The Complete Guide to English-Language Certificates

These days, universities and colleges worldwide offer numerous courses taught exclusively in English, making it easier for international students to enrol in their study programmes.

When you apply at a university, you will most likely need an English-language certificate, which proves you have enough knowledge to participate in classes, understand the textbooks and complete your assignments.

To pass an English test and obtain the language certificate, you might need to invest a lot of time and effort, depending on your current English level. That’s why you should start preparing and practising as soon as possible. It’s also wise to take the English exam early on, so you won’t miss the university application deadlines.

Below, we’ll go through some of the general information about the most popular English language certificates that are widely accepted around the world. This will help you understand their structure and grades better, and you’ll be able to decide which exam to take before studying abroad (if your university accepts more than one exam).

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Language levels summary

The Common European Framework (CEFR) divides learners into 6 different levels:

A Basic Speaker

  • A1: Breakthrough or beginner
  • A2: Waystage or elementary

B Independent Speaker

  • B1: Threshold or intermediate
  • B2: Vantage or upper intermediate

C Proficient Speaker

  • C1: Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
  • C2: Mastery or proficiency

For each level, there is a description of what the learner must be able to do in terms of reading, listening, speaking, and writing skills. Those descriptions apply to any language. Usually, the expected level for study programmes in most countries is B. However, certain academic institutions or programmes (e.g. English Literature) might require a higher level.

Most universities and colleges usually list the minimum English test score on their website or study pages. Always check what English test you need to pass and with what score to avoid having problems with your application later on.

1. TOEFL®: Test of English as a Foreign Language

TOEFL® is a very popular English certificate around the world. In most cases, it is offered as an internet-based test (TOEFL® iBT), but there is also a paper-based test offered only in locations without an internet connection. Normally, both the internet and paper-based versions can only be taken in specialised test centres.

Due to the current coronavirus outbreak, TOEFL® iBT can also be taken online, from the comfort of your home.

TOEFL® iBT takes 3 hours to complete. The TOEFL® paper-delivered test only takes 2 hours and 25 minutes because it doesn’t include the Speaking part (answers cannot be recorded without a microphone and an internet connection).

TOEFL® iBT has 4 parts. Each part is graded with up to 30 points, which adds up to a maximum score of 120 points:

  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Writing

During the entire test, you are interacting with a computer. In the first two parts, you read texts and listen to recordings about various topics and answer multiple-choice questions about the content afterwards.

For the Speaking part, your answers are recorded, sent to an online scoring network and evaluated by three to six examiners. The Written part is evaluated by this online scoring network as well.

The most common scores required by universities range between 70–90. Some universities also require a specific minimum score in one of the 4 sections. Prices for TOEFL® iBT vary a lot depending on the country and the test centre where you take the exam. For example, it costs 205 USD in the US and 255 USD in Germany.

The TOEFL certificate is valid for two years.

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2. IELTS: International English Language Testing System

IELTS offers an Academic version of their test, designed for academic and professional environments. Like TOEFL®, IELTS is one of the most popular English language tests in the world. IELTS is also accepted as language proof for certain work permits, as well as for immigration. IELTS Academic has 4 parts:

  • Listening
  • Academic Reading
  • Academic Writing
  • Speaking

They add up to a test duration of around 2 hours and 45 minutes.

IELTS Academic is available both computer and paper-based. To avoid any confusion, computer-based means you’ll take the exam using a computer, not that you can take it from your home. In either situation, you’ll need to register and take the exam at an official test centre. For both versions, the Speaking part is face-to-face with a certified examiner.

IELTS test results use a 0–9 grading scale. To be admitted for English-taught programmes, commonly required scores range between 5.5 and 6.5. Like TOEFL®, IELTS prices vary from one country to another. For example, IELTS Academic costs between 215–240 USD in the US and between 331–337 USD in Norway.

The IELTS certificate is valid for two years.

3. PTE Academic: Pearson English Language Test

The PTE Academic test has grown a lot in terms of popularity; an increasing number of universities accept it as relevant proof of English knowledge from aspiring international students. Unlike TOEFL® iBT, IELTS Academic, and the Cambridge exams, which have 4 parts, the PTE test is divided into 3 sections:

  • Speaking and Writing
  • Reading
  • Listening

The PTE Academic test takes 3 hours to complete and is only available in a computer-based format. Grades range between 10–90, using the Global Scale of English. Most universities and colleges have minimum scores of 50–60.

In terms of pricing, we encounter a similar story. They vary depending on the country where you take the exam. For example, PTE costs 200 USD in the US and 246 USD in Australia.

The PTE certificate is valid for two years.

Read more about IELTS vs TOEFL vs PTE.

4. Cambridge English Qualifications

Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations) is a non-profit organisation offering English language certificates for different language levels. They offer many types of exams, but the most popular ones are:

B2 First (formerly known as FCE: First Certificate in English)

B2 First is about the same level as the common scores for the TOEFL® test (B1–B2) and IELTS 5.5–6.5. It takes around 3 hours and 30 minutes to complete.

C1 Advanced (formerly known as CAE: Certificate in Advanced English)

C1 Advanced is oriented at the high C1–C2 levels (comparable to IELTS 6.5–8.0) and is accepted by many British universities and over 9,000 educational institutions and businesses worldwide. It takes around 4 hours to complete.

C2 Proficiency (formerly known as CPE: Certificate of Proficiency in English)

C2 Proficiency is the most advanced exam, ranked at the C2 level, which is well above the maximum scale of the TOEFL® test and similar to an 8.5 and above in the IELTS test. It takes around 4 hours to complete.

All 3 English exams (B2 First, C1 Advanced, C2 Proficiency) are divided into 4 parts:

  • Reading and Use of English
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking

Cambridge certificates are mainly used in the United Kingdom, but they are also accepted by numerous universities and colleges worldwide. Still, they are not as popular as TOEFL® and IELTS.

Unlike other certificates, Cambridge qualifications do not have an expiry date. However, universities and other organisations can choose if they accept results older than 2–3 years.

If you can prove you’ve been practising or using English in the years after passing your Cambridge exam, you might be on the safe side. But if you passed an examination 5 years ago and then only used English occasionally, you should not expect any institution to accept your certificate.

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5. Other English language certificates

In addition to the certificates mentioned above, there are other English language tests you can look at. They may be less popular, but they are accepted by some academic institutions, businesses, and governments:

The golden rule before booking any English language test: always check if the university or organisation where you want to apply accepts that test.

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