english lang proficiency
TOEFL or IELTS? Decisions, decisions... Source: Kyle Gregory Devaras/Unsplash

No matter how fluent a speaker you are, if you want to study in an English-speaking country but come from a country that doesn’t recognise English as its national language, you will need to take an exam to prove your skills.

You might have heard of IELTS, TOEFL and the Cambridge English proficiency exams – or a number of the other proficiency tests available – but which one do you need? What are the differences? What about the costs? Or the way you’re tested?

Luckily, we’re here to answer your questions and (hopefully) solve your woes!

The two most widely used exams are the IELTS and TOEFL, both of which are offered at testing locations all over the world and accepted by thousands of universities and other organisations.

First thing’s first: check the website of the institutions to which you are applying and find out which English exams they do (and don’t) accept.

US universities usually favour the TOEFL while schools in Canada, Australia and the UK tend to opt for the IELTS, but generally the majority of institutions in all countries will accept either. However, it is always wise to make sure which exam each individual institution you plan to apply to accepts.

Both TOEFL and IELTS are valid for two years so make sure you take them at the right time.

International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

The widely accepted IELTS is comprised of four parts: listening, reading, writing and speaking and lasts a total of two hours and 45 minutes.

The listening, reading and writing sections of the exam are to be sat one after the other without a break. The speaking test – which you will sit face to face with an examiner – might be taken on the same day or it could be taken up to a week before or after the other sections.

You will receive your scores on a scale of 1-9, with 9 being ‘expert’ proficiency.

The IELTS costs around US$200 and your payment will be taken in your local currency so there shouldn’t be any problems with conversion rates or extra charges, and you are able to retake it again almost immediately should you so wish.

You can read our step by step guide to IELTS for more information and even download our printable PDF document here.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

The TOEFL is an online exam taken in one of the 4,000 test centres all over the world. There is a paper version of the test available in countries where testing over the internet is not feasible, however, the majority of test-takers take it online.

Similar to the IELTS, the TOEFL is broken down into four sections; reading, listening, speaking and writing.

You can expect the reading section to take 60-80 minutes, listening 60-90 minutes, speaking 20 minutes and writing 50 minutes.


After the first two sections you will be given a 10-minute break. The test should be taken in one sitting and should last around half a day.

Unlike the IELTS, the speaking section is not completed with an examiner, yet uses microphone recording so this may be a better option for you if you get nervous in front of examiners.

You will receive a score out of 30 for each section, bringing your overall total to a maximum of 120 points.

The cost depends on which country you select to take the test in due to taxes and fees, but expect it to set you back between US$165 and US$250.

If you do not achieve your desired score, you can reregister and retake the test as many times as you please, but not more than once in a twelve-day period.

There are a number of other English language tests available that aren’t TOEFL or IELTS, most commonly, the Cambridge exams.

Cambridge English exams

The Cambridge English exams award you either a pass or a fail, unlike TOEFL and IELTS in which you receive a score on a graded scale.

There are four different difficulty levels of the exam: preliminary (PET), first (FCE), advanced (CAE), and proficiency (CPE).


PET is the lowest level exam which shows you have a grasp of the English language and can manage basic communication and discuss simple things.

FCE is for intermediate students and shows you have sufficient skills in the English language to live in an English-speaking country, and are able to speak confidently in the language.

The CAE is for strong candidates who are considered ‘advanced’. For this, you will need to prove you have excellent spoken and written English.

The CPE is the most difficult and prestigious qualification which proves your English is equivalent to a native speaker. Be warned, it’s a pretty tough exam!

The cost for taking a Cambridge English exam varies depending on which of the 2,800 exam centres you take it at and which level test you opt for. You can find out the cost by contacting your local exam centre.

All the Cambridge exams have no expiry date, so you will have that prize qualification on your résumé forever.

Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC)

The TOEIC is most commonly used for business so you may not need this until graduation and it almost certainly won’t be relevant to your university applications. Still, it is good to be aware of it.


Many companies, especially ones based in Asia, use TOEIC scores to measure whether their employees are able to work with English-speaking clients.

When applying to graduate jobs, an employer may ask you to take the exam before they accept your application. The score is typically valid for two years, so you may have to take the test again at a later date.

There are plenty more English language proficiency exams offered but these are the most widely recognised.

Whichever you decide to go with, ensure it meets the requirements of your institution.

If it seems unclear on the university website, try giving admissions a call. If you need the exam to apply for a visa or even citizenship, be sure to check the official government website of your chosen country.

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