Updated August 4, 2020
If you’re interested in the IELTS and TOEFL exams, it means you’re probably an international student hoping to pursue academic or professional goals in an English-speaking country like the US. Although pursuing your goals in a place where you don’t speak the language certainly isn’t easy, English exams aren’t made to make your life harder—instead, they’re designed to make you and your employers confident in your ability to succeed, no matter where you find yourself. Academic and professional institutions across the country use two standardized exams to test English proficiency: the IELTS exam, which stands for the International English Language Testing System, or the TOEFL exam, which stands for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. So, now you have a decision about which test to take: TOEFL or 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 how these two exams compare in areas like content, format, duration, cost, and scoring. We’ll be sure to point out the key differences between the two, as well as provide some guidance on how to prepare for whichever exam you choose.
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 so you can make an informed decision and be better prepared to ace your exam, regardless which one you pick. So, IELTS or TOEFL? Let’s get some answers!
Should I Take the TOEFL or IELTS?
While there are several key differences between the TOEFL and IELTS exams, the main thing they have in common is their basic goal: both tests assess students’ abilities to comprehend and use the English language.
Through a selection of listening, speaking, reading, and writing tasks, each exam evaluates your English language abilities as a non-native speaker, which include how well you can use English through your speech and writing, and how well you understand English when reading and listening. Before we go into the details of how the exams are structured and scored differently, here’s a brief overview of the two tests:
The case for taking the IELTS
The IELTS is a 2 hour 45 minute test that can be taken either on a computer or on paper, and is a more ‘international’ exam than the TOEFL. The IELTS is overseen by the British Council and features listening assessments that use several types of accents—with this test, you’ll get a more international approach to the English language, making it a great option for those who want to use English somewhere other than the US. The IELTS also comes in General and Academic versions, so those who want to pursue higher education can benefit from an exam specifically geared toward the use of ‘academic’ English. Another thing to point out is that the top IELTS prep courses are often less expensive than the top TOEFL courses out there today, but there also aren’t as many quality options for your IELTS prep.
The case for taking the TOEFL
The TOEFL exam is a 3 hour test that is generally taken on a computer, and is often referred to as the TOEFL iBT (internet-based test). This test is administered by the ETS, an American company, and rigorously assesses your knowledge of American-dialect English, particularly for use in the world of American higher education. If you’re going to use English in a graduate school in the US, the TOEFL is a safe bet. In fact, some US graduate schools only accept the TOEFL exam, and won’t consider IELTS Academic scores. Lastly, we’ve found the top TOEFL courses available are often a bit more expensive than the top IELTS courses, but there are more TOEFL prep options for you to choose from, and they often have a lot of premium prep features.
How Is the IELTS Different From the TOEFL?
To summarize our overviews, here’s the bottom line when it comes to the differences between the IELTS and TOEFL:
If you’re applying to a high-performance position in an American graduate school or workplace, they will more likely want to see a TOEFL score. On the other hand, anyone hoping to use general, day-to-day English around the globe would benefit most from the IELTS exam, though you can take the IELTS for admission to schools as well.
Although they are a bit different when it comes to who accepts them, the tests are generally pretty similar—so similar that they even have the same four sections. However, these tests use two totally different scoring systems and section orders, and one even comes in multiple versions. If you’ve read through our overviews and still aren’t sure which exam is the better option, read on to see all the differences that may make one a better test for you.
IELTS vs. TOEFL Format
The format and structure of the IELTS are pretty straightforward. The exam lasts for two hours and 45 minutes, and it’s split into four sections.
One thing that makes the IELTS unique, however, is its two separate versions, the IELTS General exam and the IELTS Academic exam. These different versions are similar in structure and include the same sections, but the content within those sections varies.
The IELTS General exam is designed to evaluate how ready you are for day-to-day life in an English-speaking environment. It uses texts that you’ll be likely to encounter in your career or your daily routine, no matter what job or educational pursuit you take on.
