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ALP Levels and English Language Testing

The American Language Program provides instruction in ten levels of English proficiency. ALP Level 1 is elementary level ability (note: not beginner) whereas Level 10 signifies near-native proficiency of an educated language user.

Note: The ALP does not teach total beginners. If you speak no English, the ALP is not the right program for you. Level 1 (Elementary) students must be able to speak, understand, write, and read simple English sentences before coming to the ALP. All students are re-tested when they arrive. If a student is too low for our program, we will give a 100% tuition refund and approve a transfer to another school. 

For questions about ALP Testing, contact alptest@columbia.edu.

Comparison Table of ALP Levels, the CEFR and the Oxford Online Placement Test

Figures in the table below represent approximate scores for initial placement into ALP levels. This table is based on information available on the Oxford Online Placement Test website, which reports comparisons with the Common European Frame of Reference (CEFR). Score comparisons may change depending on further research by the test designers. The ALP does not claim final authority for this OOPT/CEFR comparison.

The ALP has performed internal studies to map its levels onto the CEFR and the OOPT, the test that is used as part of the ALP admissions process. The ALP places students into integrated-skills classes, so students placed into any ALP level may show a range of scores on the sub-sections of this test. The scores on this test are not absolute cut-off scores. The ALP administration and faculty may adjust student placement based on classroom performance.

ALP Level Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT)
1 A1 10-20
2 A2 21-40
3 B1 41-45
4   46-50
5   51-63
6 B2 64-74
7   75-85
8 C1 86-100
9   101+

The Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT)

The OOPT is taken by students who are planning to enroll in full- or part-time study at the American Language Program (ALP). The purpose of the test is to place students accurately into one of the ALP's ten levels of English language instruction. This test cannot be used for any purpose other than placement into the ALP.

It is an online, multiple-choice exam with items designed to measure ability in the areas of grammar, vocabulary, reading, and listening. It takes approximately one hour to complete.

When students arrive at Columbia, their speaking and writing skills are further evaluated by their teachers in class, and if necessary, students'  placement will be adjusted.

Students must apply to the ALP before taking the OOPT. Those who are admitted to the ALP are sent an email with a link and secure password so that they can take the OOPT from their home country, before arrival in New York.

The ALP Essay Exam

The ALP Essay Exam is taken by students who are enrolled in or planning to enroll in a degree program at Columbia University, and whose native language is not English. The purpose of the test is to certify students' English language ability for the purpose of admission to a degree program, or for satisfaction of graduation requirements, as determined by individual schools and departments of Columbia University.

Students should consult with their Columbia University school or department for the specific requirements.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

HOW DO I REGISTER FOR THE ALP ESSAY EXAM?
Individuals cannot register for the exam with the ALP.  Please contact the admissions office of the Columbia program/school to which you have been admitted to learn the time and location of your program's English exam.

ARE THERE ANY OLD OR PRACTICE EXAMS THAT I CAN REFERENCE?
No. The ALP Essay Exam is designed to gauge a test-taker’s current English ability.

WHAT IS THE FORMAT OF THE ALP ESSAY EXAM?
The ALP Essay Exam is designed to measure a test-taker’s ability in writing. There is no speaking portion.

Students must handwrite an essay in response to two short reading passages. Every effort is made to offer passages that are easily understood and can be answered by any person from any field of study.  There are new prompts for each administration of the ALP Essay Exam.

Test-takers are given 105 minutes to complete the paper-based essay exam.

WHO READS THE ALP ESSAY EXAM AND WHAT ARE THEY LOOKING FOR?
The ALP Essay Exams are read by a committee of senior faculty members in the American Language Program.  They look for evidence that a student understands English essay structure and demonstrates an ability to sustain a convincing in-depth analysis of a complicated issue.  They also look for students’ ability to use complex grammatical structures, and varied, sophisticated vocabulary.

WHEN WILL THE EXAM RESULTS BE READY?
The results of the ALP Essay Exam will be emailed to you and the department/school you’ve indicated in about ten (10) business days after your test session.

