Cambridge vs. IELTS vs. TOEFL vs. PTE
So many options!
Over the last few years new English language tests have established themselves and older ones have been updated or changed in order to deal with this new competition, and even though there are a lot of similarities between the different exams like Cambridge B2 First or C1 Advanced, IELTS, TOEFL or PTE, there are probably even more differences.
In this article I’m going to give you an overview so you can find out which test is the best choice for your circumstances. Depending on small things like your location one test might be preferable over the others and, therefore, you want to be informed as well as possible before making a (sometimes quite expensive) decision.
To give you an idea how the different exams compare, here are some of the common CEFR levels and the scores or results that reflect these levels. If you want to learn more about CEFR levels, you can have a look here.
Apart from that, we can look at different categories to see what the similarities and differences between these exams are.
|Reason for taking the exam||Job opportunities
|Recognised in…?||Europe, but worldwide||Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, UK||North America, but worldwide||English-speaking countries|
|Test format||Reading & Use of English
|Speaking & Writing
|Test delivery||Paper-based or computer-based||Paper-based or computer-based||Computer-based||Computer-based|
|General & Academic||only one exam||yes||only one exam||yes|
|Frequency of exams||more or less once a month||paper-based: weekly
|Duration until you receive your results||paper-based: 4-6 weeks
computer-based: 2-3 weeks
|paper-based: 13 days
computer-based: 5-7 days
|10 days||5 days|
|Can I take the test again if I don’t get the result I need?||yes, as often as you want||yes, as often as you want||yes, as often as you want||yes, as often as you want|
|Results valid for how long?||forever||2 years||2 years||2 years|
|Cost (as of the date of this article)||around €275||around €220||around €220||around €230|
Now we can look at these different points one by one and in some more detail to make sure that you know everything necessary to make an informed decision.
Reason for taking the exam
First of all, you should think about what you need the exam for. Do you want to apply for a work visa in an English-speaking country? Do you want to study abroad? Do you want to find a better job in your home country? Once you know the answer to these questions, you can look at the different tests and decide which one(s) are right for you.
Cambridge English assessments are the Swiss army knife of English exams. They are recognised by thousands of schools and universities worldwide, by many employers who ask you to show a certain language level and even by many governments in English-speaking countries who use it for their visa application process.
IELTS is interesting because there is a general and an academic exam so you can choose the one you need and be more specific. If you need your certification to migrate or visit a country, take the general exam. For studying at university or any education provider you can take the academic exam to show that you have no problem with academic/scientific topics.
TOEFL and PTE Academic are strongly focused on people who would like to study in an English-speaking country or take a course that is delivered in English. If that is your goal, think about choosing one of those.
Where are the different exams recognised?
The biggest problem with all the different English language tests is that they are very often only recognised in certain parts of the world, which means that you have to check very carefully where you are going to use the test to show your level of English.
The two exams that are recognised everywhere in the world are the ones designed by Cambridge English, for example B2 First or C1 Advanced, as well as TOEFL. If you take one of these tests, you should be fine wherever you go. Cambridge English say that they “…produce around 8 million question papers each year.” TOEFL has been taken by over 35 million people since it started in 1963/64.
However, in certain countries in can be even better to take a different exam. IELTS is widely used in countries like Australia and New Zealand and are there, in fact, the best option if you need to demonstrate your level of English. Similarly, PTE Academic has gained popularity in English-speaking countries over the last few years.
So, check where exactly you want to use your English certification and pick the exam that is best recognised in that part of the world.
All of the English exams we are looking at in this article follow a similar structure and test the four main skills reading, writing, listening and speaking. Obviously, there are differences in the exact types of tasks you have to go through, but, generally speaking, you are in no disadvantage if you choose one exam over another.
When it comes to the delivery of the test, there are two main ways of taking an exam: paper-based or computer-based. There are usually no differences in the types of tasks and they are also marked in the same way so it is really just a matter of your preference.
You should always ask yourself a few questions before you decide which way you want to take a test. Do you feel comfortable working with a computer under time pressure? Do you prefer listening to an audio recording through headphones or loudspeakers? Do you need your results faster or can you wait for them? Id there a test centre that offers a computer-based exam close in your city?
