If you are planning to study abroad in an English-speaking country for your Bachelor’s Degree or Master’s Degree, you will most likely have to submit either an IELTS or TOEFL score. Although both of these standardized tests determine your English level by assessing your reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, the two tests differ in format, scoring and more. Here we explore the differences between the two and give you tips on how to practice for and take the test that is right for you. SchoolApply’s expert education advisors can guide you on which test you should take based on the university of your choice.


Either the IELTS or the TOEFL is required as part of your application to an English-speaking university and will demonstrate if you will be able to understand the course material.

The IELTS and TOEFL exams are two of the most accepted English proficiency exams around the world. However, both of these tests are different in their structure, approach, and teaching criteria. This means that you need to understand how the two differ before selecting which test to study for and ultimately take.

What is the IELTS

IELTS is an abbreviation for International English Language Testing System. The test is available in two formats: ‘IELTS Academic’, for those planning to study at a higher education level abroad; and ‘IELTS General Training’, which focuses on social skills and workplace contexts. In this piece, we will focus on IELTS Academic.

The IELTS test uses British English and consists of four parts: reading, listening, writing and speaking. It takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete, including transfer time from one section to the next. The IELTS is accepted in thousands of institutions in over 140 countries, each institution however has its own requirements for IELTS scores. Once students take the test, they can then select up to five organizations where copies of their IELTS results will be sent free of charge.

What is the TOEFL

TOEFL is an acronym for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is an English proficiency test, developed by an American company, ETS, to measure an individual’s reading, speaking, writing, and listening proficiency in American English. TOEFL scores are a requirement for over 900 universities and other institutions in more than 130 countries. There are two methods of taking this test; it can be taken as a Paper-Based Test (TOEFL PBT) or an Internet-Based Test (TOEFL IBT); TOEFL IBT, however, is more popular. You can register and take the TOEFL IBT at designated centers in almost all countries and it takes four hours to complete. This test is accepted in Australia and the UK, and it is likely that American institutions will favor this exam over the IELTS test.


Comparing IELTS and TOEFL

For the UK, only the IELTS UKVI, which is also used to support your UK Visa and Immigration application, is accepted. But for Canada and the US, either the TOEFL or IELTS will do. Students looking to take the test can find local centers where the test is offered. To find a test location for the IELTS, you can go to the IELTS website. The TOEFL is offered more than 50 times a year and you can search for the test locations here. The price for both tests is similar, about USD 200-300 depending on where you are taking the test.

Both tests consist of four sections that assess the most important aspects of language: speaking, listening, writing and reading. The TOEFL, however, is entirely multiple choice, while the IELTS has a mix of short answers and essay questions.

The TOEFL is available as a paper-based test, but the internet-based test is more popular. Prior to 2016 the IELTS was only available as a paper-based test but since then it has introduced computer-based testing as well. The internet-based TOEFL can take up to four hours to complete, while the IELTS is two hours and 45 minutes long. However, the IELTS may take more than one day because the speaking test with the instructor is separate from the other sections.





Varies by country

In the US, the test costs $215-$245

Varies by country between $165-$300, with most countries under $200


2 hours and 45 minutes

4 hours

Test sections (in order)

Listening: 30 minutes

Reading: 60 minutes

Writing: 60 minutes

Speaking: 11-14 minutes (section can also be taken before the other three sections)

Reading: 60-80 minutes

Listening: 60-90 minutes

Speaking: 20 minutes

Writing: 50 minutes

Accents you might hear

Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, British, American  

North American, British, New Zealand, Australian

Where is the test offered?

More than 1,100 locations in 140 countries worldwide

Offered around the world

How frequently is the test offered?

48 test dates per year

More than 50 test dates per year

Scoring scale

Zero to 9

Zero to 120

Average minimum score required by ranked US universities 




There is a big difference between the speaking part of the tests. If you feel that you are more comfortable speaking English to a person face to face rather than in a microphone, then the IELTS might be more suited to you. The IELTS speaking section takes 11 to 14 minutes and is conducted as if it were a normal conversation. You will be alone with the test instructor, and they will record you on tape as they ask you some general questions about your home, family and studies. Next, you will be shown a card with a specified topic and you will have about two minutes to prepare, after which the examiner has a discussion with you about the topic.The TOEFL speaking test consists of six sections and lasts 20 minutes. Two of the six sections will ask you for your opinion on everyday topics – this is the Independent Speaking Test. The other four sections will focus on Integrated Speaking. This means you will need to listen to or read something and then build a response to the recording or a passage. For each section, you will be given some time to prepare before giving your answer in the microphone.

Quick tip: Practice speaking and voicing your opinions clearly out loud.


