TOEFL Vs IELTS Difference: Overview, Difficulty & Which Should You Take?

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TOEFL Vs IELTS has been gaining the center stage among Indian students planning to study abroad. If you plan to study abroad, you must be wondering about the suitable English-language tests required for getting admission to foreign universities. TOEFL and IELTS are two such major entrance exams taken by Indian candidates.

But which exam should you appear for? TOEFL or IELTS? Your strengths and abilities should ideally determine this in different areas of the exam. To decide the right test for yourself, glance through the detailed exam pattern and scoring system of both:

TOEFL Vs IELTS: Overview

Both TOEFL and IELTS are international standardised tests. They are formulated to evaluate candidates’ proficiency in the English language. While TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is conducted by an American organisation – ETS (Educational Testing Service), IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is jointly held by the Cambridge Assessment English, British Council, and IDP: IELTS Australia. Scores of either test are accepted by over 10000 colleges and universities worldwide.

There is only one particular version of TOEFL, whereas IELTS is carried out in two versions:

  1. IELTS General Training
  2. IELTS Academic

It for people seeking secondary education, training programs, and jobs in English-speaking countries. It is specifically focused on judging the social and workplace skills of candidates. On the other hand, IELTS Academic is for people wanting to enroll in higher education institutes abroad. The latter is more popular as millions of students wish to pursue undergraduate and postgraduate courses in English-speaking nations.

Candidates can appear for TOEFL and IELTS in paper-based or online mode, as per their convenience. However, both modes may not be available at all locations.

IELTS and TOEFL – Exam Pattern

Particular IELTS TOEFL
Cost The test costs between $215-$245 and varies in other countries. Varies by country between $165-$300. Generally under $200 in most of the countries
Length of test 2 hours and 45 minutes 4 hours
Listening Test 30 minutes 60 to 90 minutes
Reading Test 60 minutes 60 to 80 minutes
Writing Test 60 minutes 50 minutes
Speaking Test 11 to 14 minutes 20 minutes
Accents heard in the tests Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, British, and American  North American, British, New Zealand, and Australian
Availability of test In more than 1100 locations from over 140 countries across the world Almost around the world
Frequency of test dates 48 test dates per year More than 50 test days per year
Scoring Scale 0 to 9 0 to 120
Minimum eligibility score required by top-ranked universities from the United States of America 6.3 78

TOEFL Vs IELTS: Difficulty Level

TOEFL and IELTS follow the same examination pattern yet vary in the section-wise difficulty levels. There is no definite answer to the question ‘is TOEFL easy or IELTS’; the key is to play to your strengths. Both TOEFL and IELTS consist of the following four main sections:

  •       Reading
  •       Listening
  •       Speaking
  •       Writing

These four parts essentially check the communication skills of the candidate. One must remember that IELTS Academic and TOEFL are more challenging than the IELTS General test. Nevertheless, IELTS Academic, as well as IELTS General, have a common format and scoring system. The variation exists in the content of the Reading and Writing sections of either test.

The given table illustrates the difference in the exam formats of TOEFL and IELTS:

Sections No. of Questions in TOEFL No. of Questions in IELTS Time Limit in TOEFL (minutes) Time Limit in IELTS (minutes)
Reading 30-40 40 54-72 60
Listening 28-39 40 41-57 30
Speaking 4 tasks 3 tasks 17 11-14
Writing 2 tasks 2 tasks 50 60

The total time duration of IELTS (2 hours 45 minutes) is a little less than TOEFL (3 hours). However, unlike IELTS, the candidates get a 10-minute break after the first two sections of TOEFL. But, is TOEFL easy? Let’s go through the details of each component of tests before determining that.

TOEFL Vs IELTS: Preferred English Accent

TOEFL prefers the usage of American English, while IELTS emphasises more on Australian or British English. Even so, IELTS offers greater flexibility in the use of either type of English. Although both kinds of English share more than 90% of the characteristics, the slight change in spellings and contextual usage can significantly impact your scores. Hence, if you are good at North American English, it is better to opt for TOEFL.

TOEFL Exam Format

Reading Section

This section comprises 3-4 passages in TOEFL. 10-12 questions accompany each passage. Most of the passages in TOEFL are picked from university-level academic textbooks of various disciplines. An essential point of difference is that all TOEFL passages are of the same difficulty level. Further, each question in the TOEFL’s reading portion is multiple-choice-type. Thus, you may consider whether you are comfortable doing MCQs or writing answers without being given the choice of options. 

Listening Section

The listening section comprises a set of 4-6 recordings in TOEFL. The recordings mainly contain academic conversations, lectures, and classroom discussions. These are usually 3-5 minutes long audios and are followed by 5-6 questions. Similar to the reading section, all questions in the listening section are in multiple-choice format. Candidates have to select the right order of given steps or choose a suitable option for the categories presented in a chart.

Questions of this part deal with identifying the gist of the recording, speaker’s attitude, associated reasoning, connections, inferences, and other details. Reading and Listening sections primarily tend to examine the understanding abilities and analytical skills of the candidate.

Speaking Section

The speaking section deals with testing spoken English of the candidates. In this part, candidates need to speak out their answers in response to the given questions. The answers are recorded for later evaluation. The speaking section in TOEFL is different from that of IELTS.

