IELTS vs TOEFL: Which one do you need?
Looking to test your English knowledge with IELTS or TOEFL and don't know which one is better?
This comparison guide will help you make the right choice.
Here’s what we’re covering:
- What is IELTS
- What is TOEFL
- Which one is better (and why)
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
What is the IELTS Test?
IELTS is the ‘International English Language Testing System’ which tests English language proficiency across the globe.
It is one of the world’s most popular English-language tests for study, work and migration, conducting around 2 million tests each year.
The IELTS exam is available in two test formats: IELTS Academic or IELTS General Training. All candidates take the same Listening and Speaking tests, but different Reading and Writing tests.
The IELTS Academic version is the one that’s needed by students who want to study in an English speaking country. This is the test that we will focus on here.
There are 4 sections in the IELTS test. You will take the first 3 parts of the test — Listening, Reading and Writing — one after the other in that order. The Speaking element of the test may take place on the same day, or up to 7 days before or after depending on the booking conditions at your chosen test centre.
Section #1: IELTS Listening
The IELTS Listening section will assess a range of different listening skills such as understanding information and ideas, recognising opinions and attitudes, and following an argument.
You will listen to 4 recordings and then will need to write down your answers to a series of 40 questions based on what you have just heard. The questions will be in a variety of formats. The test itself will take 30 minutes, and you’ll have 10 minutes of extra time to allow you to transfer your answers over to your answer sheet.
Section #2: IELTS Reading
In the IELTS Reading section, you will be asked to read 3 different pieces of written content and answer 40 questions that are related.
The key skills being assessed here include your ability to pick up on key ideas, details and the overall sense of a piece of writing and also how well you can recognise opinions, attitudes and the development of an argument.
This section will last for 60 minutes in total.
Section #3: IELTS Writing
The next part of the test is the IELTS Writing section, designed to assess skills such as writing appropriate responses; organising and presenting your ideas; using a range of grammar and vocabulary in the correct context.
This section of the test is divided into two parts — Task 1, which you should spend approximately 20 minutes on, and Task 2, which should take 40 minutes. For Task 1 you will need to describe or explain data presented in a graph, table or chart. For Task 2, you will be asked to write a short essay responding to a point or view, argument, or problem.
Section #4: IELTS Speaking
The final part of the test is the IELTS Speaking section, in which you will have a conversation with a certified IELTS examiner. The Speaking section is interactive and will reflect a real-life situation.
The examiner will be looking for you to show that you have skills including
- Communicating opinions and information on everyday topics and common experiences
- Speaking at length about a given topic in an appropriate way
- Express, organise and justify your ideas and opinions
- Analyse, discuss and speculate about issues
What is the IELTS score?
When you get your IELTS Test Report Form (your official test results) you’ll see an ‘overall band score’ along with the results you achieved in each individual section of the test. Your overall score is calculated based on the mean result across the 4 sections.
IELTS bands start at 0 (did not answer the questions) and go up to 9 (expert user of the English language).
If you are applying for further study in the UK or another English speaking country, you should check the IELTS entry requirements for the institutions you would like to apply to, including any minimum requirements in specific subskills.
How much is the IELTS Exam?
The cost of the IELTS exam varies depending on which centre or country you will sit the test in. It’s best to check the official IELTS website or to contact your chosen test centre directly for the most up to date information.
Is IELTS paper based?
The IELTS test can be taken on paper or on a computer. The Speaking section will take place face-to-face with an IELTS examiner in both cases. When you book your test, you can specify which test format you’d prefer based on the options available at your local centre.
Can you take IELTS online?
In response to the temporary closure of many IELTS test centres during the COVID-19 pandemic, IELTS launched a new online version of the test called IELTS Indicator which can be completed online. Read more on the official website.
It’s important to note that the online IELTS test is not accepted for entrance at all education institutions. You can check whether the school or university that you would like to apply for will accept IELTS Indicator here.
Are IELTS test centres open?
Most IELTS centres around the world have reopened, and are now offering in-person tests again. You can again refer to the IELTS website for the up to date list of countries and centres which are open.
Extra safety and hygiene precautions were put in place to keep test takers and examiners safe.
Is IELTS hard?
