If you are a non-native English speaker applying to college either from a US or international high school overseas, you will likely wonder— “Do I have to take the TOEFL or IELTS in order to apply to college in the US?" It is a good, and important question! Unfortunately the answer is not clear cut but well worth looking into where you fit in.
Why try to avoid the TOEFL? Well, few sane people prefer to spend their time preparing for additional standardized tests. Especially if you are already focused on the SAT/ACT. Preparing for another high-stakes standardized test adds stress, and takes time away from keeping up your grades and preparing for the SAT or ACT. But is there a need to take it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
If you are a non-native English speaker having studied in the US through high school but your English subset scores on other required standardized tests (SAT, ACT) are on the lower range of acceptable scores for your target colleges, that may indicate one good reason to take an English language test. The TOEFL/IELTS may be a good way to reassure an admissions committee that you are fully capable of being successful and won’t need remedial support in order to keep up. If you haven’t yet taken the SAT/ACT, this is also a good reason to take some initial practice tests to get a sense of if the English sections in particular are going to be a struggle.
The general rule of thumb is that most colleges and universities will not require you to submit a TOEFL score IF you have studied in the US for three or more years of high school by the time you apply. This means that you have studied in the US or an English-curriculum based high school for ninth, tenth and eleventh grades. Since you apply to college in the fall of twelfth grade, this is usually not counted. Colleges need assurances that you posess written and spoken English fluency. For international students, as we have said in other articles, the more data points you can offer to confirm your capabilities and in this case, that you do have strong English, the better. It is easier for a student to study for one standardized test so that a score reflects test preparation rather than aptitude. However, schools will more likely attribute your test success to aptitude if you offer consistently high scores on multiple tests.
The exact English language proficiency test rules vary from college to college, as do rules about if green card holders (permanent residents) who are non-native English speakers have to submit TOEFL scores. Generally, all international students have to submit TOEFL scores, unless you have studied in the US or an international school for a number of years to prove your English capabilities. Competitive schools will also typically require anyone with an ESL/non-native English background to submit a TOEFL score, unless you have spent high school in an English-based school.
If you have studied in the US for all of high school since Grade 9, you will generally not need to take the TOEFL. If you started studying in the US or an English-language school only in Grade 10, things can get a little dicier and unclear, especially when applying to competitive colleges. You can find a few examples of listed requirements from Emory, Boston College, New York University and University of Chicago below. For example NYU says you don’t need an English language proficiency test IF: "You have been studying in a school or college/university where the sole language of instruction is English for at least three years at the time of your application and you submit SAT, ACT, AP, or IB test results (English curriculum only).” Emory University says it another way that you’re TOEFL exempt IF: "The student has spent the most recent four years of school where English is the language of instruction for all academic subjects (excluding foreign language.)” While the University of Chicago international admissions website says: "All international applicants whose native language is not English are required [to take an English language proficiency test]… The only exception to the English proficiency test requirement is for applicants who for two or more years have attended a high school or college where the primary language of instruction is English.” Surprisingly, U Chicago’s barrier is slightly lower in terms of time in the US, but they will likely come down harder on SAT/ACT scores.
What is the takeaway? There is very little black and white, and mostly gray area about if you will be exempt from the TOEFL/IELTS English language proficiency test requirement. It is always better to play it safe and plan ahead. Students and families are encouraged to pay attention early to target school requirements, and begin preparations early if the TOEFL, in addition to the SAT/ACT, (and other subject tests!) are required. As with many areas of US college admissions, ambiguity is the norm, and paying attention to the details will make a world of difference.