We've put together a list of important things to consider before choosing between TOEFL and IELTS, two of the most widely accepted English language proficiency tests. This article should help you decide once and for all which of the two tests best meets your needs, by using the following criteria:
- Delivery method
- Level of English
- Test sections
- Speaking skills
- Tips and other test takers’ experiences.
Perhaps the first question that springs to mind when you are considering taking an international English language proficiency test is which one is the best. And nine times out of ten, it is a straight choice between TOEFL and IELTS. To make an informed decision, it is important to have first formed a thorough understanding of how each test works so that your final choice matches your personal objectives.
As far as international recognition goes, there is little separating the two tests. Both are endorsed by most educational and business institutions. It is worth remembering, though, that IELTS is the most widely used international English test abroad, accepted by more than 11,500 organisations in 140 countries. This automatically makes it the ideal choice if one of your objectives is to experience a wide variety of cultures by travelling the world.
It does help if you’ve already decided where in the world you want to visit, narrowing it down to a specific continent and country, before choosing between TOEFL and IELTS. Universities and businesses tend to provide you with detailed information about the type of test that they require you to do, be it TOEFL or IELTS. Some may allow you to take either. If that's the case, your chosen institution should have information available about the minimum scores for each test and which type of test to attempt.
IELTS ‒ designed by Cambridge English, a part of the University of Cambridge ‒ is the most popular high stakes English test in the United Kingdom and across most of Europe. It is also accepted by most institutions in the United States, home to Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organisation which administers TOEFL. This means that IELTS can pretty much take you anywhere you wish to go.
Do also think about whether you wish to move abroad for academic, business or personal reasons. The most important differences between the two tests are set out below. To make the right choice, you should ideally go through the entire criteria in turn, weighing up the pros and cons. So, whatever you do, don’t be in a rush!
When you’re deliberating over which English test to take, it is only natural for you to want to know the level of difficulty involved in each, as it’ll let you choose the easiest of the lot.
So, the million-dollar question is which test is tougher, TOEFL or IELTS? Well, to be honest, this will depend entirely on your language competence and prior knowledge, so there's no definitive answer. Unfortunately, a consensus is yet to be formed about which test is easier.
Whilst TOEFL is owned by a North American body and IELTS by organisations in the UK and Australia, your success in IELTS doesn’t depend on your familiarity with British accent, vocabulary or context. In fact, one factor that makes IELTS truly international is that the test features a wide variety of accents, not just British. And in case you're wondering, you are not expected to sound like a native English speaker, from the UK or elsewhere, in the Speaking section of IELTS in order to score well.
To really get to grips with the test format and task types, a range of resources ‒ including courses, webinars, coaching apps and practice tests ‒ has been made available to prospective test takers by the IELTS partners. One of the best pieces of advice you can receive when preparing for IELTS with the British Council is this: engage with English in every possible way. Read in English, listen to music in English, watch films and TV series in English and, if possible, converse regularly in English.
Although each English-speaking region has very distinctive forms of pronunciation, native English speakers generally tend to understand each other. The most important thing for you as a test taker is to be intelligible to others and to be able to understand others.
Another crucial factor when deciding between TOEFL and IELTS is to consider your specific objective. For instance, do you need to take the test to travel as a student, to measure your proficiency in the language, or to move abroad for work?
A distinct advantage of taking the IELTS is that you get to choose from two types of tests: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. The IELTS Academic test will best meet your needs if you want to move abroad to work in an English-speaking organisation or to study at an undergraduate level or postgraduate level. The IELTS General Training test, on the other hand, will measure your ability to cope in an everyday setting and in day-to-day life, so it is commonly taken by individuals wishing to emigrate to an English-speaking country.
In some cases, however, you may be asked to specifically sit the IELTS for UKVI. This is the appropriate test to support your visa application for the United Kingdom, and it is the same as IELTS in terms of content, test format and assessment criteria. In fact, the only difference lies in how results are reported. IELTS for UKVI will certify that the test was carried out at an official venue approved by the United Kingdom Home Office. To help you choose the right IELTS test, it is highly recommended that you consult the institution to which you intend to apply to beforehand.
