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Graduate Matters

The international graduate students’ guide to English language proficiency tests

In part one of this two-part series, the author presents an overview of English proficiency tests used for admission to Canadian graduate programs.


International students applying for graduate programs in Canada need to meet several requirements, one of which is proof of proficiency in English. Meeting the language proficiency score requirements is crucial to ensure effective communication within an academic milieu that expects students to comprehend complex texts, write research papers and actively participate in class discussions and presentations.

Choosing an English language proficiency test

With a variety of standardized English tests available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right test. Tests often differ in format, scoring system, fees and availability. Before selecting which language proficiency test to take, start by checking the test format accepted by the institutions to which you are applying.

In part one of this two-part series, I will break down two of the four most popularly-used English language proficiency tests accepted by Canadian universities and colleges. All tests assess your skills in four areas: listening, reading, writing and speaking.

1. Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program (CELPIP)

Canadian-based test CELPIP is an English proficiency exam designed specifically for Canadian English. It is accepted by a number of Canadian universities, colleges, as well as immigration agencies, making it an attractive option for international students who are planning to study or work in Canada. Delivered via a computer program, the test provides a personal timer, word counter, and spellcheck – a convenient and advantageous feature that can help test takers complete the exam with ease. Additionally, the test is conducted in a single North American accent, using vocabulary taken from everyday situations.

It is administered in two versions: CELPIP-General and CELPIP-General LS. The CELPIP-General assesses a test-taker’s functional language proficiency in a range of everyday situations, while the CELPIP-General LS assesses only listening and speaking skills. Make sure to verify which one your university requires. The reading and listening sections of the test are computer program-based, while the writing and speaking sections are completed in person and are evaluated by trained raters.

The cost of the CELPIP test varies depending on the country and location where you take the test. In Canada, the cost ranges from $265 to $330, depending on which test you take. Upon registration, CELPIP provides free study materials, including sample tests, videos, online information sessions, preparation courses and webinars to help test takers prepare for the exam. Results are typically released online within four to five calendar days after the test date.

2. International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

IELTS is usually delivered in two formats – academic and general training – with the academic format being typically required for admission to postsecondary institutions in Canada. The test is scored on a 9-band scale (1 being the lowest and 9 being the highest), with each band corresponding to a level of proficiency in the English language. Scores are given for each section (listening, reading, writing and speaking) and as a general average. Make sure to know which your institution requires – while some schools assess the overall general average band score, other schools have specific band scores for each component. Test-takers can choose between a paper-based test or a computer-based test.

IELTS academic is specifically designed for the academic setting. For instance, test-takers are required to read academic passages in the reading portion, which are typically taken from journals, textbooks, or other academic sources. In the writing section, the two writing tasks entails 1) writing a report or summary of a visual information, such as a graph, chart, or diagram, and 2) writing an essay in response to an academic prompt, which can cover a rage of relevant topics such as education, technology, environment, or social issues. You might be asked to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of social media, argue for or against a particular government policy, or express your opinion on the impact of globalization. In approaching relevant research topics, it is best to develop a clear response, support them with relevant examples or evidence and present a well-structured argument.

The exam fee typically costs around $300, depending on your location and whether the test can be taken in a paper-based or computer-based format. Once you have made your payment and finalized your exam date, IELTS will provide you access to progressing online review materials and mock tests to help you prepare for your exam. Once you finish the test, results are typically released within a week.

In the next installment of this series, I will review the requirements for the Pearson Test of English (PTE) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Zyrene Estallo
Zyrene Estallo is currently completing her master’s degree in education at the University of New Brunswick where her research interests focus on curriculum development and inclusive education.
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  1. E. Smith / August 9, 2023 at 14:37

    The title of this column refers to graduate programs but I don’t see any “graduate schools” accepting the CELPIP on the CELPIP websites or documentation.
    The CAEL is likely the test you should have included.

    “The Canadian Academic English Language (CAEL) Test, measures the English language proficiency of students planning to study at Canadian universities and colleges.”

    Your error likely stems from the recent convoluted description of the CAEL and CELPIP that confuses academic and non-academic English language testing in their websites.

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