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You ask, we answer: Which English exam should I take?

You want to take an English exam to get your level certified, but have no idea which test out there is right for you: Is it the International Language Testing System (IELTS), the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or a Cambridge English exam? How are they different and what are the costs involved, and is there a way to test your level before committing to taking a certification exam?

We’ve put together this little guide to help you sort through the mountains of information out there and make an informed decision fast.

How do I pick the right exam?

An important difference between the three diplomas is the validity of the result. A Cambridge certificate will be valid for the rest of your life, whereas IELTS and TOEFL are snapshots of your level of English and only valid for two years. Moreover, when doing a Cambridge English exam there is a chance you won’t pass and therefore don’t receive a diploma. With IELTS and TOEFL you always get a diploma with your score, no matter how high or low your score is.

If you want to get a language diploma to prove your level and have something to showcase on your CV, the Cambridge English exam is probably the best choice. IELTS and TOEFL exams are often more relevant for visa, job and university or college applications where a certain level of English is required to get accepted. Between these two exams, IELTS is more commonly used and asked for in the UK, while the TOEFL dominates in America (there are exceptions, however, and many institutions will accept both).

What do I have to do during the exam?

For the TOEFL exam, most people choose the internet based test (TOEFL iBT). This exam is completed on a computer and takes three to four and a half hours (excluding a ten minute break). The exam will test your speaking, listening, writing and reading abilities. In total you can get 120 points, 30 for every module. Your score on your certificate will be between 0 and 120 and this certificate will be valid for two years.

The IELTS also focuses on the four modules of speaking, listening, writing and reading. The first three modules (listening, reading and writing) are tested with a written test 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 center. You receive a score between 1 and 9, and like TOEFL IELTS is only valid for two years.

The content of the Cambridge English exam depends on the type of exam you will be taking. In general, a Cambridge exam takes two days. 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 often conducted together with a fellow student. A Cambridge Exam can be done on a computer or in writing, depending a bit on the exam center. The exam will be marked according to the The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), from A1 to C2, and if you fail narrowly you will be marked one level lower on the CEFR scale.

Who issues the exam?

The TOEFL certificate is issued by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), an American non-profit organization, while the IELTS is jointly ‘owned’ by the British Council, IDP Education and Cambridge English Language Assessment. The Cambridge diploma is issued by Cambridge English Language Assessment, based at the University of Cambridge in England.

Where and when do I take the exam?

You can take all three exams (almost) anywhere in the world. On the websites of the different organizations you will find the exam center that is closest to you and you can even enroll for an exam online. TOEFL and IELTS offer exams almost every week, while Cambridge English exams are only offered a few times a year, so you’ll need to plan ahead. Remember that if you do a preparation course with a language organization like EF, we’ll help you enroll for the exam and ace it, of course.

What does the exam cost?

A TOEFL exam costs around 245 USD, an IELTS around 200 euros, and the Cambridge English exam is between 165 and 255 euros (depending on the level). Please be aware that these prices might differ depending on your location and are subject to change.

How do I prepare?

Preparation is key. Don’t underestimate the exam and starting studying in time. You can do this by yourself or with an online course, but if you’re really looking to improve and progress and to get the best score possible, your best bet is to do a language course. Language organizations like EF offer courses that are tailored to the exam you’re going to take, and will include lots of targeted preparation and practice exams. If you go on a language course abroad (studying English in the UK, US or Canada, for example), you’ll maximize your chances of doing well in the oral part of the exam as you’ll be practicing and using English in the months and weeks before the exam.

Before you decide

Get a sense of your current level and whether an exam prep course is right for you by doing our free, online-based EFSET EF Standard English Test. Consider doing the EFSET PLUS version of the test for a more comprehensive and accurate reading of your level.


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