How to Know which Cambridge English Exam to Take

When you have decided that you want to do a Cambridge English exam, the next step is to decide which of the many exams for English that they have is the right one for you to do.

To help you decide this, read this article. In it, I'll first explain what the different English exams are that Cambridge offers for non-native English language speakers. You'll then learn what you should do to know which one of the exams would be best for you to do.

The Cambridge English exams

Cambridge has four main exams that test a person's level of general English. These are:


  • IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

  • FCE (First Certificate in English)

  • CAE (Certificate in Advanced English)

  • CPE (Certificate in Proficiency of English)

It also has some other exams for lower levels of general English and some that test specific forms of English (like legal English, business English etc...), but I won't talk about these here.

The differences and similarities between the exams

Of the four exams, the IELTS exam is different to the rest.

FCE, CAE & CPE

The FCE, CAE and CPE exams are English level specific exams. What this means is that each of these exams is focused on a specific level of English and this is reflected in the type of vocabulary and grammatical structures used in the exams.

The English level used in each exam is as follows:


  • FCE: B2 / Upper-Intermediate

  • CAE: C1 / Advanced

  • CPE: C2 / Proficiency

If you pass these exams (get 60% or over) then your level of English is judged to be at the above levels.

Although there are differences in some of the parts in the FCE, CAE and CPE exams, the type of questions, what you have to do and what you are assessed on is more than less the same between the 3 exams.

IELTS

IELTS is different in that it is a non-level specific exam. This means that the exam is created for and done by students of very different levels of English abilities (normally from B1 (intermediate) to C2 (proficiency)).

Unlike in the other three exams, in the IELTS exam the vocabulary and grammatical structures used are from all levels of English (from elementary to proficiency level).

Also in IELTS, there is no pass or fail. The higher your final score, the higher your level of English is judged to be (the lowest you can get is A1/Beginner and the highest is C2/Proficiency).

In addition, the format of the exam questions, what you have to do and the types of things that you are assessed on is different between IELTS and the 3 other exams. IELTS, is different especially in the type of questions and what you have to do.

Two versions of IELTS

With IELTS, there are also two different versions of the exam that you can take: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. The IELTS Academic exam is aimed at people wanting to study or work in a university and the IELTS General Training for most other situations.

They are all internationally accepted

All four of these exams are internationally recognised and accepted by governments, companies, organisations and schools/universities as a way for non-native speakers to demonstrate what their level of English is.

Choosing the right exam to do

As long as you have money there is nothing stopping you from doing any four of the exams (they are not going to check your level of English when you are paying for your place on the exam).

However, which one of the four exams you should choose depends (or can depend) on two things: What you are doing it for and what your current level of English is.

Find out what exam you need to have

Although this is not going to be a factor for most people (because all the exams are widely accepted), if you are having to do an English exam for a specific purpose (e.g. to get a visa to live or study in a country or attend a university) I strongly recommend that that you check what English language qualification they require you to have to do before deciding which of the four Cambridge exams to do.

Sometimes they can be very specific about which exam you need to have done. And even though you may have the level of English they require through another exam, they can say the exam you have done is not recognised by them and that you have to take the exam they require.

Find out your current level of English

Although it isn't necessary to know what your level of English is to do the IELTS exam (if you can understand the majority of this article, you should be fine) it does if you want to do the FCE, CAE or CPE and pass them.

As I said earlier, the type of vocabulary and grammatical structures used (and what you are expected to use) in these three exams differs (FCE being the easiest and CPE being the most difficult). So before deciding which of these to do, you need to know what your overall current level of English is.

By knowing this, you'll know which of these three exams you should study for and do.

Don't use Cambridge's online exams to assess your level

Cambridge has some online versions of the exams which you can do. However, doing these is not going to show you what your level of English is or what exam you are suitable for.

Doing well at these exam has as much to do with knowing how to do the parts of the exams quickly and effectively as your level of English. And learning how to do these well takes months and months of study and practise.

How to find out what your English level is and which exam is right for you

Although there are some online ways to test your level of English (Cambridge has a free online grammar and vocabulary test which recommends at the end which exam you should do), I wouldn't trust too much in any of these.

None of the Cambridge exams just test your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, all four also test your speaking and listening abilities as well. And to know which of the exams you are right for, you need these evaluating as well.

Get your level tested at a language school/academy

By far the best way to know which of the exams you are suitable for is to do a level test at a language school/academy.

In the test they give, they'll normally get you to do a test to evaluate your grammar and/or vocabulary level, but they'll also evaluate your speaking and listening abilities by having a conversation with you.

After you have done it, they will tell you what your English level is and which Cambridge exam your level is suitable for.

This test will be free and you will be under no obligation to do classes with them after you have done it.

If you choose to do this, make sure that you do it in a language school/academy with a good reputation. Also make sure that they do classes/courses in the different Cambridge exams (you will be able to find this out on their website). The best language schools/academies to do level tests in are those which are Cambridge Preparation or Cambridge Exam Centres. If they are either, they will say this on their website.

Trust what they tell you

You may think that your level is higher than what they say and think you should do a higher level exam than what they suggest, but I would generally trust what they say.

If you think they have got it wrong, I would recommend that you try doing a level test at another language school/academy and see what they say. But if you do, don't tell them what happened at the other place you did it in. This will make sure they will give you their honest opinion what your level and what exam is right for you.

What exams I recommend

Having taught all four of the exams to students, if you have the choice, I would personally recommend doing the level specific exams (FCE, CAE or CPE). With these it is a lot easier to know what level and type of vocabulary and grammar you need to learn to do well in them.

Unfortunately because IELTS is a non-level specific, you don't. And it is this which makes it more difficult for most people to both study for and do the exam.

That's it

I hope this article has helped you know what the difference in the Cambridge English exams and know what to do to choose the best one for yourself.


We have lots of articles for you to learn about and improve doing the FCE exam or the CAE exam. To read these, click on the links below: