Prove your English

The best time to begin doing something is now rather than later. Many people may apply for the Green Card Lottery thinking that they will have time to learn English when they move to the USA. Even though English is not a requirement for the Green Card, you will soon find out that English is a must if you want to work, study or live in the USA!

As a non-native speaker, you may be asked to prove your English proficiency before being hired or accepted into university. Learning for these English proficiency tests will improve your English skills and best of all, you will have the certificate to prove it! Find a description of some of the most highly regarded English exams below.

Why do I need to prove my English skills?

If you have no problem communicating in English, you may be wondering why you need to take any further steps to prove your English proficiency or you may be a recent winner of the Green Card Lottery and think you will learn English when you start your new life in the USA. There is, however, no reason why you should wait!

Working on your English skills is not something that should be pushed off until you are already living in America. Taking an English proficiency test is an effective way of learning the language. Not only will you be encouraged to learn with a goal in mind, but you will also be able to prove your English skills after passing an exam. Having a certificate proving that you can speak English has its advantages when applying for jobs and may in some cases be a requirement.

Foreign nurses and other health care workers, for example, are required to pass an English language test before receiving their license to practice in the USA. Furthermore, if you want to study or spend time in the USA as an exchange visitor, you must supply proof of your English skills. Principally, applicants applying for an F-1 student visa, an M-1 non-academic & vocational visa or a J-1 exchange visitor visa must provide proof of their English skills. With some exceptions, these U.S. visas cannot be issued without an English certificate.

TOEFL - Test of English as a Foreign Language

One of the most popular English language proficiency tests is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam. The test is run by a non-profit, private organization called Education Testing Service (ETS).  The test is recognized by more than 10,000 universities in more than 130 countries. For the most part, the test is computer-based and test dates are held all over the world over 50 times a year. The test takes 4 hours with a half an hour break. The test is divided into four sections: reading, listening, speaking and writing.


You will have one hour to read 3 to 4 passages and answers 12 to 14 questions in this section. The passages will be taken from university textbooks and will cover a wide variety of academic topics. There are 4 distinct types of questions in this section: 

  • Multiple Choice: These questions can be about vocabulary, purpose, facts, references, etc. For example: Why does the author mention European dance music in paragraph 2?
  • Insert a sentence: These questions will ask you to insert a sentence into defined paragraph of the passage. There will be four marked areas and you must choose where the given sentence fits best.
  • Complete the summary: This question will give you 6 different summaries of the passage you just read. You are required to pick 3 of the summaries which are correct and best summarize the passage. This question tests your overall understanding of the reading and if you recognize essential information.
  • Complete the table: There will be one table question for each reading passage. There will be 2 or 3 categories listed and you will be given 5 to 7 sentences about the passages to organized under the categories. Of these, you will not use 2, which can be tricky.


The speaking section takes 20 minutes and is also done online. Your answers are recorded and sent to the testing center for evaluation. There are 6 sections in the speaking part. You will be given a prompt and then around 15-30 seconds to prepare an answer. Be prepared to answer questions about yourself as well as give your opinion for the first 2 questions. You may be asked about your favorite food, hobby or family member or to describe an accomplishment. If talking about the past it is important to use the correct tenses. 

You will also be asked to give your opinion. You may receive a prompt like, “Some people enjoy living in a small town. Others prefer to live in a big city. Which place would you prefer to live in and why?” Here, learning how to express opinions is a good place to start preparing. 

Questions 3-6 will require you to respond to a reading or listening task. You may have to listen to a lecture or two people talking and answer a question about what you heard. 


The best way to prepare for this section is to listen to English being spoken in formal and informal situations. Each dialogue is between 3 to 5 minutes long and the entire listening section lasts around one hour. The listening section has two sections:

  • The first section is comprised of 4 to 6 lectures and there are 6 questions per lecture.
  • The second section is comprised of 2 to 3 natural conversations and there are 5 questions per conversation. 


The writing sections takes 50 minutes. In this time, you will be required to complete two writing tasks. Word choice and style here are just as important as correct grammar and ideas. 

The first writing task is a response to a writing prompt. Mainly this asks you to choose a side, A or B. Your essay should be outlined as so: 

  • Introduction: State your opinion
  • Body 1: Give the first reason why A is better than B. You can contrast A with B here.
  • Body 2: Give the second reason why A is better than B. You can contrast A with B here.
  • Conclusion: Give your opinion again and the significance why A is better than B. 

