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STUDY ABROAD : Applying to University - Must read

IELTS vs. TOEFL: Which should you take?

Find out which English language exam is better for you - IELTS or TOEFL iBT. We give you all the information to help you decide which test you should take.

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All international students who want to study in an English-speaking country need to show they have the required level of English. There are a few English language exams that are accepted by universities all over the world, we’re going to focus on two of these: IELTS and TOEFL.


Before we continue, let’s look at what these names mean. IELTS is the International English Language Testing System. TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language.


To apply to university you will need to take the IELTS Academic test or TOEFL iBT. These tests can be taken at test centres in your own country. You can find your nearest test centre by following these links: IELTS and TOEFL. The cost of the tests are also set by the test centre in your country so contact them to find out the cost.


Both tests are accepted by top universities in different countries all around the world but they are very different in terms of structure and question types. Read on to find out more about each of these tests to decide which one you should take and which one is better for you.


What is the difference between IELTS and TOEFL?


These two tests are owned by different testing organisations. IELTS is jointly owned by: the British Council, Cambridge Assessment English and IDP Australia (of which Hotcourses Abroad is an affiliate). The test is written and administered by Cambridge Assessment English. It is the British Council and IDP Australia who run the test centres around the world.


TEOFL iBT is owned, written and administered by the Education Testing Service (ETS) an organisation in the USA.


To help, here's an overview of the main similarities and differences between the two tests:


  IELTS Academic TOEFL iBT
Method Paper and Online Online
Length 2 hours 45 minutes 3 hours 15 minutes
Scores 0-9 0-120
Results 13 days 10 days
Marking Human examiners and automated marking (machine marking) Human examiners and automated marking (machine marking)
Accepted by 11,000 organisations worldwide 11,500 organisations worldwide














Format of tests

Although they both test the four skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking, they do so in different ways:


  IELTS Academic Questions TOEFL iBT Questions
Listening 30 mins 40 41-57 mins 28-39
Reading 60 mins 40 54-72 mins 30-40
Writing 60 mins 2 tasks 50 mins 2 tasks
Speaking 11-14 mins 3 parts 17 mins 4 tasks


Test Question types


IELTS has various question types. A mix of these will appear in the Listening and Reading tests:

  • Multiple choice
  • Matching
  • Plan, map, diagram labelling
  • Form, note, table, flow-chart, summary completion
  • Sentence completion
  • Summary completion
  • Short answer questions
  • True/False/Not Given
  • Yes/No/Not Given


TOEFL iBT is made up of multiple choice questions (where you select and answer from options, A, B, C or D).


IELTS vs TOEFL – Listening


A common myth is that IELTS is British English and TOEFL is US English but the fact is that both tests have a range of English accents: North American, British, Australian and New Zealand accents.


There are four parts to the IELTS Listening test, with ten questions each. Parts 1 and 2 are in a general English context. Parts 3 and 4 are in an academic context. Parts 1 and 3 involve more than one speaker whereas Parts 2 and 4 are monologues (only one person speaks).


There are 2 types of listening items in the TOEFL iBT test: lectures and conversations, both of which use the language you would be expected to hear and use at university. The test is made up of:

  • 3 to 4 lectures with six questions each
  • 2 to 3 conversations with two speakers with five questions per conversation.



IELTS vs TOEFL – Reading


There are three passages (texts) in the IELTS Academic Reading test with a total of about 2,750 words. Passage one and two have thirteen questions each. Passage three has fourteen questions. Remember that these questions will cover a range of question types (see above). The reading texts come from books, journals, magazines, newspapers or websites. You are not expected to know the subject matter well. You will be able to answer the questions based on the content of the text.


TOEFL iBT has three or four reading passages with a total of 700 words each. Each passage has ten multiple-choice questions. As with IELTS, you aren’t expected to know the subject matter and will be able to answer the questions based on the content.


