Is TOEFL a means to a punishment or a key part of the LL.M. application

By Desiree Jaeger-Fine

I just received a call from someone asking whether the TOEFL[1] requirement can be waived for the LL.M. application. I answered, “Absolutely! If your law degree is from a country in which English is the official language.”

Only then?” the person asked. “Only then,” I replied.

I do not have official data, but it seems as if more and more LL.M. applicants are asking for a TOEFL waiver. Do more and more people receive their first law degree from a country in which English is the official language? No. However more and more applicants are unwilling to take the test.

The unwillingness to take the TOEFL test communicates so much more about the applicant’s dedication towards studying and general professionalism than he or she may recognize. The reasons for not taking the TOEFL test range from:

 - “I am just not good at test taking,” 

- “I have been living in the U.S. for three years,” 

- “I am a U.S. citizen.”

Before we go into the reasons why these “excuses” miss the point of the TOEFL test entirely, let us look at what the TOEFL test measures and why law schools ask for it.

The TOEFL focuses on how English is used in an academic setting. The reading passages in the TOEFL use formal, academic language and high-level vocabulary rather than casual or conversational English.

English in an academic environment differs dramatically from a casual or conversational environment. I scored 112 points on my TOEFL and, nevertheless, was ready to pull my hair out while reading my first cases. I understood every word yet had no idea what the case said. 

Law schools do not ask for the TOEFL because they like to discuss TOEFL waivers or torture applicants. Law schools ask for the TOEFL to ensure that the student can succeed in law school.

You cannot study law in the United States if you are not able to follow an American professor in the classroom, read 100 pages of cases every day and produce your thoughts on paper under time pressure.

One cannot overcome the lack of English skills with otherwise strong academic performance. Einstein could have been in any classroom — if he did not speak the language of instruction, he would not be able to succeed.

Now let us address the excuses:

- If you are not a good test taker, how do you plan to pass law school exams or even the bar exam? Nothing more needs to be said here.

- That you have been living in the U.S. does not provide any evidence of your ability to master English in an academic setting.

I have seen TOEFL scores from applicants who have lived in the U.S. for longer than three years as low as 80. This score tells me one of two things: either their English is insufficient in an academic setting or they are not good at test-taking (in which case we are back to the first excuse).

- Finally, the TOEFL test is not a means to punish foreign citizens. Your U.S. citizenship does not prove that you are fluent in English, nor does your foreign citizenship prove that you are not. You can have a 118 TOEFL as a Spanish citizen or 80 as an American citizen. J.D. applicants do not take the TOEFL, but they take the LSAT, which adequately measures English language ability, among other things. Would we rather take the LSAT instead?

The TOEFL is required to ensure your success in a U.S. law school. If you are serious about studying law in the United States, you will embrace the TOEFL as part of this education and you will have the professionalism to do what is required.

Don’t start your career in the U.S. with an excuse; show us that you are someone who does what it takes!

[1] I use TOEFL to enhance readability. There are, of course, other tests such as IELTS, Cambridge English, etc.

 Desiree Jaeger-Fine is director of International Programs at Brooklyn Law School and author of "A Short & Happy Guide to Networking" (West Academic Publishing) and "A Short & Happy Guide to Being Hired" (West Academic Publishing).