The Ultimate Guide to EFL Exams: Their Pros, Cons and Which One You Should Take

Image shows a Union Jack flying at the top of the UK Houses of Parliament, surrounded by leaves.
If you’re an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) student, you’re probably working hard to get your English up to a great standard.

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The only thing is, while you know how good you are, you still need a way of proving it to admissions tutors before you apply to university. There are a number of exams out there to help you do just that. But with so many to choose from, how do you know which is the right one for you? This article introduces you to some of the many EFL exams you have to choose from and helps you decide which is the best one for you.

What EFL exams are out there?

When it comes to proving your level of English ability, you’re spoilt for choice. Here are the main providers of these sorts of qualifications; we’ve included exams with a range of different focuses, so whether you need to prove your English proficiency for university or work, or you just want to get more confident at English for your own sake, there should be a qualification listed below to suit you.


Image shows a view of Oxford by the Radcliffe Camera.
Oxford University requires a demanding 7.0 in IELTS for international students; Cambridge asks for an even higher 7.5.

IELTS” stands for “International English Language Testing System”, and it’s specifically geared towards those wishing to prove that they’ve attained a level of English language proficiency necessary for the workplace and academic study; its motto is “The test for study and work”. It’s one of the most popular and most widely accepted EFL qualifications there is, and it claims to be accepted by over 9,000 organisations worldwide – including “universities, immigration departments, government agencies, professional bodies and multinational companies.” It’s run by a collaboration of the British Council, Cambridge English Language Assessment and IDP Education Pvt Ltd; this partnership ensures that it’s not just one company’s way of doing things, but an objectively considered system of teaching the English Language.

You have two options in your IELTS studies: Academic, designed for those wishing to study at university or college in the UK, and General Training, which is more geared towards those seeking work experience in the UK, or studying at secondary school level, or who are simply moving to the UK (or any other country in which English is spoken). Both tests feature the same Listening and Speaking elements, but the Reading and Writing tests differ. The tests last a total of 2 hours and 45 minutes, broken down into 30 minutes for Listening, 60 minutes each for Reading and Writing and 11 to 14 minutes for the Speaking part, which you might have to take up to a week later. This is the only real downside of the IELTS – rather than getting it all done in one day, you might have to come back a second day for the Speaking part. You neither pass nor fail; you simply get given an overall and broken down score out of nine, which means that even if you don’t get the top grade you might have been hoping for, you’ll still come out with a qualification.
It’s also worth noting that when learning English, it’s easy to forget that English is spoken with innumerable different accents, which many qualifications won’t prepare you for. However, the IELTS has a strong international focus that means that it’ll prepare you for a range of different accents and vocabulary from around the world. This means that it better equips you to speak English with anyone, anywhere.


Image shows a Union Jack and the USA's Stars and Stripes flying side-by-side.
TOEFL has recently begun using non-US voices in its listening test.

Like IELTS, TOEFL (“Test of English as a Foreign Language”) claims to be accepted by over 9,000 institutions worldwide. It’s more geared towards English for academic purposes, making it a good choice if your main aim in learning English is to study at a UK university (or any other English-speaking country). The test is focused on academic questions and activities, replicating situations from a university classroom by getting you to listen to lectures and read from textbooks. Like the IELTS, there are Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking elements to the test. The Speaking element of the test is recorded and independently evaluated by between three and six examiners, so you can be sure that you’re getting a fair mark. Its main advantage over the IELTS is that you get all parts of the test completed on the same day, so you don’t have to go back – saving you time and money by reducing your need to travel. The drawback with TOEFL is that because of its academic focus, it might not be quite so suitable for you if you’re learning English for other purposes, such as to gain work experience in the UK or just for general use.


Image shows two people approaching UK border control in Heathrow airport.
BULATS is no longer valid for UK visa application purposes.

BULATS is the Business Language Testing Service, which is geared specifically towards those who are looking to improve their English for the workplace. If your aim in learning English is to make yourself more employable, this could be the exam for you, because it focuses on English in a business context. The Speaking element, for example, covers topics such as buying and selling, the office environment and entertaining business clients – all essential skills for the modern businessperson.
The great thing about the BULATS is that you have the option to do it all online, so all you need is an internet connection; you don’t have to worry about getting to a test centre if this is going to be difficult. This makes them more flexible, as you can take any combination of the Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking tests at any time convenient to you. You can instead take paper-based tests at a test centre, which is split into the Standard Test (110 minutes, testing Listening, Reading and Language Knowledge), the Writing Test (45 minutes) and the Speaking Test (12 minutes). All parts of the test, both online and paper-based, use business scenarios to measure your English performance, such as taking down memos and writing email replies. BULATS is perfect if you want to improve your business English, but it’s not the best qualification for you if you’re aiming to improve your English in readiness for university.

