TOEFL vs IELTS at a glance

The TOEFL and IELTS exams are fairly different, and therefore some people will find that they are naturally better suited for one than they are for the other. You probably want to know which test you should study for. But before we discuss their similarities and differences, remember that both IELTS and TOEFL are standardized tests. This means that, with some coaching and practice, you can learn to do well on whichever exam you decide to take. Let’s talk more specifically about each exam.  

The TOEFL is a language test for non-native English speakers, and is commonly used as an entrance exam at universities and graduate schools. Because of this, the TOEFL offers only academic English. On the other hand, the IELTS offers an academic option as well as a general test; this is generally the preferred test for immigration purposes to the UK and Canada. 

The IELTS academic test and the TOEFL compared to the IELTS general test are both more difficult, but they are usually the only options if you want to study at any level higher than secondary school. No matter which test you take, be aware that the scores all expire 2 years after your test date.   

When you compare the format of the IELTS with the TOEFL format, you will notice a couple of things. First of all, both of them have four basic sections, each of which tests a basic skill (reading, listening, speaking, writing). But while the TOEFL only tests academic subjects, the IELTS academic option will have academic reading and writing sections combined with general listening and speaking sections. Overall, the IELTS has more of a real-world feel than the TOEFL.  

The IELTS also doesn’t have a listening component on the integrated assignments, although on one of the two assignments you will have to incorporate a graphic or other written information source into your argument. The second essay on both tests is an independent question that simply asks your opinion about some issue. 

The TOEFL speaking section is done by recorder and mostly involves explaining your opinions and summarizing/interpreting information from other sources. On the IELTS, your speaking test will take place in person and will include a short speech (you’ll have a small period in which to prepare it) and a conversation component. 

Although it would be great if every English program gave equal time to each major dialect of English, the vast majority of students spend 90% of their time with only one dialect. If you’re most experienced with American English, you may find some parts of the IELTS unfamiliar; if you’ve learned British English or another dialect, the TOEFL will feel a little strange. It’s important to note that neither test will penalize you for using one or the other dialect, as long as your answers are fluent, clear, and, of course, correct. 

TOEFL vs IELTS: Which is harder?

This is probably the question you’re most concerned with, but it’s pretty difficult to compare the TOEFL and the IELTS directly. A better way to find the answer to this question is to ask yourself a few questions. Answer the following questions with a simple “yes” or “no.”  

  •  I am comfortable with computers. YES/NO
  •  I am comfortable speaking extemporaneously into a microphone. YES/NO
  •  I can type quickly. YES/NO  I prefer standard American English. YES/NO  I am good at answering multiple-choice questions. YES/NO
  •  It is easy for me to take notes from a recording. YES/NO
  • The authentic English sources I read/listen to/watch are usually intended to inform rather than entertain. YES/NO

If you answered YES to most of these questions, the TOEFL is probably the best fit for your skill set.

  • I am comfortable having a detailed interview in-person. YES/NO  I have legible English handwriting. YES/NO
  • I can understand a variety of dialects of English. YES/NO
  • I prefer tests with many question types, including multiple choice, fill-in-theblank, matching, true/false, and flowcharts. YES/NO
  • I feel most comfortable discussing non-academic topics in English. YES/NO 
  • The authentic English sources that I read/listen to/watch are usually made to entertain. YES/NO

If you answered YES to most of these questions, then you might find the IELTS to be more up your alley.