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US English Level Tests Explained

learn English
standardized testing
exam
By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on March 15, 2022

What are the differences between Cambridge English: C1 Advanced, TOEFL, and IELTS English language tests?

Three international students sit at tables behind partitions while studying for their English language tests to apply to US universities

Almost every university you apply to in the US will want to know your ability to speak, write, read, and understand the English language. Most schools rely on the following standardized English language tests: Cambridge Assessment English (CAE), The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and the International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS).

With our guide to English language tests, learn which test is best for you and review the similarities and differences between them.

What Is an English Language Test?

An English language test is a standardized test that all international students are required to take as part of the admissions process at US universities and colleges. You are required to earn a specific score in this US college entrance exam, and the exact score you need will differ between institutions. 

When you take English language tests, your reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills with the English language will be evaluated. The tests that US universities and colleges most commonly accept are: 

  • Cambridge Assessment English (CAE)

  • International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

Each of these English language tests are meant to measure your skill with English and they are all different in their own ways. These exams are available at certified English language testing centers in your home country, and some may be available online depending on where you live. 

While most US universities and colleges will accept any of these three tests, some may require you to take a specific US language test. Remember to clarify any requirements with the admissions office of the universities you are applying to in advance – this way, you won’t waste time and/or money taking an English language test the university won’t accept.

What Do English Language Tests Test For?

Most universities require an English language fluency test to understand your communication and comprehension skills. Most standardized tests evaluate your reading, writing, listening, and speaking abilities in English. 

Let’s take a closer look at the skills that English language tests assess:

Reading 

The reading segment of an English proficiency exam analyzes your academic and general reading capabilities. Working with excerpts from books, magazines, and other texts, you may be asked to identify and categorize information, highlight the central meaning from a passage of text, analyze a writer’s opinions and claims, and identify logical arguments. 

Writing 

Writing segments test your ability to describe, summarize, and explain your ideas in response to questions and prompts. The ability to convey your point of view, define problem statements, and build arguments in both formal and informal written settings will also be measured. 

Listening 

Listening comprehension segments evaluate your ability to follow conversations and identify the speaker’s tone and language style. 

Speaking 

Speaking segments ask you to clearly convey your ideas, express opinions, and speak at length on a given topic, with evaluators also focusing on your language style and pronunciation.

By knowing these specific English level test segments in advance, you can practice beforehand and prepare with confidence. No matter your goals as a US university student, studying in the US will give you countless opportunities to improve your English language communication skills!

Why Are the English Language Proficiency Tests Important for Students?

English language tests are important for international students as they help you understand your skills with the English language. Almost every US university and college conducts its courses in English. This means that for you to successfully participate in and complete an academic degree program, you will need to understand and communicate effectively in English. 

Your score on an English proficiency test may also determine your acceptance into certain institutions. Some universities (such as certain Shorelight universities) may give you the opportunity to improve your English after you arrive, but most institutions will require you to achieve a passing score in at least one test. 

What Level of English Do I Need to Study in the US?

To study in the US at the undergraduate or graduate level, English language competency is essential. To learn effectively in a US university class, you need to know the basics of writing essays, creating presentations, and speaking in public. To make sure international students are set up for success, most universities in the US have English language requirements during the international student application and admissions process.

Sample minimum English level requirements at Shorelight universities include:

Adelphi University — Minimum English proficiency test scores are: 

  • TOEFL iBT – 80 (TOEFL MyBest scores are also accepted)

  • IELTS – 6.5

  • Duolingo – 110

Gonzaga University —Minimum English proficiency test scores are:

  • TOEFL – 80

  • IELTS – 6.5

  • iTEP – 4.5

Students who do not submit an English-language test score when applying to Gonzaga will automatically be placed in three semesters of Academic English. An English-language placement test must also be performed on arrival to verify placement. 

University of the Pacific —Minimum English proficiency test scores are:

  • Internet-based TOEFL – 80

  • Paper-based TOEFL – 550 

  • IELTS – 6.5 

  • Duolingo – 110

Staying informed of English level test requirements at your preferred US universities can make your application process easier. 

