TOEFL, IELTS, and What You Need to Know About Both

toefl ieltsIf English is your second language and you’re planning on applying to a school in an English speaking country, chances are you’ve heard of both TOEFL and IELTS. Both of these tests – TOEFL, standing for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and IELTS, standing for International English Language Testing Service, determine how well-versed you are in the English language. Your test results determine whether or not you qualify to go to school in an English speaking country, so you could say that these tests are pretty important.

Do you need to take both tests? What are the differences between the two anyway? Let’s take a deeper look into how these two tests differ and how you can determine which one fits your needs.

What Exactly Do They Test?

Your proficiency of the English language is the main focus of both of these tests. If you’re planning on going to school in an English speaking country and English is your second language, it’s important that you have a strong enough grasp to be able to function well in an environment that will be predominately English. Colleges need to know that they will be accepting students who will succeed in the educational environment. After all, professors want their students to succeed!

Because of this, there’s no need to fear that you’ll be tested on in-depth biological definitions or the meanings behind Shakespeare’s greatest works. These tests simply gauge your ability to function in a conversational English setting, so don’t fret about complicated formulas or concepts.


The TOEFL test is divided into four different sections: reading, listening, speaking and writing. The TOEFL is primarily the American version of this test.

  • Reading: Lasting 60-80 minutes and consisting of 36-56 questions, the reading portion of the TOEFL exam requires you to read 3-4 passages from a specific text and then answer questions about the text. These texts are usually not very complicated and don’t require knowledge of very difficult vocabulary words.
  • Listening: Lasting 60-90 minutes and consisting of 34-51 questions, the listening portion of the exam requires you to listen to anything from classroom lectures to casual conversations. Once listening to the audio, you must answer questions about what you just heard. The conversations are spoken in a standard American accent.
  • Speaking: The speaking portion of the test lasts 20 minutes and you must speak about six different topics. These topics may include information from previous sections, or may require you to speak about an opinion you have on a familiar topic. During this section, you’ll speak into a microphone which will record your responses.
  • Writing: This is the last 50 minutes of the test that always seems the most frightening. That blank page in front of you can look intimidating, but there’s no reason to worry! You’re not expected to write an award winning novel, you’ll simply need to write two responses based on either an opinion question or information you learned in the previous sections.


The IELTS is primarily the British version of this test. Because of this, some of the questions in this test may include British English, which differs slightly from American English. Just like the TOEFL, the IELTS is separated into four different sections – reading, listening, speaking and writing.

  • Reading: The reading section is 60 minutes long and requires you to answer 40 different questions about various texts that may come from magazines, academic journals, newspapers or novels.
  • Listening: The listening portion is shorter than the TOEFL listening section at 30 minutes long, yet still requires you to listen to lectures or conversations and answer questions about what you just heard. You may have to be able to understand British, Australian or Canadian accents in addition to American.
  • Speaking: The speaking portion differs greatly from the TOEFL speaking section since you will complete it in front of a real person, and will last approximately 11-14 minutes. This portion is a lot more conversational, and may be more intimidating than speaking into a microphone.
  • Writing: This section of the IELTS accepts British spellings of English words, which can be beneficial to those who are more comfortable with British English. This section is 60 minutes long and requires you to write on two different topics at a length of 150-250 words.

Different Versions

Both tests offer two different versions, although the IELTS is the only test whose versions differ from each other.

The TOEFL iBT and the TOEFL PBT differ only in the way they are administered. The iBT is internet based, while the PBT is simply a paper version of the internet based exam. Whether you take one or the other is only a matter of preference.

The IELTS is offered in two different versions: academic and general.

  • Academic: If you are applying to a university in an English speaking country, this is most likely the exam you will take. Most universities require a passing score of the IELTS Academic exam, since the questions are more geared towards an academic setting.
  • General: The IELTS General exam is offered to foreigners who are trying to obtain an immigration visa. This exam is a simpler version of the Academic exam, geared more towards general social interactions.

Which is Best For You?

Both tests measure your ability to think, speak and write in the English language. Before making a definitive decision, check with the particular college you are planning on attending to see if they accept scores from both tests. While both are commonly universally recognized, there are still a handful of colleges that prefer one over the other.

Both tests cost roughly the same amount (between US $150-$250 depending on where you take it). The TOEFL lasts slightly longer than the IELTS (4 hours as opposed to 2 hours and 45 minutes), yet you speak into a microphone and only have to listen to American accents. The IELTS may be better for those who prefer to speak more conversationally than academically, although keep in mind you will be face to face with someone. The IELTS accepts both British and American English spelling, but you’ll need to be familiar with a handful of different accents.

There are pros and cons to each. It all comes down to what you’re comfortable with and whether you prefer British or American English. If you need a refresher on some basic English grammar rules, Udemy has a course that will help get you started!