English language requirements: IELTS, TOEFL, CAE or CPE, which one to take?

Prepare your English for university

Naturally, all universities in the English-speaking world expect their candidates to have an excellent level of English. But please don’t freak out – this doesn’t mean you need to write and speak like a native, especially if you never really had a chance to have English as your language of instruction at school at any stage.

This article doesn’t discuss language requirements for GCSEs, International Baccalaureate (IB), or European Baccalaureate (EB). All these diplomas are not language certificates per se and are usually fully taught in English. For instance, if you studied at a British school or did an IB programme for at least 2 years prior to the start date of your university course, you wouldn’t be obliged to sit language certificates. In order to be sure about your language waiver, you should always double check specific language requirements on your chosen university’s website.

This article will give you a brief overview of the most popular language testing systems available: IELTS, TOEFL (in its online and paper forms), and Cambridge English exams (CAE and CPE). We also prepared a table of minimal requirements for English at the best universities in the UK and some study tips.



By and large, it is the most popular standardised test of English. IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System and is jointly run by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge English Language Assessment. There are two main types of IELTS: Academic and General Training. For those who apply for higher education the IELTS Academic exam is a must.

Format: IELTS is very straightforward. Total time is less than less than 4 hours. You sit in four main language parts: listening (4 recordings in 30 min), reading (40 questions in 60 min), writing (2 tasks in 60 min), and speaking (11-14 min with an examiner). In contrast to TOEFL, the speaking part is conducted face-to-face with a certified examiner.

Scoring: IELTS results are reported on a 9-band scale with 1 (which literally means no user of language) to 9 (an expert user of language, an equivalent of the C2 level).

Results: IELTS guarantees the evaluation within 13 days. You can view the results online.

Our advice: Please set up the exam dates in advance so you don’t miss a chance to sit the exam before or during the summer prior to the start of your course. We’d suggest not leaving it to the last minute. What if you missed your condition and have no other time to re-sit the exam?

Being a natural selection for students applying to UK universities, it is very likely you can enrol for the IELTS certificate with a local branch of British Council in your country. They organise IELTS examination dates a couple of times per year (depending on the branch).

For more details consult the IELTS website.


TOEFL is offered as an internet-based test (TOEFL IBT) taken in numerous centres all around the globe. It stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is a trademark exam of a private non-profit from the US: Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Format: The exam takes approx. 4 hours and consists of 4 components (reading, listening, speaking, writing). During the whole test you only interact with a computer; you read and hear texts and respond to multiple-choice questions. In the speaking part, your voice is recorded and sent to a marker. There is also a paper version of the same test but the internet-based test is far more popular among students.

Scoring: Each of the 4 components is graded with up to 30 points. The total number of points is – Sherlock Holmes found it out for us – 120!

Results: It takes several weeks after the test for the results to arrive.

Our advice: TOEFL is more popular amongst those applying to the US colleges. EF, a company that specialises in language courses all around the globe, points out that TOEFL is a more logical option for students who want to pursue their studies in the US or Canada.

For more details consult the TOEFL website.



Both exams are organised by Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly known as the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations). The Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) is set at a high C1-C2 level (=IELTS 6.5-8.0). The Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) is the most advanced exam and is ranked at C2 (well above the TOEFL scale and equivalent to IELTS >8.0). In contrast to many other certificates, the Cambridge certificates do not expire.

Format: The tests are structured in a similar way to IELTS and TOEFL: writing, listening, speaking, and reading, though an important aspect of these certificates is the use of English and a focus on grammar. The first (reading and use of English) and second parts (writing) take 1h 30 minutes each, listening lasts 40min, and speaking 15min. Interestingly, the updated speaking test is taken face to face, with 2 candidates and 2 examiners to make sure the conversation measures a natural ability of communicating in English.

Scoring: The scale illustrates performance across a wide range of language ability. In CAE and CPE, scoring between 200-210 refers to a grade A (C2 level). A candidate whose score is between 193 and 199 receives a grade B. A grade C (which is still considered as Level C1) is given to scores between 180 and 192.

Results: The statement is released online, approximately 4-6 weeks after the paper-based exam and 2-3 weeks for computer-based exams.

Our advice: Both tests are very well recognised and, unlike others, do not expire which makes them particularly prestigious qualifications. But you should rethink sitting these tests in case you don’t plan to apply for the UK, as these exams really require a lot of preparation of your side. Also, unless you feel very confident in your English (and we’re talking about close-to-native skills), you should not take CPE without serious preparation.


Minimum requirements at UK universities

We’ve gone through language requirements of the most competitive universities in the UK. The table below summarises the minimum requirements for non-native speakers of English. Please consult the chosen department as some courses might slightly differ. For instance, we expect that language requirements for studying English Literature or History are higher than Engineering.


Other universities might have similar or lower expectations. For your convenience we’ve attached the links to language requirements at some selected universities:

Michal Ratynski, 02 Mar 2017