The three most popular tests for English proficiency are:
- International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
- Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
- Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE)
All three are designed to measure the level of English proficiency on a CEFR scale from A1 (beginner) to C2 (highest). However, the process for preparing and taking these exams is very different.
Which test is more suitable for beginners, intermediate and advanced students?
All three exams test performance in 4 aspects of the language: writing, speaking, reading, listening. CAE is targeted at advanced users falling in the B2 to C2 range. IELTS and TOEFL scores measure English proficiency ranging from A1 to C2.
Certificate expiry date
An important difference is the shelf life:
- IELTS and TOEFL scores will be valid for two years after the test date.
- CAE has no expiration date, but most institutions will require a language certificate no older than 2-3 years.
Differences between tests
- Each test has several options. IELTS is issued in two versions: Academic (the most common) and General Training (usually required when entering secondary schools, gaining work experience in English-speaking countries). If you have terrible handwriting, avoid IELTS. TOEFL is conducted over the Internet (iBT), with test sessions available over 50 times a year, but there is a paper test (PBT) that is done where the iBT version is not available. However, they are not identical because the PBT version does not have a Conversation task that is replaced by the Outline (grammar) task. Going to take CAE? You can choose a paper or computer version.
- If you are uncomfortable talking with a real person, take the TOEFL - you will only talk to a computer. CAEs require an oral interview with 2 people: many students find that speaking with a real person is easier and more natural than recording it on a computer.
- Some candidates cringe at the difficult CAE (Use of English) writing assignment - the two IELTS written assignments are considered easier.
- Listening problems in CAE are simpler, sound files are played twice.
- If the result is needed urgently, it is better to choose TOEFL or IELTS, as test sessions are often held throughout the year. The CAE exam is suggested to be taken much less often.
How each exam works
Let's take a closer look at each exam.
Takes 2 hours 55 minutes, paper version only.
- Listening (30 min.): You will listen to 4 recordings of informal conversations, discussions, lectures, answer printed questions about what you heard.
- Reading (60 min.): Reading 3 excerpts from books, magazines, newspapers. Exercises include multiple choice questions, filling in missing words, collating information. The student reads over 2000 words, the texts are gradually becoming more complex. For general IELTS, the format is the same, but the texts are different: instead of three passages, you will receive 2 short texts from real sources and 1 longer text on a general topic.
- Writing (60 min.): The examinee writes 2 texts. For Academic, the first is to analyze a chart, table, or chart of 150 words. The second is a short essay on a given problem.
- Oral speech (11-15 min.): Consists of 3 parts, in which the examiner will ask you to introduce yourself, talk about a given topic for 1-2 minutes, answer more abstract questions on the same topic.
TOEFL IBT takes 4 hours, the examinee works on a computer.
- Listening (60-90 min.): The taker listens to 4-6 academic lectures, 2-3 conversations, takes notes, answers multiple-choice questions.
- Reading (60-80 minutes): This part consists of 3-5 reading passages, approximately 700 words each + answers to 12-14 questions about the information contained or implied in the passages.
- Writing (50 min.): 2 tasks. The first is the question of how the article relates to the passage from the lecture. The answer should contain 150-225 words: it will show the similarities between the passage of the lecture, the article, their connection. The second task is a short essay (300 words) reflecting the examinee's point of view on the statement.
- Speaking (20 min.): 6 tasks. The student expresses his opinion on familiar topics, listens to speeches, lectures, writes down answers to questions.
StrAE takes 3 hours 55 minutes, there are paper and computer versions.
- Listening (40 min.): 4 parts contain multiple choice questions on topics discussed in radio recordings, speeches, lectures, anecdotes.
- Reading (90 min.): 8 parts divided into tasks for reading, using English. In total, the student reads more than 3000 words (texts are taken from newspapers and magazines), performs tasks for filling in the gaps, word formation, multiple choice questions. Questions on the use of English focus on syntax, phrases, morphology.
- Writing (90 min.): In Part I, the examinee reads the text and writes a 250-word essay based on the information contained in the text, weighing the information from the text and expressing his opinion. In Part II, the student composes a 250-word text written specifically for the specified context, purpose, topic, audience.
- Speaking (15 min.): This section consists of 4 parts and is conducted with a partner. They discuss hobbies, studies, careers, describe 2 pictures for 1 minute and interact following the instructions.
You should choose a test that has a format that makes you feel most comfortable, because it is very important to feel as calm as possible on test day.
IELTS seems to be more flexible than CAE: you don't need to guess your English level before taking it, and many find the conversational section a little easier than TOEFL since you are talking to a real person. The exam takes 3 hours, not 4.