Your English proficiency test score may also be needed when applying for your US student visa! 

Visa Considerations

Studying in the US requires you to have a student visa, with the specific type based on the purpose and timeline of your degree program. Most students apply for an F-1, J-1, or M-1 visa. Having F-1 visa status permits you to study at an accredited US college or university, while J-1 visa status allows participation in a high school or university exchange program. An M-1 visa permits only non-academic or vocational education or training.

To apply for a student visa, you must first be accepted at an accredited university in the US. Since English language requirements are often part of the overall school admissions process, an English language fluency test score will likely be required in your application, with specific test requirements determined by each school.

Once you are accepted at a US university, it will issue your Form I-20, required to apply for your student visa. So, you can think of an English language proficiency test as an important early step both in getting accepted at university and starting the process of receiving your visa. 

Remember to speak with a student service advisor to clarify any details and requirements. You can always speak to a Shorelight advisor if you have any further questions on how to test your English level, English entry test preparation, or necessary documentation.

Which English Test Is Best for an International Student?

The best English test for international students depends on the skills, knowledge, preparedness, and strengths of the individual applying to study at a US college or university. As each student is skilled in their own unique areas, there is no “best” English test overall. 

Certain US universities and colleges may require you to take specific tests or achieve a target score in certain areas of an American English proficiency test. While this means you may have limited choices, it can also make it easier for you as you have full knowledge of the areas you need to focus on. This will help you prepare ahead of time.

If you are unsure of which US language test to take, a Shoreight advisor can always help you decide. Your advisor will give you academic support and help you compare the different areas of each test with your own skills to determine which would be the best fit for you. They can also direct you to valuable international student resources, including programs to help you learn English, application assistance, support for understanding international standardized tests, and more!

Here is an overview of the most popular English language assessment tests available to you as an international student.

Cambridge Assessment English (CAE)

The University of Cambridge administers the Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) tests and they develop a wide range of exams and tests for learners of all abilities and ages. Cambridge English Qualifications cover their range of in-depth exams, with each exam focused on a level of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). Designed to test the skills universities and employers are looking for, C1 Advanced is the most widely accepted Cambridge English Qualification for admissions. Cambridge Assessment English is also the producer and co-owner of IELTS.

C1 Advanced is available as a computer-based or paper-based test and is made up of four sections.

C1 Advanced: Reading and Use of English 

  • Question breakdown: 56 questions

  • Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

The structure of the C1 Advanced Reading and Use of English is as follows:

  • Parts 1 to 4—Read a range of passages and complete grammar and vocabulary tasks. There is a mix of questions, such as multiple choice and fill in the gap.

  • Parts 5 to 8—Read a series of passages and then answer questions that test your reading ability. There is a mix of questions, such as multiple choice and matching.

C1’s reading passages may come from newspapers and magazines, journals, books (fiction and nonfiction), and promotional and informational materials.

C1 Advanced: Writing

  • Question breakdown: two parts

  • Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

In this section, you produce two different pieces of writing, such as letters, reports, reviews, or essays.

  • Part 1—Read a passage and then write an essay based on the points included in the text. You will be asked to explain which of the two points is more important and provide support for your opinion.

  • Part 2—Write an email/letter, proposal, report, or review (your choice).

C1 Advanced: Listening  

  • Question breakdown: 30 questions

  • Time: about 40 minutes

The Listening section has four parts. In each part, you listen to a recording and answer questions. Each recording is played twice.

The four recordings you will listen and respond to are:

  1. Three short extracts from conversations

  2. A monologue (~three minutes)

  3. A conversation between two or more speakers (~four minutes)

  4. Five themed monologues (~30 seconds each)

The section has a mix of questions including multiple choice, matching, and sentence completion.

Monologue recordings may come from lectures, speeches, talks, radio broadcasts, or personal anecdotes. Conversation recordings may be from interviews, radio broadcasts, discussions, or conversations.

