading or reading and speaking.
The PTE is generally considered to be as challenging as other major English tests like IELTS and TOEFL, with preparation times varying from a few weeks to several months, depending on the test-taker’s level of English proficiency. The test is scored on a scale from 10 to 90 points.
OET (Occupational English Test)
The Occupational English Test (OET) is designed specifically for healthcare professionals and assesses the language communication skills of healthcare professionals who wish to register and practise in an English-speaking environment. It has been updated to be available in both paper-based and computer-based modes.
The OET is recognized by regulatory healthcare bodies and councils in various countries, including the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, and Singapore. This test assesses all four language skills using test materials that reflect real healthcare scenarios.
Candidates often need a couple of months to prepare for the OET, depending on their initial level of English and familiarity with the test format. There is no pass or fail in OET; instead, candidates are given a grade from A (highest) to E (lowest) for each sub-test.
Cambridge English Exams
The Cambridge English Exams encompass a wide range of English language tests designed by Cambridge Assessment English. They include Key English Test (KET), Preliminary English Test (PET), First Certificate in English (FCE), Certificate in Advanced English (CAE), and Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE).
These exams are tailored to different levels and serve various purposes, from proving basic abilities in English for beginners (KET) to demonstrating near-native fluency (CPE). Over the past two years, some of these exams have increased their digital presence, providing more flexibility for candidates taking the tests.
These tests are internationally recognized and are often used by employers and educational institutions as proof of English language proficiency. They’re also structured differently, covering skills such as reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but each level of exam is targeted to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) levels.
Students may need a varying duration of preparation depending on their current level of English and the specific Cambridge exam they are targeting. The higher-level exams (CAE and CPE) can be quite challenging and typically require extensive preparation.
The scoring system for Cambridge English Exams is also aligned with the CEFR levels, and they do not have a pass or fail score; instead, they are reported on a scale and matched with a CEFR level.
MCAT (Medical College Admission Test)
The MCAT is a standardized, multiple-choice exam created to assess medical school applicants’ problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. Over the past two years, the MCAT has also experienced temporary shortening of the exam format to accommodate safe testing practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it’s expected to revert to its traditional length as the situation normalizes.
Primarily for medical school applicants in the United States and Canada, the MCAT is a requirement for almost all med schools in these countries and is increasingly recognized by medical schools in other countries as well.
The exam includes four sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. It’s designed to assess the examinee’s knowledge of science, as well as their reading and analytical skills.
The MCAT is known for being a challenging exam, requiring a broad knowledge of science subjects and the ability to apply that knowledge in complex scenarios. It’s typically taken by those who have completed pre-medical undergraduate coursework.
For preparation, it’s not uncommon for students to spend up to 6 months or even a year preparing for the MCAT, due to the breadth and depth of content covered. The exam is scored between 472 to 528, with a median score around 500. Competitive medical schools often look for scores above 510.
USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination)
The USMLE is a three-step examination for medical licensure in the United States and is sponsored by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME). The USMLE assesses a physician’s ability to apply knowledge, concepts, and principles, and to demonstrate fundamental patient-centered skills.
Step 1 and Step 2 are usually taken during medical school, with Step 3 taken after graduation. Step 1 assesses whether medical school students understand and can apply important concepts of the sciences basic to the practice of medicine. Step 2 tests clinical knowledge and clinical skills, and Step 3 focuses on whether you can apply medical knowledge and understanding of biomedical and clinical science essential for the unsupervised practice of medicine.
Over the past few years, Step 1 has transitioned to pass/fail to alleviate the high-stakes nature of the test, focusing more on medical student well-being and learning.
As an international medical graduate (IMG), typically, one needs to go through an ECFMG certification before they’re eligible to take the USMLE. The preparation time for each step can be considerable, often months to a year, depending on the individual’s background and time available for study.
DAT (Dental Admission Test)
The DAT is a standardized exam required for those who want to attend dental school in the United States. It’s designed to assess general academic ability, comprehension of scientific information, and perceptual ability. In recent years, the test format and delivery have remained consistent, but there’s an ongoing discussion in the dental education community about ensuring the DAT continues to meet the evolving needs of dental schools.
Indian students who have completed their undergraduate degree in science and wish to pursue dentistry in the US need to take the DAT. The test covers natural sciences, perceptual ability, reading comprehension, and quantitative reasoning.
Students often spend 3-6 months preparing for the DAT, as it covers a broad range of scientific knowledge and requires specific skills like visual acuity. The DAT is scored on a scale from 1 to 30, with a score of 18 typically being average.
TestAS (Test for Academic Studies)
TestAS is a standardized exam used to assess the suitability of international students for studies in Germany. It measures intellectual abilities particularly relevant to university studies and is often a requirement for admission to German universities for applicants from non-EU countries.
The test has remained relatively unchanged over the past few years, though there may be updated versions to keep the test content relevant.
The TestAS examines analytical and problem-solving skills through core test components, including an on-screen language test, a core test with tasks on quantitative reasoning, and subject-specific modules. It is usually taken by students in their final year of high school or those who have recently graduated.
The preparation for TestAS can be about a few weeks to a couple of months, focusing on familiarizing oneself with the test format and practicing the types of questions that will be encountered.
The scores are reported in percentiles, providing a ranking of the test-taker’s performance relative to other test-takers, rather than a pass or fail.
Each of these exams for studying abroad serves a specific purpose and target audience, and they play a pivotal role in bridging the educational systems of India with those abroad. As global education becomes increasingly accessible, these tests ensure that students meet the academic challenges awaiting them in their chosen fields of study. All the best.
Shilpa Ahuja is the editor of Career Nuts. She has a Masters in Design Studies (MDesS) degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, class of 2011.
Shilpa is an entrepreneur and founder of Shilpa Ahuja Digital Media, an online publishing company that includes HowtoGetinto-Harvard.com, a Harvard admissions guide, ShilpaAhuja.com, one of India’s most-read digital fashion magazine, OpiniOwn.com, a social publication and Decorisk.com, a digital interior décor magazine. She is also the creator of Audrey O., a comic series that represents the lifestyle of millennial women.
She also has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Chandigarh College of Architecture (B.Arch), class of 2007. She has worked in interior project management for The Park hotels and in graphic design and education technologies for Harvard Law School.
Originally from Chandigarh, Shilpa enjoys art, creative writing, fashion and travel. Her art has been exhibited at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh. Her work has been published in University of Fashion blog, Jet Airways magazine, Chandigarh Times and Indian Design & Interiors magazine. She is also the author of the book “Designing a Chinese Cultural Center in India”.