TOEFL or IELTS: Which To Take?

At first glance, IELTS and TOEFL* seem similar:

  • Most schools accept both tests.
  • Both last around 3 hours.
  • Both exams test the same skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
  • They cost around $200 USD (though this depends on the country) and both allow you to send your scores to around the same number of institutions for free (four in TOEFL’s case vs. five for IELTS).

But, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” So below, we’ll compare five aspects of the tests, refer to actual research, and share our own experience preparing students for them to help you decide which English test would best highlight your strengths!

*Note that by “TOEFL,” we’re referring to the TOEFL iBT and by “IELTS,” we’re referring to the IELTS Academic test.

1. Type of English Used

The first thing many students think about when considering which exam to take is the type of English used. As you probably know, the TOEFL mainly uses American English while IELTS mainly uses British English.

You can listen to sample TOEFL passages here and IELTS ones here to see if you have a strong preference for one over the other.

However, keep in mind that:

  • Both the TOEFL and IELTS make sure to hire voice actors who can speak clearly and with standard pronunciation. 
  • No matter what test you choose, you will not be penalized for using one variant of English over the other.

2. Real Person vs. Computer

Another big difference students usually mention is the fact that IELTS speaking tests let you speak with a real person.

However, as a tutoring company which has prepared thousands of students for these exams, we know that for every student who loves having a real person in the room, there’s another student who felt their examiner was unfriendly, making them nervous.

So here’s our advice:

  • If you’re capable of talking to all kinds of people, then you are a good fit for an in-person exam.
  • If you think your performance will be affected by the examiner’s attitude, then you might perform better on a computer-based exam.

3. Paper vs. Computer

Some students also like that IELTS provides a paper option for the test while the TOEFL is computer-based.* So if you feel more comfortable writing than typing, the paper version of the IELTS is a safer option. 

However, keep in mind that if your future studies will require a lot of typing in English, you may want to start practicing with the TOEFL.

In addition, note that the time it takes to receive your scores depends on the type of test you take. The results for computer-based tests come out earlier, which is important if you are pressed for time.

Here are the times for your reference: 

*Note: TOEFL does have a paper version. However, this version of the test does not have a speaking section and is only offered in areas with limited internet access.

4. Content

We believe the biggest difference between TOEFL and IELTS is actually the content: TOEFL is more academic than IELTS.

As the Executive Director of TOEFL explains, “100 percent of the TOEFL’s content is drawn from university texts.” 

In addition, a 2018 study of over 90 TOEFL and IELTS exams found that the TOEFL reading sections have on average twice as many passages on science than those of the IELTS. (Research has found that people tend to find scientific readings more difficult than those on arts and humanities.)

Moreover, the TOEFL listening section features campus-based conversations and lectures. In order to answer questions after the lectures, you’ll have to take notes while listening — just like in a real lecture.

On the other hand, IELTS features reading and listening passages that are more familiar to most learners, such as magazine articles and everyday conversations. 

This difference is also clear from the speaking tests. While TOEFL might prepare you more for an oral exam or a class discussion, the IELTS speaking test is structured more like a conversation. The examiner first asks questions about yourself, then they ask about a topic, and finally, they have you discuss the topic in a more general or detailed way. You can see what the speaking test is like from our IELTS speaking materials

In conclusion, studying for the TOEFL might better prepare you for situations you’ll encounter in your future studies. However, this aspect of the test also makes it more difficult for many learners.

5. Tasks

The next biggest difference is the tasks. 

In the previous section we discussed how TOEFL might be more difficult in terms of content. However, test-takers often find TOEFL tasks to be easier, and here’s why: 

  • TOEFL questions are mainly multiple choice. 
  • Questions on reading passages tell you which paragraph of the passage to look for the answers (e.g. “According to paragraph one, what is the problem?”). 
  • TOEFL questions are sequential: they’ll ask you about paragraph one first, then paragraph two, and so on. 

On the other hand, questions on the IELTS exam are more varied. For example, the official website mentions the following question types:

  • Multiple choice
  • True, false or “not given”
  • Matching
  • Fill in the blanks
  • Short-answer questions

Each time you encounter a new question type, you’ll have to “switch gears.” And for the open-ended questions, you will be penalized for incorrect spelling and grammar.

In the writing section, the IELTS will also ask you to analyze and interpret diagrams and flowcharts. So if you aren’t as confident in your analytical skills, this will also make the IELTS more difficult for you.

However, the Speaking and Writing sections of the TOEFL also have some challenging tasks, which combine speaking or writing with listening and/or reading. This means, you will have to read a text or listen to a recording and then talk or write about what you learned.

So, which test is better for you?

If you feel overwhelmed by the information, don’t worry! Here’s a checklist to help you decide:

𝤿 I have trouble understanding North American English.
𝤿 I strongly prefer a paper test over a computer-based test (and can take the paper test at least two weeks before my application deadline).
𝤿 I strongly prefer an in-person speaking test over recording myself.
𝤿 I strongly prefer being tested on everyday English over academic English.
𝤿 I have difficulty understanding texts on science.
𝤿 I am comfortable with tests that have many kinds of question types (i.e. not just multiple choice).
𝤿 I often work with graphs, tables, diagrams, and charts.

If you checked five or more of those boxes, you should strongly consider the IELTS. If you left five or more of these boxes blank, go for the TOEFL.

In either case, if you need help preparing, know that our tutors are here for you 24/7. With a simple search, you can find tutors who have experience preparing students for the TOEFL or IELTS. Some of our tutors have even taken these exams themselves. Your first lesson is on us, so you have nothing to lose!