You may be asked as well to compare advantages or disadvantages or describe or explain a situation. Make sure in all cases that you write an essay following the described outline: Intro, Body 1&2 and conclusion. 

The second writing prompt is combined with a writing and listening task. You will be given around 3 minutes to read a short academic passage. Then you will be asked to listen to a 2 to 3-minute lecture. Then you will be asked to summarize the points made in the lecture or compare the passage and the lecture. You will be given 20 minutes to complete your essay. 


You cannot, so to speak, pass or fail this English language exam. For each of the four sections, you will be awarded a maximum of 30 points. The entire test is worth 120 points. Each test is scored by an automated computer system as well as by a real person. Scores are valid for a total of 2 years. 

Approximately 10 days after the exam, you will receive an e-mail that your test scores are available. These scores are available online. Around 13 days after taking the test, you will receive an official score report in the mail. Most universities in the USA require a score of 80-100 points for admission. The following points are equal to the language levels defined by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: 

  • A1: 9 to 29
  • A2: 30 to 42
  • B1: 43 to 71
  • B2: 72 to 94
  • C1: 95 to 120 

How do I apply for TOEFL?

Applying to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language is done very easily online. You may also register for the test in person directly at the testing center. The first thing you should do is find the testing center closest to you with the testing center locator. Here you can find where you want to take the test and which dates are available. Most testing centers have test dates scheduled weekly or biweekly. The fees also depend on where you live. European countries usually pay fees of up to 300 USD while application fees in Africa are usually around 180 USD. 

TOEFL recommends that you apply for the exam three to four months in advance because appointments fill up quickly. Furthermore, you will need time to prepare. It is important that you have an official form of identification for the day of the test. You may take the test as many times as you like, but never within the same 12-day period. 

IELTS - International English Language Testing System

The IELTS exam (International English Language Testing System) is, with TOEFL, among the top world-wide English tests. At two hours and 45 minutes, this test is shorter than TOEFL. Unlike TOEFL, the applicant can take either the general or the academic version of the test. The test must be taken at an approved location. There are 1,100 testing locations in over 140 countries and the test is held around 48 times a year. This exam is not computer-based, but is also divided into 4 sections: reading, speaking, listening, writing. 


Exam-takers will be given 60 minutes to read 3 texts and answer 40 questions. The academic version of the exam will use texts which are factual or analytical. General English exams will include extracts from books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Since this is not a computer-based exam, the questions will be a combination of multiple choice and short-answer. Principally, you will be asked to identify the writers view, label diagrams, complete a summary, identify certain information in the text, complete sentences and define unfamiliar words. 


If you enjoy speaking to someone face-to-face, then this test might be better for you. In the speaking part of the exam, you will have a conversation with a real person. The speaking section only takes 14 minutes and has three parts:

  • Part 1: The examiner will ask you questions about yourself. Prepare to speak about hobbies, family, home, interests and your reasons for wanting to take the test for about 5 minutes.
  • Part 2: You will receive a topic card and be given up to 2 minutes to prepare for what you want to say. You should speak for 2 minutes and then the examiner will ask you one or two questions about what you said.
  • Part 3: The examiner will ask you to expand on some ideas brought up in part 2. Here you should be prepared to discuss more abstract ideas and issues as well as giving your opinion. This should feel like a natural conversation and will take up to approximately 5 minutes.


You have 40 minutes to complete this section of the exam. The test-taker is given a brief introduction before each listening task and a chance to read through the questions. The questions are answered in chronological order in the recording. After all 4 recordings are played, the test-taker will have 10 minutes to record or revise their answers.

  • Part 1: A conservation between two people in a social situation, like booking a hotel
  • Part 2: One person speaking about an everyday situation
  • Part 3: A conversation between multiple people in an educational setting, like discussing a training course
  • Part 4: One person, like a professor, talking about an academic subject 

The listening section of the test is the same for both general and academic types of the exam. 


Test-takers will have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks during this part of the exam.  Depending on if you are taking the general or academic type of the exam, your tasks will be different. 


  • Task 1: Using their own words, test-takers will have to describe, summarize or explain a graph, table, chart or diagram. Use a formal essay format.
  • Task 2: The second essay requires you to give your opinion to a given prompt. This is a formal essay, so you should make sure to outline the essay into an introduction, body 1, body 2 and summary.


