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The last guide you’ll ever need to ace your English language assessment test

Sean Campbell
Last Updated: 8 October 2021 • 8 min read

It doesn’t matter how old or smart we are, there’s still something unsettling about exams. Even more nerve-racking again are exams in a second (or third or fourth) language! 

And with so many English proficiency tests available for international students, choosing the right one can be a huge task in itself, never mind preparing for it. 

So here today in this ultimate guide to the English language assessment test, we’re going to take all those worries and confusion, stuff them all in a big sack and throw them in the bin. 

How? We’re going to help you be prepared by giving you the information you need. 

The KEY to acing your exams is preparation after all -- It’s that simple. Nerves may still abound no matter how prepared you are, but at least you’ll know the answers if you’ve prepared.   

So, let’s get straight into it. 

What is an English language assessment test?

An English language assessment is exactly what you might think it is! It’s a test whereby you can demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively in English via reading and writing, listening, and speaking. 

Do international students need to take an English language assessment test?

Yes, international students in English speaking countries need to take an English language assessment test. Why? Well, your university course will be taught in English, and you’ll be in class with native speakers, so you have to show that you can keep up with the demands. 

The assessments which are accepted vary from country to country, but there are a couple of common tests which are accepted everywhere. 

What are the most common English language assessment tests (and what do they mean)?

The most common, and most widely accepted, English language assessment tests are TOEFL and IELTS. Also widely accepted are CAE and CPE.

In case you’re wondering, here’s what all the above stand for: 

  • TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language
  • IELTS is the International English Language Testing System
  • CAE is Cambridge Advanced English
  • CPE is a more advanced Cambridge offering, but the ‘P’ stands for ‘proficiency’. 

We’ll go into some more detail below on how each of these tests works, and what you can do to get a great result. But first...

What are the other tests?

There’s a pretty long list of alternative English language assessment tests, some of which are accepted in some countries, and in differing universities*. But the two most popular are:

iTep: The International Test of English Proficiency.  iTep is growing in popularity as exam results take just 24 hours to be released, and it’s now accepted by close to 1,000 universities across the USA and Canada.

PTE Academic: The Pearson test of English takes its name from the world's leading textbook publisher. Interestingly, it’s graded using AI technology to prevent human bias during the grading process. It’s accepted by almost all universities in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. In Canada and the USA, PTE Academic is becoming more widely accepted, but it’s not commonplace quite yet.  

*Please don’t assume that your university will accept these assessments -- it’s always best to check on their website, or even send them an email to make sure!

TOEFL: How it works

Officially known as TOEFL iBT is broken into 4 separate sections over a 3 hour test period: reading, listening, speaking and writing. You generally sit the TOEFL exam at your nearest test centre, having booked in for the test. However there is a special home edition too.
TOEFL is graded out of 120 points (30 for each section). Generally, a score of 90-100 will be enough to meet the standards of any university in the universe (but do check ahead of time). 

The TOEFL exam costs around US$185 (approx £133), but the price varies from country to country. 

Recommended books for acing the TOEFL test:

  • The Official Guide to TOEFL (6th edition)
  • Barron’s TOEFL iBT (17th edition)
  • Collins English for Exams, TOEFL Listening & Speaking Skills
  • Collins English for Exams, TOEFL Reading & Writing Skills
  • English Grammar in Use (5th edition), Cambridge University Press

IELTS: How it works

IELTS has two different modules to choose from, IELTS General and IELTS Academic. The former is used more for immigration and working purposes, while international university students should take the academic test. 

It’s a 2 hour and 45 minute exam which is usually taken at a test centre. But what with the pandemic, there is now a home version. The IELTS test has 4 papers, each testing English reading, writing, listening and speaking in turn. It’s worth noting that for IELTS General and Academic alike, the speaking and listening tests are the same, but the reading and writing tests are different.  

IELTS exams are graded to a 9 band ascending scale. For each section, a score from 1-9 is given. Overall, a band of 6 is required to be accepted into most universities. 

IELTS costs around US$150. 

Recommended books for acing IELTS:

  • The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS
  • Barron’s IELTS Superpack
  • Simone Braverman’s Target Band 7
  • IELTS Practice Tests Plus 2 with Key and CD Pack
  • Cambridge IELTS 15 Academic Student’s Book with Answers

CAE: How it works

Surprise surprise, the CAE English assessment tests your reading, writing, listening and speaking. 

The reading and use of English section and the writing section take 90 minutes each. The listening section takes 40  minutes and consists of 30 questions, while the speaking section takes around 15 minutes and consists of an interview (usually along with another examinee). 