The IELTS Academic exam is the harder version of the test. It assesses whether you’re ready to use English in intense academic environments and high-performance employment situations. It includes argumentative, research-based, and generally complex texts. Again, though these versions have different types of content, the formats of these two IELTS tests remain the same, including four basic sections: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking.
For this section, students listen to 4 audio recordings and answer 10 questions for each as they listen. The questions have true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and sentence completion formats. Unlike the TOEFL, the listening portion of the IELTS exam features speakers with various accents; the TOEFL only includes American accents.
The IELTS reading section consists of several texts that students use to answer 40 questions. The texts can be just about anything, from job handbooks to magazine articles and everything in between. The questions in this section assess your English comprehension, logical reasoning skills, and ability to evaluate arguments and information. These questions come in a combination of short answer and fill-in-the blank formats.
The writing section of the IELTS has two parts. In part one, students compose a 150-word essay in 20 minutes based on provided information (often graphs or charts). The second part lasts 40 minutes, in which students must write another essay of 200-250 words in response to a provided argument.
For the speaking section (which students most likely complete on a separate day from the rest of the exam), there are two parts. In the first part, students have a face-to-face conversation with the test administrator about everyday topics (like family, home, school, etc.). For part two, the instructor will provide a topic on a card. Students then have a couple minutes to prepare their thoughts, before having another conversation with the administrator on the provided topic.
The TOEFL has the same four sections as the IELTS does, though they come in a slightly different order: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and finally, Writing. There is only one version of the TOEFL exam when it comes to content, and it’s similar in difficulty to the IELTS Academic test. There are several versions of the TOEFL exam, but the most common one by far is the TOEFL iBT, which many schools in the US use as their primary way of assessing students’ English abilities.
The TOEFL reading section provides students with 3-5 text passages, which help them answer sets of multiple-choice questions. The questions assess students’ understanding of vocabulary words, overall reading comprehension, and analytical skills.
In the listening section of the TOEFL, students hear between 4-6 audio recordings which include both conversational and lecture-based speech. After listening to the audio, students answer multiple-choice questions that assess their ability to recognize each speakers’ motivations and identify the overall context of the recordings.
Unlike the IELTS’s conversation-based speaking section, the TOEFL divides its speaking section into 4 parts, which all require students to record their responses into a microphone. The first part simply requires students to express their opinions on simple topics. For the other three sections, students receive some material to read or listen to. After they’ve read the passage or listened to the recording, they have a couple minutes to prepare and record a response.
Just like on the IELTS, the writing portion of the TOEFL is split into two sections. For the first section, students are given a short passage to read, and then they listen to a short lecture on that same topic. Afterwards, students have to write 300-350 words in a response to a related question. For part two, students write another short essay based on a provided prompt.
IELTS vs. TOEFL Length
The IELTS exam lasts 2 hours 45 minutes including the Speaking section (which is often completed separately from the other sections), and there are no breaks between the first three sections. Here’s how the test’s timing breaks down:
- Listening: 30 minutes to listen to 4 audio recordings and answer 10 questions per recording
- Reading: 60 minutes to read several various texts and answer 40 questions total
- Writing: 60 minutes total to write two essays: one essay with 150 words in 20 minutes, and another essay with 200-250 words in 40 minutes
- Speaking: 10-15 minutes with two conversations, taken separately from the other sections: one casual conversation, and one on a provided topic
Just like the IELTS, the TOEFL has four test sections; however, the TOEFL lasts a bit longer than the IELTS overall. In total, the TOEFL iBT takes about 3 hours, but the process of taking the test could last between 3.5 to 4 hours. Here’s how each section is timed, in order:
- Reading: 41-57 minutes to read several passages and answer up to 40 questions
- Listening: 54-72 minutes to listen to 4-6 audio recordings and answer up to 39 questions
- Speaking: 17 minutes to provide 4 speaking samples based on provided prompts
- Writing: 50 minutes total to write two essays: one short essay in 20 minutes based on a provided text and lecture recording, and another essay with 300-350 words in 30 minutes based on a writing prompt
IELTS vs. TOEFL Scoring
Scoring for the IELTS is all based around ‘band scores,’ a scoring system that is unique to this test. These band scores range from 0-9 and are determined based on the number of questions you get correct (your ‘raw score’). You’ll receive a band score for each of the four sections on the exam, which is then averaged and rounded to the next half to give you your overall exam score. 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. To learn more about the scoring of the IELTS section in detail, check out our article: What Is a Good IELTS Score?