As long as you take time to prepare for the IELTS test and to understand the format of the individual sections and questions, you should be able to cope with the test.
The IELTS test is designed to be challenging and to give an accurate reflection of a student’s current English proficiency level. It is not however meant to trick you or make it impossible to succeed! With IELTS, preparation is key.
How to prepare for IELTS
The best way to prepare for IELTS is to get to know the format of the test and understand the types of questions that you will be asked. It’s a good idea to practice answering sample questions.
You may want to consider taking an IELTS Preparation course at an accredited language school, where expert teachers can provide guidance and advice and help you prepare for the test alongside other students.
How long is IELTS valid?
IELTS results are officially valid for 2 years.
What is the TOEFL Test?
The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) assesses the ability of non-native speakers to use and understand university-level English in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
It is widely accepted by more than 11,000 universities and other professional institutions in over 150 countries, including the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Over 2 million people take the TOEFL test each year!
The TOEFL test has 4 sections - Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing. You’ll be asked to complete tasks that combine these 4 communication skills. For example, you may be asked to read a text, listen to a piece of audio, and then speak in response to a question.
Section #1: TOEFL Reading
The TOEFL Reading section will assess how well you can read and understand the types of materials in English that are used in an academic environment.
You will read 3 – 4 reading passages of approximately 700 words, and then will have 10 questions to answer about each passage. The reading material will be taken from university level textbooks on a variety of different subjects.
The total time for this section is 54 – 72 minutes.
Section #2: TOEFL Writing
In the Writing section of the test, you will be asked to complete two tasks in order to demonstrate your ability to write in English in an academic setting, and to present your ideas in a clear and well-organised way.
You will have 50 minutes in total to produce two pieces of writing — the ‘integrated writing task’ and the ‘independent writing task’.
Section #3: TOEFL Listening
Your ability to understand conversations and lectures in English are the primary skills the examiners will be looking out for in the TOEFL Listening section.
First, you will listen to 3 or 4 lectures of 3 – 5 minutes in length, with 6 questions to answer about each lecture. There will also be 2 – 3 conversations, each 3 minutes long, with 5 questions to answer per conversation you hear. The total time for this section is 41 – 57 minutes.
Section #4: TOEFL Speaking
The TOEFL Speaking section involves 4 tasks which will measure your ability to speak English within an academic setting. It’s designed to resemble real-life situations that you might find yourself in on-campus.
Question 1 is the ‘independent speaking task’, where you will talk about your own ideas and experiences. Questions 2 – 4 are called ‘integrated speaking tasks’ as they require you to combine different English language skills, like reading, listening and speaking.
The total time for this section is 17 minutes.
What is the TOEFL score?
Your TOEFL exam score will comprise 4 individual section scores, marked out of 30, which are added up to give a total score out of 120. Each skill has 4 or 5 proficiency levels — Below Basic, Basic, Low-Intermediate, High-Intermediate and Advanced.
How much is the TOEFL test?
The cost of registering for the TOEFL iBT (Internet Based Test) varies across locations, so you should check with your local test centre for up to date pricing.
In the US, most centres currently charge around $200 to take the test.
Can you take TOEFL online?
The TOEFL is available in two formats — 1 is delivered online (the TOEFL iBT) and 1 is paper-based. The TOEFL iBT is by far the most popular version, taken by around 98% of people worldwide, and is the version that is preferred by most higher education institutions as it measures all 4 key English skills.
Are TOEFL centers open?
Many TOEFL test centers are now beginning to reopen around the world after the mass closures during the Coronavirus pandemic. For the most up-to-date information about your local test center, you can search for available test dates on the official ETS TOEFL website here.
TOEFL has recently developed the new ‘TOEFL iBT Special Home Edition’ which allows students from certain countries to sit the TOEFL test online from home whilst some local test centers remain closed. You can learn more about the test, and where it is accepted, here.
Is TOEFL hard?
The TOEFL test is designed to represent the difficulty level of the English that you will be required to use and understand when studying at college level.
Spending time getting to know the format of the test, the individual sections, and the question types, will help you to prepare for the test and find it less difficult on the day.
