When it comes to taking English exams to get into an English-speaking university, there are two that certainly stand out: TOEFL and IELTS. You may find that the university or universities you are applying to accept both, and so you want to see which one is best for you to take. This post will help you understand the similarities and differences so that you can make the best decision for yourself!
The origins of the TOEFL
In the early 1960s, several governmental and private bodies in the United States began to discuss how to evaluate the language skills of university students who desired to go to the US to study. Shortly after, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) was born, and the rest is history! Now the TOEFL is not only accepted for entry into US universities but in many other English-speaking universities around the world as well!
ETS®, the makers of TOEFL, administer more than 2 million TOEFL tests each year across 4500+ testing centers in over 150 countries around the world. That is a massive reach!
The origins of the IELTS
About 20 years after the TOEFL, the IELTS was born. It was initially developed by the British Council and the Cambridge English Language Assessment. A few years later, they enlisted the International Development Program of Australian universities’ help to help them revise the test, as it wasn’t functioning as they would have liked. Together, the three bodies revamped the test, and they remain partners in what today we know as the IELTS (International English Language Testing Service).
The IELTS is currently administered more than 3.5 million times every year across 1600 testing centers in 140 countries worldwide. That is also an incredible number of tests administered each year!
Now that we have a little bit of background on the two tests, let’s dive in to see how they are similar and how they are different.
The four areas of communication
The first area of similarity will probably not come as a surprise. Both the TOEFL and the IELTS test you on the four main areas of communication: Listening, Reading, Speaking, and Writing. Typically a university will want you to have proficiency in each of 4 areas of communication to deal with everyday life. If you are taking the IELTS General for immigration or work purposes, you will also need to ensure that you are skilled in each of the four areas.
The makers of the TOEFL and the IELTS grade their respective tests similarly. For both tests, you do not lose points for incorrect answers in the listening and reading sections. This is great because you can use a “process of elimination” strategy to increase your chances of getting the correct answer to a difficult question. Put briefly, the process of elimination is eliminating answers that are not correct. Each incorrect answer you eliminate increases your odds of guessing correctly.
As far as writing and speaking go, graders for both tests use similar rubrics against which they evaluate your answers:
- Answering the question
- Range of grammar and vocabulary used correctly
- Pronunciation – whether or not it obscures your communication and the influence of your first language
- Answering the question
- Range of grammar and vocabulary used correctly
It is tricky to compare TOEFL and IELTS costs because, for both tests, the costs depend on the country in which you take it. That said, both tests hover at an average of the USD$250 mark. Here is a table comparing the costs in some countries. If your country is not listed, you can click on the link in the bottom row to look at what it would cost to take each test for you.
|Italy||USD 270||€241 (from Jan 2021)|
|South Africa||USD 230||ZAR 3560|
|India||USD 185||INR 14000|
|Germany||USD 260||€243 (from Jan 2021)|
|Austria||USD 270||€243 (from Jan 2021)|
|Mexico||USD 185||USD 215|
|China||Check TOEFL website||RMB 2170|
|Other countries||TOEFL cost||IELTS cost|
Now that we have seen what they have in common, let’s have a look at what makes them different so that you can decide which option is best for you!
The TOEFL is pretty much only computer-based at this point. This is what you will know as the TOEFL iBT. There used to be a paper-based/paper-delivered test that was more widely available. Still, ETS now only offers the PDT/PBT where the TOEFL iBT is not available. This is very rare, as only about 2% of all TOEFL tests are paper-delivered.
You may be asking yourself how the speaking portion of the test works for the TOEFL. This part of the test for the TOEFL iBT is recorded at your computer, and graders grade your recorded responses once you have finished your test and submit it for grading. There is no speaking section in the TOEFL PDT/PBT.
The makers of IELTS offer either a paper-delivered test or a computer-delivered test; it is your choice as to which you would prefer.
As for the speaking portion, this is always done with a live examiner, unlike the TOEFL’s speaking portion.
While the TOEFL can be used for almost anything, since the test themes are academic, the TOEFL is typically used for entrance to higher education institutions, such as universities.
In fact, it is typically not used for immigration purposes. Immigration in the United States does not require it and some governments, such as the United Kingdom, do not accept the TOEFL for immigration purposes. If you want more information on TOEFL and the United Kingdom, I have written a post that delves deeper into this topic.
IELTS, on the other hand, has two different tests based on what you need it for. IELTS General is for general use, work, and immigration. In contrast, the IELTS Academic is used for higher education admissions and professionals. If you want to go to the UK, either test is accepted by immigration for your visa application, so you don’t have to worry about taking two tests. Since things can change, it is generally a good idea to check the visa requirements in your destination country before choosing which test to take.
Whether you take the IELTS General or Academic, the listening and speaking tests will be identical for both examinations. What changes between the two are the reading and writing sections.
The amount of time each test takes is pretty much the same if you look at actual testing time. The TOEFL takes between 2 hrs 40 mins and 3 hrs, while the IELTS takes 2 hrs 45 mins. What makes a big difference are two interlinked factors.
- IELTS is done in two sessions, whereas TOEFL is done in one
- TOEFL has about three times more testing centers than IELTS
The IELTS listening, reading, and writing portions of the test are all done in one day without a break between sections. All good up to this point. The speaking session, however, is done up to a week before the other sections. As we said above, the IELTS speaking portion is always done with a live examiner, so speaking needs to be scheduled for another moment.
Fewer testing centers
IELTS has around 1600 testing centers, while TOEFL has over 4500. This means that it may be more difficult for you to get to an IELTS testing center than it is for you to get to a TOEFL one. This is already a pain if you have to go once, but since you will have to go twice, that can be pretty time-consuming, and what seemed like a short test actually ends up taking longer.
Types of questions
The TOEFL Reading section has 3-4 passages, each with 10 questions. The question format is exclusively multiple-choice with single-select and multi-select questions. A single select question means that there are a certain number of possible answers to the question, but only one of them is correct. Multi-select questions require you to choose multiple answers from the choices provided, the combination of which form the solution. These types of questions are usually worth 2-3 points. You can get partial credit depending on how many of the answers you choose are correct.
For example, if the test asks you to select three answer choices to form your answer to a particular question, the answer will be worth two points. If you get 0 or 1 correct, you will receive 0 points; if you get two right, you will receive 1 point; and if you get all three correct, you will get 2 points.
While most of these multiple-choice questions are in question-and-answer format, some of the questions towards the end of each section are slightly different.
One of these question types is in the form of a table. For example, you may have a passage comparing and contrasting two soccer teams, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. After the passage, it will ask you to put 2 or 3 answers under each team. You can put your answers in any order, as long as they are under the correct heading (under the correct team, in this case).
|FC Barcelona||Select 3|
|Real Madrid||Select 2|
A. This team plays at the Bernabeu stadium.
B. Cristiano Ronaldo played for this team.
C. Lionel Messi has played for this team since his youth.
D. Their stadium is Camp Nou.
E. They emphasize the importance of ball retention, and cultivate this strategy through an exercise called “el rondo.”
F. Gigi Buffon is their goalie.
G. This team is consistently at the bottom of the table in “la Liga.”
The IELTS, however, is quite different. You will have multiple choice questions on your exam, but you will also have to write out short answers, label diagrams, make summaries, and identify information. In this sense, IELTS is a little bit more challenging: you will need to find the information yourself and write it out yourself in many cases.
If you are taking the IELTS Academic, the texts will be academic, while the IELTS General will contain texts that you will find in everyday contexts (e.g., news, books, magazines, advertisements, company literature). The IELTS Academic has 3 passages, while the IELTS General has three sections: the first section contains 2-3 short texts; the second, two texts; and the third, one long text. Both tests have 40 questions.
You have 60 minutes to complete the reading section.
The TOEFL Listening is similar to the reading section. You will be given a series of multiple-choice questions, most of which will be single-select and some of which will be multi-select. As with the reading section, you get points for correct answers, but you are not penalized for incorrect answers.
There will be two types of listening exercises: lectures, of which you will find three to four on the test; and conversation, of which you will find two to three. Each lecture is accompanied by six questions, and each conversation is accompanied by five. This section lasts between 41 and 57 minutes, depending on the number of lectures, conversation, and corresponding questions.
There are two types of questions that are not multiple-choice: the first involves putting events in order (it is a sort of multiple-choice because you just put the letters in order); the second involves putting checkmarks in the correct places on a table. You will need to take information from what you heard and apply it to the table.
For example, let’s say you listened to a lecture on the types of materials a particular woodshop uses when making furniture for their customers. Based on what you hear, you will need to answer the following question:
What type of materials do the workers use to make the different types of furniture?
The IELTS Listening has multiple choice questions, although you will be asked to write out information based on what you hear as well. Hence, it is similar to the IELTS reading section. Some of the answer formats are short-answer, labeling diagrams, summaries, and identifying information, and there are a total of 40 questions.
These are the four parts to the listening section, each accompanied by 10 questions:
- A social conversation between two people
- A monologue on an everyday, social topic
- A conversation involving 2-4 people in an academic context
- An academic monologue, such as a lecture
As you listen, you will record answers on your question paper. After the listening section is completed, you will have 10 minutes to transfer your answers to the answer sheet for grading. Again, you will need to be careful, as the graded answers are the ones you write on the answer sheet.
There are two tasks in the TOEFL writing section: an independent task and an integrated task. The integrated task lasts for 20 minutes, while the independent task is 30 minutes long.
Integrated task – you have 3 minutes to read a passage, and then you will listen to a lecture on the same topic; you will be asked to write how the lecture either challenges or strengthens the points made in the reading.
Independent task – you will write for 30 minutes about your preference or opinion on a given topic.
While the IELTS also has two writing tasks, it is a little bit longer than the TOEFL writing section – it is 60 minutes long. Another difference is that there is no integrated task in the IELTS writing section.
The first task for IELTS Academic requires you to summarize some visual information, and it lasts about 20 minutes. The first task for the IELTS General requires you to write a letter to request information or explain a given situation. It is also 20 minutes long. The former needs to be formal in style, while the latter can be personal in style.
However, the second task is around 40 minutes long, and you are required to give your point of view or an argument on a particular topic. This second task is similar to the TOEFL’s independent task. It is the same type for both the IELTS Academic and the IELTS General. The only difference is that the former needs to be formal in style while the latter can be personal in style.
The TOEFL iBT requires you to speak your answers into a microphone. Your responses are recorded and then passed on for grading. Suppose you are located in an area where the iBT is not available because of technological requirements. In that case, you will not do the speaking portion of the test. This is important because you will need to check with the university you are applying to to see if that is okay.
This section of the TOEFL requires you to complete four tasks, one of which is independent (speaking only), the other three of which are integrated (a combination of reading, listening, and speaking)
- Task 1: Provide your opinion or preference with supporting details (15 sec prep time, 45 sec response time).
- Task 2: Read a passage, listen to people talking about the passage, and then answer a question based on what you have read and heard (30 sec prep time, 60 sec response time).
- Task 3: You will be given a reading on a topic (usually introductory), and then you will listen to part of a lecture that is on the same topic but with more details; you will be asked a question that will include aspects of the reading and the lecture (30 sec prep time, 60 sec response time).
- Task 4: You will listen to a lecture, and then you will be asked a question regarding key points made in the lecture, i.e., a summary (20 sec prep time, 60 sec response time).
While the TOEFL iBT’s speaking portion is done directly at the computer, the IELTS speaking is done with a live examiner. That is why it is scheduled up to a week in advance of your reading, listening, and writing sections.
Rather than giving you tasks like in the TOEFL, the IELTS examiner will guide you through three parts that comprise the speaking section:
- Part 1: From a script, the examiner will ask you some information about you such as where you come from, your work and interests, etc. (4-5 mins).
- Part 2: You will be given a topic card and are asked to speak about a topic, including specific points. After 1-2 minutes, the examiner will stop you and ask you some follow-up questions (1 min prep time, 1-2 minutes talking plus follow-up questions).
- Part 3: The examiner will have a more general discussion with you on the topic you spoke about in part 2. While it will be more abstract than part 2, the examiner may go more in-depth with you on the topics (4-5 mins).
One of the most significant differences between the IELTS and the TOEFL is the scoring system. Your IELTS score is given in “bands,” and these scores go from 0 to 9. You receive a band score for each of the four sections, and then your total score is calculated as an average of those four scores. Your average will be rounded to the nearest half band.
For instance, if you get 7 in reading, 6 in listening, 6.5 in writing, and 5.5 in speaking, your average score is 6.5. The sum of the scores is 25, divided by the four sections gives you 6.25, which rounds up to 6.5.
The TOEFL scoring system, however, has a greater range. Each section is scored out of 30 points. Each of these sections is then added together to form your total score out of 120.
I hope this post has helped you understand the main differences between the TOEFL and the IELTS and that you have a better idea of which is best for you.