Scoring for the TOEFL is based on a pretty standard scaled system, which means that the score you receive won’t correspond exactly to the number of questions you answered correctly. Instead, ETS uses their own formula to calculate your scaled scores based on the raw scores and quality of your performance. For each of the four sections, you get a scaled score from 0-30, which are then simply added together to give you a total score between 0-120. Our article on TOEFL scoring goes into more detail about the test, so check there if you have any more questions.
IELTS and TOEFL Comparison Overview
|Duration||2 hours 45 minutes||~3 hours 30 minutes|
|Accepted By||International Schools and Employers, some US Graduate Schools||US and International Graduate Schools and Employers|
|Scoring||0 – 9||0 – 120|
IELTS to TOEFL Score Conversion Table
For some test-takers, it might be useful to know some general TOEFL to IELTS score equivalents. Unfortunately, due to the quite different methods and scales used to score each test, it’s impossible to get a perfectly accurate TOEFL and IELTS conversion. However, we have a general idea of how these scores equate to each other based on research performed by ETS. The chart below helps you get an idea of how scores roughly compare.
Additionally, below break down score conversions by section 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.
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. As we see it, the IELTS and TOEFL are generally similar exams despite a few differences in scoring and format. The biggest difference between the two is that the TOEFL is more popular among American graduate programs while the IELTS is best for those using their English outside the US.
Even if you haven’t made up your mind yet, the good news is that the preparation process is similar for both exams. In this last section, we’ll give you some advice on how to best prepare for these high-stakes exams and offer some suggested resources to help you perform your best.
Preparing for the IELTS and TOEFL
Part of preparing for any standardized test is finding the right resources—short of living in an English-speaking environment, there’s no real way to prepare for an English-assesment test without using some sort of outside material. We’ve evaluated a lot of IELTS and TOEFL prep material to help you put your best foot forward when studying for either exam, so if you’re not sure where to start, some of these resources will be sure to help you out.
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, such as Kaplan, which is one of the oldest and largest prep companies out there (see how they compare to other IELTS and TOEFL prep courses). Their prep books are the best in the business, so if you know you study best with physical material, buying TOEFL or IELTS books from Kaplan will be a safe bet. Many prep books also include invaluable practice exams that you can take as you study, so you can assess your progress.
One thing to note, though, is that although prep books can be good resources in the right circumstances, they won’t be as effective as an in-depth test prep course, which often include practice tests, reading material, and interactive online material that you can study on-the-go.
Practice Speaking Skills
One of the most challenging aspects of both the IELTS and TOEFL exams is the speaking section. In both exams, you’ll have to showcase your ability to speak conversational English, a difficult skill to learn when you’re studying on your own. The best way to prepare for this portion of your exam is simply to spend as much time as you can practicing your English-speaking skills. To really get the most out of your practice, have conversations with native speakers and ask them to point out areas where you can improve.
Take Lots of Practice Exams
A crucial part of preparing for any standardized test is taking practice exams, and preparing for the TOEFL or IELTS is 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, there are plenty of great practice exams offered by test prep sites like Magoosh that can really help you hone your TOEFL skills.
