What exactly is the difference between an IELTS exam and a Cambridge English exam such as the First (FCE) or Advanced (CAE)? This is a common question students ask. In this blog post we will have a closer look at both exams and outline similarities and differences.

First of all, both exams are testing a student’s English language skills and both exams are produced by the University of Cambridge. They are also both well-known and internationally recognized. Now, let’s have a look at some of the main differences.

Why do students take this exam?


Cambridge Exams IELTS
Increasing future job prospects is the main motivation for doing a Cambridge exam. An exam such as the CAE or Proficiency (CPE) is valuable proof of your level of English that you can include on your CV when applying for a job. It will demonstrate to your future employer that you possess the language skills needed to do the job. However, some scholarships or university courses might also ask you for a CAE or CPE certificate instead of IELTS. Students usually take an IELTS exam either for immigration purposes (e.g. to apply for a visa in the UK or Australia), or because they need a certain IELTS score in order to enter higher education. For example, if a student wants to study at a university in the UK.


Is there an expiry date on the exam certificate?


Cambridge Exams IELTS
There is no expiry date on any of the Cambridge English exams (i.e. KET, PET, FCE, CAE, CPE). Your IELTS certificate expires after 2 years. That means that if you need proof of your level of English three years after you have taken an IELTS test, you will have to sit the full exam again.


Are there different exams for each level?


Cambridge Exams IELTS

Yes, there are different exams for each level.
Have a look at the following Cambridge exam list:

KET – A2 Elementary

PET – B1 Pre-Intermediate/ Intermediate

FCE – B2 Upper-Intermediate

CAE – C1 Advanced

CPE – C2 Proficiency

They also off the KET, PET and FCE for schools exams which are designed for younger learners and teens.

There is only one test in IELTS for all levels. However, there are two different versions: one for academic English and one for general English. That means, taking an IELTS exam at intermediate level is more difficult than taking it at an advanced level.


How are the exams assessed and what result do you get?


Cambridge Exams IELTS

Cambridge exams are now scored using the Cambridge English scale. You will be given a score based on your performance. For example in the FCE if you achieve 160 – 173 you are awarded a grade C, 174 – 180 a grade B and 180 – 190 a grade A. If you get score between 140 and 160 you do not officially pass the FCE exam but you are given the B1 level.

You cannot fail an IELTS test. Instead, you will receive a band score ranging from 0 to 9 (with 9 being the highest). Usually the immigration office or university will let you know what band score you need in order to apply successfully. Here is a short description of each band:

Band 9: Expert user

Band 8: Very good user

Band 7: Good user

Band 6: Competent user

Band 5: Modest user

Band 4: Limited user

Band 3: Extremely limited user

Band 2: Intermittent user

Band 1: Non-user

Band 0: Did not attempt the test


How many parts does each exam have?


Cambridge Exams IELTS

The FCE, CAE and CPE all consist of 4 papers, although within paper 1 there are two sections:
Paper 1: Reading & Use of English
Paper 2: Writing (2 tasks)
Paper 3: Listening
Paper 4: Speaking

The IELTS test consists of 4 parts:

There is no Use of English section in the IELTS exam. The Speaking test may be offered on the same day or up to a week before or after the other parts.


How long are the exams?


Cambridge Exams IELTS

The FCE is 3 hours 29 minutes long; the CAE is 3 hours 55 minutes and the CPE 3 hours 56 minutes long.

The IELTS test is shorter with just 2 hours and 45 minutes.


What is the difference in the speaking exam?


Cambridge Exams IELTS

You take the FCE, CAE and CPE speaking exam with a partner. You will have to speak and answer questions on your own in some parts but you will have to talk about something together with your partner in other parts. Interactive communication is important and you will be assessed on that.

You will take the IELTS speaking test on your own without a partner.


How do the results in both exam types compare?

This table outlines how the results in the two exam types compare with one another.
The Cambridge English Scale
Source: Cambridge English

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By Billie Haase