Earlier this year I helped a student prepare for the ALP Essay Exam. I couldn’t find much information about the test online, so I thought I would write a few notes here. I might revise this post in the future, so stop by in the future for updates. If you need tutoring for the ALP Essay exam, you can contact me.
The ALP Essay Exam is used by Columbia University to assess the writing skills of students. It is often used to determine if students have the language skills necessary to take classes at the university. It can also be used to determine if students should take supplementary writing classes (in addition to their regular schedule of classes). Test-takers have 105 minutes to write a standard (four or five paragraph) argumentative essay about a specific topic. The essay must be based on the contents of two short academic articles.
You can read about it over here.
You’ll get a question about a serious topic. Don’t expect something basic and simple like the IELTS. Instead, expect something that might actually be studied in a first-year university class. You might get something about gentrification, affirmative action, the use of standardized testing… that sort of thing. The question might look like this:
“Please read the two passages below. The authors have differing opinions about the topic of gentrification in the United States. Which author do you agree with, and to what extent? In your essay you should support your opinion, and challenge the opinions of the author you disagree with. You have 105 minutes to complete your essay.”
The passages should be fairly short. Maybe just a paragraph or two, excerpted from a longer article. They will have opposing opinions on the same topic. The author of each one will be credited
If the topic is gentrification, they might look like this:
“One of the most significant benefits of gentrification is the improvement of housing. Ordinarily, housing presents enormous challenges in the management of urban centers. Therefore, gentrification seems to solve this challenge because it favors the improvement of housing within the gentrified community. In addition, it is believed to stabilize declining areas. In most cities, suburban areas are known to experience degradation leading to the emergence of slums. This phenomenon is caused by the increased strain on urban infrastructure and services. Therefore, gentrification addresses an array of urban management challenges by reducing suburban sprawl and strain on the existing infrastructure.
Another positive effect of gentrification is the increase in property values. As a result, property owners reap high income from real estate investment, and this serves as a means of attraction for potential businesses. It is also suggested that gentrification leads to a significant increase of local fiscal revenues. Moreover, gentrification has led to the rehabilitation of property with little state sponsorship. Therefore, an increase in property values and local fiscal revenues promote economic development of gentrified areas. Economic development is also enhanced by an increase in purchasing power in the centralized economy, although it is uneven.
It is also believed that gentrification leads to increased social mix and reduction in crime rates. This phenomenon has been evidenced in gentrified cities such as London, Atlanta and Washington, DC.
Gentrification usually leads to negative impacts such as forced displacement, a fostering of discriminatory behavior by people in power, and a focus on spaces that exclude low-income individuals and people of color.
During gentrification, poorer communities are commonly converted to high-end neighborhoods with expensive housing options such as high-rises and condominiums. As property prices increase, the original residents of the neighborhood are forced out in a variety of ways. First, with an increase in the prices of buildings, the gap between the price of the building and the income that the landlord gets from renting the building grows bigger; landlords thus increase rent prices, which forces out the low-income residents. As building prices continue to increase, the problem exacerbates because it becomes even more profitable to convert these apartment buildings into non-residential areas. Additionally, since investors can earn more money from selling buildings, real-estate dealers have less incentive to improve the buildings. The real estate dealers instead sell the buildings at higher prices. This cycle of rising building prices continues until only large and well-financed investors are able to continue.
Displacement… is disproportionately borne by low-income individuals of color, many of whom are elderly individuals. Physical frailty makes it more challenging for elderly individuals to resist the actions that landlords take to remove tenants. Researchers have also found that elderly people are more intensively affected by social changes around them; for example, many older adults cited loss of friendships or community networks as a reason to move.
The structure is fairly easy. Write an introduction that provides some background on the topic and a clear thesis statement that states your opinion on the topic. Then write two or three body paragraphs. Each one should focus on a specific argument in support of your argument or the rebuttal of a specific point in the article you don’t agree with. Finally, write a conclusion that sums of what you’ve just created. Aim for 400 to 600 words in total. Easy, right?
