TOEFL vs IELTS: Which Test Should You Take?

June 28, 2016

“I have to take an English test. Which one is easier: TOEFL vs IELTS?” People often asked me that question whenever they have to take an English Language Proficiency (ELP) test. Like most people, they want to take the easier test to secure higher score. The truth is, none of the two tests is easier. It depends on the person. Each test-taker need to determine which test is more suitable for them.


Overview of English Language Proficiency Test

Given that Indonesia’s main language isn’t English, taking ELP test is mandatory for Indonesians, especially for scholarship and school application abroad. The test is used to measure applicants’ ability to communicate in English effectively, which they would need to be able to do during their studies and when living abroad. There are many ELP types available in Indonesia, from TOEFL Paper-Based Test (PBT), TOEFL Internet-Based Test (iBT), IELTS, PTE, to TOEIC. However, in this article, I will focus on just TOEFL iBT and IELTS, since they are the ONLY two accepted tests worldwide for university applications abroad.

While top schools have different TOEFL and IELTS averages, they have common minimum accepted scores. US and Canadian schools require TOEFL iBT of 100 or IELTS of 7.0 with no band below 6.5. A few top European schools require higher minimum scores of 105 for TOEFL iBT and 7.5 with no band below 7.0 for IELTS. Thus, although scholarship applications require lower TOEFL or IELTS scores, you should focus on the schools’ higher score requirement. Otherwise, you could end up not getting an offer from any school and wasting your scholarship.


TOEFL vs IELTS: Understanding the Differences

Before you choose which to take between the TOEFL and the IELTS, you need to understand the differences between them. In this article, I will share three major differences: dialect, test method / forms, and scoring system.

Dialect: American vs British

The most basic difference is the dialect demonstrated throughout the test, including the idioms, choice of words, and accent. TOEFL uses American English. It is administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and favored by US schools. On the other hand, IELTS uses British English. It is administered by British Council and Cambridge and favored by schools in the UK and commonwealth nations, such as Australia and New Zealand.

Test Method / Forms

TOEFL iBT, as its name, is administered online using computers. Meanwhile, IELTS is administered using paper and a real person. Below, I will elaborate the evaluation methods used by each.

Both TOEFL and IELTS have four sections, i.e. Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. The Reading section for both tests will evaluate your understanding of academic passages written in English on various topics, from astronomy, history, to biology, etc. You don’t need to worry about not having relevant background on those topics since that is not required to be able to answer the questions. All TOEFL iBT questions are exclusively in multiple-choice format. In IELTS however, you will face more variety of question types, from multiple-choice, fill-in-the-gaps, to short answers.

In Listening section, both the TOEFL and IELTS will test your ability to follow class lectures such as discussions about a change in dissertation topic and also keep up with the pace of spoken English in daily conversations amongst native speakers. The difference between both tests in this section is the length of the conversation. TOEFL has longer lectures and conversations, each spanning around three to six minutes whereas they only span one minute on average in IELTS. Although this section tests your ability to listen, I recommend that you take notes of the key points during the conversation to make sure you can answer the corresponding questions afterwards.

After Listening, you will face the Speaking section. For both the TOEFL and IELTS, you will be expected to articulate your opinions on certain topics, from your favorite food to your holiday plan, and paraphrase the discussion that you will hear. The significant difference between TOEFL and IELTS lies in who is assigned to assess your verbal communication skills. In TOEFL, you will speak to a microphone to record your answers electronically, which will be evaluated by a group of judges later. Thus, before you begin the TOEFL test, you need to test the computer’s microphone and adjust the volume to make sure that you are able to speak comfortably and clearly. In IELTS, you will speak directly to a person. He/she will ask you questions that you should answer and will evaluate your response right away.

The last section of the test is Writing where you will be asked to write two about two things. First is a summary of an academic passage and spoken lecture. The second is your written opinion regarding certain topics, for example deciding between making history class mandatory or optional in college. In TOEFL, you will type your answers using the computer. You will be able to check the word count and remaining time, which makes it easier to manage your writing. For IELTS however, you need to write with pen and paper. Thus, for the IELTS it is important to plan what you want to write beforehand. Otherwise, your writing could end up getting messy very quickly if you find yourself needing to change too many things. I recommend writing an outline similar to one described in this .

Scoring System

After you finish the test, you will receive your score results in 10 to 12 days. Comparing the scoring system of TOEFL vs IELTS however, both test can’t be more different. The maximum TOEFL iBT score is 120, derived from the sum of the maximum of 30 points for each of the four sections with one-point increments. Say your section scores are Reading 25, Listening 28, Speaking 22, and Writing 25. That means your overall TOEFL score is 100. In IELTS, the maximum score is 9.0, derived from the average of the maximum 9.0 points per band with half-point increments. Say your scores for the bands are Reading 7.0, Listening 6.5, Speaking 6.0, and Writing 6.5. Your overall IELTS score will be 6.5.


Choose Your Test Wisely

In choosing which ELP test to take in TOEFL vs IELTS, you should note the following. Ideally you should first determine which schools you want to apply to before determining which test to take. This is because some universities abroad only accept one of either test and not both. A couple of US schools for example only accept the TOEFL but not the IELTS. Therefore it is very important for you to check the ELP test requirements for the schools that you are planning to apply to before deciding which test to prepare for. If all the schools you are planning to apply to accept both tests however, then you need to recognize which dialect and test method or form you are more comfortable with. If you have been learning British English and more comfortable speaking with real person during your test for example, you might want to choose the IELTS. On the other hand, if you are more familiar with American English and more comfortable typing than handwriting, you might want to consider taking the TOEFL iBT instead. In my case, I chose to take the TOEFL iBT because most of the schools that I applied to are US schools and some of them do not accept the IELTS. In addition, the two non-US schools that I applied to accepted the TOEFL. Last, I’m more used to hearing American English growing up and prefer typing than handwriting.

In the end, to maximize your chance to demonstrate your English ability, you need to carefully compare TOEFL vs IELTS and wisely choose which ELP test to take. Good luck!

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