Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Clearing the English-language hurdle

SAIS Bologna is an English-language graduate program and so requires a solid grasp of the language if a student is to benefit fully from the experience.

We are in Bologna, and so the linguistic backdrop is naturally Italian. We have three dozen nationalities among our 200 students this year, so you hear many languages in the halls. Our faculty teach eight languages.

Still, English is the lingua franca. It's imperative that every student be able to operate, all cylinders pumping, while reading, speaking, writing and listening in English.

That is why candidates for admission submit the results of an English language test if they are not native speakers: it's a way of ensuring both the applicant and the Admissions Committee that the candidate's English is up to snuff.

We receive loads of questions about our English language requirements (I was in Australia last week and so could write "heaps of questions"). For chapter and verse, click here.

We asked three of our students this year to write about their experiences taking the tests we accept: the TOEFL, the IELTS and the Cambridge Proficiency Exam.

Helga Kalm (Estonia)

Passing the TOEFL is probably the easiest part of preparing your application to SAIS.

It reminded me a lot of my high school graduation exam in English: the level of vocabulary required to pass the test does not mean you have to be an expert in all fields.

Helga Kalm
Still, there are a couple of things to keep in mind in taking the test:

  • Register in time. Depending on your location, the test dates may not be that numerous and the spots fill up rather quickly for the tests in November and December. Additionally, if you are not sure how well you are going to perform, it might be wise to leave yourself a buffer zone in case you need to retake the test.
  • Do a couple of practice tests. Even if you are confident about passing the test with a high score, familiarizing yourself with the general outline of the test and the type of exercises typically used will save you time during the test and you might be able to raise your score by a couple of points. It also helps you to understand what weaknesses you might have.

Overall, don’t worry and good luck!

Greta Butaviciute (Lithuania)

Greta Butaviciute
My experience in taking the IELTS was positive.

Since I was pretty confident about my language level, I did not feel the need to prepare a great deal for the exam. However, I wanted to make sure I understood the requirements -- the format, what each section is about and what the examiners expect from you in the written and oral parts.

My most important tip is to take a close look at sample exams. This will give you an idea of what kind of questions or exercises you should be prepared for and what the assessment criteria are. The amount of preparation really depends on how confident you are. If you speak, read and write in English every day, you probably should not worry about it. But if not, you may need a bit more practice.

Finally, my last bit of advice is to have a good rest the night before your exam. You will be more attentive, focused and calm, which will help you achieve a better result.

Angelos Angelou (Greece)

Before I write anything about the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE), I should first say that it was one of the main things, in terms of entry requirements, that helped me get into SAIS.

Angelos Angelou
My only concern before applying was whether I would have the time to meet the deadlines (a demanding task indeed). The fact that I had obtained CPE before applying allowed me to focus on the other numerous application requirements. This helped a lot.

The CPE is one of the most demanding tests you could take. It’s not just about learning vocabulary and grammar. You have to dive into the mechanism of the language and essentially into English culture.

The CPE demands a year of intensive preparation, from essay writing to grammatical exercises. This way you can understand the language and why it has become our modern-day “lingua franca”.

The CPE demands dedication, effort, sweat and maybe some tears, but it gives you the chance to boast that you passed a really demanding test and that you met one of the entry requirements for one of the best MA’s in IR.

Now isn’t that the biggest possible “bang for the buck”?