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The best of Boston for international students

As one of the biggest college towns in the US, the city of Boston and nearby Cambridge currently enroll over 250,000 students, in addition to the numerous colleges and universities in the surrounding metropolitan area. Because of this, there are always lots of things to do for students—from discounted museum exhibits to a vibrant nightlife to comedy shows. Whether you are coming to study mechanical engineering at MIT, law at Harvard, international relations at Tufts, or at any of the other programs offered in the area, Boston’s academic and extracurricular events can keep you busy between exams.

Some of the most recognized schools in the Boston area are Harvard University, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Berklee College of Music, and Tufts University. Each school offers a different kind of education and represents the diversity of the bustling city. For example, Harvard, located in Cambridge, is the oldest university in the US and known for both its undergraduate and graduate programs, including law. MIT is known for its science and engineering programs, while Berklee specializes in the study of all things music. Tufts, along with its other programs, runs competitive medical and veterinary schools. Boston University, located at the heart of the city, offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate degrees from business administration to social work.

Boston is also full of US history dating back to the country’s very inception with the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War. As a new resident of the city, international students from around the world may find it interesting to explore their new home through the lens of its history while also experiencing all the excitement of a modern city. One of the most famous sites is the Freedom Trail that winds its way around the city for 2.5 miles and includes 16 historical sites. One of our personal favorites is the Boston Tea Party Museum that takes you back in time to the eve of the Boston Tea Party (an event that rebelled against British rule in the colonies) and also allows you to explore a ship from that time. The Paul Revere House, also a crucial location to the Revolution, offers another interesting look into Boston history.

Combining the old and the new, the historical Faneuil Hall that served as a central meeting place was transformed to a bustling shopping and restaurant area in the heart of the city. As you walk the cobblestone streets, passing by Independence Hall or old churches, you’re exposed to an interesting mix of history and the excitement and diversity of Boston. There are plenty of tour companies that offer comprehensive walking or bus tours around the city, but one of the most unique is the Duck Tour—a boat shaped bus that also takes you into the Charles River for a different view of the city.

Once you’ve gotten a taste for Boston’s long history, it’s time to explore everything else the city has to offer. Museums occupy a prominent place on a Boston To Do list, starting with the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) that encompasses nearly 450,000 pieces in its diverse collection. The MFA offers both rotating exhibits and permanent exhibits, so you always have something new to discover. Another great place is the Museum of Science where you can get a hands-on experience with some of the most interesting scientific technology.

Boston is known for its passionate sports fans, who cheer for the Bruins (ice hockey), Red Sox (baseball), Patriots (American football), and Celtics (basketball). If you’re a sports fan or just looking for a true Bostonian atmosphere, buy tickets to any of these games depending on the season and you’re sure to get a true taste of Boston sports.

If you’re spending the day in the city, there are plenty of public areas to relax at. Including the Boston Common (pictured above), a huge park that attracts locals and visitors everyday. You can also explore the North End, an area full of Italian restaurants, pastry shops, and history that’s near the Emerald Necklace (a long stretch of greenway that usually has a craft fair or market going on). You can even end your day with a delicious dessert from Mike's Pastry, a Boston staple if you have a sweet tooth!

Aside from the regular things to see or do in Boston, the city also hosts hundreds of concerts, festivals, and other events throughout the year. Whether you want to see BeyoncĂ© on tour, attend a St. Patrick’s Day parade, or the Boston Arts Festival, everyone can find what they’re looking for!

You have so many great things to do in Boston, but how are you going to get around the city? Have no fear, the Boston public transportation company (MBTA) operates an easy, accessible public transportation system of trains and buses that get you wherever you need to go. The train system can seem a bit intimidating at first, but it’s easy to navigate once you’re familiar with the city. You’ll also probably take the train or bus to commute from wherever you’re living to your university campus. Boston also has lots of cabs that you can get on the street, in addition to mobile apps like Lyft and Uber that send a car directly to your location at the push of a button.

As for finding the best bars or restaurants, almost all the neighborhoods in Boston offer their own specific culture and vibe that you can have fun exploring with new friends and fellow students you meet. Some of the most popular areas are Harvard Square, Newbury Street, or Commonwealth Avenue in the Brighton/Allston neighborhood. Bars also often offer special deals on weeknights to attract more people, so going out in Boston is also affordable.

The best parts about studying in Boston, aside from the great education you’ll receive, are the diverse people, plethora of places to see and things to do, and its contagiously vibrant atmosphere. Though the winters are cold and city living can be a challenge, Boston is a great place to spend your graduate school years!
To learn more, check out GradTrain coaches who studied in Boston here.

TOEFL vs. IELTS: The Big Decision

Getting your application ready for graduate school can be tricky, especially with so many components and choices—what recommendations to get, essays to write, or test scores to send in. Specifically, students applying to grad school in English speaking countries must submit either a TOEFL or IELTS test score that demonstrates their English proficiency level. So which test to take? Often it depends on the visa requirements of the particular country or specific university requirements, so it is best to check the individual country and university websites. However, there are some basic differences that are a good place to start, especially when generally, you should be able to choose only one test (less to study for)!

Let’s start off with a bit of information about the two exams—although they both measure English language skills, they are still distinct. The TOEFL exam, which stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, is divided into three sections that test your ability to read, speak, write, and listen to English through multiple choice and written responses. According to their website, the TOEFL is accepted by over 9,000 institutions in over 130 countries, making it a versatile test that counts for many purposes. The TOEFL test uses American English vocabulary and accents, as well as expressions, so it is better to take if you are more familiar with that speaking style. Be prepared, the TOEFL also lasts four hours. Scores on the test range from 0-120 points.

The IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, was created by three organizations in England and is also accepted at institutions all over the world. Specifically, the IELTS is a requirement for immigration to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Because it is a British test, the IELTS is more widely accepted in countries within the Commonwealth, but it is also accepted by many schools in the US. As for gaining a Visa to the US, the US State Department requires foreign students to have proof of English proficiency with a TOEFL score, though an IELTS score would be acceptable if that test was required by the school you plan on attending.

Unlike the TOEFL, the IELTS has two versions: the Academic Version and the General Training Version. The Academic Version, clearly, is deigned to test takers who are applying to universities or other higher education institutions, while the General Training Version is for those seeking non-academic training, work experience, or immigration.

The IELTS material tests listening, reading, writing, and speaking abilities through a module divided by each subject, which are comprised of multiple sections. The test lasts for 2 hours and 45 minutes and scored on a 0-9 scale, with 9 being Expert User. As for the TOEFL, different institutions have varying requirements for testing scores depending on their acceptance rates and level of rigor. As compared to the TOEFL, the IELTS uses British expressions, vocabulary, and accents.

As for major differences, the duration of the test is a big one—the TOEFL is over an hour longer—especially if you are the kind of test taker who gets distracted easily or can’t work for a long time consecutively. The response structures of the exams are also different. If you are better at straight forward multiple choice, the TOEFL may be a better choice; the IELTS uses more types of responses in addition, like fill in the blank and matching exercises. The TOEFL also requires better note taking skills for the listening section because you answer questions after hearing the entire audio, while questions on the IELTS listening are interspersed throughout.

As for costs, the fees for the TOEFL range from $160-$250 depending on where you take the exam. The IELTS fee also differs by the testing country and is typically priced similarly to the TOEFL.
According to Inside Higher Ed, “The most notable difference in the tests may be the way speaking is judged. IELTS uses a live, face-to-face interview with the test taker, while ETS has students taking the TOEFL speak into a microphone for analysis by a panel of test reviewers later.” This can mean that the IELTS is more realistic, but more likely to be influenced by the specific grader and lack consistent quality control, unlike the TOEFL. If you are comfortable talking to an actual person versus a computer, the IELTS may be the best choice for you.

Whichever exam you choose, it is important to take your time and thoroughly prepare before the test day. Both tests offer free online practice tests, paid practice tests and classes, and study guides on their websites (TOEFL and IELTS) that will help you do your best on either exam. Overall, the TOEFL is best when applying to an institution in the US, while the IELTS is best for institutions within the Commonwealth, like England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Most importantly, remember to check the individual requirements of the institution.

Good luck and happy testing!