A guide to English proficiency tests and scores for international students

Studying in a foreign country involves a lot of education requirements. One of the most common prerequisites, particularly in English-speaking study abroad destinations like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, are English proficiency tests. The required scores differ depending on the program and the university. But typically, international students need to achieve at least B-level scores to enrol. This ensures that they’re able to fully engage in their studies and understand technical concepts that arise in higher education.


English proficiency tests

There are multiple English proficiency tests available. Choosing which one to take will ultimately depend on what’s required by a university (some schools even accept a Duolingo English test!). The most popular ones are the IELTS, TOEFL, and TOEIC, but there are also the CELPIP and the Cambridge English Qualifications (KET, PET, FCE, CAE and CPE). Here’s a breakdown of each one.

IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

IELTS is the world’s most popular English language proficiency test, recognised by over 11,000 organisations worldwide. There are two types available: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. International students usually take the former IELTS exam, which measures a person’s fluency in academic English. Students can take the IELTS all over the world at more than 800 official testing centres.

IELTS tests listening, reading, writing and speaking, which make up the four sections of the exam. Each part generates an individual score. This is then added up to a total score that’s later reported as a band from one (lowest) to nine (highest). IELTS scores are valid for two years.

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

The Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C. developed the TOEFL, another American English proficiency test. It’s the most common requirement for universities in the USA, but it’s also accepted in many other institutions worldwide.

Similar to IELTS, TOEFL focuses on academic English fluency and tests a person’s listening, reading, writing and speaking skills. Results are also valid for two years. That said, the TOEFL is longer than the IELTS and consists of mostly multiple-choice questions. TOEFL test takers are also encouraged to focus on using either American English or British English (the IELTS grants more flexibility)

TOEFL scores are recorded as a total of each individual test, which ranges from 0 to 30. Thus, the maximum score one can achieve is 120.

TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication)

TOEIC mainly assesses workplace communication, so it mainly focuses on listening and reading. International students who score high on this test demonstrate their ability to communicate globally in professional settings, so it’s usually a prerequisite for work in private and public companies.

TOEIC test scores can reach up to 990, which is equivalent to the C1 level.

CELPIP (Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program)

CELPIP is a primary English proficiency test in Canada (IELTS is also accepted by most institutions). It focuses on North American English (versus the IELTS, for example, which includes variations from different English-speaking countries) and tests a person’s ability to understand everyday situations. It’s mainly used for immigration and professional purposes.

International students can take the CELPIP – General Test or the CELPIP – General LS Test. The former is longer at three hours as it covers the four major language skills. The latter only takes an hour and only tests speaking and listening.

Cambridge English Qualifications

Cambridge University developed the Cambridge English Qualifications as a universally accepted standard for English proficiency. Unlike with most tests, the results from these assessments are valid for life.

There are multiple qualifications: KET, PET, FCE, CAE AND CPE. Here’s an overview of each one.

KET (Key English Test)

KET is an elementary-level exam that tests a person’s ability to communicate in English in simple situations.

PET (Preliminary English Test)

PET is a lower intermediate-level test that measures one’s practical English language skills for everyday use, such as in simple conversations, for writing short messages or comprehending straightforward texts. It’s aimed at students who need to prove a basic level of English proficiency.

FCE (First Certificate of English)

FET proves if a person’s English fluency is enough to allow them to study courses taught in English or live and work independently in an English-speaking country. It’s designed for learners who have a good grasp of the language; they can express opinions, write detailed texts and hold conversations on different topics. Many students use FCE as their qualification for pre-university or undergraduate programs.

CAE (Certificate in Advanced English)

CAE is a high-level qualification that’s often required by universities and employers. Students who have obtained this credential can understand complex texts, express ideas fluently and participate in heavy discussions. It’s commonly used to prove a high level of proficiency for graduate or post-graduate studies.

CPE (Certificate of Proficiency in English)

CPE is the highest-level qualification for English fluency. It exhibits one’s ability to competently communicate in the language. Universities often require it for those taking doctoral or post-doctoral programs. Those who have obtained a CPE have a near-native command of the English language and can communicate with a high level of accuracy.


English proficiency scores

Each English proficiency test applies its own scoring system. These aren’t always comparable. But a good way to get an idea of how they translate to fluency is by using the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) as a reference.

The CEFR is an international standard for language proficiency. It measures scores as A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2, with A1 level denoting basic understanding and C2 signifying advanced English fluency.

Here’s how the different English proficiency scores rate based on the CEFR:

  • A1: 120–234 for TOEIC and 100–119 for Cambridge English KET.
  • A2: 235–549 for TOEIC, 4 for CELPIP, 120–139 for Cambridge English KET and 120–139 for Cambridge English PET.
  • B1: 4.0–5.0 for IELTS, 42–71 for TOEFL, 550–784 for TOEIC, 5 for CELPIP, 140–150 for Cambridge English KET, 140–159 for Cambridge English PET and 140–159 for Cambridge English FCE.
  • B2: 5.5–6.5 for IELTS, 71–94 for TOEFL, 785–944 for TOEIC, 6–7 for CELPIP, 160–170 for Cambridge English PET, 160–179 for Cambridge English FCE and 160–179 for Cambridge English CAE.
  • C1: 7.0–8.0 for IELTS, 95–120 for TOEFL, 945–990 for TOEIC, 8–9 for CELPIP, 180–190 for Cambridge English FCE, 180–199 for Cambridge English CAE and 180–199 for Cambridge English CPE.
  • C2: 8.5–9.0 for IELTS, 115–120 for TOEFL, 10–12 for CELPIP, 200–210 for Cambridge English CAE and 200–230 for Cambridge English CAE.


English proficiency for international students

Students must know the different English proficiency tests available. Additionally, they should understand what scores are needed to get into the university or course they intend to enter. Help international students achieve their study goals by guiding them through their English proficiency requirements. Learn more on the upGrad GSP platform.

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