What’s the difference between IELTS and TOEFL?

Universities want to make sure you have the English language skills necessary for successful study so almost all institutes of higher learning require you to take a test of English. The IELTS Academic and TOEFL iBT are the two biggest standardized tests of the English language.  Here are some of the basic differences:



IELTS (Academic)

Accents used:

Mostly North American English accents.

Range of international English accents.

Length of test:

4 hours

2 hours, 45 minutes

Reading Section:

60–100 minutes (sometimes shorter, sometimes longer). 

The TOEFL Reading section asks you to read 4-6 academic English passages (all of the same level of difficulty) and answer multiple-choice questions about them.

Questions test comprehension of the text, main ideas, important details, vocabulary, inferring, rhetorical devices and style.

3 passages x 20 mins
Starts ‘easy’, gets harder. 

Questions are taken from academic textbooks, newspapers or magazines (all academic English).

There are about 15 different types of questions which IELTS may choose to use.  These include: short answer, multiple choice, match a heading, True/False/Not Given, complete a summary, locate the information and others.

Listening Section:

Length: 40-60 minutes
Campus conversations & Lectures
Take notes  40-60 mins multiple choice
The Listening Section presents 2-3 longer conversations and 4-6 lectures. The situations are always related to university life (eg: a conversation between a student and a librarian about finding research materials). All questions are multiple choice and ask you about important details, inferences, tone, and vocabulary.

The conversations and lectures are spoken in very natural English and include informal English, ‘filler’ words like ‘um’ and ‘er’.

Listening: around 30 minutes

The IELTS has four listening sections. The first is a "transactional conversation" in which someone may be applying for something (eg: a driver's license, a library card) or asking for information. The second section is an informational lecture of some kind. The third section is a conversation in an academic context and the final section is an academic lecture.

Question types that may be used:  complete a summary, fill in a table, multiple-choice, label a diagram or picture, classify information into different categories. Answers are first written into a test booklet and then transferred onto an answer sheet later.

Speaking Section:

Length: around 20 minutes.
You sit at a computer, wearing headphones and a microphone.
6 different university-type questions are asked and recorded.  Your test is assessed by an examiner on another day, after the test.

Two questions will be on familiar topics and ask you to give your opinion and/or describe something familiar to you (eg: your town or your favorite teacher).

Two questions will ask you to summarize information from a text and a conversation – you may be asked your opinion as well.

Two questions will ask you to summarize information from a short conversation.

Length: 12-15 minutes.
Test is recorded.

The speaking module may be held on the same or different day from the rest of the test.  It is conducted by a trained, live examiner and consists of 3 Parts. 

Part 1 is a brief introductory conversation followed by some short questions about familiar topics (eg: the interviewer may ask about your hometown, your job, your favourite food, your hobbies, etc).

In Part 2, you will be given a card with a topic and a specific question to answer. You will have to speak for 1-2 minutes on this topic.

In Part 3, the interviewer will ask you questions related to the question asked in Part 2.

Writing Section:

Length: 50 minutes.
Two questions. Answers are typed into a computer. 

The first question is an ‘Integrated task’ which involves reading a short passage (around 300 words long) and listening to a 2-minute lecture about the same topic (the listening may support or contradict the reading).  You must take notes as you listen.  You then must write a 150-225 word answer to a question about what you just read and listened to.  You are given 30 minutes to plan, write and edit your essay. 

The second question involves writing an essay of 300-350 words.  The essay must state, explain and support your thinking on a particular issue.

Length: 1 hour
Two tasks.  Answers are handwritten.

For Task 1, you will need to describe information in a graph, table or diagram.  You need to write 150 words.

For Task 2, you will need to write an argument (eg: The solution to the pollution problem is to dramatically increase the cost of fuel) or discussion (eg: what is happiness) on a topic.  You will need to write 250 words and IELTS suggests you spend 40 minutes on the answer.


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