TOEFL vs. IELTS – Which Should I Take?
Updated January 9, 2020
If you’re a student hoping to attend a college or university in an English-speaking country, you’ve probably discovered that part of the application process involves demonstrating your proficiency with the English language. To achieve this, you’ll have to sit for one of two standardized tests: either the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam, or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). So, now you have a decision to make: TOEFL vs. IELTS. We’re here to help you sort it all out.
In this guide, we’ll provide you with all of the information you need to know about these two exams, including their contents, layouts, durations, costs, and scoring methods. We’ll be sure to point out the key differences between the two, as well as offer you some guidance on deciding which exam you should take and to prepare for it.
If you already know you’ll be taking the IELTS exam, be sure to check out our guide to the best IELTS prep courses in 2019; likewise, if you’ve already decided on taking the TOEFL, take a look at our list of 2019’s top prep courses for the TOEFL.
But if you’re still in the early stages of researching these exams to determine which one is right for you and your educational goals, read on for all the vital information so you can make an informed decision and be better prepared to ace your exam, regardless which one you choose. So, TOEFL vs. IELTS? Let’s get some answers!
IELTS vs. TOEFL: Quick Look
Before we really start digging into our discussion of these two English proficiency exams, take a quick look at some of the key points of these tests in our handy overview chart here. This will be a handy reference to look back to when you’ve finished reading our guide and start your decision-making process.
|Exam offered at over 1000 locations worldwide||Offered worldwide|
COST OF EXAM
|Different for each countryBetween $215 and $245 in the United States||Between $165 and $300|
|2 hrs. and 45 min.||4 hrs.|
1. Listening – 30 min.
2. Reading – 60 min.
3. Writing – 60 min.
4. Speaking –10-15 min.
1. Reading – 60-80 min.
2. Listening – 60-90 min.
3. Speaking – 20 min.
4. Writing – 50 min.
|48 times each year||50+ times each year|
|0 – 9||0 – 120|
What Skills and Abilities Do the IELTS and TOEFL Assess?
While there are several key differences between the TOEFL and IELTS exams, the main thing they have in common is their basic assessment criteria. That is, both the TOEFL and IELTS exams assess essentially the same skills and abilities.
Through a selection of listening, speaking, reading, and writing tasks, each exam is designed to assess your English language abilities as a non-native speaker. The exams evaluate how well you can use English (through speaking and writing) and understand English (through reading and listening) for the purposes of academic study (or for the workplace, for some versions of the IELTS exam).
IELTS: An Overview
In this section, we’ll offer you a thorough overview of the IELTS exam, including all the details you need to know to figure out if it’s the right exam for your preferences and needs. We’ll look first at the structure of the test, then consider the two types of IELTS: academic vs. general training. Lastly, we’ll investigate how IELTS scoring works.
Test Structure and Allotted Time on the IELTS
The format and structure of the IELTS is straightforward. The exam lasts for two hours and 45 minutes, and it’s split into four sections:
Listening – 30 minutes
For this section, you will listen to an audio recording and answer ten questions as it plays. The questions will be in the form of true or false, fill-in-the-blank, and sentence completion. Note: unlike the TOEFL, the listening portion of the IELTS exam will feature speakers with various accents; the TOEFL only includes American accents.
Reading – 60 minutes
The IELTS reading section will consist of several academic texts that you will use to answer 40 questions. These questions will assess your comprehension, logical reasoning skills, and ability to evaluate arguments. The questions will be a combination of short answer and fill-in-the blank.
Writing – 60 minutes
The writing section of the IELTS is comprised of two parts. In part one, you will compose a 150-word essay in 20 minutes based on some provided information (often graphs or charts). The second part will give you 40 minutes to compose a 200- to 250-word essay in response to an argument that is provided.
Speaking – 10-15 minutes
For the speaking section (which you will most likely complete on a different day than the rest of the exam), there are also two parts. In the first part, you simply have a face-to-face conversation with the test administrator about everyday topics (e.g., family, home, school, etc.). For part two, the instructor will give you a topic on a card. You will then have a couple minutes to prepare your thoughts, and then you will have another conversation with the administrator, but this time on the provided topic.
IELTS Academic vs. General
It is important to note that there are two very different versions of the IELTS exam. The IELTS General exam is considerably less rigorous. It assesses your English-speaking readiness for secondary education and certain employment situations
The IELTS Academic exam, on the other hand, is designed to evaluate your readiness to take on academic study or professional registration in English-speaking countries. Thus, it has a more academic orientation and is therefore a more challenging form of the exam.
