Some anecdotal evidence of changes in language testing for university admissions.

Twice a year, first year international students (undergraduates) at Columbia University reach out to me for tutoring while they are preparing for Columbia’s placement test (the ALP Essay Test).  Basically, students whose first language is English take a test to determine if they’ll have to take language classes in addition to their normal courseload.  I help them get ready for that test.  I’ve worked with about twenty such students since 2022.

Of course, I take the opportunity to quiz them about the test scores they submitted when they applied to Columbia in the first place.

Here’s the thing. All but one of my students submitted Duolingo English Test scores when they applied to Columbia.  One student submitted IELTS scores.  None submitted TOEFL or PTE-A scores.

Pre-pandemic, I think, most of them would have submitted TOEFL scores.  A few would have submitted IELTS scores.  Things have changed a lot since then.  They may continue to change.

(PS:  None of them submitted SAT scores)

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.

What is the ALP Essay Exam?

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.

What Does the ALP Essay Exam Look Like?

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.

-Caroline Mutuku


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. 

-Emily Chong

How to Structure the Essay

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?

How to Get a Good Score

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.

Sample Paragraphs

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.

Wrapping Up

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.