Getting a good score isn’t so easy. To award you a high score, the rater needs to see an argument, but they also need to see the use of fairly sophisticated writing techniques. The list below is drawn from the official ALP website, and a few other sources used in ALP classes at Columbia.
Remember that your essay must also quote from the sources when appropriate.
Remember, also, that in addition to this advanced stuff, your essay needs to show mastery of basic stuff. That means basic transitions (therefore, however, in addition) and a mix of all three sentence types (simple, compound, complex). You also need nearly perfect grammar to get a high score.
I can’t teach you the basic stuff here, but I can show you examples of the advanced concepts mentioned above.
Here’s a sample paragraph from an essay I wrote about mental health. I’ve underlined parts that use the above techniques. In order, they are: parallel structure, using the article, appositive, noun clause in subject position, inversion.
Young people are able to discuss their mental health challenges with others, and are willing to reach out for help when necessary. As the article by Smith indicates, 62% of millennials are comfortable with this. Proof is easy to find. Many organizations have taken up the suggestion of the Center for Workplace Mental Health and created departments which help workers cope with issues as they arise. In addition, employee benefits now include financial support for outside counseling and psychological care. Even more indicative of this trend is the recent emergence of businesses which profit from the desire that young people have to discuss their mental health. Several new smartphone apps, services jokingly referred to as “Uber for Counseling,” have made a lot of money connecting people with therapists. With just a few clicks, we can be connected with a therapist and receive their assistance via voice or text. The benefits are clear; when people are willing to talk about issues that challenge them, and there are people willing to listen to them, they can be given strategies that mitigate the negative effects or perhaps eliminate the issues altogether. Rarely do people today find themselves in an environment where they have absolutely no one to turn to. This is quite a shift from even just a few decades ago, when sufferers of mental illness often felt lost at sea.
Next is part of a paragraph about reparations. I’ve underlined an example of fronting, and an example of an appositive. Note the extensive quotes from the article, which are integrated into my own sentences.
While long-term solutions to today’s problems must certainly involve political and economic changes, the political and economic systems are slow to change. With great enthusiasm, conservative journalist Frank Williamson says that “the political interests of African Americans… are best served by equality under the law.” Williamson, an experienced political writer, knows that politicians have been working towards “equality under the law” for decades, and are still far from achieving it.
Here is an introductory paragraph from an essay about inclusive language. Note how I’ve underlined a parallel structure, fronting, and another parallel structure. Note that I ended with a clear thesis statement.
They say that people change over time, and that language changes along with them. Nowadays, thanks to the spread of the Internet, language seems to be changing at a more rapid pace than ever before. Rarely do we go a week without reading an article or seeing a social media post that uses a term or phrase that is totally new to us. Many of us want to be supportive of marginalized groups, and we want to express our opinions clearly without being lost in a sea of jargon. Personally, I feel that our choice of words is very important, but we must be careful to avoid being overly judgmental of people who can’t keep up with the newest words.
Okay, so that’s a broad look at what the ALP test looks like and what you need to do. For more help, or tutoring, feel free to contact me. To keep up with the latest changes to this test, contact Columbia University.
Aaron Ogletree, a chemistry student, sat for a test during his spring semester last year. Before starting the exam, he was asked to show the virtual proctor his bedroom. He complied, and the recording data was stored by one of the school’s third-party proctoring tools, Honorlock, according to the ruling documents.
Ogletree then sued his university, alleging that the room scan violated his Fourth Amendment rights protecting U.S. citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In its defense, Cleveland State argued that room scans are not “searches,” because they are limited in scope, conducted to ensure academic fairness and exam integrity, and not coerced.
Sometimes when people attempt to make an account on the ETS website to register for the TOEFL or GRE they get this error message:
EIAS System error occurred – unable to process the request.
A user finally figured out what causes this. The error occurs when certain special characters are used in your password. To eliminate the error, only use the recommended special characters: !@#$%^&*() . Using other characters may cause the error to appear.
If this solution works for you, please leave a comment below.