  • Task 1: You will be asked to write a letter in response to a situation. The letter may be formal or informal, so it is important to learn how letters are written in English.
  • Task 2: Same as for the academic test, you will be asked to respond to a prompt with your point of view. This essay may be more personal in style, however. 


As with the TOEFL exam, there is no pass or fail score for IELTS. Exams are marked by trained professionals and you will receive your test report form 13 days after taking the exam. You may be able to pick up your exam scores in person at the center where you took the test. Test centers are also required to send you 5 copies of your results for free. These scores are also valid for 2 years. 

The highest score you can get on this test is a 9. A number between 0 and 9 is calculated for each of the four sections of the exam and then all four sections are averaged together for a final score. Some universities require you to have a certain score in each of the four sections and some only want the average number. Most universities in the USA require a score higher than 6.5 for admission. Ivy leagues universities, however, may require scores no lower than 7.5 for some faculties. The following points are equal to the language levels defined by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: 

  • B1: 4.0 to 5.0
  • B2: 5.0 to 6.5
  • C1: 7.0 to 8.0
  • C2: 8.0 to 9.0 

Handshake results english exams

How do I apply for IELTS?

Similar to applying for TOEFL, the easiest way to apply for IELTS is online. You also have the option to print off an application form and mail it to the testing center closest to you. Testing centers and their locations can be found here.  When searching for a testing center, you must choose between taking the academic or general exam. Fewer testing centers offer the academic exam. Depending on the country, tests are usually held biweekly. The cost of the exam is almost the same for every country ranging between 215 and 240 USD. 

It is recommended to apply for the exam at least 2 months in advance. If you do not get your desired score on the exam, you can take the test again. There is no waiting period before re-applying. 

Other English Exams

Even though TOEFL and IELTS are the two most popular English language proficiency exams, there are others. It is important to do research on the type of English exam you should take to qualify for working, studying or just living in the USA. Some language tests may be more suitable for people living in the USA.

Cambridge English exams, for example, may be better for many people looking to take an English exam to prove their English skills to an employer since they offer specialized English certifications for certain professions and business. The TOEIC exam (TEST of English for International Communication) might be better for those who want to take a test based on real-life work settings in an international environment.

Prepare for the test

The new year brings new resolutions with it and therefore also enough motivation for good results in the tests. It is not recommended to take these exams without first preparing. Most of the times, these English tests are being taken to prove your English skills for an important purpose like a new job, your studies at university or immigration purposes. With the help of our tips, it will be easy for you to start practicing your English skills.

The first step in this direction will be:

  • Get to know the set-ups of the exam: What will be asked? How long will the test be? Where will it take place? Where do I register?
  • Familiarize yourself with the test and the types of questions which will be asked beforehand
  • Being prepared will save you time because you will know what to expect from the exam
  • Take your time for the preparations (at least 2-4 months) and set a time frame e.g. 2 hours per day
  • Research if there are classes, that prepare you for tests like TOEFL or IELTS
picture of couple between a pile of book to study for english exams

Studying for the exams can be a lot of fun!


The most important facts of studying English for the exams is: practice, practice, practice. We have some tips for you, how you can have some fun while studying.

  • Set up a study plan for the different sections (Reading, Listening, Writing, Speaking)
  • What are your strengths, what are your weaknesses? This will help you to practice specific parts more than others
  • listen to English podcasts in the internet or radio, e.g. BBC to train different accents
  • watch various series, movies or Youtube videos in English
  • read English newspapers, articles or books to broaden your vocabulary and reading skills
  • find a tandem partner, with whom you can speak English on a regularly basis and practice your fluency
  • record a conversation with your phone in order to straighten out mistakes
  • practice writing in English e.g. letters, essays
  • It also does not hurt to get yourself an English grammar book and refresh your tenses.
  • Take the practice exams offered directly by the testing centers. 

Be critical of yourself and always try in your preparations to get the highest amount of correct answers. A good preparation will make you more relaxed in the actual exam, since you know what to expect.

Before signing up to take an English language proficiency exam, you should make sure to research what test meets your specific needs. Even if you are already a Green Card winner, it is never too late to start learning! If you are not yet a Green Card winner, don’t wait too late to apply for the Green Card Lottery DV-2023. There is nowhere to learn English better than in the USA!