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IELTS (International English Language Testing Service) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) are the two main English language tests available for prospective college students from non-English speaking countries. Depending on your native language and pre-college curriculum, taking either the IELTS or TOEFL may be a necessity. Although similar in ambition and focus, these tests differ broadly in their approach and testing criteria.
Both IELTS and TOEFL are designed to test your proficiency with the English language, especially your ability to communicate effectively in a classroom setting and fit into a predominantly English-speaking culture. Consequently, while SAT/GRE/GMAT test your verbal ability, including reading comprehension, vocabulary, etc. IELTS and TOEFL only test how comfortable you are with the English language. That doesn’t mean these tests are a cakewalk, but you won’t be stretched nearly as thin as with the SAT, GRET or GMAT.
IELTS or TOEFL is usually a requirement for students from countries where English is not the primary language. In some countries, taking either of these tests may also be required for obtaining a visa. At the same time, high scores in the standardized tests – SAT/GRE – or a English-heavy course curriculum at the high-school or Bachelor’s degree level (for students applying for Master’s and PhD’s abroad) may exempt you from these requirements, though this is the exception, not the norm. In 90% cases, you will be required to take either the IELTS or TOEFL.
What They Test
Both IELTS and TOEFL are divided into four sections:
- Reading: This section is meant to test your basic reading abilities. You’ll be shown 3-4 passages followed by questions on the same. The passages are usually easy* – something you’d find in any common academic textbook – and cover a wide range of topics, from journalistic pieces to first person accounts.
- Listening: This section tests your ability to understand spoken lectures and conversations – a crucial part of academic and social success in a foreign country. You will be asked to recordings of 3-4 lectures and discussions, followed by questions on the same.
- Writing: The writing section tests your writing ability. Don’t worry; nobody expects you to pen the next Grapes of Wrath here. You will mostly be asked to write a summary of an academic discussion, and express your opinion on a topic. This section primarily tests how you organize your thoughts, and whether you can write fluent English that would be acceptable in an academic setting.
- Speaking: This section checks whether you can speak coherently on a given topic. This may be broken down into several tasks. Some may take the form of an interview (IELTS), while some may require you to listen to a discussion and express your thoughts on the same.
Differences between IELTS and TOEFL
Now that we know what the IELTS and TOEFL actually are, let’s look at the key differences between them.
IELTS is mostly a British test. Hence, it is more readily accepted in universities within the commonwealth. This includes colleges in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Many American universities accept the IELTS as well.
TOEFL was initially developed at the Center for Applied Linguistics at Stanford University. As such, it has very wide acceptance in US universities. Almost every American college will accept the IELTS, though that can’t be said for the IELTS.
As a student, you can should consult the testing requirements of your target universities. Broadly speaking, if you’re applying for colleges in the British Commonwealth, go with IELTS. Otherwise, take TOEFL. It isn’t uncommon for colleges to accept either scores, regardless of what testing requirements state.
Because TOEFL is an older test than IELTS, and because more students apply for universities in US than Australia or Britain, TOEFL boasts a higher number of test centers as well: 4,500 centers spread across 165 countries.
IELTS, on the other hand, has only 900 centers globally, though this shouldn’t be an issue as they have a center in pretty much every major international city.
Both IELTS and TOEFL are offered 48 times per year.
TOEFL offers just one type of test – the TOEFL iBT (Internet-based Test). Some centers also offer the Paper-based Test (PBT) which is just a paper version of the iBT.
IELTS offers two types of tests:
- Academic: This test is used for meeting the admission requirements of universities. It is harder, with the tests concerned primarily with performance in an academic setting.
- General: This is a general purpose test used to meet visa requirements when immigrating to a country. It is easier with most questions concerned with performance in a real world, social setting.
The IELTS test taker split is almost equally divided into 50% academic, and 50% general test takers.
Testing fee for both TOEFL and IELTS varies between $150-$250 depending on your location and test type.
The TOEFL is scored out of 120 points. IELTS scores are based on a 9 point scale with half-point increments. Since the TOEFL is scored on a wider point range, some students feel it to be fairer than IELTS, where a few mistakes might degrade your score by a point or two.
Section Specific Differences
Besides the above, there are a few section specific differences among the tests as well:
Since IELTS is offered by the British Council, it accepts both UK and US English spellings. TOEFL, on the other hand, uses predominantly US English spellings. If you’re more comfortable with UK than US English, consider taking the IELTS and vice-versa.
Expect to hear a variety of different accents on the IELTS Listening section. This may include, but isn’t limited to, British, American, Australian and Canadian accents.
TOEFL, on the other hand, employs the standard American accent. If you watch a lot of American movies or TV shows, you’ll find this much easier to handle than an Australian or Irish accent on the IELTS. You can learn more about the standard American accent in this course.
The IELTS speaking section is actually a one-on-one interview. Question topics can range from the academic (“talk about the theory of evolution for a minute”), to the mundane (“what is your favorite hobby and why?”).
The TOEFL speaking section involves speaking into a microphone. Most questions will be academic in nature. You will also be asked to listen to a lecture or academic discussion and voice your thoughts on the same (such questions are called ‘integrated tasks’ on the TOEFL).
If you’re more comfortable speaking into a mic than sitting across an interviewer, you’ll find the TOEFL Speaking section way easier.
The differences between TOEFL and IELTS are few but not inconsequential. Depending on where you want to study – US or UK/Australia – you may choose either one of them. They cost roughly the same, have the same duration (approx. 3 hours) and validity (2 years), and are offered nearly year round.