If you were to compare how the TOEFL and IELTS tests are delivered, you wouldn't find any significant differences between them. Like IELTS, TOEFL too offers two versions. Both tests also offer an online version that you can take from the comfort of your own private space. TOEFL has its Home Edition test and IELTS has recently launched IELTS Online in some locations which should be available more widely in the coming months.
Level of English
Even though an accurate comparison between TOEFL and IELTS scores is a slightly daunting prospect, an approximate degree of comparability can be established with the sort of levels usually required by academic and business institutions. These levels can also be compared with the reference standards of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). This is an international standard that defines language proficiency and is a benchmark used worldwide.
Broadly speaking, IELTS results are reported as band scores on a scale from 1 (the lowest) to 9 (the highest), whereas TOEFL performance is graded on a scale from 0 to 120 points (the highest).
IELTS scores go right up to the C2 level (essentially native English speaker level) of CEFR, while TOEFL can only provide up to C1-level validation. In other words, if your level of English is on a par with that of a native English speaker, taking TOEFL will not be sufficient to prove it. In such a scenario, IELTS is the obvious choice.
Both TOEFL and IELTS results are valid for two years. Once this period has passed, you will have to sit either of the tests again.
On the whole, TOEFL and IELTS assess the same skills, i.e. listening, reading, writing and speaking. However, the sections or parts in each test may be different due to differences in the task types used.
The Listening module in TOEFL, for example, is limited to multiple-choice questions. In the IELTS test, this section is more varied because of the different task types used: multiple choice, matching, plan/map/diagram labelling, form/note/table/flow-chart/summary completion, sentence completion.
As far as the Reading module goes, TOEFL devotes 60 minutes to this section, which is divided into extracts of text (between three and five), and comprehension is assessed by means of multiple-choice questions. By comparison, the IELTS Reading section, which also lasts 60 minutes, involves a set of texts that are assessed in a much more comprehensive way. For example, you may be asked to suggest titles, complete sentences, finish off summaries, fill in tables, complete diagrams and so on.
One of the most obvious differences in the Speaking section is that TOEFL test takers must speak into a microphone while answering questions. In IELTS, test takers have a one-to-one oral interview with a trained IELTS Examiner. They may have to sit this part of the test on the same day as the written test, or at an earlier/later date. It is possible to do IELTS Speaking by video call or in person.
The process of having a face-to-face discussion with another person in real time is undoubtedly lifelike, making IELTS Speaking interactive and as close to a real-life situation as a test can get.
The time taken to receive TOEFL and IELTS results varies, depending on the delivery method you choose. The results of IELTS depend on whether you choose paper-based or computer-delivered testing. IELTS on computer results take between three and five days, whereas IELTS on paper results are usually available thirteen days after you sit the test. TOEFL results take between seven and ten days following the mailing date.
The pricing of tests and methods of payment available are typically given careful consideration before the average test taker makes up their mind. Registering for IELTS is an easy process, and the payment can be made in your local currency online or offline. To check the test fee in your country, please check this page.
Tips and other test takers’ experiences
The fact that IELTS is the most popular English language proficiency test in the world can work to your advantage. What this means is that, among other things, it will also be easier for you to find tips and other test takers’ experiences about the test process.
Most IELTS test takers, if not all of them, feel nervous about how the day of the test will unfold. To reduce any kind of stress, it might be a good idea to find out what to expect on test day by reading the experiences of other people. This will make you feel more confident, apart from helping you file important information about the test away for later. To know more, take a look at the IELTS test day advice provided by the British Council.
The worldwide reputation of IELTS means that it is undoubtedly a good choice when it comes to furthering your career in the world of work. When you get good IELTS scores, it will be much easier to work your way up. Moreover, it may come in handy if you decide to apply for a master’s degree or do a PhD.
Having gone through this comparative guide, you should now be able to decide for yourself which of the two tests best fits your future plans. Once you’ve decided whether to sit TOEFL or IELTS, remember also to refer to the IELTS fees and dates which are available on the British Council website.
Register today and get ready to have your language proficiency assessed and officially certified. Good luck!