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April 2024

IELTS vs TOEFL: A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Right English Proficiency Test for Your Global Ambitions


Navigating the world of English proficiency tests can be daunting for students aiming to study or work internationally. The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) stand out as the two leading assessments. Both are widely recognized by educational institutions and employers worldwide, but choosing between them requires a deep understanding of their differences, including recognition, curriculum, testing style, and overall value. This article aims to provide a comprehensive comparison to help students make an informed decision based on their personal goals and preferences.

Overview of IELTS and TOEFL


Co-owned by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge Assessment English, has been assessing English language proficiency since 1989. It offers two test types: Academic, for those pursuing higher education or professional registration, and General Training, for those migrating to Australia, Canada, or the UK, or applying for secondary education, training programs, and work experience in an English-speaking environment.


Administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) since 1964, is primarily academic in nature and designed to measure English language proficiency for educational purposes. Recognized by over 11,000 universities and institutions across more than 150 countries, it's particularly popular in the United States and Canada.

Both tests enjoy extensive global recognition, serving as a key to unlocking opportunities across the globe. However, their curriculums, testing processes, and styles offer distinct experiences and challenges to candidates.

Comparison of Curriculums and Testing Processes

IELTS Curriculum and Testing Process

The IELTS test is structured around four main components: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. The Listening and

Speaking sections are the same for both Academic and General Training versions, while the Reading and Writing sections differ.

  • Listening (30 minutes): Test-takers listen to four recordings of native English speakers and then write their answers to a series of questions.

  • Reading (60 minutes): The Academic version includes three long texts ranging from descriptive and factual to discursive and analytical. The General Training version involves extracts from books, magazines, newspapers, notices, advertisements, company handbooks, and guidelines.

  • Writing (60 minutes): In the Academic module, tasks include describing a chart or diagram, and writing an essay. The General Training includes writing a letter and an essay.

  • Speaking (11-14 minutes): This section is a face-to-face interview with an examiner, consisting of a short introduction, a speech on a given subject, and a structured discussion.

The IELTS test is noted for its emphasis on "real-life" English skills, assessing how well test-takers can communicate in English. The Speaking test is conducted with a live examiner, which can be more intimidating for some but is seen as a more realistic assessment of language ability.

TOEFL Curriculum and Testing Process

TOEFL is also divided into four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing, focusing exclusively on academic English. The test is conducted entirely in a computer-based format, using a standard QWERTY keyboard for the writing section.

  • Reading (60-80 minutes): This section includes 3-4 passages from academic texts, with 12-14 questions per passage.

  • Listening (60-90 minutes): It involves listening to lectures, classroom discussions, and conversations, then answering questions about them.

  • Speaking (20 minutes): Comprises six tasks that require speaking into a microphone about familiar topics, summarizing information from texts and conversations, and expressing an opinion on a topic.

  • Writing (50 minutes): Consists of two tasks where test-takers must write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks, and support an opinion in writing.

TOEFL is known for its academic focus, particularly suitable for students planning to attend universities in English-speaking countries. The computer-based testing environment aims to standardize the examination process, although it may feel less personal than IELTS's face-to-face Speaking section.

Comparison of Testing Processes

Registration and Preparation

Both IELTS and TOEFL offer extensive online resources for preparation. Registration for both tests can be completed online, with IELTS also providing the option for paper-based registration in some locations.

Test Taking Environment

IELTS is available in both paper-based and computer-based formats, offering flexibility to test-takers. TOEFL, on the other hand, is primarily computer-based, which standardizes the test-taking experience but may disadvantage those not comfortable with typing or the digital format.

Assessment and Scoring

Both tests provide detailed score reports, but their scoring systems differ. IELTS scores range from 0 to 9, in half-point increments, assessing each skill area separately. TOEFL scores range from 0 to 120, with each of the four sections scored from 0 to 30.

Difficulty and Style of Testing

The perceived difficulty of IELTS and TOEFL often depends on the test-taker's strengths, weaknesses, and familiarity with the test format. Both tests aim to accurately measure English proficiency, but they do so in different ways that might influence a student's performance and preference.

IELTS: Practical English Use and Interpersonal Interaction

IELTS is often seen as more practical and straightforward, focusing on everyday English usage. Its speaking section involves a live interaction, which can be advantageous for those who are more comfortable in conversational settings and can think on their feet. However, this direct interaction might be daunting for individuals not confident in their spoken English or those who prefer the anonymity and uniformity of computer-based testing.

The writing tasks in IELTS, particularly the Academic version, require test-takers to interpret, describe, and discuss visual information such as graphs or diagrams, which demands a specific skill set that includes summarization and analytical writing under time constraints. Some students find this section challenging, especially if they are not accustomed to such tasks.

TOEFL: Academic Focus and Standardized Format

TOEFL, with its emphasis on academic English, is generally considered more challenging for test-takers who are less familiar with academic reading and listening materials. The format, which includes multiple-choice questions throughout, can also influence how test-takers perform, especially if they are not used to or comfortable with this type of assessment.

The TOEFL speaking section is conducted via computer, requiring test-takers to speak into a microphone. This can feel less natural than a conversation but might be less intimidating for some. The need to type responses in the writing section may also be a determining factor for students based on their typing speed and comfort with composing essays on a computer.

Style of Testing

The style of testing also varies significantly between the two exams. IELTS tends to use a variety of question types, including short answer, matching, and essay writing, which may cater to a broader range of test-takers. TOEFL's use of multiple-choice questions for the Reading and Listening sections might appeal to those who are good at quickly identifying correct answers from a set of options.

Availability, Ease of Testing, and Costs

Availability and Ease of Testing

Both the IELTS and TOEFL are widely available worldwide, with thousands of test centers across over 140 countries. However, the availability of test dates and locations might slightly favor TOEFL, especially in countries where computer-based testing is more readily accessible.

IELTS offers both paper-based and computer-based options, giving test-takers the choice based on their preference. The option for a paper-based test is particularly appealing for individuals who are more comfortable writing by hand than typing.



The cost of taking IELTS or TOEFL varies by country but is generally comparable, typically ranging from $185 to $300 USD. It's important for prospective test-takers to consider not just the registration fee but also the potential costs of preparatory materials, courses, and possibly retaking the test.

Both exams offer a range of free and paid preparation resources. The decision between IELTS and TOEFL could thus come down to personal preference, the specific requirements of the institutions to which one is applying, and the test-taker's comfort with the format of each test.

Conclusion: Recognition, Usefulness, and Overall Value

When considering recognition, both IELTS and TOEFL are widely accepted by universities, employers, and government agencies worldwide. The choice between the two may depend on the specific requirements of the institution or country. For instance, TOEFL is often preferred in the United States, while IELTS may be favored by institutions in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries.

In terms of usefulness and overall value, the decision largely hinges on the test-taker's personal circumstances, including their academic and career goals, proficiency in different types of English (academic vs. practical), and testing style preferences. IELTS might be more suitable for those looking to prove their English proficiency in a more versatile and practical context, while TOEFL could be the better choice for students focused on academic pursuits in English-speaking universities.

Ultimately, both tests are rigorous and respected measures of English language proficiency. The choice between IELTS and TOEFL should be informed by careful consideration of each test's structure, requirements, and the test-taker's own strengths and preferences. With the right preparation, either test can be a stepping stone to achieving academic and professional goals in an English-speaking environment.

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