By IELTS Expert

31 October 2022 - 10:51

English proficiency test

You’ll find out all there is to know about the most popular English proficiency tests so you can decide which one is best for you:

  • Most popular English proficiency tests  
  • Key features of the tests 
  • How the tests compare 
  • How to choose the right test for you  
  • Preparing for the IELTS test  

When you first find out about having to sit an English proficiency test and begin exploring all your options, it’s natural to have a lot of questions.  

Is one of the tests easier than the rest? Which tests can be taken on a computer? Which ones deliver fast results?     

It is clear that you will have to consider the key features of each test carefully before you make your choice. You may have to think about factors such as recognition, reliability, test format, assessment criteria and delivery method.  

It’s worth remembering that each test may be best suited for specific purposes. For instance, if one of your study goals is to enrol at a prestigious Ivy League school, then tests such as IELTS and TOEFL, which measure whether your level of English language proficiency is suitable for an academic environment, should help you achieve it.  

The belief that TOEFL is the most suitable English test if you want to study in the United States is no longer true. The IELTS Academic test is equally good, which is why over 3,400 US institutions (including Ivy League members) and programmes accept it as proof of English language skills. 

If you want to move abroad to work, or study or train below degree level, you could take one of the more generally focused, popular English proficiency tests. Such tests tend to measure your English proficiency in a practical, everyday context.  

Most popular English proficiency tests 

The most popular English proficiency tests are IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC, CELPIP and the Cambridge English Qualifications of KET, PET, FCE, CAE and CPE. That said, IELTS and TOEFL are in a different league from the rest, because they are recognised and accepted by a large number of organisations, both in English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries.   

English proficiency tests are also widely used in the world of work. Employers, professional bodies and associations rely on test results to help them select the right people. So, producing good results in these tests can greatly enhance your work prospects.   

Key features of the tests 

IELTS 

IELTS is designed to assess the language ability of people who want to study or work where English is the language of communication. Recognised by over 11,000 organisations worldwide, it is the world’s most popular English language proficiency test for higher education and global migration.  

The test has four sections: Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. Each of these sections generates an individual score, which is subsequently used to award an overall score. Results are reported as band scores on a scale from 1 (the lowest) to 9 (the highest). IELTS scores are valid for a period of two years from the date of your test.  

There are two IELTS tests available – IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. The test you need to take will depend on what you want to do. IELTS Academic measures whether your level of English language proficiency is suitable for an academic environment, so it reflects aspects of academic language. IELTS General Training, on the other hand, measures English language proficiency in a practical, everyday context. Naturally, the tasks and sections reflect both workplace and social situations. 

If you want to take IELTS with the British Council, you could do it in any part of the world: there are more than 800 official British Council IELTS test centres, which are conveniently located and have modern facilities.  

TOEFL 

This is the most prominent American test and is accepted worldwide by universities and institutions. The test was originally developed by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC. The language used in the test closely reflects how English is used in everyday academic settings, and the test content is entirely academic, with integrated tasks. Just as IELTS, this test also evaluates the four basic language skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking.  

Currently, the TOEFL iBT test can be taken in three different ways: at a test centre, at home and on paper. The TOEFL iBT Home Edition is the same test you would take at a test center, taken from the comfort of your home. Similarly, the Paper Edition is the same four-skills TOEFL iBT test, but it has to be completed in two sessions. While the speaking is done at home on a computer, the other three sections are paper-based and held at a test centre. 

Each section of the TOEFL test has a score range of 0 to 30, so the maximum score that you can achieve is 120. Your scores are valid for 2 years.  

TOEIC 

The Test of English for International Communication assesses your communication skills for the workplace. A total test score of 990 (equivalent to C1 level of CEFR) may be achieved, which is derived by adding the listening and reading scores. The test follows a different scoring pattern for the speaking and writing tests. Like the other tests, TOEIC scores are also valid for two years. 

Since the test helps you to demonstrate your ability to communicate globally with co-workers and clients, it is highly valued by companies, multinational corporations, and international and governmental bodies all over the world. For example, companies in the aviation sector commonly use it to measure their employees’ level of English.  

CELPIP 

The Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program, better known as CELPIP, is Canada’s leading general English language proficiency test. It assesses your English abilities in a variety of everyday situations and is mostly used for immigration and professional purposes. There are two types of tests available: CELPIP – General Test (3 hours), and CELPIP – General LS Test (1 hour). While the longer test covers all four language skills, the shorter version includes only speaking and listening.  

As far as test content is concerned, CELPIP has a clear focus on North American English. For instance, unlike IELTS Listening, which features speakers from various English-speaking countries, the listening section in CELPIP makes use of only North American accent. Also, the CELPIP test is fully computer delivered, so the speaking test is done on a computer, with your answers to questions recorded.     

Cambridge English KET, PET, FCE, CAE and CPE 

These tests have been developed by Cambridge English, a department of Cambridge University. They are recognised around the world by thousands of employers, universities and government ministries as proof of ability to use English. One unique aspect of these tests is that the test results do not have an expiry date, which means that these qualifications are valid for life.  

Let’s take a closer look at each of the Cambridge English qualifications.  

KET (Key English Test): this is an elementary level exam that tests your ability to use English to communicate in simple situations.  

