What's a good IELTS score in USA and Canada?

Many applicants believe that if you are applying to Colleges in the USA or Canada you need to take the TOEFL exam. However, there are over 3,300 overall institutions that currently accept IELTS in the USA and 89 universities in Canada. These numbers are constantly growing. Although there is no minimum requirement for visa applications, there are quite strict requirements for applications for study in both the USA and Canada.
As with any university application, you should first confirm the specific entry requirements for the university and program to which you are applying. However, we have broken down the general levels required in both countries, across different calibers of universities/colleges, to give you a sense of what to expect.

IELTS scores required in Canada

The top 3 universities in Canada (according to Times Higher Education University rankings 2018) require the below IELTS score for international applicants:

  • University of Toronto: An overall band score of 6.5, with a minimum score of 6 in each exam section.
  • University of British Columbia: An overall band score of 6.5, with a minimum score of 6 in each exam section.
  • McGill University: An overall score of 6.5, with no minimum score by section.

These scores reflect the fact that you are required to be at least a “Competent User” in all skill sections, in order to be able to adequately take part in the English program on offer.  There are several universities that have a minimum score requirement of 5.5 as an overall IELTS band score:

  • Royal Roads University (Times rank 24th in Canada): 5.5 overall with a minimum 5.0 in each band.
  • Canadore College of Applied Arts and Technology (Times rank unknown): 5.5 overall with a minimum of 5.5 in each band.
  • St. Clair College of Applied Arts and Technology (Times rank unknown): 5.5 overall with a minimum of 5 in each band.  

IELTS scores required in USA

The top 3 colleges (according to Times Higher Education University rankings 2018) in the USA require students to be at least a “Good User” in order to successfully take part in their programs:

  • California Institute of Technology (CalTech): 7 overall score
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): 7 although this can differ between departments.
  • Harvard: 7.5 with a score of 7.5 or higher in each band score.

There are many universities in the U.S. that require an overall score of 6, so require students to be at least a “Competent User” to be able to take part in the program on offer. Examples include:

  • Rutgers-New Jersey and Camden Schools: 6.0 overall score
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison: 6.0 overall score
  • Carnegie Mellon University: 6.0 overall score

N.B. Individual programs may differ in the score required.
Although the US seems stricter in their English language proficiency required than some other countries, it is important to realize that the more focus you put into improving your overall English skills for academic use, the easier you will find it to excel in your chosen program of study.
We should again emphasize that these are the minimum scores required for international student entry. In order for an application to be competitive students should ideally be scoring above this. Find out details on IELTS preparation and free practice resources available.

How to get Top IELTS Scores

Firstly, for both the Reading and Writing modules, make sure you give an answer for every question. Even if you are well prepared for IELTS, you could find yourself missing some of the answers on the Listening module or running out of time in the Reading module –timing is very tight for the Reading module. If you have a few questions that you haven’t been able to answer fully, it is better just to guess and gain a chance of picking up the marks, rather than leaving questions unanswered.
In the Writing module, make sure you read the question carefully, double check that you understand what you have been asked to do and make sure you answer the question as accurately and fully as possible. For example: If in Task 2 you are asked ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree’ you should discuss how much you, not other people, agree or disagree with the statement. Not answering the specific question given is one of the main reasons candidates are marked down.
If you have a good level of English, you do not want to see your Writing band score (and thus your overall band score) go down because you failed to answer the question. On the plus side, if you do a good job of simply answering the questions that are asked, this will have the effect of boosting your score (for Task Achievement in Task 1 and Task Response in Task 2), even if you are weaker in the other criteria, since you will score highly (closer to 9) in that first criterion. In addition, you have to make sure that you write enough words. For Task 1, you must write at least 150 words and for Task 2, at least 250 words. If you write less than these amounts, you will be deducted marks.
Of all the modules, test-takers will often find the Speaking module to be the most challenging, because Speaking is the module that is most affected by your personality. You may be a quiet and shy person who doesn’t say very much even in your mother tongue, so you may find the Speaking interview particularly challenging. Unfortunately, the examiner can’t take this into consideration, so you need to speak as much as you can. It helps to remember that the examiner, unlike a teacher, is looking for the positives in your English, so the more you can say, the more chance you have to get a higher score. Some candidates feel that there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ answer and that they will be judged on this. This is not the case; the examiner is only interested in how you express your ideas in English – it doesn’t matter what those ideas are.

What to do if your IELTS band score is not high enough

If you didn’t quite make the grade for your university or program of choice, there are several courses of action you can take:

  1. Retake the IELTS exam
    The most obvious answer to improve your score is to go back and prepare thoroughly for the exam, especially the areas where your section band score was lowest, and then retake the IELTS test altogether. There is no limit to the number of times you can sit the exam and there are also no restrictions on when you can do this. The test maker advises simply to retake the exam once you feel ready. Find out information on the IELTS exam and preparation options.
  2. Contact the university admissions office
    All may not be lost with your current score. It is always worth contacting the university admissions office and speaking to someone to see if they will accept you based on your current score. This can be an easier option, particularly if the rest of your application is strong in other academic scores and/or professional experience. The university could award you with a conditional offer, under the understanding that you complete some work on improving the weaker area of your English skill set.
  3. Alternative university or programs
    Another option would be to seek an alternative program that requires a lower IELTS score or the same program at a different university. Although for many students this is not an ideal option, it can be a way to achieve your end goal without needing to delay your application. However, we would still recommend that you work on improving your overall English skill level, as once you start a university program in English, this will be essential to keeping up and getting good grades throughout university.
  4. Take a different English exam accepted by university
    A final option available can be to take a different English exam that is also accepted by your university, such as the TOEFL exam. You may find the differences between the exam formats and types of questions included lend themselves better to your overall testing preferences and skill set. Check out the differences between the IELTS and TOEFL exams and see for yourself.

Need some help prepping for the IELTS? Check out Kaplan’s resources.