toefl guide


Ron Ross October 12th, 2021

If you have ever research about standardized tests for non-English speakers, you would have come across both the TOEFL and the IELTS. The TOEFL is short for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and the IELTS is short for the International English Language Testing System. They are both widely accepted tests to certify your level of English proficiency. Some specific English-speaking countries prefer one test over another, but generally, they can both be accepted almost anywhere. If they are so similar to each other, which test should you take? That depends on what your strong suit is and what your program requires.

TOEFL and IELTS in a glance





About 4 hours

2 hours and 45 minutes


Over 4,500 locations worldwide

About 900 locations worldwide


Between $160 and $250

Cost varies widely, often around $200


Score on a scale from 0 to 120

Score at any of 9 “bands”


TOEFL and IELTS – detailed comparison

First of all, the similarity of the two tests is their expiration date. Both tests will expire after two years from your test date.

The TOEFL only offers one format which is academic English. The IELTS offers two options: an academic English option and a general test option. The general test is the easier option and mostly ask about daily, conversational English. That is why it is generally the preferred test for immigration purposes to the UK and Canada. However, if you want to study abroad at any level higher than secondary school in an English speaking country, you are more likely to be required to take the academic option of IELTS. So from this point to the rest of this post, we will only discuss the academic option of IELTS.

When you compare the format of the TOEFL and IELTS, there are a few differences between the two tests. Both the TOEFL and the IELTS have four sections, each tests a basic language skill (Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking). The TOEFL is a solidly, all-around academic test. So throughout the whole 4 sections, you will get academic questions or at least campus or school related questions. The IELTS will also have academic reading and writing sections, but for listening and speaking sections, you will only receive general, daily life, conversational questions. Overall, the IELTS has more of a real-world and daily life than the TOEFL. However, sometimes, also because of that, many institutions prefer the TOEFL for its focus on academic subjects. Deciding how difficult the TOEFL is compared to the IEFLTS depends on your background in English.

For the writing section, the TOEFL requires an integrated section in which you have to combine information from a short reading and a speech or conversation to write a complete essay. The IELTS integrated section does not require you to listen to anything, you only need to incorporate information from a graphic, graph or some other forms of written information source into your essay. The writing section in both tests requires an independent essay, in which you just list your opinions about a question in the prompt.

With the speaking section, in the TOEFL, you do not meet any real person and you will speak only to the recorder. The speaking questions will ask you to summarize, interpret information from other academic sources like lectures, speech, announcements or readings. With the IELTS, you will speak to a real person, an interviewer. The speaking test will have 2 sections: a short speech which you will have time to prepare and a conversation component.

The TOEFL is a solely American English based test. The whole test, you are guaranteed to only read American English and listen to American English accent. The IELTS has a wider range of dialects. It is more based on British English than American and during the speaking section, you may meet an interviewer with a non-American accent. It is important to know that the American English and British English of either the TOEFL or the IELTS will affect your answers. They are what presented to you in the prompt, the reading and listening. You are not required to give your answer in any specialized dialect either American or British English as long as your answers are fluent, clear and correct.

Which one is harder?

This is truly the most important question when considering between the two tests. However, it is almost like comparing apples and oranges. As said earlier, whatever test you find easier is mostly depend on your English learning experience. Here are a few questions to help you determine which one is more suitable for you.

I’m comfortable with computers. YES/NO?

I’m comfortable having a detailed interview in person. YES/NO?

I’m comfortable speaking extemporaneously into a microphone. YES/NO?

My English handwriting is legible. YES/NO?

I can type quickly. YES/NO?

I’m able to understand a variety of English dialects. YES/NO?

I prefer standard American English. YES/NO?

I prefer tests with multiple different question types, including multiple choice, fill in the blank, matching, flowcharts and true/false. YES/NO?

I’m good at answering multiple choice questions. YES/NO?

I feel comfortable discussing non-academic topics in English (even more than academic topics). YES/NO?

It is not difficult for me to take notes from a recording. YES/NO?

The authentic English sources that I have read, listen to or watch is usually for entertaining purposes. YES/NO?

The authentic English sources I have read, listened to or watched are intended to inform rather than entertain. YES/NO?


If you answer YES to more questions in the left column, then you are more suitable for the TOEFL. And if you have more YES answers to the right column questions, then the IELTS may be the one for you.

The Program

We have not talked much about the programs of the schools you are applying to. Sometimes, you do not get to choose between the TOEFL and the IELTS because the schools require a specific test over another. Both two tests are highly recognized and accepted all over the world. However, there are cases schools prefer one test to another or strictly requires one specific test. So make sure you check with the programs of your school so that you don’t waste time and money to study for the wrong test.

In general, American colleges and institutions have a reputation of requiring and preferring the TOEFL to the IELTS. However, many of them also accept the IELTS if you ask. So consult your programs carefully.

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