Deciding Between the IELTS or TOEFL Exams

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Congratulations! You are now ready to take an important internationally recognized exam in order to prove your mastery of the English language. The only problem is that there are a number of exams to choose from! Two of the most important exams are the TOEFL and the IELTS. Often it is the students' choice as to which one they want to take since both exams are accepted as meeting the entry requirements for academic settings. However, in some cases, the IELTS is requested for visa purposes to Canadian or Australian immigration. If this is not the case, you have even more to choose from and may want to review this guide to choosing an Engish test before you decide on the IELTS or TOEFL.

Deciding Which One to Take

Here are some points to take into consideration before you decide whether to take the IELTS or the TOEFL exam. These questions are very important because the IELTS exam is maintained by the University of Cambridge, whereas the TOEFL exam is provided by ETS, a US company based in New Jersey. Both tests are also different in how the test is administered. Take note of your answers:

  • Do you need the IELTS or the TOEFL for academic English? If you need the IELTS or TOEFL for academic English, then keep answering these questions. If you don't need the IELTS or TOEFL for academic English, for example for immigration, take the general version of the IELTS. It is much easier than either the IELTS academic version or the TOEFL!
  • Are you more comfortable with North American or British/UK accents? If you have more experience with British English (or Australian English), take the IELTS as vocabulary and accents tend more towards British English. If you watch a lot of Hollywood movies and like US idiomatic language, choose the TOEFL as it reflects American English.
  • Do you feel more comfortable with a wide range of North American vocabulary and idiomatic expressions or British English vocabulary and idiomatic expressions? Same answer as above! IELTS for British English TOEFL for American English.
  • Can you type relatively fast? As you will read below in the section on key differences between the IELTS or TOEFL, the TOEFL requires that you type your essays in the written section of the test. If you type very slowly, we would strongly recommend taking the IELTS as you handwrite your essay responses.
  • Do you want to finish the test as quickly as possible? If you become extremely nervous during a test and want the experience to end as quickly as posable, the choice between IELTS or TOEFL is easier. The TOEFL lasts approximately four hours, whereas the IELTS is significantly shorter - about 2 hours 45 minutes. Remember, however, that shorter does not necessarily mean easier!
  • Do you feel comfortable with a wide range of question types? The TOEFL exam is made up of almost entirely multiple choice questions. The IELTS, on the other hand, has a much wider range of question types including multiple choice, gap fill, matching exercises, etc. If you do NOT feel comfortable with multiple choice questions, the TOEFL is not the test for you.
  • Are you proficient at taking notes? Note taking is important on both the IELTS and the TOEFL. However, it is much more critical on the TOEFL exam. As you will read below, the listening section, in particular, depends on note-taking skills in the TOEFL as you answer questions after you have listened to a longer selection. The IELTS asks you to answer questions as you listen to the exam.

Major Differences

  • Reading:
    • TOEFL - You will have 3 to 5 reading selections of twenty minutes each. Reading materials are academic in nature. Questions are multiple choice.
    • IELTS - 3 reading selections of twenty minutes each. Materials are, as in the case of the TOEFL, related to an academic setting. There are multiple type questions (gap fill, matching, etc.)
  • Listening:
    • TOEFL - The listening selection very different from the IELTS. In the TOEFL, you will have 40 to 60 minutes worth of listening selections from lectures or campus conversations. Take notes and respond to multiple choice questions.
    • IELTS - The largest difference between the two exams is in listening. In the IELTS exam, there are a wider variety of question types, as well as exercises of differing lengths. You will answer questions as you move through the listening selection of the test.
  • Writing:
    • TOEFL - Two written tasks are required on the TOEFL and all writing is done on the computer. Task one involves writing a five-paragraph essay of 300 to 350 words. Note taking is important as the second task asks you to take notes from a reading selection in a textbook and then a lecture on the same topic. You are then asked to respond using notes by writing a 150- to 225-word selection integrating both the reading and listening selection.
    • IELTS - The IELTS also has two tasks: the first a short essay of 200 to 250 words. The second IELTS writing task asks you to look at an infographic such as a graph or chart and summarize the information presented.
  • Speaking:
    • TOEFL - Once again the speaking section differs greatly between the TOEFL and the IELTS exams. On the TOEFL you are asked to record responses on the computer of 45 to 60 seconds to six different questions based on short descriptions/conversations. The speaking section of the test lasts 20 minutes.
    • IELTS - The IELTS speaking section lasts from 12 to 14 minutes and takes place with an examiner, rather than a computer as on the TOEFL. There is a short warm-up exercise consisting mainly of small talk, followed by a response to some sort of visual stimulus and, finally, a more extended discussion on a related topic.