Q&A: Candy Lee Laballe on TOEFL and MBAs

No doubt about it: if you want to study in the US, the TOEFL exam is THE exam that schools ask for. As more students think about applying for graduate business school programs, demand for TOEFL exam prep has shot up... something Candy Lee Laballe, head of MBASpain, knows very well. We spoke with Candy today about what kind of language skills business schools are looking for.


Most of your work is with students who want to study MBAs in the States. What level of English do MBA students need?

An MBA student needs to be nearly fluent, both to follow the fast pace of discussion in the classroom and to participate actively in study groups which are a required aspect of most programs.

If students can't communicate at that level, what are the things they do that prevent them from getting better?

It all comes down to fluency: the ability to integrate the four parts of communication (reading, listening, writing and speaking), which are the four parts of the TOEFL exam). Practice. At this level (MBA,TOEFL) it really is no longer about grammar, but about usage.

How closely do MBA programs look at TOEFL scores? If a school has two ideal candidates but only one place, does the candidate with the higher TOEFL score get in?

The TOEFL score in terms of MBA admissions is a benchmark, nothing more. If a school asks for 100, then you need 100 - 105 will not give you an edge. But don't think scoring close to the benchmark is enough. Dee Leopold, director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, which requires a 109 TOEFL, has said don't bother applying with a 108. With TOEFL, you need to meet the minimum required by the school--that is all.

If you could offer one piece of advice to students who want to improve their English to study in the States, what would it be?

Get daily immersion in the language. If you don't work in an environment where English is used regularly, then fill your MP3 player with American English podcasts such as This American Life or Harvard Business IdeaCast. Try to read for an hour a day on a wide variety of topics in websites such as http://www.nationalgeographic.com/, http://www.sciencedaily.com/, http://www.historynet.com/, http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/. You also need to build up your communication skills in writing and speaking. Consider hiring a private English teacher for in-person or phone classes to work on these areas.

For more information, be sure to visit MBASpain's website, at http://www.mbaspain.com.

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