C1 Advanced: Speaking

  • Question breakdown: four parts

  • Time: 15 minutes

 You take the Speaking test together with another candidate. 

You speak with the examiner, the other candidate, and on your own. You will be evaluated on your ability to communicate effectively face-to-face and whether you express yourself with a high level of fluency.

  • Part 1—The examiner asks you about your personal interests or studies. This lasts about two minutes.

  • Part 2—You are given three photographs and talk about two of them for one minute. You listen to what the other candidate says about their photographs and then comment on what they have said for about 30 seconds.

  • Part 3—You are given spoken instructions and written prompts. You talk with the other candidate about the written prompts for two minutes. The examiner then asks you another question and you have one to two minutes to talk with the other candidate and collaborate on your responses.

  • Part 4—You have a discussion with the other candidate on the topics or issues raised in Part 3, guided by questions from the examiner. This lasts approximately five minutes.

International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

The IELTS exam is produced and managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge Assessment English. The academic version of the test consists of listening, reading, writing, and speaking sections and lasts two hours and 45 minutes.

While the CAE is intended for more advanced English speakers who already have a fundamental understanding of the language, the IELTS is meant for people who are new English speakers. 

Each section is graded on a 0–9 scale, with zero representing a non-user or someone who skipped the test and nine representing an expert. Your scores are added up across all sections and then averaged and rounded to give you a comprehensive score. 

IELTS Listening

  • Question breakdown: four recordings, 10 questions each

  • Time: 30 minutes

In the listening section, you answer multiple-choice questions, matching and labeling questions and sentences, and diagram completion questions. There are four recordings you will have to listen and respond to:

  1. An everyday social conversation between two people

  2. An everyday monologue or speech

  3. A conversation between as many as four people in an educational context

  4. An academic lecture by one person

IELTS Reading

  • Question breakdown: three readings, 40 questions total

  • Time: 60 minutes

Reading passages on the IELTS English proficiency test can be descriptive, factual, discursive, or analytical. There are many question types in this section, from multiple choice to matching to sentence and diagram completion.

IELTS Writing

  • Question breakdown: two questions

  • Time: 60 minutes

In the writing section of the IELTS English language proficiency test, you will have to answer two task-based questions.

  1. The first question asks you to describe some visual cue, such as a graph or flowchart. You will have to write approximately 150 words in 20 minutes.

  2. The second question asks you to respond to a point of view or argument. You will need to write 250 words in about 40 minutes.

IELTS Speaking

  • Question breakdown: one oral interview

  • Time: 11–14 minutes

The speaking section of the IELTS English language exam consists of three parts and assesses your spoken English skills.

  1. Part 1 lasts around five minutes and requires you to speak your answers to general questions on familiar topics.

  2. Part 2 requires you to respond to a topic written on a card. Your interviewer will also ask follow-up questions.

  3. Part 3 lasts about five minutes and will continue with questions related to the topic on the card in Part 2. Expect these questions to be more abstract and difficult.

The IELTS used to be taken on paper, but recently a computer-based version became available and is being rolled out to testing locations worldwide. It is worth noting the speaking section of the computer-based IELTS exam is still administered face-to-face, the same as the paper-based test, and can be completed at some testing centers as much as a week in advance of your official test date.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

The TOEFL is produced and governed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). There are different versions of the TOEFL, but most students — around 97% — take the internet-based version (or iBT) on a computer. If you take the TOEFL iBT test multiple times, you can use your best scores on each section.

The TOEFL is a longer test compared to the IELTS, and you have three hours to complete four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. This exam uses a different scoring system from both the CAE and IELTS, with each section graded on a scale of 0-30 for a maximum point value of 120.

The sections are broken down as follows:

TOEFL Reading

  • Question breakdown: three to four reading passages, 12–14 questions each

  • Time: 54–72 minutes

The questions in the reading section test your ability to identify information, demonstrate basic comprehension, and “read to learn.”

