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CAE and IELTS – how do they compare?

Many people get fed up with IELTS – understandably. For some, there may be a better option they haven’t considered. It won’t work for everyone but CAE can be an alternative. If CAE means nothing to you: here is a very quick outline guide of how CAE and IELTS compare. Take a quick read and then if you think it might work for you,look for the links at the bottom of the page which will take you to places where you can find out much more.

What CAE is

CAE stands for Cambridge Advanced English (or sometimes Cambridge English Advanced!). You’ll see below that it is in some ways very similar to IELTS and has papers to test every skill in English. It is a global exam used to measure your level of English and can be taken in almost every country worldwide. One relatively recent change is that tests now take place regularly throughout the year and there is also a computer-based version.

The major difference with IELTS is that it tests English at one level only – C1 on the CEF scale. This is approximately the equivalent of 7.0 + in IELTS (which doesn’t really map onto the CEF scale). This means it is only suitable for high-level candidates.


You can find more about it on the official site, which has a brief and very good guide for students.

Who accepts CAE?

It is a global exam and is accepted by over 3000 institutions – for instance a huge proportion of British Universities accept CAE (or in some cases CPE – a higher level exam). To find out if it could work for you, you need to do a little research. I’d add that while it is becoming more popular, IELTS is still more generally accepted worldwide.

This page shows you some of the places that will accept it. Otherwise, I suggest you contact the university you are applying to and ask. You never know.

The level

One big difference with IELTS is that it is a fixed level test. What does this mean in practice? It’s not easier, it’s just different. If you are a high level candidate you need the same sort of language skills as you need in IELTS. You should be aware that

you do need to be a high level candidate – i.e. someone aiming for band score 7.0 (though there are other exams at other levels: FCE is lower and CPE is higher)

there is for now an English in Use paper which tests your vocabulary and grammar – IELTS doesn’t have anything like this and if you haven’t studied English intensively this paper may be too hard. BUT in 2015 (next year) this paper will disappear and be used to make a bigger reading paper – that could make life easier

the questions are  overall slightly less academic than IELTS: the reading passages in particular are more accessible and the writing paper doesn’t ask you to write about global issues so much

How each paper works in comparison to IELTS


This is very different to IELTS. You do spend some time talking directly to the examiner, but you take the test with another candidate and you are expected to spend as much talking to that person as the examiner – it is much more like a real conversation. Indeed, you are graded (partly) on your ability to communicate with other people in the right way.


Again, there is a major difference to IELTS here – you get to listen to the recordings twice. This does not necessarily make the test easier as some of the question types are slightly harder than IELTS and none of the listenings are as easy as IELTS part 1 listening.


There are more texts than IELTS, but they are shorter and have more different types of texts than IELTS. There is a lot to read and timing is still an issue, but it might not be so big a problem as in IELTS.


Just as in IELTS you need to produce two pieces of writing. You actually have to write more than in IELTS but you have more time. One big difference is that you get a choice of questions to answer (thank you Helen for reminding me). There is also a greater range of types of writing you need to be able to produce – e.g. letters/reports/essays/proposals. That can take time to learn. Typically, though the writing is less academic than IELTS and you are not asked to discuss “world issues ” nearly so much. If you are younger, this can be an advantage.

English in Use

This is the “grammar and vocabulary” paper. It will disappear in 2015 but some of the question types will be added to a new style reading paper. There are a range of different types of question, including gap fill vocabulary questions, select the right word questions and word formation questions. To see if you could cope I suggest you try this quick test from Cambridge who make the exam:

Begin Test – General English

You can also download a sample test from their site – complete with listening practice!

What to do next

If you think it might work for you, I suggest that you

find out if your target institution will accept it

make sure that there is an examination centre near you

find out more about the test (this is a very brief overview)

There are two places to find out more:

CAE from Cambridge: the official site which is clearly laid out and has lots of resources and information

Flo Joe: this is the ultimate exam preparation site -visit it even if you don’t want to do the exam – the resources there will help you anyway. I particularly love the Word Bank


Get more help with IELTS preparation on the main pages of my site

Home page

Speaking Guide

Writing Guide

Essay writing guide

Academic task 1 guide

Letter writing guide

Reading guide

Listening guide

IELTS vocabulary

IELTS grammar

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13 Responses to CAE and IELTS – how do they compare?

  1. Helen ESL November 6, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    Another nice feature of the CAE is that the test taker gets to choose which type of writing task he wants to complete for the second writing part. This of course means that the student will have to learn several different writing styles but it may help the candidate who feels that the limited task 1/ task 2 style of IELTS does not benefit him.

    • Dominic Cole November 6, 2014 at 11:55 am #

      Good point. I’ll add that to the post. BTW I’m intending to add (periodically) slightly more extended guides to each paper. My personal view is that more than a few people may be taking the wrong exam!

  2. rafia rehman August 16, 2015 at 6:12 am #

    I want to apply for australian immigration and need 7 bands in each module to apply. I have given ilets twice and got 6.5 bands. I am very much wirried someine told me CAE is easier then ilets and can get scores easilyn i am very confused. Please help me what to do?should I rry for CAE or not.

    • Dominic Cole September 2, 2015 at 10:38 am #

      That rather depends on whether CAE is sufficient for your purposes. The test isn’t easier, it’s just different.

    • M adnan September 10, 2015 at 9:42 am #

      I got an IELTS Band 7.0 in 2009 in Australia But didn’t apply for PR. After finish my studies on scholarship, I came back to Pakistan. Now I will apply for Subclass 189 Skilled Immigration in January 2016. For this, I have recently done CAE with IELTS equivalent Band 7.5 overall with minimun 7.0 each. So Its a little easier than IELTS but more different as well. So U can do CAE this time to get your worry of.


      M Adnan

      • Dominic Cole September 10, 2015 at 9:55 am #

        Thanks for this and well done on your results!.

    • jahanzaib ghani September 18, 2015 at 10:55 am #

      Rafia Ahmed….i have the same problem as you have…now what you have decided to take test???


      Jahanzaib Ghani

  3. jahanzaib ghani September 18, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    i have the same problem like Rafia Ahmed and i did take IELTS 03 Times but got 6.5 Overall . now i am bit confuse to take whether to take CAE or IELTS ???

    Jahanzaib Ghani

  4. irfan kayani December 7, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

    slam to every one here best thing which i wanna share with you guys is getting 7 or 7 plus ielts score is no big deal.
    do contact via mail and ill tell you how it could be possible.

  5. Ali February 19, 2016 at 9:22 pm #

    Insha ALLAH I am also Going to take CAE exam for Australian immigration….one drawback i heard about Cae that a person can only apply for Australian immigration not another countries are supporting cae for immigration….

  6. M imran khan June 1, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    I have the same problem like rafia and jahanzaib so what you people decide CAE or IELTS

    Imran khan

  7. qasim June 13, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

    PTE is the easiest. All of you who are interested in immigration opt for PTE.

  8. Ali October 19, 2016 at 6:28 am #

    I’ve been preparing myself for cae and as far as I know cae is more difficult than ielts because ielts is known as a technical exam which means you can get 6 to 7.5 by learning specific technics but to pass cae exam you are supposed to have an excellent grasp of English in the realm of collocations ,word formation, grammar , and so forth. That’s why cae is known as a more reliable exam

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