IELTS vs. TOEFL vs CAE…Which English Certificate Is the Best for You?

Published on
January 22, 2022
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Updated on
January 19, 2022
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9
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Emile Dodds

English learners have a lot of options when it comes to choosing an English certificate. Learn the differences and find out which one is best to achieve your goals in English.

IELTS vs. TOEFL vs CAE…Which English Certificate Is the Best for You?
Table of contents

Exactly how many English certificates are there?

The answer is… too many to talk about here

So, instead, let’s ask the question: what are the best options for English learners at upper intermediate or advanced level? 

To answer this question, we have picked out four exams to discuss in detail. First, though, let’s get an overview of each one.

The IELTS

The IELTS is the International English Language Testing System. It is probably the best-known English examination around the world - except in the USA, where TOEFL is more widely recognised.

There are two types of IELTS test. There is an academic IELTS exam for learners who aim to attend an English-speaking degree course and there is a general IELTS exam.

You don’t “pass” or “fail” the IELTS test. Instead, you get a score that shows what level of proficiency you have.

The TOEFL

The TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is probably the best-known English examination in the USA, especially amongst colleges and universities.

Just like the IELTS, you don’t pass or fail the TOEFL. You get a score out of 120 points that indicates which level you are.

C1 Advanced (CAE)

The C1 Advanced test was formerly known as the CAE. In fact, most websites still call it by its old name.

This is one of many tests developed by Cambridge Assessment English. This test can tell you your language level within the range of CEFR B2-C2*, but most people taking the test are aiming to show that they are C1 level.

*The CEFR is the Common European Framework of Reference for languages. It describes your language ability in six levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2), where A1 is the lowest and C2 is the highest.

Cambridge Business English Exams (BEC)

Cambridge Assessment English* also has a range of Business English tests. These were formerly known as the BEC exams, but are now called B1 Business Preliminary, B2 Business Vantage and C1 Business Higher.

We will focus on C1 Business Higher. It is the Business English version of the C1 Advanced test.

*Cambridge Assessment English is a department in the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Their language qualifications are respected around the world.

What are the differences between these English language tests?

Let’s look at the practical aspects of each test, to help you choose which is best. 

All prices quoted are in US dollars. All four exams can be done either at a centre or online.

The IELTS

Cost: The cost of the IELTS varies, but in the UK, you can expect to spend $230 - $250 to take the test.

Recognition: The IELTS is recognised around the world, especially in academic institutions. In fact, one of the most common reasons for taking it is to apply for university admission.

Components: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening.

Note that there is no specific grammar or vocabulary component. You will need to complete a writing test and you will need to complete a speaking test with an examiner.

The test takes around three hours to do.

Preparation: The IELTS test follows a fixed structure. For example, the first writing question of the academic test is always to describe a graph.

Hence, preparation and practice are vital to prepare for the exam question types and also for the speaking test. I’ve come across many people who have achieved very high IELTS scores by studying a lot, and this doesn’t always result in a high level of English in the “real world”.

A preparation course of 10-20 hours is recommended.

Difficulty and levels: It is not really helpful to talk about the difficulty of the IELTS since it is designed to find your level and not to pass or fail you.

Your score will be reported to you in the range of 1-9, nine being the highest. You can receive a half-band, such as 4.5, 5.5 etc. You will receive a separate score for reading, writing, listening, speaking and an overall score.

Although there is no passing mark, many universities set a minimum score for enrollment, often band 6 or above.

The TOEFL

Cost: The TOEFL is usually slightly cheaper than the IELTS. The cost of taking it in London is around $230.

Recognition: The TOEFL is recognised around the world, especially in academic institutions in the USA. In the rest of the world, though, IELTS is often the qualification that institutions prefer.

Components: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening.

Note that, like the IELTS, there is no grammar or vocabulary component. The writing and speaking tests are done online and you will not need to face a live examiner as you would in the IELTS.

The test takes around three hours to do.

Preparation: Again, the test follows a fixed format. For example, there are three different questions types for the reading section.

So, again, you will definitely get a higher score if you prepare properly for the test and know what to expect.

A preparation course of 10-20 hours is recommended.

Difficulty and levels: The TOEFL does not have a passing grade, but returns a score, which you can use to termine your proficiency level.

Your score will be out of 120 and many colleges and universities want a minimum score of 60 or above (intermediate level).

The Cambridge C1 Advanced Certificate

Cost: You can expect to spend $160 - $200 to take the test, making it cheaper than either TOEFL or IELTS.

