What exam should I do?

“Should I do IELTS or FCE / CAE?”

This is a common question we receive from students. In this article we will have a look at the different exams and give you all the necessary information you need to make an informed decision.

Before going any further, it is important to state that BOTH exams are recognised around the world and created by Cambridge University. There are some differences though, so let’s have a look at each one.


Who is it for?

FCE / CAE - The FCE exam (First Certificate in English) is for upper intermediate students who want to certify that they have a B2 level of English, whilst the CAE exam (Certificate Exam in Advanced English) is to certify that students have a C1 level.

IELTS – There are 2 different types of the IELTS exam (academic and general). Academic IELTS is usually used for students who want to attend university in a foreign country, whilst General IELTS is used for immigration purposes.


FCE / CAE - Both the FCE and CAE exams are very similar for their structure. They both contain 4 parts (although one part has 2 sections), these are:

·       Reading and Use of English

·       Writing

·       Listening

·       Speaking


IELTS – like the exam above, there are 4 parts to the exam:

·       Reading

·       Writing

·       Listening

·       Speaking

The reading and listening are different in the Academic and General exams. For example, in the academic IELTS exam, Part 1 of the writing is focused on writing about some data / a graph, like you might do in a more academic environment, whilst in the General paper, you need to write a letter.

 How long are the exams?

FCE / CAE - The FCE is 3 and a half hours long, whilst the CAE is 3 hours and 55 minutes long (plus the speaking exam).

IELTS – The IELTS exam is a bit shorter and lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes (plus the speaking exam).


How do the speaking exams work?

FCE / CAE - An important thing to note is that for the speaking part of the exam, you will be with another candidate. This is done to test your interactive communication; in some parts, you will answer questions on your own, whilst in others you will be expected to talk about something with your partner.

IELTS – In this exam, you will be alone with the examiner. There are 3 parts to the exam: in Part 1 you will answer some questions about general and familiar topics, Part 2 you will have to prepare a mini-monologue and in Part 3, you will answer some more general questions related to the topic in Part 2.

 Can I fail the exams?

FCE / CAE - In one word: yes. You will receive a grade A – C in both exams, they work as follows.


  A B C
FCE C1 B2+ B2
CAE C2 C1+ C1

There are a couple of important things to note here:

The first is that when you fail the exam by only a few points, your certificate will simply state the level below. Therefore, if you ‘slightly fail’ the FCE, you will receive a certificate that says you are a B1 Level user of English, but if you 'slightly fail' CAE, you will receive a certificate that says you are a B2 level user of English.

Furthermore, if you receive an A grade in either exam, let’s say in FCE, you will receive a certificate that says you completed a B2 exam at a C1 level, but this is NOT a C1 certificate.

This is the same for CAE, if you get an A, you will receive a certificate that says you completed a C1 exam at a C2 level, but again, this is NOT a C2 level certificate.

IELTS – You cannot fail the exam, as you are given a score from 1 – 9. Here is a breakdown of the scores starting from B1:

·       4            =            B1

·       4.5         =            B1

·       5            =            B1

·       5.5         =            B2

·       6            =            B2

·       6.5         =            B2

·       7            =            C1

·       7.5         =            C1

·       8            =            C2

·       8.5         =            C2

·       9            +            C2

In each of the 4 sections, you will be given a mark, then the average of the 4 will determine your overall score.

 Are these certificates accepted by universities and for job applications?

FCE / CAE - An FCE / CAE certificate are great things to put on your CV and make your application stronger. These certificates are internationally recognised and will demonstrate your level of English to the employer. Some universities accept these certificates, but in general, IELTS is usually preferred by universities.

IELTS – Yes, absolutely. As mentioned above, most universities will ask you for an IELTS score. In this case, the university will ask you to prove your academic English, so you will need to do the academic paper. If you need it for immigration purporses, you will need to do the general exam. It is also internationally recognised, so it will also boost your application.

 Do the certificates expire?

FCE / CAE - There is no expiry dates on these exams, but at the same time, if you got the certificate many years ago, an employer / university could ask you to verify your level again.

 IELTS – Yes, this exam expires after 2 years, so make sure you take the exam at the right time.

 Which exam is best?

This depends on your and your level. If you need an English certificate for a specific purpose (for example, to get a visa), you will usually be informed about which certificate you need. If it is not written, ask.

Remember that the IELTS exam expires, so if you are just doing the exam for your self-satisfaction and to give you the motivation to improve, then the FCE / CAE exam might be better, but as mentioned, it depends on your and your circumstances.

If you have any more questions about these exams, our reception staff will be happy to answer them.

Reading and Use of English (1), Writing (2), Listening (3) and Speaking (4), each paper making up a maximum 25% of the total marks. In the speaking test you have a partner with two examiners present and the test for about 15 -20 minutes.

How can I achieve a good grade in these exams?

You should always try to expand your lexis by reading, watching series and listening to music. What really helps though is also having the guidance of expert teachers who know the exam very well and can help you excel. There are many schools that are well prepared and can provide you with the expertise that you are looking for. For example, our school offers online courses for both IELTS and FCE and has teachers with many years experience of successfully preparing students for these exams.