TOEFL Speaking Scores for MBA Applicants

Within the international community of MBA applicants, there is a series of commonly held beliefs about the role TOEFL scores play in an admissions office’s decision-making process.

One is that a high GMAT score can compensate for a low TOEFL score.

Another is, just the opposite: that a high TOEFL score can make up for a low Verbal score on the GMAT.

Another is that if you study for the GMAT first, then odds are, you’ll unproblematically breeze through the TOEFL because TOEFL is believed to be exponentially more simple than GMAT.

Finally, many applicants also believe that a higher TOEFL score will knock out any competition from their country as if admissions offices would reduce the application process down to gathering together all the dossiers from, say, China, and picking the candidate with the highest TOEFL score.

These myths gain credence as applicants tell each other stories of a friend of a friend who got into HBS with only a 99 on the TOEFL because that friend of a friend scored perfectly on the GMAT. (Interesting, rarely do any of these urban legends claim that it was a well-written, earnest essay or a truly professional job history that balanced out a weak TOEFL score!)

The truth is, rather than investing energy into gossiping and fantasizing, it’s more productive to work hard to get the score that the school lists on its website. No more; no less.

Yet, there is one reason why it might be worth working a bit harder on one section of the TOEFL: the Speaking section.

Arguably, oral communication is one of the most important skills that any business person needs to get ahead. So learning how to speak clearly, concisely, and persuasively is something that anyone can benefit from. If you’re called in for an interview, you’ll want to deliver answers in a manner similar to how someone who scored a 27 or a 28 on the TOEFL delivered their responses.

To be clear, though, I’m not claiming that a higher Speaking score on paper will in itself do anything for you. The application committee won’t scramble to the phone to call you merely because you have that high Speaking score. No. But a TOEFL Speaking score of 27 or above does mean that you will most likely speak with eloquence and professionalism (with only a slight accent) during an Interview.

And remember, ETS now lets admissions offices listen to some of your six answers, which means you might get the ax simply because your TOEFL Speaking responses were sloppy, unclear, or off-topic. Let’s say you nailed that 104 for the school of your dreams, but you did it with a perfect 30 in both the Reading and Listening and a 25 on the Writing. This means that your Speaking was only a 19. Regardless of whether the admissions office invites you to an Interview or merely listens on ETS’s website to the audio file of your speaking, you have to own up to the possibility that odds are low that you’ll impress them with your ability to communicate orally.

Therefore, make Speaking a top priority in your TOEFL study. Mastering public speaking will ensure that you are as empowered as possible, not only for the short-term goal of the TOEFL exam but also for the long-term goal of being a persuasive and articulate business person.

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