I have never successfully spoken anything other than English. I was born in the United States to American parents and studied abroad in Ireland. I took some Latin in high school, which landed me with a few excuses for wearing a toga and a slim advantage on the Critical Reading section of the SAT, but no enduring language skills to speak of. I fulfilled my college requirement with French. Years have passed, and the only vestige remaining of that hard work is my exceptional French food vocabulary (seemed like the only chapter worth committing to memory). Basically, I’m as native English speaking as they come.
Yet my role is to counsel and to have empathy for the experience of our applicants, particularly the international students I work with so often. In high school, I did the whole AP-extracurricular-leadership-SAT-SAT-Subject-Test-rec-requesting-essay-writing-interviewing thing. I was admitted, denied, and wait listed. I applied ED and RD. With plenty of personal experience in tow, I’m happy to talk through the process with the next generation… except when it comes to the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language, required of most non-native English speakers for college admission) which just doesn’t seem fair. So, in April, I took it. As did two other admissions officers. And what did we learn?
The TOEFL is hard. I was impressed with the density of the content and the required integration of skills. I simply hadn’t realized the hoops our students jump through to prove proficiency. The reality of that set in as I read and re-read (with furrowed brow) complex articles on topics as diverse as agriculture and art history, then listened to lectures on said topics, then wrote essays refuting the evidence I just gathered. Perhaps I was over-thinking things (the pressure was on to beat my coworkers), but the confidence that comes from thinking, “I speak English, how hard can it be?” dwindled pretty quickly.
The TOEFL can be dated. Everyone in the photo vignettes is decked out in late 80s/early 90s apparel. I hope students abroad don’t think less of the U.S. after seeing all that feathered hair. I swear, we’re much more stylish than ETS would have you think.
The TOEFL is loud. I was concerned about being packed into that little room and hearing my peers while I was working so, as instructed, I wore my very fashionable headphones the whole time. They probably blocked something, but it wasn’t much. At the best of times, I could only hear the person on my left breathing heavily and the person on my right muttering. At the worst of times, we likely hit 80 decibels (vacuum cleaner equivalent). You’re told to speak in a normal tone of voice, which for some people is loud. So this was no dull roar, it was a cacophony of shouting while I’m trying to read about woodblock printing or frogs or something.
The TOEFL is frustrating, and stressful, and tiring. I left hours later exhausted and sporting aching, beet-red ears from those ridiculous headphones, with my eyes permanently rolled back in my head from reacting to the types of sanitized prompts that keep a standardized test both inoffensive and therefore kind of boring (if you’ve taken it already, you likely also pondered from time to time, “OMG, who cares?!?!”). I wandered Davis Square in desperate need of coffee, then returned to my office where I avoided all work by wandering into my colleagues’ offices to discuss (aka - whine about) the experience. I was completely wiped out, and spent the following hours questioning my ability to speak my own language.
We cannot eliminate our TOEFL requirement. It’s still a helpful gauge for the many students applying from non-native English speaking homes that we cannot meet in person. It still shows us evidence the SAT or ACT cannot. It still proves, year after year, as a predictor of success in our academic environment. But, rest assured, we will have empathy. Our experiences in those crowded computer clusters will not go forgotten. We’ve shared the results with our colleagues, who will now walk into the committee room with a greater understanding of the trials and tribulations specific to our international applicants. And that will make our process more understanding, more fair, and more human.