CAN I TAKE THE TEST AGAIN, OR DO I HAVE TO TAKE A CLASS?
The ALP Essay Exam may be taken no more often than once in any six month period. Taking the test again without enrolling in English language courses is strongly discouraged. The reason for this is that at the high-intermediate and advanced levels of English proficiency, learners of English may have the skills to get along relatively well in an English-speaking environment; however, precisely because of this general level of comfort in the language, there is little incentive in normal daily life to push on to higher levels of control in English - on to true excellence in the use of English as one’s second language. The academic and linguistic demands placed on degree candidates at Columbia far exceed those which are encountered in normal daily life.  What is demanded of the university student at Columbia is excellence.  What is needed for international students to reach that level of excellence in the usage of English is usually explicit instruction in the language.

Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Exam is an end-of-term essay test given to all students currently registered in ALP intensive courses and ALP part-time Academic Writing at levels 7, 8, and 9 in the Fall and Spring, as well as Advanced Academic Preparation in the Summer. Below are Qualifying Exam essay descriptors for Levels 10-9-8-7:

Level 10 
This is a coherent and well-focused essay that demonstrates thorough understanding of the complexity of an issue by providing compelling examples and in-depth analysis. It exhibits a high degree of accuracy in complex grammatical structures, skillful use of sentence variety, and successful handling of varied and sophisticated vocabulary. This is a sophisticated essay written at a level of English proficiency very near that of an educated native speaker of the language.

Level 9
This is a coherent and somewhat focused essay that demonstrates considerable understanding of parts of a complex issue by providing some well-chosen examples and thoughtful analysis. It displays somewhat effective use of sentence variety and somewhat skillful handling of varied and sophisticated vocabulary. This is an essay that approaches one that could be written by an educated native speaker of English, exhibiting a considerable degree of accuracy in complex grammatical structures, but is marred by an accumulation of minor errors and / or a less-than fully skillful use of analysis, grammar or vocabulary.

Level 8
This is a generally coherent essay that demonstrates adequate understanding of the central point of a complex issue by providing satisfactory analysis and relevant examples. It exhibits an adequate degree of accuracy in complex grammatical structures, some use of sentence variety, and some use of varied and sophisticated vocabulary.  This is a decent essay, but one which is clearly written by a non-native English speaker.

Level 7
This is an essay that demonstrates partial understanding of a complex issue by providing basic analysis and examples, but may have a problem with coherence. It exhibits an uneven degree of accuracy in complex grammatical structures, limited use of sentence variety, and little use of varied and sophisticated vocabulary. This is an essay in which there may have been an attempt to use sophisticated analysis, grammar and word choice, but more often than not, this attempt falls short, causing confusion in the mind of the reader.

Initial placement into ALP classes:

  • Placement into ALP class is based on:
    • The Oxford Online Placement Test
    • Week One written assessments (intensive; part-time Academic Writing
    • The ALP Essay Exam (incoming CU students only)
  • Placement into ALP classes is double‐checked by course instructors during the first week of classes.
  • Placement by the ALP Essay Exam is considered final.
  • Changes of level are made only by the Director in discussion with course instructors.
  • Changes of level are not possible beyond the first week of classes.
  • Students arriving after the first week of classes will be admitted and placed only in the most unusual of circumstances, and only at the discretion of the Director.

Placement Appeal Policy

ALP Essay Exam Scores

  • The ALP Essay Exam is a measure of a student’s ability to apply his or her knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary in the context of an academic essay in which the writer explains and justifies a particular point of view through the introduction, organization and elaboration of specific examples.
  • The standard of excellence against which essays are judged is very high:

Level 10:  An essay written at this level is nearly as good as one produced by an educated native speaker of English. It makes a clear argument, and any errors in English usage that it contains are minor and are few and far between.
Level 9:  An essay written at this level approaches native-level work, may contain convincing argumentation, but is marred by an accumulation of minor errors.
Level 8:  An essay written at this level is basically satisfactory, showing a clear organization of ideas and substantial control of English usage, but is clearly written by a non-native user of English.
Level 7:  An essay written at this level attempts sophisticated language and argumentation, but falls short in multiple ways (grammatical, lexical, rhetorical), causing confusion in the mind of the reader.

