IELTS or CAE which exam is better for you

There are 2 main exams you can chose but which one is more appropriate for you? IELTS or CAE and what are the differences and why would you pick one over the other?

This is often a question for most students studying English as a second language and if you don’t know the differences between the IELTS and CAE exams, what each qualification means for you and the different benefits of doing either one, you may be either wasting your efforts or not putting enough effort in. This article I shall explain the differences of each and what benefit IELTS or CAE have. Each exam and qualification is for different purposes and as a student you need to be clear on your long term goals and reasons on why you are wanting to learn English and what are your plans in the future.

What is IELTS or CAE exam?

Both are exams that test your English language skills across listening, speaking, reading and writing. Both exams are produced by Cambridge University with IELTS being jointly owned by Cambridge and the British Council. Both exams and qualifications are widely known and recognised around the world and you would not choose any other exam for your English qualifications.

Differences between IELTS and CAE

There are many differences between these exams. So before you make a decision it’s very important you understand what each qualification is better suited for. Completing the wrong exam may cause a problem for you in the future (not a major problem worst case scenario is complete the exam again)

For example if you complete the IELTS exam with the intention to find a professional employment opportunity you may discover that many big brand employers only accept high level CAE qualifications. Below I explain in more detail:


Studying IELTS is most suitable for immigration purposes or to gain acceptance into higher education in western universities.

  • Students who are wishing to migrate permanently to Australia or the UK are required to obtain a visa which requires a certain pass level in IELTS. (usually a mark 7 or above)
  • Students who wish to study in an Australian or UK University are required to have a level of IELTS English score to be accepted into the campus. (check with desired university)
  • IELTS will not give you assistance or advantage in securing employment opportunities
  • IELTS test results expire after 2 years. Therefore if you have not obtained your permanent visa or accepted into the university within the 2 years you are required to sit the exam again
  • IELTS has one exam explained here View Test format
  • Results are scored in ranking 1 through to 9. Usually 7 is required to qualify for visa in UK or Australia


Completing the CAE or CPE is suitable for job opportunities. Sometimes it may also be required for university courses or scholarships. The exam is more sophisticated (as explained below)

  • It’s recognised proof of your English level being high enough to work or study in a corporate or senior academic environment.
  • Companies such as Coca-Cola, Sony, KPMG accept CAE certificate
  • CAE test results do not expire. Therefore you have unlimited time to pursue your study or employment goals
  • There are several exams for different levels

How many CAE exams levels are available ?

Firstly there are several exams depending on your level.  Below I will summarise the exam formats only for CAE and CPE as they are the most common.

KET (Key) A2 Elementary – using simple English

PET B1 Preliminary – Intermediate use of English

FCE B2 First Certificate Exam – Upper-Intermediate – shows you can be independent on a English speaking country

CAE C1 Cambridge Advanced ExamIn depth high level language skills

CPE C2 Cambridge Proficiency Exam – Highest proficiency across all English. Cambridge highest qualification


Exam format for CAE – Advanced English

This exam covers all areas of English language ability. The exam is split into 4 tests across reading, writing, listening and speaking

Reading – 1 hour 30 minutes – 8 parts & 56 questions. Tests for knowledge of fiction, stories, news reports. Tests for your use of vocabulary and grammar in different situations

Writing – 1 hour 30 minutes – 2 parts. You create 2 writing pieces (essay, letter, email, report etc)

Listening – 40 minutes – 4 parts & 30 questions Testing your understanding of speech (radio, presentations, conversations)

Speaking – 15 minutes – 4 parts. Face to face normally speaking with another student

Recommended study material

Have a look at Cambridge English Compact by Peter May. Its recommended by Cambridge. This is a link to a list of books and CD Audio on Amazon. View Cambridge English Compact

Exam format for CPE

Similar to the CAE the CPE exam consists of 4 papers. Format may be almost exact to the CAE. However the CPE exam is quite different. I shall explain at the bottom:

Reading – 1 hour 30 minutes – 7 parts & 53 questions

Writing – 1 hour 30 minutes – 2 parts

Listening – 45 minutes – 4 parts and 30 questions

Speaking – 16 minutes – 3 parts

Recommended preparation material.

Here are previous test papers you can purchase online. I recommend this based on other students who have passed CAE and CPE exams who say it was well worth using. Buy previous CPE test papers

Main differences between CAE and CPE exam

The Cambridge CPE is a C2 level being Cambridge’s highest English qualification you can achieve. If you already have achieved CAE, please do not underestimate the CPE difficulty level.

More complex Grammar and advanced Vocabulary and idioms (local slang terms)

  • In CAE Writing exam your task is to complete writing assignments responding to certain passages from letters, reports, emails etc. In CPE you are asked to write more freely on topics that would require narrative and more descriptive words.
  • In CFE speaking you are expected to communicate in all situations covering unfamiliar and unexpected scenarios. CFE requires you to use accurate language to express complex concepts and ideas at the same time in an understandable measure

If you are going to take the CPE exam. I found a good site offering free services where they review your writing tasks. Best thing is its still for free.

Final Note from me

  • Good luck with which ever exam you chose. Remember preparation and time is key. Give yourself at least 4 months of preparation for these exams.
  • Its worth the investment to purchase previous test papers. Many students have said without the old test papers to give them a good outline of what the tests are like they would not have passed.


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