For the IELTS listening part of the test, you will have to answer 10 questions while the audio is playing. The questions that will come up for IELTS cover everyday topics such as dealing with situations in an education and training context. The question format includes filling in the blanks, completing the sentence, and answering true or false. The TOEFL speaking test takes an hour, while the IELTS speaking section is only 30 minutes. In the listening section of the TOEFL, you will listen to four to six recordings and then answer questions based on what you heard. These questions will show your ability to understand the content that is being shared, and your ability to understand the speaker’s emotions and motivations. You will hear two types of recordings: conversation recordings and lecture recordings.

Quick tip: When you’re preparing for the IELTS exam, take the time to listen to different accents to avoid getting confused – after all, this exam assesses international English. And for both exams, don’t forget to take notes while you’re listening!


The writing section for both tests consists of two parts that require you to write a short essay. In the IELTS, you will be given a graph or chart in the first part, and you then have 20 minutes to write a short essay of 150 words based on that information. In the second part of the IELTS, you will be given an argument or a point of view and you will be required to write a 200- to 250-word response in 40 minutes. In the TOEFL, the first part requires you to read a short text about a certain topic and then listen to a two-minute lecture about this topic. Then, you will have to write 300 to 350 words in response to a question about this topic. The second part requires you to write another short essay.

Quick tip: Listen to podcasts and read articles and then summarize what you heard or read.


Both tests provide you with texts that are academic in nature and followed by questions that test how well you understand the text. In the IELTS, this section consists of 40 questions in three parts, with varying styles of questions that include short answer and fill in the gap questions that cover different aspects such as, reading for details and main themes, skimming, logical arguments and recognising the writer’s opinions and purposes. In the TOEFL, as with every other section on this test, the questions will be multiple choice and are divided into three to five parts, or “passages”. You will need to read the passages before answering between 12 to 14 questions. These questions may ask you to define a word (“vocabulary test”), identify the idea (“understanding test”), or find the false statement (“comprehension test”). The timing is similar for both tests, as you will have 20 minutes to complete each part.

Quick tip: Read pieces of literature and ask yourself questions about it.

Test scores

The IELTS test is graded by humans and has separate scores for each section from 1 to 9, and a final overall score of all the sections. So if you didn’t perform well in one of the sections, your score will bring down your average score. The IELTS score helps you easily identify your English proficiency level; simply put, a non-user score is 1 and expert score is 9. The TOEFL is graded by both humans and an automated scoring system and the score is structured differently with 1 point for each question, and a final score out of 120. You will receive a score from 0 to 30 for each section. Along with your TOEFL scores, you will also receive a performance feedback report. This report provides you with the ordinary test takers’ score range, which will give you a better indication of how you performed on your exam compared to the average. Keep in mind that with both exams, you will have to wait at least 10 days to receive your scores and the printed score reports are mailed to you 13 days after your test date.

SchoolApply’s expert guidance will help you get ready for the English language test you'll need to take

Learn More


Which test is best for you?

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, if you are planning on studying in the UK, you have no choice but to take the IELTS UKVI. But if you plan on studying in Australia, Canada or the US, you have a choice as to which test you take because universities in those countries accept both. So which is best suited for you? To keep it simple, if you prefer multiple choice questions and prefer speaking into a microphone, and if you are applying to an American institution, then the TOEFL is better suited for you. If you feel more comfortable talking to a person rather than a microphone, and prefer a variety of different question types, then the IELTS is better for you.

How to prepare

  • Practice tests

Before you begin studying, it might be helpful to take a practice exam so that you can assess your baseline.

Here, your choice of specific exams matters a lot. Some IELTS or TOEFL practice tests are sloppy, made by people who are not carefully imitating the real exam. You should always use TOEFL or IELTS practice tests made by the same people who created the real ones. For additional practice tests, find materials made by reputable companies that carefully recreate the “real thing.” Take practice tests throughout your studying so you can consistently test your skills and see how you are improving.

How can you find a good test that will accurately measure your baseline? One way is to look online for guides to finding good TOEFL or IELTS sample tests.

  • Find prep material

Your baseline doesn’t just tell you how much you need to improve your overall TOEFL or IELTS score. It also tells you which sections of the test are the hardest for you. You can think of these difficult areas as your target areas. These are the parts of the test that you need to target for extra study.

  • Register for test day

Setting a date is about much more than making sure your IELTS or TOEFL plans are official. Choosing the right TOEFL or IELTS test date is an important process. Your IELTS or TOEFL test date determines how much time you have to prepare. And your choice of test day must also allow you to get your official score report in time for application deadlines. Plus, it puts your target in sight and gives you a solid deadline that you can work with.

If you’re still not sure which test to take, SchoolApply’s team of expert advisors can help you determine the right one based on the university you would like to attend.