Most people who are required to take a standardized English test are either applying for a visa or applying for university (or both). A small portion of standardized English test takers are trying to certify their English for other reasons such as professional advancement or personal curiosity. These rarer test takers have more flexibility in the test they choose to take. For all the others though, an English test is usually imposed by the university or immigration authority.
For those who need to take an English test, English language requirements vary greatly from country to country and university to university. Some visa types may not require any proof of English ability. Within universities, different majors often have different English language requirements as well, with graduate degrees, medical schools, and law schools having the most stringent requirements. English language requirements for visas are generally lower than for university admission.
With all this complexity, your first step is to thoroughly research what the English test requirements are for your particular case. Immigration authorities are the best source of information on English requirements for visa applicants. University admission departments are the best source of information on English requirements for future students. In every case, there will be a clearly-defined list of accepted English test brands and flavors, and a minimum score required on each test. In many cases, there are further specifications about the different skills tested, for example a minimum score in reading, in speaking, etc.
If you do not do your research before signing up for an English test, you may end up taking an exam that isn’t accepted by your target institution, or paying more for a test than you need to (prices vary by country and by test). The most common standardized English test scores accepted for immigration and academic purposes are the TOEFL, the IELTS, the Cambridge English exams, and the PTE Academic exam.
All of these English tests are proctored, which is to say that you will need to register in advance to take the test, pay a fee, and come on a specific day with your identification documents to sit the exam. The locations and test dates are detailed for each exam on the exam providers’ websites. For many standardized English tests, scores have limited validity, after which time you will have to take the test again in order to use the score. So do not rush to take any test before you are ready to use the scores.
Some universities have their own English tests that they will accept in place of a standardized test for admission and degree program placement. These tests are almost always less expensive than the standardized tests mentioned above. You do have to get to the university to take their test though, and that test score will not be accepted at another university. A short English immersion program at the university is a common pathway to such tests, with the exam included in the course fee. If you are interested in studying at one particular university, check whether or not that school has its own English test which you can take instead of a standardized test.
There are several English tests accepted for non-academic visa application purposes that are less well-known and less expensive. However, these often can only be taken once already in the country. For example, the ESOL Skills for Life tests and the City & Guilds IESOL and ESOL diplomas are offered at centers across the UK and valid for some types of visa applicants. These tests focus on general English skills rather than academic English and may be more accessible for non-academic test takers.
A final word about an open-access English test that is invaluable if you need English-language certification for non-visa purposes. The EF SET is the only standardized English test that you can take anywhere, any time, and the score is just as reliable as the TOEFL or IELTS. And on top of all of this, the EF SET is an adaptive test, in which the content of your test is responsive to whatever language proficiency you’re demonstrating as the test unfolds.
Although your EF SET Certificate score cannot yet be used for university or visa applications because the test is unproctored (that is to say, nobody will check if you’re cheating), taking this standardized test will help you prepare for whatever other exam you have to take later on. If you need a 7.5 on the IELTS, take the EF SET Certificate and it will tell you whether or not you’re ready to get that score.
If you do not have any English language requirements, but just want to know your English level for professional or personal reasons, there’s no better test than the EF SET. It’s reliable, free, and you’ll get a score which you can put on your CV with confidence.