If you are applying to university or college in an English-speaking country and English is not your first language, your institution may require you to take a standardised test to prove your English language proficiency.
And this will bring up the big question: should you take the IELTS or TOEFL exam? Let’s find out the differences between the two.
IELTS & TOEFL: know the basic
IELTS and TOEFL are the most popular standardised English language tests taken worldwide.
|Centres||1,100 test centres in over 140 countries.||4,500 test centres in over 165 countries.|
|Exam||It lasts for about 2h 45 minutes.||It lasts for about 4 hours.|
|Scoring||Each section is marked with a band from 0-9 (from these section scores, an overall 0-9 band is awarded).||120 marks, with 30 marks available for each section.|
Note: the desired score for IELTS is of around 6.5+ and for TOEFL – 80+.
We took a look at these two exams and compared them side-by-side, to see which one will give you the fastest kick-start before moving to an English-speaking country to begin your studies overseas.
How are they marked?
Although the IELTS and TOEFL exams are assessing the same thing, the marking of the exams works slightly differently for their 4 sections: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
In theory, it is possible to get an overall score of 0-4 for IELTS, but it is very unlikely to score this low since, with around 10% in the reading and listening and 30% in the speaking and writing sections, an overall score of around 4.5 should be easily obtained.
Each institution will set its own English language requirements for undergraduate and postgraduate (graduate) and should be available on their website.
If you cannot find this information, check with the institution so that you know what is required from your test results. Many institutions have minimum score requirements overall or for each section.
What do the tests consist of?
Both TOEFL and IELTS consist of 4 sections: Writing, Listening, Speaking and Reading.
TOEFL usually takes around 4 hours, whereas IELTS is usually shorter than that – at around 2 hours 45 minutes.
We will now look at each section below to discuss which test gives you better practical skills for living/working/studying in an English-speaking country.
- TOEFL: multiple-choice-only reading section (academic tests available).
- IELTS: range of 15 question types including short answer, true/false, summary and multiple choice.
With IELTS, you can select to take the Academic paper or the non-academic one. In real life, you are rarely asked multiple choice questions (outside of exam situations), so the IELTS gives you a more realistic, practical experience.
The exam splits into 3×20 minute sections, gradually getting harder. This should build up your confidence slowly through easy questions progressing onto the more difficult ones.
- TOEFL: always standard American English.
The TOEFL listening exam lasts between 40 and 60 minutes and is based on questions regarding university life situations.
- IELTS: different English variations from Ireland, Wales, USA, Australia.
The IELTS listening section lasts 30 minutes, divided into 4 sections, and it can cover an informational lecture, a conversation in an academic context and an academic lecture. The IELTS listening test ticks off a variety of tasks from sentence completion to matching headings.
- TOEFL: 20-minute conversation with a computer, recorded and assessed by an examiner at a later stage.
You are asked 6 university-related questions on various things such as hometown and family topics, and you will have to express your opinion on a chosen subject/given text.
- IELTS: slightly shorter; 12-15 minutes long. Split into 3 sections and conducted with a real examiner.
With fewer examples when you will have to talk to a computer, IELTS is much better for practising with a live tester (section 1).
You can’t hide from speaking English when it is the native language of where you are living, so don’t shy away from a real conversation.
During the IELTS exam, you will talk about your home, jobs, studies and you’ll have to prepare a monologue of 2 minutes tops on a certain topic (section 2).
At the end (section 3), you will have to answer questions based on the topic you spoke about initially in section 2.
- TOEFL: 2-question exam that lasts for 50 minutes and is typed on a computer.
First, you’ll have to read a text and listen to a lecture of about 2 minutes.
Based on this information, you’ll have to write a short answer to a specific question.
The next answer you’ll need to write down will require a longer reply (between 450 and 600 words).
- IELTS: Academic and General Traning – 2 different writing tests.
The Academic test is more suitable for you and all students who apply to go to universities, and it features 2 tasks, lasting for about 1 hour.
These answers are handwritten.
The first question involves interpreting a graph, table or diagram, and the next one involves a short 250-word essay answer as an argument or a discussion.
These tasks are quite evenly matched, but depending on whether you will need to write out things by hand or you will be using a laptop, computer or tablet for writing at university.
Either way, it is a good idea to practise both forms of writing, regardless of which method of assessment you decide on.
OK, but which one is more widely accepted?
Before you decide on which course you will take for your English as a foreign language qualification, if you are applying to study in the UK or in an English-speaking country, you must check which qualifications they will accept, as some universities will only accept one or the other. If you are unsure, you can search for the admissions department within the university’s website and email them to find out. The information should be listed on the site as well under the course requirements so if you have an idea about which course you would like to take, search for this and it should tell you what you need to know.
If you require a Tier 4 visa to study in the UK, it is recommended that you take IELTS or Pearson’s Test as TOEFL is no longer recognised by the UK Home Office as a Secure English Language Test.
In case you don’t require a visa for your studies, a TOEFL test will be enough for your application, as long as your scores meet the entry requirements, which are usually at fixed levels for the University, although some exceptions may apply.
If you’re still not sure which to choose, you can find out about Cambridge Advanced English (CAE), an alternative to TOEFL and IELTS, which is accepted by 99% of UK universities as a benchmark for the English Language.
The final verdict
Choose IELTS if you:
- are comfortable being interviewed
- have easy-to-read English handwriting
- prefer multiple question test types (true/false; fill-in-the-blank etc)
- understand various English dialects
- like talking about non-academic topics.
Choose TOEFL if you:
- are comfortable working with computers
- feel confident speaking into a microphone
- are good at answering multiple-choice questions
- prefer standard American English
- enjoy reading topics meant to inform
- manage to take notes from audio recordings.