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by Aggie Chapman

What’s the difference between Cambridge and IELTS? It’s a question I’ve been asked countless times over the years.

IELTS and Cambridge exams are both widely recognised worldwide, yet some institutions require a particular exam, and won’t recognise its equivalents. Universities, for instance, seem keen on academic IELTS, though some of them accept higher level Cambridge exams (usually it’s Advanced, Proficiency, or First passed with grade A). That’s why, before choosing the exam to take, do your homework – find out if you have a choice at all. It’s also worth remembering that at the end of the day, the results of different exams must be comparable – so even though one of them may appear easier, they do test the same areas of language and it’s impossible to take a shortcut by taking one exam over another.

Both Cambridge and ILETS are available in paper-based and computer-based formats. Most exam centres offer both options and it is mostly a matter of preference which one you sit. If you take the computer-based exam, speaking will still be conducted face-to-face.

The Level and Structure

The first big difference is in the test format. Cambridge exams are level specific – each is for candidates at a certain level: Key (A2), Preliminary (B1), First (B2), Advanced (C1), and Proficiency (C2). This means that candidates taking an exam at A2 level will get a different test to someone taking a C1 exam. The structure of the test will be different, the time for each part of the exam differs according to the level, and of course, the language will be more difficult at higher levels. As it is a level-specific exam, candidates can pass it or fail. There are 3 pass grades: A (the highest), B, and C (the lowest). Getting an A means that your English is at a higher level than that of the exam.

IELTS, on the other hand is not level-bound, so every candidate (on the same day, in the same exam centre) gets the same test. The level of the candidate’s language is determined by the final mark – from 0 to 9. If an institution requires IELTS certificate, they usually set the minimum at band 5.5 (low B2 level), and often higher.  You can’t pass or fail this exam but remember that often there is a prerequisite of a certain IELTS band set by institutions, and not achieving it is pretty much the same as failing.

General, or…?

Both Cambridge and IELTS  are available as a general exam, as well as a specialist version. Cambridge has a business English version – BEC available at 3 levels (Vantage, Higher, and Advanced), a business-oriented exam, with generic business topics and vocabulary. IELTS’s academic version is aimed at university students, thus the material is quite scientific – regardless of your academic background, or future course at university, you need to be ready to work with texts from a wide range of subjects, such as biology, history, science, to name a few.

Exam Format

Cambridge exams have the advantage that their format is fixed. Once you get familiar with the types of questions for the level you are interested in, you know that this is what you will see in the exam. You also see similar activities at each level, although the material becomes more complex as you advance. It’s not the case in IELTS, where there are various types of tasks that can be used in the exam papers. Sure, it is possible to practise working with all of them and prepare, but there is an element of uncertainty as to which exact activities will be included in the test. The part that has a set structure in both Cambridge and IELTS exams is speaking – you know what kind of tasks to expect and in what order. The difference is that Cambridge speaking is taken in pairs, sometimes in a group of three, whereas in IELTS it’s individual. In both exams there is a strict time for the speaking component, plus the IELTS test is recorded and marked by a different person to the examiner you meet in the exam.

What is Tested

The thing that often appeals to students is the difference in focus in the two exams. While Cambridge tests all language skills (listening, reading, writing, and speaking), plus use of English (grammar and vocabulary), IELTS is a skill-focused test and doesn’t have a grammar or vocabulary test component. This may suggest that IELTS is easier, but it’s not necessarily so. Bear in mind that the results of all exams must correspond to the levels on the CEFR. It means that even if there isn’t a separate part of the exam testing grammar and vocabulary, candidates must demonstrate their command of the language at a given level. It means that you have to show the examiners that your language is really good by consistently using the vocabulary and grammatical structures at the level you are aiming to achieve. Come to think of it, unless you are well-trained to do so, it may be easier to show your knowledge of high-level vocabulary and structures in the exercises designed to test them, than to spontaneously produce them.

The Results and Validity

You get your results much faster in IELTS, where it takes between 3 and 13 days. The results of the computer-based test are available 3-5 days after the exam, and in the paper-based version it takes 13 days. You can also see your results online for 28 days.

Cambridge takes longer to release the results – 2-3 weeks for the computer-based exam, and between 4 and 6 weeks for the paper-based version. You can also see your results online if you register for this service.

The point to consider may also be when you think you’ll need your certificate. IELTS is valid for 2 years from the date of the exam, while Cambridge exams never expire – once you’ve passed your exam, the certificate is valid forever. Sounds great – however, don’t forget that language is one of the skills which fades if it isn’t used regularly. How impressed would you be with someone’s certificate taken 10 or 20 years ago? Would you believe that their level is as high today?  Not necessarily, unless the person has the opportunity to use the language regularly. This might be the reason why some institutions insist on presenting a more recent certificate.

When you are choosing the exam it’s really important to think about all the details. Have a go at past papers to get a feel of the test, ideally with an experienced tutor who can evaluate your performance, especially speaking and writing, according to the exam marking criteria. I always start exam courses with a practice test to show the person where they are and explaining what he or she needs to work on to achieve the desired results. Later I mix exam practice with fun activities that make learning the language more enjoyable and memorable!

Doing an exam practice test you may get surprised that what initially appeared easy, is actually more difficult, or vice-versa. It might also turn out that with right level of English and some practice, the exam type doesn’t really matter.

You can read more about the CEFR here and the overview of each level:

Level A1

Level A2

Level B1

Level B2

Level C1

Level C2

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