One of the questions which many people who want to improve their English ask me is "Should I do an English exam (like the Cambridge First Certificate in English, IELTS, Certificate in Advanced English etc...) or just learn English on a course where there is no exam to do?".
The answer to this depends on what type of person you are, your situation and what you need to improve your English for.
Studying to do an exam in English is good for some people, but not the best choice for everybody and below I will explain why. This will help you decide whether you should study for an exam or not.
When doing English exam courses, your level improves slower
When you are studying to do an English exam you will improve your overall level of English, but a lot of your time will be spent both practising doing exams and learning how to do the different parts of the exam (e.g. methods on how to do the different parts quickly and accurately). So instead of just focusing on improving your knowledge and use of English, around half of your time will be spent improving how you do the exam.
Even though you will improve your English when doing this, you won't improve it (your vocabulary, use of grammatical structures) as much as you could do if doing a course which is focused on improving your knowledge and use of English.
So why should you study for an English exam?
The main reason is the qualification you get when passing it. If you need or think you’ll need a qualification in the future to show what your level of English is, I would recommend studying for an exam in English. If you are thinking of changing or need to find a job, having a qualification in English can also help you a lot (especially in getting a job interview).
If you just want to improve your English and/or you don’t think you will need to find a job in the future, then it is probably better to just do a non-exam course or classes which is focused on improving your English. But not always.
People doing exams are more motivated to study
Even if you are in this position where having a qualification to show your level of English isn’t necessary, studying for an exam could be right for you. And that is because it will keep you motivated to continue studying.
Improving your English is a slow and sometimes frustrating process. In my experience, I have found that more students stop learning the language when they are doing a general English course than when they are studying to pass an exam. And the reason is that when doing an exam you have a goal/aim/objective to achieve (i.e. pass an exam) and that will motivate you to continue studying when you don’t feel like doing it.
Should you study to do an exam even if you don't need the qualification?
You have to be honest with yourself. If you only want to improve your English to communicate better in the language in your job or free time (e.g. on holiday) and you don't lack motivation, then just do a non-exam English course. It will improve your overall knowledge and use of English quicker.
But if you can sometimes become demotivated, not study as much as you should (i.e. not attend classes or do homework) and have in the past stopped going to classes, then I would suggest doing an exam English course. As I said before, studying for an exam in English is a lot more likely to motivate you to continue studying and improving your English.