IELTS vs TOEFL – Writing


There are two tasks in both the IELTS and TOEFL Writing tests. Task one of the IELTS Academic Writing test has information presented in a graph, chart, table or diagram. You have 20 minutes to complete the task and to write a minimum of 150 words. In task two you have 40 minutes to write a minimum of 250 words answering a discussion question. Task two is worth double the marks of task one. If you’re taking the paper-based IELTS test, both tasks will have to be handwritten.


TOEFL iBT task one is very different. This task is integrated with both reading and listening. You have to read a short passage and listen to a short lecture. You then have to write a response based on what you have read and listened to.  Task two is writing an essay based on your personal experience or opinion on a given topic. You have a total of 50 minutes for the writing test.


IELTS vs TOEFL – Speaking


The main difference between the two tests is that the IELTS Speaking test is done with an examiner either face-to-face or on a video call. The test is recorded for training and verification purposes. Your test is marked by the examiner and verified by other examiners if necessary.


In the TOEFL iBT test, you listen to questions, and you then speak your answers into a microphone. Your answers are marked by a combination of AI (computer-rated) and human reviewers.


The IELTS test may or may not be taken on the same day as the other parts of the test whereas TOEFL iBT is taken on the same day as the other parts.


IELTS Speaking has three parts: Part one – you give personal information and discuss everyday subjects. In part two you are given a task in which you have one minute to prepare your answer. You then have two minutes to give your talk. The final part is a discussion with the examiner on a topic related to the one in part two.




Like the TOEFL Writing test, the Speaking test is integrated. Question one requires you to answer questions based on your own ideas, opinions and experiences. Question two requires you to listen and speak, or listen, read and speak. You have preparation time before you have to respond to each question.




For IELTS you are given a band score of between 0-9 for each of the skills and then you are given an overall band score. You can find more information on these bands and their descriptors on the IELTS website.


In TOEFL iBT you are given a score range of 0 to 30 for each skill and a total score 0 to120. You can find a more detailed breakdown of the TOEFL iBT scores for each of the skills and what they mean on the ETS website.


Different courses at different levels at universities around the world have specific English language entry requirements. Below is a table to show what IELTS and TOEFL iBT scores are needed at different course levels. 


Degree level IELTS TOEFL iBT
Foundation 5 35-45
Undergraduate 6 60-78
Postgraduate 7 94-101


Here are how the scores compare:


IELTS band score TOEFL iBT score
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


Frequently asked questions 


Which test is easier?

This is an impossible question to answer as it depends on the experience of each person. Some people prefer multiple choice questions and find them easier. Some people prefer to speak to a person rather than a computer. Some people find it difficult to describe a graph while others may find having to read, listen and speak all at the same time quite challenging.


Which test is better for me?

You need to understand what kind of English language student you are and what types of questions and tests you prefer. Try taking practice tests for both IELTS and TOEFL and see which one suits you and your abilities better.


How long will it take for me to prepare for IELTS?

Another impossible question to answer as it depends on many factors. The most important factor is your current level of English and which band score you need to achieve. If you are currently at a band score of 5 but need a band score of 6 to start your undergraduate course, you will need less time than if you were starting at a band score of 4.

Being realistic about your level of English now and what you need to achieve and by when is important. It will probably take you four to six weeks to do an IELTS preparation course which will help you to understand and practice the different question types and each skills test. These preparation courses won’t improve your level of English, just your knowledge of the test. Your band score will NOT improve just by doing many tests over and over again. To improve your band score you need to improve your general level of English too.


Is TOEFL mainly used for the USA?

The TOEFL iBT test is accepted by universities all around the world, just like the IELTS test.


Is the British Council IELTS test easier than the IDP IELTS test?

This is another common myth. The test is written by Cambridge Assessment English and sent to test centres all around the world. The level of the IELTS test at the different centres around the world is exactly the same. No test is easier than any other.


How can I prepare for IELTS?



You can find more information and sample test questions for IELTS in the link.


How to prepare for the IELTS listening test

How to prepare for the IELTS writing test

How to prepare for the IELTS reading test

How to prepare for the IELTS speaking test

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