The reading section is comprised of three question formats:

  1. Multiple-choice format requiring you to select the correct answer from four choices

  2. Inserting a sentence where it best fits in a passage from four potential choices

  3. A “reading to learn” section with multiple correct answers

TOEFL Listening

  • Question breakdown: four to six lectures, six questions each; two to three conversations, five questions each

  • Time: 41­–57 minutes

The listening section of the TOEFL English language proficiency test covers the following:

  • Basic comprehension

  • Recognizing a speaker’s attitude and the purpose of what the speaker is saying

  • Understanding the importance of order, relationships, inferences, and connections

  • Topic changes

Here are the question formats:

  • Traditional multiple choice

  • Multiple choice with more than one correct answer

  • Questions that require you to sequence events correctly

  • Matching questions

TOEFL Speaking

  • Question breakdown: six tasks: two independent, four integrated

  • Time: 17 minutes

The speaking section measures your ability to speak English in and out of academic settings. The six categories are broken up into independent and integrated speaking tasks.

  • Independent speaking tasks require you to draw upon your ideas, experience, and opinions. There are two independent speaking tasks per test.

  • Integrated speaking tasks require you to combine speaking with listening or reading to answer questions. There are four integrated speaking tasks per test.

For all speaking section tasks, you will be required to use a headset with a microphone on the iBT version of the test.

TOEFL Writing

  • Question breakdown: two tasks

  • Time: 50 minutes

The writing section of the TOEFL English language tests your integrated and independent writing skills.

  • Integrated writing tasks require you to write an academic argument in response to a prompt.

  • Independent writing tasks require you to express an idea or opinion in writing.

Which English Test Is the Easiest?

Each of the exams have their own method of testing your skills and there is no specific exam that is easier than the others. Depending on your own strengths and knowledge, you may find certain exams a better fit for you.

If you are confident in your English fundamentals, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) may be ideal choices. These two tests evaluate basic English speaking skills and if you have this understanding beforehand, the exam is less challenging and you may score higher.

One factor to consider is that the IELTS requires you to have a face-to-face interview with an examiner as part of the test. If you are not comfortable with these types of interactions, the TOEFL may be easier for you. 

What Is the Most Difficult English Exam?

Similarly, which exam is considered the hardest is subjective, and will be different for each student taking the test. 

For example, the Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) exam targets more in-depth areas of English proficiency, as it is mainly aimed at people with an advanced understanding of English. So, if you have only just learned the basics of English, this exam may be significantly more challenging.

Additionally, you should also consider the answer formats these tests require. The IELTS has fewer multiple-choice questions compared to the TOEFL, and also requires you to write out your own answers for many questions. If you prefer the analytical approach of multiple-choice questions, the IELTS may be more challenging for you, and the TOEFL may be a better fit, as this test contains multiple-choice questions for most of the exam. 

Which Test Is the Hardest for Reading?

Every individual learner has unique strengths and challenges. What one student finds easy another will find challenging, and vice versa. To determine which English language exam best fits your reading skills, please speak to a Shorelight advisor for tailored advice.

For example, the TOEFL reading segment consists of essays, followed by multiple-choice questions, and TOEFL has more multiple-choice questions compared to IELTS and CAE. Those who find multiple-choice questions particularly challenging may prefer the IELTS and CAE reading segments.

Which Test Is the Hardest for Writing?

Similarly, which English fluency test’s writing segment is “hardest” will depend on your unique skillset. Make an appointment with a Shorelight counselor to go over the details of each English language test to see which best aligns with your English writing proficiency. 

For example, IELTS academic and general writing require you to write four essays, based on logical written passages across a variety of topics. The TOEFL and CAE tests consist of only one integrated writing task and an independent essay. Some may find this simpler. If you are a fast writer, you may find the writing section manageable, regardless of which exam you choose.

It is a good idea to practice timed writing exercises in advance of the test so you are familiar with the format. 

Which Test Is the Hardest for Listening?