How to prepare for TOEFL
There are many TOEFL preparation resources available online which you can use to understand how the test works and see sample questions.
If you would prefer to prepare for the test with specialised TOEFL teachers, and to learn alongside other international students in a classroom-based environment, it would be a good idea to enrol on a TOEFL preparation course at an accredited English language school.
How long is TOEFL valid?
TOEFL test scores remain valid for up to 2 years after you sit the test.
IELTS vs TOEFL: 5 Differences You Need to Know
Although both IELTS and TOEFL are well-respected and widely accepted, there are some key differences you should be aware of in terms of their use, structure and content.
Difference #1: American English vs. British English
The TOEFL uses mainly standard American English, and reflects the type of language you would be expected to communicate with in an academic context in the United States.
It is written and administered by an American exam board — ETS — and may be more appropriate for you if you are thinking about studying in North America or are more familiar with American English.
Although IELTS does not use any one form of English, it is run and accredited by the British Council, so is traditionally considered more appropriate for those who want to study in the UK or have learnt British English in the past.
For IELTS, it would however be perfectly acceptable for you to answer questions using British, American or other forms of English during the test.
The Listening section of the IELTS test may use recordings of English speakers using a variety of different accents or dialects, such as Australian, Scottish or North American.
Difference #2: Question types
The question types in the IELTS test are varied and include things such as short writing tasks, gap-filling, matching, labelling, sentence completion and others.
With the TOEFL, the majority of the questions are multiple choice.
Difference #3: Speaking section format
The Speaking section of the IELTS test will take place face-to-face with a qualified IELTS examiner.
In the TOEFL iBT, the speaking section will involve speaking into a microphone which will record your answers and then submit them to TOEFL examiners remotely to be assessed.
There are pros and cons with both formats, so think about what you would feel most comfortable with.
Difference #4: Typed vs. handwritten
Although computer based IELTS tests are becoming more popular, most are still paper based and involve hand-writing your answers to questions in the answerbook.
With the TOEFL iBT, you type your written answers directly into the computer.
You should consider whether you feel more comfortable typing and writing by hand in a timed environment.
Difference #5: Availability of test centres and test dates
The TOEFL iBT is offered with weekly start dates at over 4,000 accredited test centers worldwide, with an average of 30 – 40 dates available at each center per year.
There are around 1,600 IELTS Academic test centres located around the world, but if you specifically need to take IELTS for UKVI, this number decreases to approximately 140 permanent centres globally.
Make sure to check which type of IELTS you need, and whether this is available at a test centre that you can reach.
Which English Test Is Better for You?
There are many different official English proficiency tests now available, but if you are planning on studying or working abroad in an English-speaking country, IELTS or TOEFL are still the most popular and widely-recognised by both educational institutions and employers.
When deciding which test is best for you between TOEFL and IELTS, you should consider:
- Are you more comfortable with American English, which features more heavily in the TOEFL test? Or are you confident in listening to and understanding different English accents and dialogues, which you will hear in the IELTS exam?
- Do the multiple choice questions of the TOEFL appeal to you? Or would you prefer a variety of question formats like you will find in the IELTS test?
- Are you confident in speaking face-to-face with an IELTS examiner during the Speaking section? Or would you feel more comfortable speaking into a computer microphone and recording your answers, as with the TOEFL iBT?
- Would you prefer to write your answers by hand, as with the paper-based IELTS test? Or do you work better when typing into a computer?
- Which official test centre will you take IELTS or TOEFL at? Is there a test centre near you that offers the type of test that you need?
And finally — and most importantly — you need to check whether you need a particular test for your visa application, or the specific institution or employer you are applying to.
Now Over to You
So, there you have it.
You now know how IELTS and TOEFL compare to each other.
Keep in mind that the test of English you’re going to choose heavily depends on your future study plans, professional status and personal situation.
We hope that this guide will help you make the right decision.
Which test are you going to take? Is it IELTS? Or maybe TOEFL?
If you would like more information about IELTS Preparation or TOEFL Preparation courses with Kings in the UK or USA, or about our online IELTS and TOEFL SmartClass courses, you can send us a message using the Live Chat or Enquiry Form.
Alternatively, you can send us an email firstname.lastname@example.org