Here’s a screenshot of the error:
Recent changes to the Duolingo English Test to TOEFL score conversion table have inspired me to begin a new series of blog posts. Over the next year I’ll track whether schools adjust their score requirements in light of these changes. In the chart below are 17 schools across the United States and Canada. Also listed are their required Duolingo and TOEFL requirements as listed on August 11, 2022 and in the spring of 2022. I used the Wayback Machine to get the older scores, so they are not all from a specific date. I’ll check in with these schools now and then to see if the requirements have been adjusted.
A few things are worth mentioning:
Before we begin, note that:
If any readers of the blog have an attachment to a particular institution, I will be happy to add it to the tracker. Just leave a comment below.
DET / TOEFL
120 / 90
120 / 90
U of Toronto
120 / 100
120 / 100
120 / 100
120 / 100
125 / 90
125 / 90
120 / 100
120 / 100
U of Arizona
100 / 70
100 / 70
125 / 102
125 / 102
125 / 100
125 / 100
U of Utah
105 / 80
105 / 80
120 / 100
120 / 100
120 / 100
120 / 100
125 / 105
125 / 105
115 / 90
115 / 90
City College of SF
85 / 56
85 / 56
De Anza College
95 / 61
95 / 61
Imperial College London
115 / 92
115 / 92
U of Chichester
95 / 79
95 / 79
Recently, the charts that convert Duolingo English Test Scores to TOEFL and IELTS scores were adjusted. You can see the current charts right here. An archive of the old charts is available via the Way Back Machine.
For instance, previously a Duolingo English Test score of 125 converted to 103-107 on the TOEFL iBT. Now, that converts to 93 -97 on the TOEFL iBT.
Likewise, a score of 125 on the Duolingo used to equal an IELTS score of 7.5, but now that is equal to an IELTS score of 6.5.
There are also changes to the Duolingo to CEFR conversion chart.
I suppose this is due to the inclusion of new question types on the DET. I don’t know if any institutions have adjusted their score requirements at this time. I suspect that many institutions are totally unaware of the change.
To illustrate, here is the top of the current Duolingo to TOEFL chart:
And here is the top of the old chart (forgive the broken image):
Update: It is working again! Everyone can register.
I think the TOEFL registration system has stopped working again.
When I try to register for the TOEFL iBT Home Edition Test I get this error:
“No available slots in this time range”
others have reported this error:
“The test center and/or test date/time are no longer available”
I think it is still possible to register to take the test at a test center.
People on social media are reporting the same thing right now for the past 24 hours. I think that the same error has been reported in the past. It seems to get fixed eventually.
Yesterday I wrote about ways to improve the pre- and post-test experience for test-takers. I suppose “improve the backend” could be added to that list. It seems to be that registration for the TOEFL is quite often offline for maintenance, or offline because of a mysterious error.
Update: People on social media have indicated that it is not possible to register for a test at a test center at this time.
Update 2: Users attempting to register for the GRE get the same error.
As promised, here are my thoughts about how ETS can help test-takers to have an enjoyable experience throughout their TOEFL journey. Since I’m not qualified to speak about the content of the test, this article will focus entirely on the pre- and post-test experience.
Keep in mind that I’m not trying to pick on my friends at the Educational Testing Service. I am a great admirer of that organization, its people and its mission. But ETS is seems to be going through a period of transition (into something more streamlined and responsive) so perhaps my thoughts can be of use now. Needless to say, I’ve hesitated to share such ideas in public in the past.
Note also that these suggestions don’t just come from my experience. They come from the opinions of the thousands of test-takers I’ve worked with directly, and from the comments of the thousands more who have contacted me via the blog and on social media.
In the “For Test Takers” section of the website, critical information is spread across approximately 90 static pages, 17 embedded videos, a dozen PDFs and a few ZIP archives. This is a somewhat dated approach to website design. As a longtime user of the site, it seems like various UX elements have been grafted onto an original frame dating from 2011.
Consider the path a student must follow to get to a practice test:
Start on ets.org/toefl → scroll and click on “test takers” → click on “about the test” → click on “prepare for the test” in a sidebar → click on “practice tests” in the body of the page → click on “launch the TOEFL iBT Free practice test.”