Again, your unique listening comprehension abilities in English will play the largest role in your success on a specific listening section of an English fluency test. 

For example, the listening section in the Cambridge English test has many multiple-choice questions based on listening material. IELTS has conversational listening material over a shorter time limit. TOEFL, on the other hand, has multiple listening questions that can be more technical in nature than Cambridge English or IELTS, which may be more of a challenge. 

Speak with a Shorelight advisor for personalized advice on which English language test best suits your listening skills.

Which Test Is the Hardest for Speaking?

TOEFL’s speaking section may be considered more formal, often requiring you to take notes on a lecture or conversation, and answers are timed. Some international students may find this time restriction challenging when completing the speaking section of the English fluency test. The Cambridge English test and IELTS take a more conversational approach to their speaking sections, which may have a more relaxed feel compared to the TOEFL. 

It is important to remember that the sections you may find harder or easier depends on your individual skill, capabilities, practice, and preferences. Having a clear understanding of the English proficiency exam formats in advance can help you figure out which is best suited to showcase your strengths in English.

Other English Language Tests Available

Cambridge English: C1 Advanced, TOEFL, and IELTS are not the only tests accepted by US universities. While not as widely accepted as the three outlined above, the following tests are growing in popularity and represent different formats and styles, which may be beneficial to you as a test taker. Here are four more tests on the rise:

  1. iTEP exam: The iTEP, or International Test of English Proficiency, is accepted at approximately 700 different schools, including Shorelight universities Cleveland State University and Adelphi International. You can receive your iTEP exam results as quickly as 24 hours after you take the exam.

  2. PTE Academic: The PTE, or Pearson Test of English Academic, is sponsored by Pearson, the largest textbook publisher in the world. The PTE Academic is accepted at more than 900 universities in the United States. The PTE Academic uses artificial intelligence (AI) to grade the test, claiming a boost in unbiased results.

  3. Cambridge English Qualifications B1 Preliminary and B2 First: Accepted by Shorelight and hundreds of US universities, these exams from Cambridge Assessment English cover all four skills and target learners with a lower level of English. Cambridge English Qualifications are designed so that each exam builds on the skills you develop at the previous level.

  4. Duolingo English Test: Offered online and accepted at more than 3,000 universities and colleges around the world, Duolingo’s English test provides another flexible and affordable English proficiency exam option. The test consists of a graded section with questions focusing on reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, followed by a video interview that records your replies to prompts. Duolingo’s test takes about an hour and you’ll get your score within two days.

Where to Take an Official English Language Test

There are many options to take an official English language test. Let’s take a closer look:

Cambridge Assessment English (CAE)

The Cambridge Assessment English exam requires advance registration and booking at an authorized CAE exam center. Find the one closest to you on the official CAE website.

Once you have found your local exam center, you can also book your exam online. Exam dates are available throughout the year and you can choose whether to take your exam on a computer or on paper. 

Remember to confirm examination dates, along with the availability of the dates for your speaking test, by contacting your local exam center. 

IELTS 

You can register for the IELTS exam through the official IELTS website or in person at your nearest IELTS test center. A valid ID is needed to apply, as well as to take the test.

Test-takers can choose between:

  • IELTS on paper – you can take your English proficiency exam at an official IELTS test center. There are more than 1,600 IELTS centers in 140 countries — find your closest center on the IELTS website. Available testing dates, registration deadlines, and other information are available at the center.

  • IELTS online – if you choose to take your examination online, the listening, reading, and writing segments can be performed on screen in an official IELTS test center. The speaking test remains the same, and is carried out by a trained IELTS examiner. You may book a test on the IELTS website. Computer-based IELTS offers more test dates and sessions, so it may be a more convenient option than the paper-based test. 

