DELIA JONES

Why take an English certificate and which one? IELTS, TOEFL or CAE?

Many people ask me how long they need to obtain a Cambridge certificate such as the FCE, CAE or the IELTS or to pass the TOEFL exam with a respectable score. Some exams are more complete and in preparing them the experience of the language can be enriching.

Generally speaking, English coaching is more focused on the relationship with the English language that the coachee develops and the emphasis is on creating the experience that the person would like to have in English in relation to their particular professional or private situation. An exam or official recognition of a certain level is therefore not so important. 


However, sometimes a certificate showing proof of a certain level of grammar, vocabulary and understanding is needed in order to gain access to an international college, a hotel or design school, or a master’s programme at a university abroad. It can also make a difference on your CV when the job market is very competitive.

In this article, I would like to compare the most common exams requested by colleges and universities and provide some tips to help you choose which exam to prepare. The preparation for each exam is not the same because the exam strategy needed to get a good mark is very different in each case, even if you have the level of English required!


After all, you can fail your driving test even if you are a good driver, simply because you are not aware of exactly what the exam is testing and how to be well-prepared.

The CAE (Cambridge Advanced Exam) 3 hrs 55 mins 

The CAE is a very complete exam, covering a wide range of reading texts and testing students on their knowledge of both formal and informal vocabulary. The writing exam involves an argumentative essay and the choice between a letter, a report, a proposal or a review. The speaking exam encourages students to be aware of structuring how they speak, responding to their interlocutor and taking just the right amount of place in a discussion.

It is an exam which remains valid for life and does not expire after 2 years like the IELTS or the TOEFL.

The CAE exam requires wide reading and exposure to authentic native English from different sources to help build the advanced vocabulary and awareness of register (formality in English) needed to pass the exam. The listening exam also has examples of various accents that may not be familiar to students (English from the north of England, Scottish or Australian for example). This exam is very well respected in the world of work in Europe and is an excellent addition to your CV. It is, in my opinion, more difficult than the IELTS as it tests English grammar in the Use of English part of the exam whereas the IELTS only has reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Having said that, it is only necessary to get an overall mark of 180 out of 210 possible marks and even if you get few points on one paper, you can make up the difference in another.

For higher studies in a master’s programme, such as Mc Gill university, a B pass is necessary at CAE level but in most universities and at the famous Hotel School in Lausanne, a C is sufficient.

The IELTS (International English Language Testing System Exam)  2hrs 45 mins

The advantage of the IELTS exam (most institutions will require the Academic IELTS rather than the General exam) is that there are a large number of sessions available in a year and it is relatively easy to get a place at quite short notice. The results are also available after only 10 days.

The speaking exam is done alone with an examiner, whereas the CAE speaking exam is taken with another candidate and an examiner. Some people may feel more at ease alone with an examiner who tries to give you every opportunity to show the language skills you have. When you take the CAE speaking exam, the other candidate may have a much higher or lower level and may dominate the conversation. This may be very off-putting, even if the examiners are trained to deal with this kind of situation. You can take the speaking section of the IELTS exam up to a week before or after the other sections if you wish.

The Academic IELTS exam is designed to test your ability to study in English and the reading texts are quite academic in nature. You need to read 2,000 words in 60 minutes.

The listening begins with subjects related to inquiries that you might need to make in English when phoning a sports centre or a library. The tasks advance in difficulty and end with a lecture which could be taken from a first-year university course, for example. The listening is generally easier than the listening at CAE, especially if you have a good strategy in place, but you can only hear the tracks once, whereas you hear all the CAE listening tasks twice.

The writing has two tasks and the first tests your ability to analyse a table or graph or other form of data, to summarise the content and make comparisons. The second task is an essay to test your ability to use structure to present arguments for and against a topic. The Cambridge Advanced Exam is equivalent to a pass at level 7 in IELTS.

To sum up, the IELTS exam is more accessible and easier to prepare if you have a tight deadline. Once you are familiar with the exam format and the different types of reading comprehension questions, the exam is quite straightforward.

Interestingly, a pass at 6.5 in the IELTS exam is generally sufficient to enter university or an international hotel or design school. This is so much easier to get than a pass at CAE !

For example, to obtain a level 6.5 in the reading paper, you only need to get 26 out of 40 questions right!

The TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language exam) 3hrs 30 mins

The TOEFL test was developed by the organization that develops the GRE and other tests for entering university in the United States. The TOEFL iBT which is administered over the internet and is the most popular version of the exam, is 3.5 hours long and consists of Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing. You can score up to 30 points for each section.

The reading uses texts from university level textbooks and the comprehension questions are either multiple choice, filling in a chart or table or putting in a missing sentence in a paragraph.

The speaking exam is recorded in response to questions asked on the computer and there is no interaction with another human being. You may prefer this or it may seem less natural and more difficult to engage and respond to the computer. It is also pretty stressful as you have to read, listen, take notes and summarize content in just 20 minutes.

In part one of the writing exam, you also have to read, listen and write. In part two you are asked to write about 500 words for the essay. You have 50 minutes for the writing exam.

Here is a table summarizing the differences between the three exams. I have a preference for the CAE as it is valid for a lifetime, whereas the TOEFL and IELTS you need to retake every two years. Also, I was a CAE examiner and I find it is the exam that most accurately reflects language use in real life in a wide variety of situations. The IELTS and TOEFL are more aimed at testing your ability to study in English but are easier to pass if your only goal is to get a certificate as an entry requirement to a school or university. The IELTS is perhaps the most straightforward.

The last two entries on the table are my personal opinions!

Don’t hesitate to contact me at Cambridge Express if you need more information about passing an exam in English. I have accompanied a large number of students to help them achieve the level that they need to advance their career.

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