Which English test should I take?

A lot of students ask me which English test they should sit for, but the answer isn’t really straightforward. Since there are quite a few tests to choose from, it’s always better to know what you’re in for and what your certificate will be worth in the end.

This post will help you figure out which test to sit for, depending on what you wish to achieve with your result. Do you need it for work or university, for visa purposes or simply to figure out where you stand and how much you’ve improved? Read on to find out which test would suit your needs, and how you can prepare yourself better beforehand.

Test structure and result validity

Tests can either have a pass/fail structure or give you a score that determines your current level. Furthermore, some test results expire after a while. Here’s a general overview of how tests assess your performance and how long your results will be valid:

Cambridge English exams are divided into levels, from A2 to C2. Exams can be paper- or computer-based, and are structured into four sections – reading, writing, listening and speaking. Certificates are valid for life, so you don’t have to retake the test after a few years unless you’d like to confirm your progress with a more advanced certificate. However, you’ll only receive a grade and certificate if you pass.

IELTS tests are paper-based and structured into four papers. Tests offer a glimpse into your current language level. This means that you don’t need to choose a test based on your level – your final score will reflect your current level. Results are only valid for two years, meaning you’ll have to retake the test if necessary. There are two types of IELTS tests: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training.

BULATS is an online skills test. Although your results will technically remain valid, employers or educational institutions might ask you to retake the test or prove your skills if you took the test more than two years ago. Tests are divided into three modules: reading and listening, speaking, and writing. Your test score determines your level.

TOEIC tests are paper-based and divided into two tests – a reading and listening test and a speaking and writing test. Results expire after two years. You can’t pass or fail a TOEIC test – your final score will simply indicate your proficiency level. The number of correct answers you get in both sections is added and adapted to a scale. Your final score will be determined by combining your scaled scores from both sections.

TOEFL iBT tests are administered online and assess your reading, speaking, listening and writing skills through six tasks. Once again, your final score reflects your level, and your score will be valid for two years.

Which test should I take for work purposes?

If you need to make your CV more attractive to employers, a certificate as proof of your English skills will certainly help. Maybe you want to improve your chances in the future, or perhaps your current boss has asked you to sit for a test. The test you choose depends largely on the country you’re working or applying for jobs in.

In Europe, students usually sit for a Cambridge exam if they need a certificate for work. Since tests are divided into levels, an online level test can help you determine which level to choose. You can take a test to help you figure out your level here. Your current or potential boss might ask you for a Business Certificate – which can be obtained at B1, B2, or C1 level. This depends on your field of work, of course, so check with your employer or ask before submitting your job application.

In America, TOEFL is usually required for work purposes, however some companies also accept IELTS – check with your potential employer to be sure. In Canada and Australia, IELTS or TOEFL are usually required.  In Asia, on the other hand, employers usually ask for a TOEIC certificate.

If you require a Visa before moving to and working in another country, you might also have to sit for a test which is approved by the country’s department of immigration. Countries like the UK, the USCanadaAustralia, and New Zealand all accept IELTS. The higher your score, the better your chances, of course. In Australia, for example, your score even determines which cities you may live and work in, with higher scores allowing you to move to bigger cities.

Which test should I take for academic purposes?

Again, it depends on where you’ve chosen to study. In Europe, most educational institutions list an IELTS certificate with an average overall grade of 6.5 or higher as a requirement, depending on the subject you’re going to study. Institutions in France, however, might also ask for a TOEIC certificate. In the US, both TOEFL and IELTS are accepted. IELTS is also accepted in Canada and Australia for academic purposes.

Basically, IELTS is usually taken for academic purposes, but as a general rule, you should always check with the school, university or college you’d like to attend before taking the test, just to be safe.

Which test should I take if I just want to see how much I’ve improved?

Getting a certificate with the grade you’ve worked so hard for is indeed satisfying. However, all the tests mentioned above have registration and test fees, which vary according to country and the institution or exam centre you register with.

If you don’t need to take a test for work or study, any free online level test will do if you want to avoid fees. Of course, your score will be only be an estimation of your level, and you won’t have a time limit to stick to. You could either take the free Cambridge English test mentioned above, or the free test offered by the British Council here. Or both, if you’ve got the time and determination.

If you absolutely want to have a certificate and an official score, you could go for any of the tests mentioned above. However, since Cambridge exams are valid for life and allow you to focus on one level at a time, choosing one of these tests after having taken a free online test to determine your approximate level might probably be your best bet.

Before taking a test…

Now that you’ve got a better idea of all the different tests out there, you should hopefully be able to choose one based on your objectives. Regardless of which test you end up going for, however, a well-prepared study plan is always necessary. You could either join a preparation course, study individually or take one to one lessons, but whatever you do, stick to your plan and study regularly. Your hard work will definitely pay off, so don’t lose hope!

Have you ever taken an English test? How did you decide which test to take, and do you have any advice for other students? If you know anyone who’s thinking about sitting for a test, share this post to help them make up their mind!