TOEFL

The TOEFL iBT test is offered in three formats:

  1. TOEFL iBT test – at an official center on a computer

  2. TOEFL iBT (Home edition) – at home on a computer 

  3. TOEFL iBT (Paper edition) – reading, writing, and listening tests at an official test center, speaking at home on a computer

Once you have selected your preferred exam method, you can begin the registration process. Register through your ETS account, over the phone, or by mail. Be sure to check the latest deadlines on the official TOEFL website to avoid any registration delays.

The TOEFL examination is offered:

  • TOEFL iBT test – more than 60 times a year.

  • TOEFL iBT (Home edition) – 24 hours a day, four days a week. This option is available worldwide, except in Iran.

  • TOEFL iBT (Paper edition) – currently offered one to two times a month at authorized test centers in Colombia, India, Mexico, and the US. You may need to register for two appointments, one at your local test center and the other at home. 

When taking home-based examinations, ETS-TOEFL’s environment and equipment guidelines must be followed.  

Completing your English proficiency exam can give you the confidence to fully participate in your US university classes. However, if further support is needed, Shorelight universities offer additional resources to support your general English proficiency.

English Language Classes at Shorelight Universities

There are many ways international students can acquire English language skills while studying in the US. University resources along with other online tools have made improving communication capabilities more accessible and faster. These can also be used to further prepare for your language tests. Some universities also offer English language programs covering formal and informal writing, reading, and listening techniques. Depending on the university, English language classes may or may not count for additional credits. Regardless, English language classes at your university can be a great opportunity to improve your skills.

Check out a few Shorelight universities where you can improve your English while you study.

How To Prepare for an English Language Test

Preparing in advance for an English proficiency exam is key to getting through the test with confidence! The more you practice, the better your skills will become — practice improves your sentence structure, grammar, pronunciation, and comprehension.

Here are some tips to prepare for your English fluency test: 

  • Research your exam structure and format — Knowing an exam’s question types, answer formats, and time restrictions means no surprises on the day of the English fluency test. You’ll be able to stay calm and pre-plan for any unexpected situations. 

  • Take free practice tests online — Practice reading, writing, speaking, and listening in advance with sample online tests. Compare different test options and time limits to see which test suits you best. 

  • Use apps and online tools — These are resourceful ways to practice your language skills. For example, if you need to improve your listening skills, subscribe to a podcast (or several) in English. Listen during your free time and develop quizzes similar to what you may be tested on during your real English language test. 

You can also make use of practice apps such as Duolingo, LearnEnglish, and Memrise to translate, improve grammar, and build your vocabulary.

  • Watch more movies — Yes, you read that right! Watching more English movies and TV shows can help you better understand the tone and emotion that native English speakers use. It can also help you understand story lines, character development, and relationships!

  • Keep practicing — Making changes to your daily routine and habits may support your learning process. For example, consider changing your smartphone to English; this way your default is communicating and practicing English! If you find translations challenging, label things around your living space in English to remember the words. 

Through practice and dedication, you can successfully get through your English language tests. Review your progress, ask yourself, “What is my English language level” and keep working toward improvement. Remember to relax and enjoy the learning process! It is alright if you feel nervous before your examinations, this is normal for any test-taker. Try to stay calm and know you have given your best effort for your English entry test preparation. 

Need Help on How to Prepare or Sign Up for an English Proficiency Test?

There are plenty of resources available through your Shorelight advisor if you need further support to register or prepare for your examinations. Reading material may be available on your university website, which can guide you through applying for your test, making an effective study plan, and (finally) taking your exam. 

If you are on campus, you can use university library resources to prepare and practice. Your librarian can locate useful materials such as newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as study guides for your specific test. 

Consider speaking with your friends and colleagues who may have taken these exams themselves, they may be able to share useful tips on areas that require extra attention. You may even ask a close faculty member to support you in preparing for the test. 

Finally, you can always contact your student advisor or Shorelight counselor. They can organize additional tutoring sessions to help test your English level. Shorelight advisors are always here to support you: from application assistance, admission, academic support, campus transition, and English language tests, we are ready to help, every step of the way!

Speak with a Shorelight advisor today to start planning your next steps toward studying in the US >