Do I really need to do an exam?
If you are under 30, the answer to this question is most probably yes. While results of official exams don't always reflect a person's real capacity in a language, organizations and companies require official certificates. As time goes by, the English level required of a person qualifying from university with any degree, is going up.These days most 3rd level students will need to have a B2 qualification. Many vocational courses also require their students to qualify with a good level of English, at least B1. Any young person wishing to avail of public grants to go overseas, for example Erasmus or Leonardo grants, will need a good level of English. Many companies also require official certificates to make it to interview stage, for anyone who works in an office.
Which exam is best?
This depends on where you want to go and what you want to do. In the US, they accept TOEFL. All over Europe, Cambridge exams are standard, although many institutions also accept TOEFL. And here in Spain, the most commonly accepted certificate by public institutions is issued by EOI. This means if you want to apply for civil service positions in your region or avail of public grants using a qualification, you will need to go local: EOI. Companies in Spain may be flexible as to which qualification they accept, but they will want an official qualification from somewhere.
Exam Formats and Regulations
Each of these exams is very different, they are graded, weighted and formulated in entirely different ways. For example you will have grammar questions in the Cambridge exam but not in TOEFL or EOI, level B1. Formats and number of questions vary from year to year. For example, one year two compositions are required but the following only one. This is why it is necessary to be absolutely up-to-date with the official pages giving the latest information on the exam you choose. This usually means wading through a few pages of rather boring but necessary descriptions of exams.eoip.educacion.navarra.es/es/idiomas/ingles/examenswww.ets.org/toefl/ibt/aboutwww.cambridgeenglish.org/exams/
Each institution has official centres, all over Spain, where you can take exams at different points of the year. You will need to register months before you actually take the exam. For example, you have to register well in advance online in February to take EOI exams in May.
There are a plethora of free resources online and much excellent published material to help you. It is important to select material with answers. There is much you can do yourself as you can systematically work through material on your own. With a study mate you can practise doing speaking material. However, professional guidance is usually necessary to help you through an exam. An experienced tutor or teacher can orient you as to which level it is realistic for you to attempt, and help you to identify points to work on. He or she can also give you necessary feedback and correction, and ultimately save you time. Not all types of reading tasks are the same, and the techniques needed to do them correctly will vary. Here is where a student can particularly benefit from professional guidance. A trained teacher can guide students on the canons necessary for different types of writing tasks. This can be very difficult for students working on their own. If you are working with other students you can motivate each other and work together. At Inishouse students take exams at levels B1, B2 and C1.
Timed training and practice are essential. This is when you can discover if you can benefit by speeding up or slowing down as you do your tasks. It will indicate where you need to concentrate your efforts to improve. And during simulations of exams, trained professionals will demonstrate to you how the marking system works for the exam using templates. They will also give practice in the use of answer sheets. Quite apart from your level in the language, all of this training in strategies and formats, practice and knowledge, may well mean the difference between passing and failing the qualification that you need. Because exams are far less a question of luck than knowing what to expect and to how to approach it.