Students perilously trade IELTS scores for university exams

By Ngoc Anh, Quynh Chi   July 24, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
Many high-school seniors in Vietnam are on tenterhooks as the IELTS scores they invested so much time and energy into are not high enough to get them into their dream schools.

Last December, Cao Thu Ha, a 12th grader in the northern province of Bac Giang, which neighbors Hanoi, decided to focus all her time and energy preparing for the IELTS exam rather than studying other subjects required for the national high school graduation examination.

The exam was 7 months away.

The high school graduation examination in Vietnam requires each 12th grader to undergo four tests, three of which are compulsory: Math, Literature and Foreign Language. For the fourth test, students can choose between a combination of natural sciences (Biology, Physics, Chemistry) and social sciences (History, Geography, Civic Education).

Entrance to university in Vietnam is then determined by the result of each student's high school graduation examination results. And Vietnam now allows students to use an IELTS exam score in place of taking the English exam.

The Ministry of Education and Training has even designated that an IELTS score of 4.0 means students receive a perfect score (10) on the English graduation exam.

Then each university sets up their own scale for converting IELTS test results into admission scores.

For example, for last year, an IELTS 5.5 could be 7.5, 8, 9, or 12, and an IELTS 6.5 could be 8.5, 10, 9.5, 12, or even 14, depending on the university.

Each point above a "perfect" 10 then counts towards a students total score for university admission (the combined sum of scores on all tests), which normally ranges from 1-30. This can be a huge benefit to students with good English skills who can then convert these high scores and relieve some of the stress in other subjects.

Another boon is that the IELTS certificate is valid for two years after the test, therefore students think it is a profitable investment if they focus on the IELTS first. Then when it's time to graduate, they can study less and take tests in fewer subjects.

Students sit in a room waiting for the high-school graduation examination in Hanoi, June 28, 2023, Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Students wait to take a test during the high-school graduation examination in Hanoi, June 28, 2023, Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

The rush for IELTS scores has begun taking over the minds of many Vietnamese students, whether or not their English skills are good enough to benefit from it.

Many students have chosen to invest a disproportionate amount of their time and effort to score as high as they can on the IELTS.

"I made the decision because all of my friends had done so," said Ha.

"We all believed that once we had decent IELTS scores, our chances to get into universities would be higher," she continued.

"I just did what other people did without knowing exactly how [to do it properly] because there is just way too much information on how to prepare for the IELTS exam and how to get the high scores."

Ha registered for an online course at VND1.5 million (US$63.38) to practice for the test. She bought several original books worth VND300,000-500,000 each and photocopied some of them to save on costs.

"Though I invested a lot of money [on preparing for the test], I found that my English level did not improve much," she admitted.

On March 18, she took a passenger bus on her own to Hanoi, rented a hotel room and stayed in the city three days for the test, which cost her VND5 million.

In all, Ha spent VND10 million preparing and taking the IELTS test. She said the sum is almost the whole income of her parents in one month.

Therefore, when she got the results of IELTS 7.0, Ha was quite satisfied because she thought her investment had finally paid off.

However, now that so many students are using IELTS scores to get into university, many schools are lowering their conversion rate, meaning that students have to score higher on IELTS than before.

For example, at Hanoi Law University – Ha's top choice – a 7.0 on IELTS used to mean an English score of over 10. But this year, one month before the high-school graduation exam, Ha learned that her IELTS 7.0 would be counted as less than 10 and so she would need to score more points in other subjects.

With only weeks to go before the tests, Ha rushed to register for any extra classes on Math, Literature, Geography and History to boots her chances of scoring high on those exams.

"I was totally freaked out. I had no idea where I should start because aside from English, I had not paid enough attention to other subjects for the exams."

For that month, Ha spent nearly all day every day studying. She slept only 5 hours a day.

And Ha’s story is not that exceptional in Vietnam these days.

By the time the high-school graduation examinations started in late June, almost all universities had announced their scales for converting IELTS scores.

Many 12th graders were then left restless after learning their IELTS scores would not be enough to secure them a ticket to the university of their choice.

This year, the average IELTS scores necessary for consideration to a good university are 0.5-1.5 higher than last year and some universities even announced that the lowest IELTS scores they would consider for admission would be as high as 6.5 or 7.5. They said the reason was because so many more students were using IELTS scores for university entrance compared to previous years.

Nguyen Mai Anh, a 12th grader in Hanoi, said she has been observing the IELTS craze since she was a 10th grader.

She said she was told that the certificate "works as a lifeboat to get into university" and "anyone with a high IELTS score would already be one step ahead."

Eventually, Anh’s parents paid more than VND50 million for their daughter to take several IELTS courses and another VND10 million for two tests, on both of which she scored 6.5.

In mid-June when the Foreign Trade University, to which Anh had applied, announced that it would only receive applications of students with IELTS scores of 6.5 and above, Anh said she knew she had little chance.

"In my class only, as many as 90% opted to trade their IELTS score for university entrance. If my score were 8.0, it would be different. But in reality, it is only 6.5 and I have zero advantages against them."

With an IELTS score of 7.0, Nguyen Mai Ly in Hanoi failed to get into the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam because the overall results of her three high-school years (10th, 11th, and 12th) were not good enough.

Ly applied for the academy via the option of reviewing high school results. For this option, the academy requested that students must have IELTS score from 6.0.

"I started to practice for the IELTS test in the summer of 11th grade and spent more than 20 million in total on those courses. I guess it is just because I did not try hard enough," she said.

Students like Ha and Ly have other options, like applying for other universities, including those she might not like. Or they can wait to see if their high-school graduation exam results are good enough to get into their desired universities. Schools have an entrance benchmark for three subjects, depending on majors the students register.

Nguyen Duc Anh, an English teacher in Hanoi, said an increasing number of students now prefer IELTS and even value it more than other subjects at school.

"Many students have done anything they could to get IELTS 7.0 or 7.5 as they believe that could guarantee them a better chance of getting into top universities. During high school when they have to invest time and effort preparing for the IELTS test, they more or less neglect other subjects at school," he said.

As a high-school teacher, Anh said there are cases when students must cut the amount of time they spend learning at school to prepare for the test by calling in sick or coming up with some "family reasons" as an excuse.

As a result, many students fail to prepare themselves well enough for the high-school examination.

Anh said not all students are excellent enough to make sure they get high IELTS scores. Therefore, he said, investing all of one's time and effort in the IELTS test remains "risky."

For a solution, Anh said the IELTS should only be used to admit students into schools specializing in English proficiency and should not be used as a common tool.

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