  • The ALP Essay Exam scores are determined by careful reading by a number of full-time faculty members.

ALP Essay Exam Score Appeals

  • Students may not make direct appeal for review of ALP Essay Exam scores to the ALP.
  • ALP Essay Exam results may be appealed only at the official request of an undergraduate or graduate admissions officer or academic advisor.

Appeals must be made within one week of the student receiving official notification of results.

  1. Student makes an appointment to see an admissions officer or academic advisor in their home school.
  2. The admissions officer/advisor contacts ALP Test (alptest@columbia.edu) to make an appeal. The email should contain the following information:
        – Department
        – Name of Academic Advisor/Admissions Officer
        – Student name
        – UNI (if applicable)
        – Date of ALP Essay Exam
  3. The original essay is re-reviewed by new readers.
  4. ALP Test reports the results back to student and the admissions officer/advisor within one week.
  • If that request comes after the first week of classes in a given semester, the result of the appeal will apply to placement into or exemption from an ALP course for the subsequent term.   

Only in the most unusual circumstances will students be asked to sit for the exam again.

One-on-One Consultations

One-on-one consultations may be scheduled between current matriculated Columbia University students and the ALP Associate Directors.

To schedule an appointment email the ALP Operations Director, Mary Pickett, at mp3045@columbia.edu. She will contact the student with available times.

Such meetings are for the purpose of academic and linguistic advisement only AFTER a student has tested, not for appeal of placement test results or course promotions.


End-of-term course promotions:

  • Are the product of careful consultation among faculty members and the Directors. They are based on:
    • work done throughout the semester
    • final exams
  • Students in level 7 and higher (ALP intensive / part‐time Academic Writing) are required to take the Qualifying Exam in order to be considered for a promotion. However, the QE is not the only measure of progress
    • Instructors consider other written work completed during the semester (particularly in‐class writing)
    • If instructors feel the QE is not representative of the work done during the semester, additional backup essays are submitted in support of a promotion. In other words, an appeal is made on behalf of the student before final promotions are transmitted.
  • Only in the most unusual of circumstances may promotion appeals be made, and then only within one week of the student receiving official notification of results.
    • It is extremely rare for an appeal to change a promotion decision, because the promotion is based on a whole semester of work, and the expert opinion of the course instructors and the reading committee.
    • The ALP always trusts the expert opinions of the faculty and the reading committee. “I believe I deserve a better promotion” is therefore not reasonable grounds for making an appeal.
    • ‘Unusual circumstances’ might include, but are not limited to: environmental factors, sudden illness, Acts of God.
    • ALP registrants: make your appeal to the Associate Dean of Student Affairs, School of Professional Studies. The appeal must include a reason.
    • Non‐ALP registrants from another Columbia University school: the appeal must be initiated by an advisor from your home school. The advisor contacts Evan Chan (cme2122) and Mary Pickett (mp3045) to make an appeal. The email should contain the following information:
         – Department/School
         – Name of Academic Advisor
         – Student name
         – UNI  
         – Reason for appeal
    •   
    • The original qualifying exam and/or submitted backup is re‐reviewed by new readers.
    • The ALP reports the results back to student and the admissions officer/advisor within one week.
One-on-One Consultations

One-on-one consultations may be scheduled between current matriculated Columbia University students and the ALP Associate Directors.

To schedule an appointment email the ALP Operations Director, Mary Pickett, at mp3045@columbia.edu. She will contact the student with available times.

Such meetings are for the purpose of academic and linguistic advisement only AFTER a student has tested, not for appeal of placement test results or course promotions.