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US English Language Tests Explained

learn English
standardized testing
By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on August 12, 2021

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: C1 Advanced, 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.

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. 

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. As a result, 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. 

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 a letter, report, review, or essay.

  • 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:

  • Three short extracts from conversations

  • A monologue (~three minutes)

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

  • 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 sentence 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 paper-based, 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 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!

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.

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