There are a few advantages of computer-based exams. You can listen through headphones and adjust the volume to your hearing needs. There is usually a timer somewhere on the screen so you can always check how many minutes you’ve got left. Also, online exam results are normally available faster than their paper-based counterparts.
Unfortunately, most test centres don’t offer this kind of computer-based test delivery as it is very expensive for them to set it up buying all the equipment etc.
General & Academic
IELTS and PTE offer two different exams, a general and an academic version. The format of the test is more or less the same for both types, but they focus on different topics. Also, the academic IELTS exam is more difficult than the general one because it is aimed at people who would like to go to university where their English needs to be more advanced than in an everyday setting.
Cambridge offers a range of exams without having a specific one for academic purposes. The differences are more about different age groups and for business purposes, but, like in IETLS, they only use different topics which are more appropriate to each exam.
TOEFL only offers one exam which has an academic focus.
The next question you should ask yourself when choosing the right exam is how often you have the opportunity to take the test. The frequency of our four exams varies greatly and this could be a deciding factor for you.
Cambridge only offers 12-13 exams per year for each their paper-based and computer-based exams. That’s around once a month with some busy months like June or December getting two dates while in other months there are no exams at all. You have to plan well in advance if you want to take B2 First or C1 Advanced.
The paper-based IELTS exam as well as TOEFL offer weekly tests. This gives you the chance to sign up on quite short notice and you are fairly flexible. Whenever you feel ready, you can go for it.
However, the clear winners in this category are the computer-based IELTS exam and PTE. These tests are offered daily and because you get your results within a few days you are super flexible if you have to take the exam again.
Duration until you receive your results
Another important point to think about, apart from how often and how fast you can re-take an exam, is how long you have to wait for your results. In some cases, candidates need to know their score very fast because they need to apply for a specific visa or a job that they might not get without an English language certificate.
Generally speaking, the digital versions of the exams are marked faster and you receive the results earlier than doing the pen-an-paper test.
Cambridge English takes quite some time to release the results of their exams. While the computer-based test is a lot faster with 2-3 weeks, you have to wait for 4-6 weeks until you get your score from the paper-based exam.
Already a lot faster are IETLS results. Here, candidates of the paper-based version normally wait for 13 days whereas the band scores for the computer-based test are released within 5-7 days.
TOEFL lies right in between the two IELTS exams with a waiting period of 10 days until you know your score.
Last but not least, PTE really puts all the other exams to shame with only 5 days between taking the test and finding out your score.
Can I take the test again if I don’t get the result I need?
To make it short, yes you can. If you don’t get your desired result, for example for migration or education purposes, you have the chance to retake these exams as many times as you want.
Cambridge and IELTS don’t give specifics on this, but they say that you can take their exams as often as you want. Of course, these exams aren’t offered at a very high frequency so you have to wait for some time until you can take the test again (check here for more details).
TOEFL is a bit more specific as they say that you can take the test every three days.
PTE makes you wait until you have received the results of your last test, which usually happens within 5 business days.
How long are the test results valid for?
This is a very good question because I have seen it many times that students take an English language exam and then, after a few years, try to apply for university or a visa overseas and the institution tells them that their test is not valid anymore.
You need to be aware of the fact that most of the exams in this article (IELTS, TOEFL and PTE) are only valid and accepted by official institutions like universities or immigration departments around the world for 2 years.
The only exception here are Cambridge exams which never expire. However, there are many employers and schools which still want to see a certificate that isn’t older than 2 years so you might get an unpleasant surprise when you rely too much on what Cambridge English tells you.
Play it safe and apply for whatever you want to do within 2 years of getting your results.
Cost of the exam
Nothing in life comes for free and English language tests are definitely no exception. In general, you have to be ready to pay between €220-280 (on the date of this article) depending on where you want to take the exam. There are no extra fees for retaking any of the tests, but it is already quite a lot.
Cambridge B2 First and C1 Advanced are the most expensive exams costing around €275 each time you take them.
For the PTE exam you are charged around €230 each time you take the exam.
IELTS and TOEFL both come in at around €220, which makes them the cheapest tests you can take.
Time to decide
Whichever exam you are considering, I hope this article will help you make an informed decision. There are a lot of factors to think about, but if you take your time and then prepare properly, you can definitely get the score you want in any of these exams.
Lots of love,
Teacher Phill 🙂