To get the most out of these practice exams, try to replicate the actual testing conditions of your exam as much as possible. Set a timer for each section and even take breaks between sections, just like you will on test day. The more experience you have with these conditions, the more relaxed and comfortable you’ll 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. These courses often include several practice tests, thousands of practice questions, and vocab flashcards—some even include live online class sessions with professional English instructors. Plus, there are lots of great courses out there to choose from, so there’s no doubt you can find one that fits your learning style, schedule, budgetary needs and more.
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 IELTS or TOEFL preparation off to a great start:
How long should you study for the IELTS and TOEFL?
Studying for a standardized test will be different for everybody; some people need only a few weeks to prepare, while others may need the better part of a year to learn at a slow-and-steady pace. As a general rule of thumb, though, students should set aside at least 3 months of time to prepare for their standardized test.
If you’re asking this question, it may be because you don’t know how much you should pay for test prep resources—most IELTS and TOEFL prep courses last a specific amount of time, and you don’t want to pay for more than you’ll use. Luckily, there are plenty of prep courses out there that have variable schedules, allowing you to pick the exact amount of time that will work best for you. Magoosh, for example, has IELTS and TOEFL courses ranging from 1 month to 6 months, while BestMyTest offers a month-by-month subscription plan, allowing you to customize your class length for both their IELTS and TOEFL prep programs.
Can I take both the TOEFL and IELTS?
Although it seems like two test scores will look better on applications for jobs and school openings, students shouldn’t prioritize taking two standardized tests when one can do the trick. The TOEFL and IELTS exams are pretty expensive, costing about $200 each, and one is probably going to be a better option for you than the other.
If you’re applying for a high-performance position in the US, either in graduate school or in the professional world, you’d be fine to just take the TOEFL, while those hoping to use more general English around the globe would benefit most from the IELTS exam.
You can take both tests, but getting a great score on one test would be better than getting poor scores on two.
Is the TOEFL or IELTS easier?
While most guides on this subject may try to avoid this question, we think it’s worth considering—and giving you a straight answer. First, you should know that both of these tests are challenging, so you’re unlikely to perform well if you don’t prepare, regardless which test you choose. That being 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?
There are several factors that suggest the IELTS is less challenging than the TOEFL, despite their similarities in content, structure, and purpose. Let’s look at each factor that we think makes the IELTS the ‘easier’ exam:
- The IELTS is a bit shorter. With a duration of only 2 hours and 45 minutes, the IELTS is a decent bit shorter than the 3.5-hour TOEFL.
- The IELTS is split over two days. In most cases, test takers will take the Reading, Listening, and Writing sections of the IELTS on one day and the Speaking section on another day. This allows you some time to relax, regroup, and better prepare for the Speaking section; with the TOEFL, you take all sections at once.
- The Listening section for the IELTS is more straightforward. With the IELTS, you answer the questions as you’re listening to the audio. For the TOEFL, students listen to the full audio first and have to answer all the following questions from memory.
- The Speaking section for the IELTS is more natural and conversational. The TOEFL requires you to speak your responses into a microphone by yourself, but the IELTS allows you to have a real conversation with an actual person. This could make some test-takers more nervous, but many people find that it’s far easier to speak to a friendly face instead of a computer.
These points stay true even when comparing the TOEFL to the IELTS Academic test, rather than the IELTS General test (which is by far the easiest option of the three). And yet, even with all this in mind, we can’t forget that the concept of ‘easiness’ is always relative. What makes something easy for one person might make it much more difficult for someone else.
Hopefully, the exam’s difficulty level shouldn’t be your primary factor when making a decision about which to take. Regardless of which test you choose, if you prepare adequately with books, tutors, or especially with prep courses for the IELTS or TOEFL, you can walk into the testing center on exam day with confidence.
What are the differences between the IELTS and TOEFL?
|Best For||General Use of English Internationally||Applying to American Schools|
|Length||2 hours 45 minutes||~3 hours 30 minutes|
|Cost of Exam (Differs by Country)||$215 – $245 in U.S.||$165 – $300|