The Complete Guide to English-Language Certificates

When you are applying for a study programme abroad you will most likely need an English-language certificate, proving that you have sufficient knowledge of it so that you can participate in classes and understand the materials. These days, countries all over the world are offering courses exclusively taught in English, making it easier for foreign students to enroll in degree programmes abroad.

Getting a certificate not only costs money; but it also takes a lot of time to prepare. So make that you start studying and preparing early, taking your English test with enough time to meet your deadlines.

You can also prepare for taking your English language certificate by attending an English language school in top cities in the UK or cities in the USA. 

Below will go through some of the general and basic information about the English-language certificates that are widely accepted around the world. Make sure to see know these details thoroughly and have everything you need for your programme.

Language Levels

The Common European Framework (CEFR), divides learners into six different levels:

A Basic Speaker

  • A1 Breakthrough or beginner
  • A2 Waystage or elementary

B Independent Speaker

  • B1 Threshold or intermediate
  • B2 Vantage or upper intermediate

C Proficient Speaker

  • C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
  • C2 Mastery or proficiency
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For each level, there is a description of what the learner has to be able to do in reading, listening, speaking and writing. Those descriptions apply to any language. Usually, the expected level for study programmes in most world countries is around B. However, certain universities or programmes (e.g. English literature) might require a higher level than that. That can be helpful if the university you are applying to does not have specific guidelines for your certificate.

English certificates

English is obviously the most popular language of instruction. Even in international oriented national programmes, a certificate might be needed to proof sufficient English skills for English-taught courses. The below-mentioned certificates are the most popular ones used in the academic field.

English language tests

1. Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

TOEFL is an English certificate which aims for academic use and is widely used around the world. The only test form currently offered is an internet-based test (iBT) which can be taken in numerous test centres worldwide and takes about 4 hours. The grade of the test is equally combined out of the following four parts. Each part is graded with up to 30 points which adds up to a maximum score of 120 points.

  • Reading comprehension
  • Listening Comprehension
  • Speaking
  • Written Expression

During the entire test, you are just interacting with a computer. In the first two parts, you read and hear texts about various topics and answer multiple-choice questions about the content later. In the speaking part, your spoken answer is recorded, sent to an online scoring network and evaluated by three to six raters later. The written part is evaluated by this online scoring network as well.

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The most common score required by universities is 79-90 (B1/B2). Some universities also require minimum scores in some of the 4 test parts. With $240 (can differ depending on your country) TOEFL is in the same price range as the other English language certificates. The certificate is valid for two years. Be aware that it takes several weeks after the test before you receive your results!

2. International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

IELTS offers an academic version of their test, especially suited to this user group. Like TOEFL, IELTS is widely recognised in all English-speaking countries as well as for many English-taught programmes around the world. Besides, IELTS is also accepted as language proof for certain working permits as well as for immigration. Also at the IELTS four parts are tested:

  • listening (40 minutes)
  • reading (60 minutes)
  • writing (60 minutes)
  • speaking (11-14 minutes)

This adds up to a test duration of about 3 hours. Tests can be taken in over 500 test centres worldwide and contrast to TOEFL, the speaking part is conducted face-to-face with a certified examiner. The total grade for the IELTS test ranges from 1-9. Common scores required needed to be admitted for English programmes range from 5.5 to 6.5. Currently, the IELTS costs 190 and is valid for two years. IELTS guarantees an evaluation of the test within 13 days. The results can be then viewed online and are mailed from the national office on the same day.

3. Cambridge English Examinations (CAE)

Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations) is a non-profit organisation offering English language certificates for different language levels. The First Certificate in English (FCE) as about the same level as the common scores for the TOEFL test (B1-B2) and is, if passed, graded from A-C. It is comparable to IELTS 5.5-6.5. The Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) is oriented at the quite high C1-C2 levels (IELTS 6.5–8.0) and is required at many British universities. The Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) is the most advanced exam ranked at C2 level which is well above the maximum scale of the TOEFL test and equals a 8 and above in the IELTS test. In contrast to the other certificates, the test consists of five parts:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Use of English (Grammar use etc.)
  • Listening
  • Speaking

The Cambridge Certificates are mainly used within the UK but they are also accepted in many universities outside of the UK. However, they are not as popular as TOEFL and IELTS certificates. In contrast to many other certificates, the Cambridge certificates do not expire.

4. Other certificates

Besides the above-mentioned certificate, also the following certificates are quite popular. They not designed for academic use but might still be accepted in some universities. Business-related certificates such as the BEC might be even required for some MBA programmes.

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  • Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC)
  • Business English Certificate (BEC)

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