Scoring for the IELTS is all based around what they term “band scores.” A band score is a number from zero to nine that is determined based on the number of questions you get correct (your “raw score”) and then converted to this band scale. You will receive a band score for each of the four section on the exam. Your overall exam score is calculated by taking the average of all four band scores and rounding the result up to the next half. So, for example, if the average of your four band scores is 6.25, then your total exam score would round up to 6.5.
TOEFL: An Overview
Here, we’ll give you the same kind of detailed information on the TOEFL as we did for the IELTS exam to help you make an informed decision about which exam to take. Just as before, we’ll look at test’s structure and method of scoring.
Test Structure and Allotted Time on the TOEFL
Just like the IELTS, TOEFL is comprised of four test sections; however, the TOEFL is much longer, lasting up to four hours. Here’s a breakdown of the test sections and the time allotted for each:
Reading – 60-80 minutes
The TOEFL reading portion will provide you with three to five passages which you must read and use to answer a series of multiple-choice questions. The questions will assess your understanding of vocabulary words, your reading comprehension, and your analytical skills.
Listening – 60-90 minutes
For the listening section of the TOEFL, you will hear four to six audio recordings, both conversational and lecture-based. After listening to the audio, you will then answer several multiple choice questions that assess your comprehension and skill at recognizing speaker motivation and expressed emotions.
Speaking – 20 minutes
Unlike the IELTS speaking section, the TOEFL divides its speaking section into six parts, all of which will require you to record your spoken responses into a microphone. The first two parts require you to express your opinion on simple topics. For the other four section, you will be given some material to read or listen to. After you have read the passage or listened to the recording, you will have a couple minutes to prepare a response that you will then record yourself speaking into the microphone.
Writing – 50 minutes
Just like the IELTS, the writing portion of the TOEFL is split into two sections. For the first section, you will be given a short passage to read, and then you will listen to a short lecture on that same topic. Afterwards, you will be required to write a 300- to 350-word response based on a related question. For part two, you will write a second short essay based on a provided prompt.
Scoring for the TOEFL is based on a scaled system, but it’s pretty simple. You will receive a scaled score from zero to 30 on each of the four sections. The scaled scores from all sections are then added together to give you your total score from zero to 120. Since the scores for each section are “scaled,” this means that the score you receive doesn’t correspond exactly to the number of questions you answered correctly. Rather, ETS uses their own formula to calculate your scaled scores based on the raw scores and quality of your performance.
Differences between IELTS and TOEFL: Which Should You Take?
Now that you have a better grasp of each of the two exams, we need to drill down a bit deeper to consider the main differences between IELTS and TOEFL exams to help you decide which one is the best option for you. We’ll look at several factors, including score conversions, test day considerations, institutional and regional acceptance, and even our opinion on which is the less-challenging test. Let’s compare!
Scoring: TOEFL and IELTS Conversions
For some test-takers, it might be useful to know some general TOEFL-IELTS score equivalents. Unfortunately, due to the quite different methods and scales used to score each test, it is impossible to get a perfectly accurate TOEFL and IELTS conversion, or vice versa. We can, however, approximate what these score equivalents might be.
Below, you’ll find some charts that can give you at least a sense of what rough score conversions might look like between the two exams. Again, this information is by no means exact, but the conversions we have listed here do come from research performed by ETS, the company that administers the TOEFL. You’ll find here both a chart with TOEFL and IELTS equivalent scores, as well as conversion charts for each section of the exams.
Total Score: IELTS to TOEFL
|0 – 4||0 – 31|
|4.5||32 – 34|
|5||35 – 45|
|5.5||46 – 59|
|6||60 – 78|
|6.5||79 – 93|
|7||94 – 101|
|7.5||102 – 109|
|8||110 – 114|
|8.5||115 – 117|
|9||118 – 120|
Reading Score: IELTS to TOEFL
|0 – 4||0 – 2|
|5||4 – 7|
|5.5||8 – 12|
|6||13 – 18|
|6.5||19 – 23|
|7||24 – 26|
|7.5||27 – 28|
|8 – 8.5||29|
Listening Score: IELTS to TOEFL
|0 – 4||0 – 2|
|5||4 – 6|
|5.5||7 – 11|
|6||12 – 19|
|6.5||20 – 23|
|7||24 – 26|
Speaking Score: IELTS to TOEFL
|0 – 4||0 – 11|
|4.5||12 – 13|
|5||14 – 15|
|5.5||16 – 17|
|6||18 – 19|
|6.5||20 – 22|
|7.5||24 – 25|
|8||26 – 27|
|8.5||28 – 29|
Writing Score: IELTS to TOEFL
|0 – 4||0 – 11|
|4.5||12 – 13|
|5||14 – 17|
|5.5||18 – 20|
|6||21 – 23|
|6.5||24 – 26|
|7||27 – 28|
|8 – 9||30|
Which Is Easier: TOEFL or IELTS?
While most guides on this subject tend to try and avoid this question, we think it’s worth considering—and giving you a straight answer. First, it’s important to note that both of these tests are challenging, and if you don’t prepare, regardless which test you choose, you are unlikely to perform well. That said, we do think one of these tests is perhaps a bit easier than the other, based on some practical criteria. So, which is easier: TOEFL or IELTS?
The IELTS Exam May Be Slightly Easier than the TOEFL – Here’s Why
There are several factors that lead us to suggest that the IELTS might, indeed, be the less-challenging exam, despite their similar contents, structures, and general purposes. Let’s look at each factor that we think make the IELTS the “easier” exam:
- The IELTS is a much shorter exam, with a duration of only two hours and 45 minutes, compared to the more grueling four- hour TOEFL.
- On a related note, that two-hour-and-45-minute exam time is further split over two days. In most cases, test takers will take the reading, listening, and writing sections on one day and the speaking section on another day. This is nice because it will allow you to complete those written sections first and then have some time to relax and better prepare for the speaking section.
- Since the IELTS is paper-based, you can mark up the readings and questions as you go, making it much easier to refer back to the passages to find key points and other useful bits of text that you’ve noted as you read through the first time.
- Unlike with the TOEFL, the listening section for the IELTS exam is very straightforward. You simply listed to the audio while you answer the questions. For the TOEFL, you’ll have to listen to the full audio first, before you’re able to answer any questions simply from memory.
- Finally, the speaking section for the IELTS is far more natural and conversational. In fact, it’s clearly more conversational than the TOEFL, which requires you to speak your responses into a microphone by yourself. The IELTS listening section, on the other hand, allows you to have a real conversation with an actual person. This might not be as great if you’re a very shy person, but most people have found that it’s far more uncomfortable to record yourself speaking to a computer than it is speaking to a friendly face.
And yet, even with all this in mind, we want to note that the concept of “easiness” is always relative. That is, what makes something easy for one person might make it much more difficult for someone else.
Further, the level of difficulty of the exam shouldn’t be your primary factor when making a decision about which exam to take. Remember, regardless which test you choose, if you prepare adequately with books, tutors, or especially with prep courses for IELTS or TOEFL, you can walk into the testing center on exam day with confidence.
Preparing for the IELTS and TOEFL
Hopefully, our TOEFL vs. IELTS guide has provided you with all the relevant information you need to make a good decision about which test to take, based on your individual preferences and circumstances. And even if you haven’t made up your mind yet, the good news is that the preparation will be very similar for each exam. In this last section, we’ll give you some advice on how to best prepare for these high-stakes exams and even offer some suggested resources to help you perform your best.
There are countless books out there to help you prepare for either the IELTS or TOEFL exams. Look for books from reputable exam prep publishers, especially Princeton Review and Kaplan. Try to find books that include practice exams so you can assess your progress.
Practice Speaking Skills
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of both the IELTS and TOEFL exams is the speaking section. In both exams, you will have to showcase your ability to speak conversational English. The best way to prepare for this portion of the exams is simply to spend as much time as you can practicing your English-speaking skills. To really get the most out of your practice, try to have conversations with native speakers and ask them to point out areas where you can improve.
Take Lots of Practice Exams
An crucial part of preparing for any standardized test is taking practice exams, and the TOEFL and IELTS exams are no exception. Most exam prep books will include practice exams, but you can also find free practice tests from the official IELTS site.
And while ETS only provides a few sample test questions, you can still find great unofficial practice exams from test prep sites like Magoosh.
To get the most out of these practice exams, be sure to mimic the actual testing conditions as much as possible. That is, set a timer according to the specifications of the real exams, and even take breaks between certain sections, just like you will on test day. The more experience you have with these conditions, the more relaxed and comfortable you will be when it’s time to take on the real thing.
One of the absolute best ways to prepare for either the IELTS or TOEFL is to enroll in a prep course. With offerings from organizations like edX, Kaplan, Magoosh, and many others, you’ll have no problem finding an outstanding exam prep course for your needs and learning style.
And there’s more good news: we’ve done all the work of researching the best exam prep courses available. Check out our comprehensive guides on these excellent prep courses and get your exam preparation off to a great start: