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How do I decide which English exam to take?

In this post we have put together a short guide to help you decide which English language exam is best for you. Whether you want to improve your CV and job prospects, apply for a university course abroad or you’re considering moving to another country, there are many possible exams you could take and pages of information out there on the web. So here is a concise summary with the information we think you will need.

Making an informed decision depends on your current level of English and what you want the exam for. We’ll look at The IELTS (International Language Testing System), TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the Cambrige ESOL exams to help you choose the right exam and achieve your objectives.


Which exam do I need?

There is a lot of confusion about how long these exams remain valid and in what countries they are recognised. IELTS and TOEFL have a sell-by date, they are officially valid for only two years. They are intended to be a snapshot of your current English level. This is done by giving you a score (IELTS 0 – 9 and TOEFL 0 – 120). There is no pass or fail. By doing these exams you will always come away with a diploma, no matter how high or low your score is. University admissions departments, employers and immigration services can vary the score they require according to their needs. That is why they prefer these exams.

Cambridge exams on the other hand have the advantage of lasting for the rest of your life. However, if you don’t achieve the required score you will fail and come away with nothing to show for your efforts and money.

These differences mean that a Cambridge exam may be better in the long term for your curriculum and future job prospects. IELTS and TOEFL are more suited to individual university, visa or job applications.

Choosing between IELTS and TOEFL depends on the requirements of the individual application. In general IELTS is more recognised in Britain, Australia and other Commonwealth countries. TOEFL is an American exam and is the most commonly required diploma in the USA.


What do the exams consist of?

All these exams focus on the four modules of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

There are two versions of the IELTS exam, an Academic and a General version. The Academic version is required for university entrance and some professions, such as medicine. The General is normally required for immigration purposes.

The four parts to an IELTS exam are as follows:

  1. Writing (task 1 & 2)

  2. Reading

  3. Listening

  4. Speaking

The two versions of the exam are the same except for Writing task 1 and the Reading. For a more detailed explanation of the differences see

The first three modules are tested with a written exam that takes 160 minutes and is done without a break. The oral part of the exam takes 15 minutes and is either on the same day (after a 10 minute break) or on another day. This depends on the exam centre.

For the TOEFL exam, most people choose the internet based test (TOEFL iBT). The paper based test (pBT) is only available in some areas. This iBT exam is completed on a computer and takes three to four and a half hours. The exam will test your speaking, listening, writing and reading abilities. Unlike IELTS and Cambridge exams the speaking part is not in the form of an interview with an examiner. You must respond into a microphone to questions and your answers are then recorded. In total you can get 120 points, 30 for every module. Some institutions will ask for a minimum score from individual modules while others only require an overall score.

General English Cambridge exams range from levels A1 to C2, using The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). For employment and academic purposes the exams we are concerned with are the following:

First certificate in English – FCE – B2

Advanced Certificate in English – CAE – C1

Certificate of Proficiency in English – CPE – C2

In general, a Cambridge exam takes place over two days (however there are options to do all the exam on one day). The first day covers reading, writing and listening. Every module takes one to two hours, depending on your level. The oral part of the exam usually takes place on another day and takes about 15 minutes. This part of the exam is normally conducted together with a fellow student. A Cambridge Exam can be done on a computer or in writing, depending on the exam centres in your area. The content of the exam in both forms is the same. If you narrowly fail the exam you will be given the CEFR level below that of the exam you have taken. For example: if you narrowly fail Advanced Certificate you will receive a B2 level in your results.


How long does it take to receive my results? When can I retake the exam if I fail?

For Cambridge exams candidates receive a Statement of Results, and if you are successful in the exam you will also receive a certificate.

Your Statement of Results is released online, approximately four to six weeks after the exam for paper-based exams, and two to three weeks after the exam for computer-based exams.

Your certificate is sent to your exam centre about three weeks after results are available. Your exam centre then sends it on either to you or the preparation centre which registered you for the exam.

  • If you took a paper-based exam, your certificate will be sent to your centre seven to nine weeks after the date of your exam.

  • If you took a computer-based exam, your certificate will be sent to your centre five to six weeks after your exam date.

Cambridge Exams can be taken as many times as you wish during the year.

IELTS results are available 13 days after your test and recorded on a Test Report Form. You can preview your results online. The Test Report Form detailing your results will be posted to you 13 days after the test.

You can resit the IELTS test whenever you want and there is no limit to the number of times you can take it within a given period.

TOEFL scores are posted online approximately 10 days after the test date. A PDF of your score report can be download from the same website. The report is sent to your test centre by post and available 4 to 6 weeks after the exam date.

You can take the TOEFL test as many times as you wish but you cannot take it more than once within a twelve day period.

How much does the exam cost?

Both the IELTS and TOEFL exam costs around 200 euros at the time of writing, and the Cambridge English exams cost between 190 and 255 euros depending on the level.


Where and when do I take the exam?

On the websites of the organisations listed below you can find a list of test centres in your area. These exams are now available globally and in many towns and cities. IELTS and TOEFL exams are offered at least twice a month in most cities. Cambridge exams are not as frequent. However, First Certificate and Advanced Certificate are offered at least once a month in larger cities.

An exam preparation centre such as Speak To Me can help you enroll for these exams.


For further information:

IELTS is run by British Council, IDP Education and Cambridge English Language Assessment.

The TOEFL certificate is issued by the Educational Testing Service (ETS)

Cambridge Language diplomas are issued by Cambridge English Language Assessment


Preparing for the exam

First and foremost you need to know what your current level of English is. Don’t underestimate what is required to pass or achieve the desired score in one of these exams. How much time you need to prepare depends on your level now. There are many online level tests available but the best and most accurate way to measure your current English language ability is to do a written and oral test at an exam preparation centre. Centres like Speak To Me carry out a test free of charge and give you advice about what is required to obtain the certificate you desire.

Preparation courses in group classes with appropriate materials, practice exams and experienced teachers is in our opinion the best way to prepare successfully for one of these exams.

Which English exam should I take? IELTS, TOEFL, FCE or CAE?
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