It’s worth noting that 40% of the total grade comes from the reading and use of English section, while the others account for 20% each. 

A, B and C grades are considered passes (D and below are fails), but the exact grades required changes from university to university. 

The cost of the CAE exam is around US$180. 

Recommended books for acing CAE:

  • Objective Advanced 4th edition by Cambridge English
  • Ready for Advanced 3rd Edition by Amanda French and Roy Norris
  • Advanced Trainer by Cambridge English
  • Exam Boosters by Cambridge English
  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

CPE: How it works

The CPE exam is considered more advanced and difficult than the CAE test, but since they're both administered by Cambridge, the structure is virtually the same. 

It consists of four papers testing your English proficiency across the four key skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. It’s graded the same way as CAE (and costs the same), but because it’s a more advanced English exam, a pass is considered adequate to get into most universities which recognise CPE.  

Recommended books for acing CPE:

  • Cambridge English Objective Proficiency
  • Common Mistakes at Proficiency... and how to avoid them
  • Cambridge English Proficiency 1 (for Updated Exam)
  • CPE Practice Tests: Four New Tests
  • Cambridge English Proficiency Masterclass

Should I do CAE or CPE?

That’s really up to you and should be decided by the university you want to go to. Check the certificate you need ahead of time, and choose accordingly. Naturally, CPE is slightly more difficult, but it will often carry more weight with more universities. 

7 expert tips to get ready for your English language assessment test

No matter which test you elect to sit, here are some sure fire ways of making sure that you are as prepared as possible. 

1. Get to know the structure of the test

“Better the devil you know…”  the old saying goes. The last thing you want is to be bamboozled by the format of the test on the big day. Make sure you know exactly how the test is carried out, how long each section takes and so on. 

2. Pick up a study guide and past papers

See the books we recommended above? Yup! Every major test will have a number of trusted study guides, many of which will have practice tests and ast questions for you to work on. 

3. Get in the routine of studying

It sounds simple, but it’s seriously effective. If you’ve got plenty of time before your test, start off gently by doing just an hour or two each day (or even less). As the test grows closer, commit more time, but try to avoid cramming right before the test! By staying structured in your approach, your mind will feel more settled and organised. 

4. Challenge yourself regularly

Speak English to yourself every day ahead of your test. Stick to the time limits for essays occasionally just to feel the pressure. Some days you can give yourself more time for sure, but it is important to know that on test day, time will be of the essence. 

5. Practise note taking while listening

Note taking is a key exam skill. You’ll usually have to listen to excerpts in your listening exam, and then answer questions. Thus, it’s important that you hone your ability to take notes and listen at the same time. 

Here’s some inside advice we wrote on taking notes on key words in a past article which you may find useful: 

‘The sentence, “My name is Sean, I’m thirty years old and I’m from Ireland,” has 12 words, and it took me at least 10 seconds to write, yet just 3 seconds to say! 

But what’s the key information? Sean, thirty, Ireland. Make it even shorter in your notes: Sean, 30, Ire. By only making a note of the key information, you can piece the rest together logically in your head. 

Start off by listening to simple audio clips on YouTube or elsewhere. Practice taking down the key info, while making sure that you still understand the clip at large. When you’re done listening, try to use these notes to piece together the story or clip again. 

You can even take notes in your own language if it’s easier for you. As you practise more, increase the difficulty level and see how you do.’

6. Practice tests make perfect

We don’t just mean practise questions, but whole tests. Once or twice before the real exam, set yourself a few hours where you can have a full practice test. You’ll be able to buy or download past papers for pretty much all English language assessments online, so do take advantage of this.

7. Remember that studying can be fun and games (and you can have a break)

Studying isn’t all drudgery and boredom and stress. Or at least it doesn't have to be. If you’ve structured your study sessions (see point 3), you should still have plenty of time to relax. Even in the middle of your sessions, know that you can and should take frequent little breaks to help settle your mind.

As for the fun part? Well, if there;s anything that you can make a game or puzzle out of, do it! Trying to practice vocab? Play some scrabble! Trying to remember a bunch of key words and phrases? Write them on flashcards, stick them to your wall and throw a tennis ball at each of them in turn (that worked for me!) Trying to improve your listening skills? Stick on your favourite new song and see if you can get the lyrics right! Whatever the task is, there are ways to make it fun. 

Hopefully you know a lot more now about the various English language assessment tests, and are equipped with some useful tips to prepare for them! With the right approach and plenty of time to get ready, you’ll be qualified to study abroad no problem. 

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