Compare this to the Duolingo English Test website, where the same goal is accomplished with a single click from the homepage.
Next, compare this: https://www.pearsonpte.com/preparation/on-test-day
The difference is clear. Pearson has a much more modern design. Key information is presented on a single page, and superfluous information is omitted. Meanwhile, ETS uses ten different pages (and a couple of videos) to share a similar amount of information.
Suggestion: Scrap the website and start again. The user experience is so dated that yet another patchwork revision would just make it worse. Eliminate all of the extraneous stuff. Rewrite the stuff people do look at. Modernize the interface of the user account. Use the new PTE Academic website (https://www.pearsonpte.com/pte-academic) as a model. Get rid of all PDF and ZIP files.
I am puzzled by the fact that ETS doesn’t provide an FAQ page for the TOEFL Test.
Answers to simple questions (like “when will my PDF score report be available for download” or “how do I reinstate canceled scores” or “what does scores not available mean” or “what the heck is an Error 476”) are either not available or are buried deep in the website. Some information is only available in the “TOEFL Bulletin” PDF file that is rarely read. Students resort to making long distance calls to the customer support department for answers.
Here’s what Pearson offers: https://www.pearsonpte.com/help-center/general-faqs
And Duolingo: https://testcenter.zendesk.com/hc/en-us
Calls to the support center could be drastically reduced by providing easy access to this kind of information on the website.
Suggestion: Implement a modern “help center” page using something like Zendesk. Or just create a static page that answers the most common questions. Talk to people within and outside the company about what questions they are asked again and again. Remember that young people nowadays feel very uncomfortable talking on the phone.
Consider the process students must follow after selecting a test date and location:
This can take from 10 to 20 minutes to get through. Compare that to other tests, where registration is completed in just a few minutes.
Suggestion: Move as much of this as possible to sometime post-registration. When possible, move it to the post-test stage. Run a study tracking how long it takes to sign up for the test. Adjust as needed.
Note how the free practice test provided by Duolingo is a fairly accurate simulation of their test. It even implements automated writing and speaking scoring. That was a game changer for Duolingo and likely played a huge part in its rapid ascent. It makes students really familiar with how the test works. It makes test-takers feel that they are getting something from the testing company instead of being asked to give, give, give.
In contrast, the free practice test on ETS is not an accurate simulation of the real test, nor does it include automated scoring. Additional content is provided in a zip archive (!!!).
Suggestion: Provide a free online practice test that is different every time a student takes it. Just pick and mix sections from those 65 TPOs that are currently sold to Chinese schools. I can’t do math, but that sounds like it would make possible thousands of unique variations. Implement the SpeechRater and e-rater in the speaking and writing sections. This is all possible.
Some test-takers feel that it doesn’t cost ETS anything to send scores to universities. So being charged $20 per school is problematic to them.
They also know that Pearson allows students to send an infinite number of scores to an infinite number of schools at no cost. Same for the Duolingo English Test. That makes them feel good about the TTX over there.
Suggestion: Eliminate this fee.
Test-takers have noticed that it costs $185 to take the TOEFL Home Edition from their bedroom in Sri Lanka, and $335 to take it from their bedroom in Switzerland. They can’t wrap their heads around this fact.
Suggestion: Fix this.
For me, the search service only comes up in conversation when a test-taker asks “what the heck is going on with all these unwanted calls?” No one has ever spoken to me about the search service in a positive light. Some students have shared negative opinions of the marketing methods used by participating institutions. Stopping these pitches currently requires a long-distance call to ETS.
Suggestion: Make the search service “opt-out” by default, and don’t include it in the registration process. Simplify the opt-out process.
Some students have told me that they have waited more than 100 days for their scores to clear the OTI’s review process. That’s too long, and it creates a negative experience for them. Reduce these waiting times. Consider bringing back the old position of “test-taker advocate” to help students who are dealing with exceptionally long waiting times.
Update: Just so I don’t forget, here’s my list of additional miscellaneous suggestions, as I remember them:
A few notes from the publishing world:
It is about time for me to write a new “best TOEFL books” blog post. Keep an eye out for that.