TOEFL vs IELTS – Which Test Should I Choose in 2024?

January 22, 2024


Are you an international student looking to study at an English-speaking university? If so, odds are you’ve come across the words “English proficiency exam” while researching schools. These exams are necessary for applicants whose first language is not English, and are designed to test how accurately and fluently you speak, write, and read. The most common and widely recognized of these exams are the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the IELTS (the International English Language Testing System). But what are the differences? How does one decide between the TOEFL vs IELTS.

Once you’ve determined that you need to take either the TOEFL or the IELTS, you may wonder how to choose which is suitable for you. We know—decisions are hard! Like choosing between whether to hang your toilet paper over or under, or whether to binge Wednesday Addams or Euphoria. Every choice has trade-offs, and this one is no exception. In this article, we’ll cover the difference between the TOEFL and IELTS and which is the proper test for your particular circumstances and preferences.

TOEFL Meaning: What is the TOEFL?   

TOEFL (we pronounce it toe-full) stands for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The test is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and is an internet-based test (iBT). According to the ETS, TOEFL scores are accepted worldwide by over 12,500 institutions. The test can be taken from the comfort of your home (yes, you can take it in your favorite COVID-era PJs), or you can go to a nearby testing center to complete it.

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TOEFL test scores are typically returned quickly, within eight days for the Home Edition and thirteen days for the Paper Edition. The cost of the TOEFL iBT test varies by country but can run anywhere from $180 to $325. Since the TOEFL can be completed from home, there’s great flexibility in choosing a test date, though we recommend picking a date at least a few months out to give yourself plenty of time to study.  To determine whether you need to take the TOEFL, Stanford University has put together this helpful flowchart.

TOEFL Format

The TOEFL consists of four sections. These are the Reading section, the Listening section, the Speaking section, and the Writing section. Each section is designed to mimic the situations and conversations you’ll face while attending an English-speaking university.

TOEFL Changes as of 2023

Note that the TOEFL’s format changed as of July 26, 2023. (See here for an updated practice section of the new version.) The new test is shorter than the old, meant to be completed in around 2 hours. The Reading section was cut from four articles to two, with ten questions each. The new Listening section was reduced to twenty-eight questions. No changes were made to the Speaking section, which comprises four questions that students are asked to answer by speaking into a microphone. Finally, the Writing section consists of two parts: the integrated writing question and the brand-new academic discussion question. Here’s a practice of that new writing section provided by ETS. The test used to be three hours and is now two—great news for all you antsy test takers!

Who Accepts TOEFL

The TOEFL is accepted by schools in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Ireland. See here for a complete list of schools that accept the TOEFL iBT Home Edition Scores. While US-based schools have historically preferred the TOEFL to the IELTS, that preference has changed, and many schools today typically accept both. For more information on American universities specifically and their international admissions rates, we’ve compiled an easy-to-read table that combines the international admissions data from over 200 schools. We’ve also written this article on applying to the top US universities as an Asian-American student and whether there’s indeed a bias against Asian applicants.

What is the IELTS?

The IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System. The test is administered by the British Council and is accepted by over 12,000 institutions worldwide. Just like the TOEFL, the IELTS offers several options for test takers. One can take the test at a test center on a computer or by hand, or complete the test online at home. Note, however, that if you plan to take the IELTS General Training test or require an IELTS score for a visa, the test can only be completed in a testing center. The IELTS costs anywhere from $215-310 USD, depending on where you live.

IELTS Format

Like the TOEFL, the IELTS comprises four sections: Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking. Click here for a list of preparation resources for taking the IELTS, from courses to videos to webinars.

In total, the IELTS takes 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete. The Listening section takes 30 minutes, the Reading section takes 60 minutes, the Writing section takes 60 minutes, and the Speaking section takes 11-14 minutes.

The Listening section is made up of four parts. Parts one and two involve listening to conversations that are social in nature (i.e., a discussion about going out for a meal). In contrast, parts three and four require test takers to listen to conversations that are educational in nature (i.e., conversations you might hear in a university setting).

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Next, the Reading section of the IELTS comprises 40 questions spread over three sections. The reading section involves reading academic texts, such as those from books, newspapers, and magazines, and answering questions about them. Note that at least one of these texts will involve a logical argument, which you’ll be asked to answer questions on.

The Writing section of the IELTS is made up of two tasks. The first task involves describing a piece of visual information, such as a graph or chart. Students are required to write at least 150 words for this part of the exam. The second task involves a point of view or argument, which you are then asked to discuss. This task takes about 40 minutes to complete—double the time given for task 1. Students are asked to write at least 250 words for this second part.

Finally, the Speaking section of the IELTS comprises a face-to-face interview between the test taker and a test administrator. The speaking interview consists of three parts: 1) Familiar topics such as home and family; 2) A specialized topic given to you by the administrator; 3) Further questions about the topic given to you. Your interview will be recorded and then scored. It’ll be like you’re on your favorite late-night talk show…only now, you’re the guest!

Who Accepts IELTS?

The IELTS is accepted by many schools, organizations, and employers around the globe. To check if your chosen institution accepts the IELTS, search here on the IELTS website.

What’s the Difference Between TOEFL and IELTS?

As you can see, both the TOEFL and IELTS comprise four sections: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. While the skills assessed are identical between these exams, the content between them is not. As a generalization, the TOEFL focuses on using skills within an academic setting, while the IELTS focuses more on real-world examples. In the reading section, for instance, the IELTS says that texts may derive from various practical sources, from newspapers to websites, while the TOEFL sources its materials from university textbooks. Additionally, the TOEFL’s listening section focuses more on the types of lectures most often found in a university setting. We recommend trying the free practice tests on the TOEFL and IELTS websites for more information on the material covered in each.

Scoring Differences

IELTS weights all sections equally on a scale of 0-9, using increments of 0.25. The overall score is calculated by taking the mean result for each section and then rounding up to the nearest whole or half band (i.e., a 4.25 is rounded up to a 4.5, while a 4.75 is rounded up to a 5). See here for more information on what your IELTS score means.

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By contrast, the TOEFL is scored on a scale of 0 to 120. On each section, you’ll receive a score between 0 and 30. These scores are then combined into your total score. Check out ETS’s guide for how to interpret your score.

Can I Retake the Test for a Higher Score?

Note that the IELTS allows test takers to retake one section of the test with their One Skill Retake option, while the TOEFL mandates that those wishing to retake the TOEFL sit for the entire exam.

In Summary, How Do You Decide Which to Take?

  • Geographic Preferences
    • Sometimes, the question of which test to take comes down to which test is offered in your area. Luckily, with the invention of at-home tests, students have more options available to them now than ever before. But if the place to which you’re applying requires an in-person test, you’ll need to ensure there’s a testing center near you.
  • Institutional Requirements
    • Does your school have a preference between the IELTS or TOEFL? If so, this is the most useful guideline to determine which test is right for you.
  • Test Format
    • Remember that the content between the IELTS and TOEFL, while similar, is not identical. Review the materials covered on both to determine if one fits your particular skill set better.

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  • Availability
    • We recommend scheduling your English proficiency test well in advance. However, we understand that sometimes life gets the better of you. If you’re in a time crunch, one of these tests might be available sooner than the other. Refer to the registration page of each to sign up.
  • Additional Testing Options
    • Note that other English tests are now being accepted by some universities, including the Cambridge English Test, the Duolingo English Test, the Initial View test, and more. The most important factor when choosing which test is right for you is to ensure that it’s accepted by the universities to which you plan to apply.

Good luck, and happy test-taking!