Recognition: Cambridge examinations are becoming more and more widely accepted around the world - after all, they have the Cambridge name behind them. 

In addition, the results are reported according to the CEFR framework, which is fast becoming the global standard.

Components: Reading and Use of English, Writing, Speaking and Listening.

Note that the reading component of the test includes questions on grammar and vocabulary. Unlike IELTS or TOEFL, you will need a knowledge of grammar to succeed in this test.

The test takes around four hours to do.

Preparation: The target for this test is to achieve a C1 level. Hence, any preparation materials that are graded at this level will help you to prepare.

You should only prepare for this test if you feel you are already at or near C1 level. For example, if you are likely at B1 level, you should choose a different test.

There are Cambridge learning and examination centres around the world that can help you prepare for Cambridge exams. Also, Cambridge is a publisher of materials and you can buy one of their books, like these ones, to help you prepare.

Difficulty and levels: If you are taking this test, your aim is to score a C1, meaning that you speak English at an advanced level. 

At this level, your English allows you to do anything that a native speaker can do (write essays, give engaging presentations, fully understand movies) without having fully mastered the language (C2 level).

A certificate at this level shows people that your English is nearing native-speaker level in ability.

The Cambridge C1 Business Higher

Cost: You can expect to spend $160 - $250 to take the test, similar to the C1 Advanced exam.

Recognition: The results are reported according to the CEFR framework. Most large corporations will be familiar with this scoring system even if they are not familiar with the exam itself.

A certificate at this level shows a company that you are fully functioning in English and you can do anything that a native speaker can do (give presentations, deal with customers, write reports). It tells the company that you will not have language difficulties in your work.

Components: Reading and Use of English, Writing, Speaking and Listening.

Note that the reading component of the test includes questions on grammar and vocabulary. Unlike IELTS or TOEFL, you will need a knowledge of grammar to succeed in this test.

The C1 Business Higher is a Business English exam, so you will be expected to know a lot of business vocabulary and context.

The test takes around three hours to do.

Preparation: The target for this test is to achieve a C1 level. Hence, any preparation materials that are graded at this level will help you to prepare.

Since it is a Business English exam, reading business articles and listening to the business news every day will also help you.

You should only prepare for this test if you feel you are already at or near C1 level. For example, if you are likely at B1 level, you should choose a different test, such as the B1 Business Preliminary.

There are Cambridge learning and examination centres around the world that can help you prepare for Cambridge exams. Also, Cambridge is a publisher of materials and you can buy one of their books, like this one, to help you prepare.

Difficulty and levels: If you are taking this test, your aim is to score a C1, meaning that you speak English at an advanced level. 

I would also recommend only taking this exam if you have some previous experience of working in an English-speaking office environment.

Do you really need a certificate?

There are certain situations where you need a certificate:

  • To enrol in a college or university
  • For immigration purposes
  • For work - either you need a certain proficiency to join a company or you want to enhance your CV

What if you are just learning English for fun or personal satisfaction?

In this case, I do not suggest taking an exam. Your time and money will be better spent learning practical English rather than examination tips.

After all, what is a more enjoyable way to learn - listening to podcasts or studying vocabulary wordlists?

Which certificate is recommended?

If you plan to go to a certain college or university, find out in advance whether they prefer TOEFL or IELTS.

If this is not possible, I recommend TOEFL if your goal is to attend a university in the United States or IELTS if you plan to attend a university somewhere else.

For immigration or other purposes, I recommend the Cambridge C1 Advanced certificate. If you feel this level is out of your reach, I recommend any of the other Cambridge exams.

If you plan on using English for work, I recommend the Cambridge C1 Business Higher certificate. If you feel this level is out of your reach, I recommend any of the other Cambridge business exams.

How should you prepare for your exam?

For any of these three exams, I recommend a three step approach:

1 Make sure that you understand the format of the exam. Read as much as possible about your chosen exam (starting with the resources below).

2 Enrol in a preparation course of 10 - 20 hours. If this is not possible, find as many free resources on the internet as you can - make sure any free resources contain exam tips and explain the various question types.

3 Try as many practice tests as you can. There are lots of free practice tests that you can find on the internet. These are especially helpful for the Cambridge exams since you need to know if you are near the C1 target level.

Some further resources

Understanding the format of each exam:

IELTS

TOEFL

C1 Advanced

C1 Business Higher

Find study materials:

IELTS

TOEFL

C1 Advanced

C1 Business Higher

Practice exams and questions:

IELTS

TOEFL

C1 Advanced

C1 Business Higher

Find your CEFR level