No TOEFL Score, No US Visa, No Thanks


My Chinese student, who goes by Alex, WeChatted me the bad news from his home in Beijing. Alan had just applied for – and failed – his first American Student Visa interview. For Alan, student life at UMass Boston would have to wait. Is TOEFL training the best way to get a US Visa? Or should you bypass the test and try to apply directly to your target school?I was not surprised when I read Alex’s text.

You see, three days before, my business manager contacted me to see if I could take on a last-minute case. Alex, it seems, was accepted into one of a growing number of ESL bootcamps across the US that cater to students that, according to the UMass Boston website, need “an integrated program focused on instruction in university study skills”. Where I come from, we used to call that “TOEFL Training.”

You see, Alex has zero English skills. While he has lots of linguistic ambition, he has no ability to interact in the world’s lingua franca.

As a test-prep guy specializing in the TOEFL – a standardized English exam that thousands of schools around the world accept as a measure of English proficiency – I’m familiar with high-stakes tests. I usually spend months with a non-native English speaker to help them attain a qualifying TOEFL score. To gain admission into UMass Boston, for example, applicants need a minimum score of 80/120.

Needless to say, Alex couldn’t get close to that score. 

Crafty  Marketing

UMass Boston’s crafty marketing/education strategy helps aspirational international students bypass their own restrictive English-proficiency policies. Why rely on standardized tests at all? UMass profs can supply future UMass students with the language skills that UMass requires for a UMass diploma. That’s the kind of integrated program I’m talking about!

The only thing UMass hasn’t figured out is the F Visa.

In our follow-up session, which involved a lot of typing and what ESL teachers call “speech modification”, I discovered that Alex was asked 4 questions before his application was hit with the big rubber reject stamp.

Question one

Why do you want to study in America? We had practiced the hell out of this one. Pre-me, Alex had this answer memorized: “I want to be a free man.” So, we changed that into “I want to improve my English and get a university degree”.

Question two

Who do you know in Boston? We had anticipated that one too. “I have an aunt in Boston”.

Question three

It seems like Alex forgot the third question, but he remembered the fourth question because he needed to say “pardon me” twice. It was something about high school – from what I can gather.

Question four

“What have you been doing since high school?” (Alex graduated high school 3 years ago). “Trip”. This was the answer that tripped him up. Pardon the pun. I guess, looking at Alex’s passport, the agent noticed no stamps. He hadn’t been on a trip, he had been traveling around China.


There are over 300,000 Chinese students studying in America. And half of them are depressed, according to one study. Could it be all that English?

So is this just a case of a nice Chinese guy getting turned down for his American Student Visa at the gate for being a crappy English speaker? 

TOEFL Training Online

Get some help with your English with my paid TOEFL course, or my free English classes!

If you are interested in learning even more about TOEFL Training online, check out my course Clear Strategies & Tactics

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