With so many English exams to choose from, how do you know which one is best for you? This simple guide will help you save time and money by making the right choice.
1. Ask your university or employer which exam they require.
Don't make the mistake of taking a language proficiency test that you don't need. Asking the requirement before you take an exam can save you hundreds of dollars or euros, not to mention hours of your time. Your university will have specific criteria they use to measure your command of the English language. If you take an exam that's not on their list, you may wind up having to take another costly exam, so check first to be sure.
Likewise, more and more employers are depending upon English language exams to certify your competency. However, sometimes the employer doesn't understand which test you need and can point you toward the wrong exam. For example, I once had a student ask me for private TOEFL preparation lessons. She was a primary grade teacher in a Spanish-speaking country. As you will read below, TOEFL is designed to test academic English at the university level. The exam she needed was ECPE which employers can use to measure the English proficiency of professionals.
2. Know the differences and similarities.
The main tests for English proficiency are TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge, and Michigan. TOEFL and IELTS will always give you a diploma, even with a low score, but they're only valid for two years. TOEFL tests for academic English and is used primarily as an entrance requirement for universities. IELTS has an academic exam as well as a version for general English. Cambridge and Michigan certificates are valid for a lifetime, but if you don't pass, you won't have anything to show for it. Cambridge is the British model, while Michigan tests for American English. Naturally, which country you're going to work or study in will determine if you need American or British English.
Cambridge has a whole battery of exams – KET (basic), PET (intermediate), FCE (upper intermediate, CAE (advanced). Some universities also accept FCE and CAE certificates as part of their entrance requirements. Cambridge also offer tests for business English (BEC).
Michigan simplifies things by offering two exams. ECCE tests for competency at a high intermediate level while ECPE tests for language proficiency at the advanced level.
3. Compare levels.
If you're still confused, take a look at this chart. It compares various language exams based on the CEF Common European Framework. If you're not sure of your level, you can take a free placement test like this one to determine which exam is best for you.
4. Take a test you can pass.
It's better to get a higher score on an exam that's at your aptitude level than to take an advanced exam that is beyond your ability to pass. A low score on a high-level test doesn't impress anyone. Stick to the exam you can pass.
5. Do I need to take an exam at every level?
As you learned from tip number three, each exam is assigned a level (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) on the CEF chart. This makes it easy and convenient to compare aptitude levels. Some students begin with A1 and work their way up to C2, but doing so is time-consuming and expensive. It's really not necessay to take every exam -- unless you want to practice your test-taking skills. Your university or employer will be most interested in the highest level you've achieved.
6. Where should I start?
There are two ways you could begin your exam-taking adventure. You could start by taking an exam that is at your competency level, so your chances of passing are good. The second option is to wait until your English skills are sufficient enough to pass the exam that your university or employer requires. Taking the first option will build your confidence and experience. Doing the second, will save you time and money.
After you've decided which exam is right for you, you can find detailed descriptions of the test, study materials, and practice exams online. Many of these resources are free. Look for reviews and recommendations of textbooks before you buy or ask your teacher which one he or she prefers. Doing a little research beforehand will preserve your cash and make the most of your time.