PET (Preliminary English Test): this test is at the intermediate level. If you have practical language skills for everyday use, PET will suit you.   

FCE (First Certificate of English): this test can prove that you have the language skills to live and work independently in an English-speaking country or study on courses taught in English.  

CAE (Certificate in Advanced English): It is an in-depth, high-level qualification that shows you have the language skills that employers and universities are looking for.  

CPE (Certificate of Proficiency in English): this is the highest-level qualification offered by Cambridge English. It proves you can communicate with the fluency and sophistication of a highly competent English speaker. 

How the tests compare 

Even though results in these tests are not directly comparable, you can use the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), an international standard that defines language proficiency, as a benchmark to form some level of understanding.

Test/Level  A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2
IELTS - - 4.0-5.0 5.5-6.5 7.0-8.0  8.5, 9.0
TOEFL - - 42-71 71-94  95-120 115-120 
TOEIC 120-234 235-549  550-784 785-944 945-990  -
KET (Key)  100-119 120-139  140-150  - - -
PET (Preliminary)  - 120-139  140-159 160-170  - -
FCE (First)  - - 140-159 160-179 180-190  -
CAE (Advanced)  - - - 160-179 180-199  200-210 
CPE (Proficiency)  - - - - 180-199  200-230
CELPIP  - 4 5 6,7 8,9 10-12

How to choose the right test for you 

As you might imagine, your reason for wanting to take an English proficiency test will, to a large extent, decide which test is right for you. Keeping this in mind, we’ve identified possible scenarios below.   

Scenario 1: I would like to study at a university in the United States or Canada. 

IELTS is the world’s most popular English language proficiency test for higher education and global migration. Major institutions all over the USA recognise that IELTS gives a true reflection of your ability to understand English and communicate in it. The IELTS test for the United States is trusted by the country’s top 25 universities, accepted by all Ivy League colleges, and used by programs at the top 50 US universities with the most international students. Being an American test, TOEFL also has a wide acceptance among educational institutions in the United States.  

As for Canada, IELTS is an equally popular choice there too. In fact, it is the English test of choice for universities and colleges throughout Canada.  

Scenario 2: I would like to work and study in the United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand.  

In the United Kingdom, and in Australia and New Zealand, IELTS is a trusted name that can opens doors for you. The leading educational institutions in these countries recognise the test’s high quality standards and reliability. Whether your need is getting admitted into an educational institution or finding employment, IELTS can help fulfil it. 

In these English-speaking countries, the fields of education and employment have very high standards. Language learning enables you to train effectively in a multicultural environment and gain skills for the future. When you are proficient in English and are able to demonstrate it by means of one of the most trusted English tests, you gain an advantage over others.  

Scenario 3: I would like to work for a multinational company. 

TOEIC, IELTS and TOEFL are the most popular English proficiency tests for work purposes. Companies realise that specific components in tests such as IELTS can help them select the right people. Therefore, if you want to be a part of a corporate company with global presence, achieving good results in one of these tests can greatly enhance your work prospects. A wide range of employers from sectors such as finance, government, construction, energy, aviation and tourism rely on IELTS to recruit individuals with sufficient language skills. 

Scenario 4: I would like to build a career in international business. 

Business organisations are increasingly finding it necessary to offshore and outsource business processes. This automatically increases the need to have bilingual or multilingual employees to help run the business smoothly. Besides, it also helps organisations to gain a foothold in new markets. In such a situation, companies are much less likely to lay off an employee who is proficient in English.  

If you want to build a career in international business, being able to provide evidence of acceptable English language skills will be a huge plus. A test such as IELTS, which can measure English language proficiency, both in an academic and in a practical, everyday context, will help you demonstrate your language proficiency to potential employers.  

Scenario 5: I would like to know my level of English. 

If your need is to find out your level of English, then the Cambridge English tests are a good choice. As we mentioned earlier, these qualifications cover a range of levels (CEFR levels A2 to C2) and are valid for life.  

However, if you are looking to familiarise yourself with the format of high-stakes English tests such as IELTS, it would be a good idea to take a look at this page on Take IELTS website. You will find there a range of free preparation materials that can help you understand the test better. You can also experience the test by taking one of the free online IELTS practice tests available on the website. Besides, you will get to watch videos of past IELTS test takers talking about their test experience and sharing handy test tips.   

Preparing for the IELTS test   

When you book your IELTS test with the British Council, you get access to a range of free preparation materials, including online practice tests, IELTS webinars, mobile apps, IELTS Study Pack and video tutorials. It’s up to you to make the most of it. See to it that you read up on the test format too so you know exactly what to expect. Lastly, remember the golden rule: the more time you spend practising your IELTS skills, the better prepared you’ll be on test day. 

Final thoughts 

We hope you’ve found enough information here to ask yourself the right questions so you can choose the English proficiency test that is best for you. While the tests featured here all have unique features that make them appealing, there are some additional advantages to IELTS. Apart from being the world’s most recognised English language proficiency test, it can measure the C2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Also, IELTS is internationally focused in its content – with texts and tasks sourced from publications from all over the English-speaking world – which makes it a fair and unbiased test.  

Whichever test you decide to take, make sure you give yourself enough practice even if you think your English skills are above average. This is because if you do not fully understand how each section of the test works and what Examiners look for when they assess your performance, you are unlikely to get the best scores. Good luck!