IELTS vs TOEFL: The Differences

If you are non-native English speaker but you wish to pursue an international education in English speaking countries such as USA, UK or Australia, you will most often first need to take a test. These tests are required for university applicants to prove their English speaking, reading and writing abilities. The two of the most popular test are International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Here, we break down the differences for you.

UK vs US

The IELTS  jointly managed by the British Council, IDP, IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English. Meanwhile TOEFL is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a non-profit US-based organization. Thus, the TOEFL is designed more for North American English institutions in USA and Canada with American spelling and pronunciations. Hence, most US education institutions prefer TOEFL.

On the other hand, the IELTS is designed more for UK, Australia, New Zealand and other institutions and uses standard British English. However, since they are international examinations it doesn’t really matter which style of English you use for either one. Still, you should be consistent and stick with a certain spelling and pronunciation so your answers doesn’t look or sound messy and jumbled.

The Test Structure

The TOEFL test is much longer than the IELTS. The TOEL test takes approximately 4 hours in total while the IELTS takes only 2 hours and 45 minutes. Another big difference is that the TOEFL is entirely computer based while the IELTS (in general) is a pen and paper exam. Though there is a pen and paper option for TOEFL, an iBT is more readily accepted and available and vice versa, IELTS is more commonly available in pen and paper.

  • Reading

For this section, both test are quite similar. They are designed to test how well you understand an academic (university level) text in terms of ideas, language and style. The TOEFL reading test consists of three to five reading sections you will have to complete in 20 minutes while the IELTS reading test has three sections also each 20 minutes.

However, where they differ vastly is how they ask the questions. TOEFL’s reading section is entirely multiple choice questions but IELTS’ reading section has a much wider ranger. For IELTS, the questions can be anything from a short answer to a ‘fill in the gaps‘. However since TOEFL’s reading section is much longer, it requires you to have much more mental stamina and concentration.

  • Writing

As stated, in general, the TOEFL test is computer based while the IELTS test is pen and paper based. Thus, the written exam will be typed for TOEFL and handwritten for IELTS. The IELTS writing test is divided into two sections. In the first part, you need to summarise or explain information presented in a graph, chart, table or diagram. In the second, a prompt that offers a point of view or argument will be given and you’ll need to write a 200-250 word response. You will have an hour to complete it.

Similarly, the writing test of TOEFL also consists of two tasks. For the first part you will need to type out a five-paragraph essay between 300-350 words. After that, you will need to take notes from a section of text and lecture excerpt on the same topic, and use them to construct a 150-225 word response in the second part. You will have to complete it in 50 minutes.

Again, which is more difficult depends on your personal preference. Some people type faster and more accurately with a computer while others like the old pen and paper. However with IELTS, you have a little more time to give a response.

  • Speaking

This is one of the biggest differences  between the two English test. In IELTS, you have to complete the speaking test face-to-face with an examiner. This real live person will determine your speaking score. The whole section takes approximately 11-15 minutes and may actually take place on another day.

However in the TOEFL, there is no live examiner. Instead, everything is done through the computer. You will have to answer questions into a microphone which are recorded and later sent to a group of six reviewers. It is all done on the same day and in about 20 minutes. Which is more difficult depends on you as a person. Some feel it is unnatural to speak at a computer while others get more nervous if they have to talk to a real person.

  • Listening

The listening test also marks a significant difference between TOEFL and IELTS. The TOEFL listening test is between 40-60 minutes long. In it, you listen to excerpts from university lectures or conversations on a university campus. You are encouraged to take notes while you are listening but you can only answer later in a series of multiple choice questions. On the other hand, with the IELTS listening test, you will be able to answer questions while you are listening to the recordings. While there is also some time available for you to answer after the recording too. In IELTS, there is also more variety in question types with exercises of different lengths.

Additionally, in the recordings of IELTS there is a larger variety of regional accents from Scottish to Irish while the TOEFL typically has only an average North American accents.


The speaking and writing sections of the TOEFL are graded more ‘holistically’. Examiners grade you based on the overall ‘feel’ of your essay or speech including range of vocabulary, writing style and grammar. Conversely, the speaking and writing sections of IELTS is based on separate grades of each individual criteria such as use of logic, cohesion, grammar and fluency.

Each section of the TOEFL test is 30 points and overall graded out of 120 points. Meanwhile, the IELTS is graded on a band system from 1-9. The overall score is an average of your separate scores in all four tests.

Other Things To Consider

Of course, you have to consider the availability too. Depending on where you live, one test may take place at a more convenient place or time for you. Check out time and dates for TOEFL here and IELTS here. The cost of each test ranges from country to country. For example, TOEL cost $195 in Malaysia but $270 in New Zealand. It can cost from $180-$270. But in general, the differences in cost between IELTS and TOEL isn’t very significant.

Conclusion: IELTS vs TOEFL

So, there’s the differences. The main difference I would say is where you intend to study, if you are looking into US or Canadian universities, go for TOEL. However, if you’d like Australian, New Zealand or UK universities, it’s better to go with IELTS. Be sure to check out our university page so you can get a distinctive UK education without the need of either test, right here in Malaysia.

Leave a Reply

Start typing and press Enter to search