Cambridge FCE or TOEFL? Advanced or PET? TOEIC or APTIS? The Oxford Test of English or IELTS?
There are so many of them and yet so little understanding of what each encompasses that you come to feel that much choice is not actually what you wanted. But English is a global language and depending on many different purposes, you might be asked to take one of them.
Well, first of all…
… there are tests and there are exams.
Tests are run for the examiners to place your English level at a given moment, in order to assess your current knowledge and proficiency. There is basically the same and only sample of tasks for all the students, with an increasing level of difficulty, and the results are identified on a scale determined by the score obtained. Each test has a specific scale and in many cases, this has to be standardized in order to compare results.
Exams are usually a bit more complex. First of all, each exam normally addresses a specific level looked for by the student. So unlike tests, exams do not necessarily assess the current level of knowledge and proficiency at a given moment, but rather the other way around: whether the candidate has the necessary abilities to be placed on a specific level of reception and production of the skills asked for.
… test results are usually only valid for a short period of time – in most cases not longer than 2 years. Exam results have no expiration date: once successfully passed, an exam is a lifelong achievement. This specific difference has led some students to believe tests are usually easier than exams. Although not completely false, this assumption is based on the fact that the tests do have a structure that makes both production and assessment less complicated and faster.
Nevertheless, since tests results are only valid for a limited period of time, it´s safe to say that exams are rather more complex, since they assess not only current knowledge, but also the candidate´s ability to act and react in a whole wider range of linguistic and cultural situations.
Languages in general and English in particular are not just all about tests and exams; they are a lifelong experience and pretty much as when it comes to any other skill or ability, they are supposed to be based on a lifelong actual doing of it. Yes, learn the strategies for the exam, study for the test, but don´t give up on English as soon as you get the diploma. Mind the language, learn the culture, and understand its importance. Learn to swim in English phrasal verbs, ride English idioms, and drive English grammar. Once you do, you´ll never forget it.