student at a test center taking an english proficiency exam

Ultimate Guide to English Proficiency Exams

By Patrick Gallant

Since English is the one of the most commonly used languages in the world, people from many different places speak it for many different reasons. They may learn English to attend university, do business, immigrate, or just to watch foreign television.

As a result, there are many different tests used to certify that someone is proficient in the language. Some of the most common English proficiency tests include:

  1. TOEFL
  2. IELTS
  3. TOEIC
  4. Cambridge English Qualifications

Purposes for each English proficiency test

The most important difference between each of these tests is the primary purpose for which they are taken. Some are taken for university admissions, some for business hiring, and others are taken for immigration purposes.

TOEFL and IELTS are most often used for university admissions.

TOEIC is most often used for hiring in business, although each company may have separate standards.

IELTS and CELPIP (Canada only) are most often used for immigration.

Additionally, Cambridge English and DuoLingo are excellent resources for learning that may look good on a resume or university application, whether or not they are officially accepted.

1. TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is a popular standardized test that is primarily taken by non-native English speakers who want to enroll in English speaking universities.

More than 11,000 universities in over 190 countries and territories accept TOEFL. Its wide applicability is one of the primary reasons for its popularity.

Developed in the 1960s to help assess international academic candidates, TOEFL has been offered by the College Board and the Educational Testing Service for six decades.

Because the intent of TOEFL is to assess academic ability, its contents tend to be more academic than other tests.

Format of the TOEFL exam

The TOEFL exam has four sections:

  • Reading, consisting of 3-4 passages, about 700 words long and 10 questions each.
  • Listening, consisting of 2-3 questions with 5 questions each and 3-4 lectures with 6 questions each.
  • Speaking, consisting of 4 sections. In section 1, test-takers provide their opinion on various questions. In sections 2-4, they answer questions about a provided lecture or text.
  • Writing, consisting of 2 tasks. One involves writing on a specific text or lecture, the other on the test-taker's own opinions on a topic.

In total, the TOEFL exam takes about 3 to 4 hours. It is always graded by multiple proctors to ensure fairness and accuracy.

TOEFL Scoring

Test-takers receive a score from 0 to 120, with each section worth up to 30 points.

Most universities look at a TOEFL score as a necessary, but not sufficient, factor in making a decision. 

In other words, they have a specific minimum score in mind. The admissions office will consider your application only if your score is above a certain threshold. 

Oxford, for example, has a high standard of 110.

How to Take the TOEFL:

  • Visit the official ETS TOEFL website to create an account.

2. IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System. It is one of the most popular English language proficiency tests in the world, and is used for several different purposes.

Over 3,000 academic institutions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK accept IELTS. The test is also used for immigration purposes by the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

Developed in the 1980s by the English Language Testing Service and the British Council, its intent is to assess the use of English in the real world, as opposed to merely academic contexts.

IELTS Format

Like TOEFL, IELTS is split into four sections:

  • Listening, consisting of four sections and lasting about 30 minutes.
  • Reading, consisting of 3 sections and lasting about 1 hour.
  • Writing, consisting of 2 long tasks and lasting about 1 hour.
  • Speaking, consisting of a three-part interview lasting 10-15 minutes.

In total, the entire IELTS exam takes just under 3 hours to complete.

IELTS Scoring

Instead of a precise score, test-takers are instead placed into a specific band which describes their overall English ability. These bands are ordered from 0 to 9:

  • Band 9 is an Expert User
  • Band 8 is a Very Good User
  • Band 7 is a Good User
  • Band 6 is a Competent User
  • Band 5 is a Modest User
  • Band 4 is a Limited User
  • Band 3 is an Extremely Limited User
  • Band 2 is an Intermittent User
  • Band 1 is a Non User
  • Band 0 Did not attempt the test

Most universities have minimum band levels for admission. For example, Stanford requires a minimum of a band 7, or a Good User of English. Getting such a score does not guarantee admission, but it does enable it.

How to Take the IELTS Exam:

  • Visit the official IELTS website to find a test center near you.

3. TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication)

TOEIC stands for the Test of English for International Communication. It focuses on the ability of non-native speakers to use English in an international environment.

Since it is not primarily an academic test, few universities use TOEIC as a criterion for admission. Instead, it is used mainly by individual companies for making hiring decisions.

TOEIC Format

TOEIC comes in two separate test formats:

  • Listening & Reading
  • Speaking & Writing

Listening & Reading lasts two hours. It consists of 200 multiple choice questions.

Speaking & Writing lasts 80 minutes. Test-takers are assessed on their ability to coherently answer questions.

TOEIC Scoring

Each test has its own scoring profile.

Listening & Reading provides a score between 0 and 990, 990 being the highest.

Speaking & Writing provides a score between 0 and 200 for each part, 200 being the highest.

The significance of these scores depends on the company you intend to work for. In most cases, there is a minimum score required to be hired.

How to Take the TOEIC Exam:

  • Visit the official TOEIC website or the website of the test's local affiliate to find a test center and register.

4. Cambridge English Qualifications

The Cambridge English Qualifications are a series of exams that assess English competency for non-native speakers. Introduced in 2015, the exams are actually a continuation of earlier Cambridge English assessment exams dating back to 1913.

These exams offer multiple different pathways geared to different ends. One set of qualifications, for example, is more geared towards academics, while another is more for business.

Unlike other popular exams, Cambridge English Qualifications is more open-ended and exploratory. It is a pathway, rather than a single exam. It serves learners who are self-motivated and want to see their English skills gradually improve over time.

Cambridge English Qualifications Format and Scoring

Since the Cambridge English Qualifications are not a single exam, their format varies widely depending on skill-level and goals.

The most advanced C2 Proficiency exam, for example, involves writing four lengthy essays. The more introductory A2 exam, on the other hand, involves several shorter sections intended to assess basic communication skills.

Because each test is a bit different, scoring is a bit different for each. Employers or admissions will be interested in the test you took as much as the score you received.

How to Take the Cambridge English Qualifications Exam:

  • Visit the official Cambridge English website to find information about the different qualification exams.

5. CELPIP (Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program)

CELPIP stands for the Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program. It is primarily intended for people who wish to apply for Canadian immigration and citizenship.

Like IELTS and TOEFL, CELPIP is a four part exam: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The total exam takes about 3 hours.

Test-takers are scored out of 12, with 12 indicating advanced proficiency in workplace and community contexts.

How to Take the CELPIP Exam:

  • Visit the official CELPIP website for information and registration.

Which English proficiency test should you pursue?

The exam that you should take depends mostly on what your goals are.

  • TOEFL is probably the exam that has the largest applicability, especially if you are applying to college. But it also has relevance to job searches and more.
  • IELTS also has wide applicability, but emphasizes "real world" English more than TOEFL. That said, the two exams are similar, and many institutions treat them as nearly the same. IELTS general is often used with immigration, while IELTS academic is used more for university requirements.
  • TOEIC is most commonly needed for business or professional pursuits. If you are applying for a job that needs TOEIC, that requirement should be listed in the job description.
  • Cambridge English Qualifications does not have universal acceptance, but is rapidly increasing in popularity. Right now it is useful primarily as a learning pathway, but in the future it could become an established testing regime for many purposes.
  • CELPIP is essentially just for people who are in Canada or who want to move there.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.