The Trinity ESOL Exams

Image shows two people speaking in a typical office.
Trinity’s ‘Spoken English for Work’ prepares you for standard office skills.

Trinity College London’s recently revised ISE (Integrated Skills in English) qualification is a four-skills exam and accepted by over 90% of UK universities. Students can prepare for either a CEFR B2-level or C1-level qualification, and the exam falls into two constituent parts: Reading & Writing (2 hours) and Speaking & Listening (20 minutes at B2, or 25 minutes at C1).
Unlike other exams, candidates choose their own discussion topic for the Speaking & Listening element, ensuring that the examiner’s content is personalised and not scripted. Reading & Writing seeks to reflect typical skills required in an academic environment, requiring students to synthesise and paraphrase relevant information in their own words. Both aspects of the ISE assess the individual’s ability to interact with English in an authentic way.

The Cambridge English Exams

Image shows someone punting by St John's College, Cambridge.
The University of Cambridge also co-runs IELTS.

The Cambridge English exams are run by the University of Cambridge, so you know you’re in good hands. They have several exams to choose from, but the one that’s likely to be of most interest to you is the Academic and Professional English exam. It’s apparently accepted by over 15,000 employers and educational institutions, across 130 countries. There are several levels, the most advanced of which is the Certificate of Proficiency in English. The dates on which you can take the exam are fairly limited, so it’s not as flexible as some other options in this list; even the computer-based exams can be taken on just four days of the year. You can view exam dates here to check whether there are any that would be convenient for you.
The Certificate of Proficiency in English consists of four papers: Reading and Use of English (an hour and a half); Writing (an hour and a half); Listening (40 minutes); and Speaking (16 minutes, shared with another candidate). The Reading and Use of English element tests your ability to cope with a variety of reading materials to simulate real life, including fiction, non-fiction, journals, newspapers and manuals, while the Writing part deals with how well you can write formal documents such as essays and reports. In the Listening part, you’ll be tested on how well you can follow lectures, among other things – so it provides the proof you need that your English is up to the standard it needs to be in order to cope with the demands of university study. To help you prepare, Cambridge English even tells you what set texts are used in the exams. This year, the set texts are E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End and Nick Hornby’s An Education screenplay.

Which EFL exam should I take?

Image shows a typical ORA class with a row of excited, engaged students.
ORA’s summer school offers an IELTS preparation course.

Now that we’ve explained each of these exams, you should be in a better position to assess which is going to be best suited to your needs. Each of the exams we’ve discussed in this article as its own merits, with some providing better preparation for academic purposes and others leaning more towards workplace skills or everyday English. The costs for all the exams we’ve mentioned depend on where you take them, which is why we’ve not included cost as a point of comparison.
Overall, for the purposes of university preparation, we believe that IELTS is likely to be your best bet, because it prepares you so well for the English skills you’ll need at university, as well as being incredibly well-respected and widely accepted. It’s also very fairly assessed, which makes it harder to prepare for but also means that you’ll see a real improvement in your English skills. For university, you need to be genuinely capable at English, so a test that allows you to jump through hoops to get higher marks won’t do. This is certainly not the case with IELTS, so it provides excellent preparation for life as an undergraduate.

We can help you prepare for the IELTS test as part of our IELTS Preparation course. During this two-week course, you’ll concentrate on improving your English for an academic setting, including improving your ability to write English in the formal style required of academia. You’ll also become adept at reading and understanding a variety of academic writings, at the same time as growing your vocabulary to enable you to express yourself clearly when you come to write essays at university. What’s more, we’ll help you prepare for each of the four elements of the IELTS exam – reading, writing, listening and speaking – including giving you timed questions and mini tests like those you can expect in the real thing. While you won’t be able to sit the actual IELTS exam with us, you’ll be well prepared for it, ready for you to go home and register for it independently.

Image credits: banner; Oxford; USA; UK border; office; Cambridge.