In TOEFL, candidates have to listen to questions with a headphone and record their answers through a microphone. There are two kinds of tasks in this speaking section. The first kind is an independent speaking task’ where you can state your ideas, outlook, and experiences. The second type of task is ‘integrated’ in nature, wherein you need to utilise a combination of skills (listening and speaking or reading, listening, and speaking) in response to the questions.

Considering this vast distinction in the speaking part of both the exams, you decide which suits you better. Some people are more likely to get nervous during an interview with a real person but feel at ease responding via virtual mode. Anxiety at the time of the exam can often hamper a candidate’s performance. Hence, such a person should advisably go for TOEFL.

Writing Section

In TOEFL, you are first assigned an integrated writing task and then an independent one. In the integrated task, candidates have to listen to a short recording and read a passage initially. After that, they need to summarise the information after comparing the two sources. The required length of the written answer is usually 150-225 words. For the independent task, candidates are asked to write their opinion on a given topic. Besides, these opinions should be substantiated with proper examples. The essay should be 300-350 words.

IELTS Exam Format

Reading Section

This section comprises three passages in IELTS. 10-12 questions accompany each passage. IELTS passages belong to a wider range of sources like journals, newspapers, magazines, and books. In this respect, IELTS may seem easier since academic texts involve in-depth studies and specialised words. The IELTS reading section includes several kinds of questions such as multiple-choice, short answer, matching, sentence completion, and diagram labelling.

Listening Section

The listening section comprises a set of four recordings in IELTS. In IELTS, recordings relate to conversations and monologues around usual social contexts as well as educational topics. There are ten questions for each such recording. Apart from MCQs, candidates have to answer sentence completion, matching, short answer, and diagram labelling. Contrary to the TOEFL format, most listening questions in IELTS require the candidates to write and order the steps themselves. Therefore, it is up to you if you want a given list of options to arrange or find it easy to make your list. Select your test likewise.

Speaking Section

In IELTS, you have to sit for a three-stage interview with an examiner, and your answers are recorded. In the first stage, the interviewer asks general introductory questions about your interests, hobbies, experiences, education, work, family, etc. You may also be asked your viewpoint on common everyday topics. In the second stage, you are handed a task card that reveals a topic you must speak on. After you have done speaking on the given topic, the interviewer asks a few questions about it. The final stage involves a discussion around issues linked to your topic. This is a critical stage as it entails justifying the stand you took on the given topic. Here, you have to analyse your opinions and talk about abstract aspects of the topic.

Writing Section

The writing section of IELTS is relatively simpler than that of TOEFL. The purpose of this part is to see how well you can organise your ideas and suggestions in writing. The first writing task in IELTS requires the candidate to describe a given chart, diagram, graph, or other visual data in their own words. It can relate to steps of a process, an event, or an object. The minimum word limit for this task is 150. The second writing task of IELTS is similar to that of TOEFL. In this, candidates need to express their point of view regarding a particular topic. The essay should be of at least 250 words and written in the academic style.

The written tasks are assessed based on vocabulary, spellings, grammar, fluency, and aptness. As mentioned, IELTS requires you to write shorter essays than TOEFL. So, if you have better acumen in short essay writing, IELTS would be a better choice.

TOEFL Vs IELTS: Marking Scheme

The marking systems of TOEFL and IELTS are quite different from each other. While TOEFL rates a candidate’s performance on the scale of 0-120, IELTS follows a 9-band score scale. The better the performance, the higher the score in the exam. Given below is an overall score comparison of the two exams:

TOEFL Score Range IELTS Band Scale
118-120 9
115-117 8.5
110-114 8
102-109 7.5
94-101 7
79-93 6.5
60-78 6
46-59 5.5
35-45 5
32-34 4.5
0-31 0-4

There is neither passing marks criteria nor any negative marking in TOEFL and IELTS. Below is an overview of section-wise differences in the marking scheme of the two tests:

Reading Section

In TOEFL, the reading section is allotted total raw scores of 0-45, with each question carrying 1-3 marks. In IELTS, the raw scores are calculated out of 40, and each correct answer is awarded one mark. The total raw scores are further changed into the scaled or band scores. The corresponding scaled and band scores of TOEFL and IELTS are shown below:

TOEFL Reading Scores IELTS Reading Scores
0–2 0–4
3 4.5
4–7 5
8–12 5.5
13–18 6
19–23 6.5
24–26 7
27–28 7.5
29 8
29 8.5
30 9

Listening Section

The TOEFL listening section is marked in the range of 0-34, whereas in IELTS, it is estimated out of 40. In both the exams, each correct answer is given one mark. Later, the raw scores are mapped to scaled or band scores, as per the particular test. The below table displays the equivalence between TOEFL and IELTS listening scaled and band scores, respectively:

TOEFL Listening Scores IELTS Listening Scores
0–2 0–4
3 4.5
4–6 5
7–11 5.5
12–19 6
20–23 6.5
24–26 7
27 7.5
28 8
29 8.5
30 9

Speaking Section

The speaking section is scored in a sort of complicated way because of the subjective nature of tasks. In TOEFL, the raw score points of the speaking part range between 0 to 24. For each of the six tasks, you will be graded on score points of 0-4, which are subsequently added and transformed to scaled scores.

In IELTS, four-band descriptors are used to judge the proficiency of the candidate. These are Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range & Accuracy, Fluency & Coherence, and Pronunciation. The candidate is given a band score for each of the four criteria, and thereon, their average makes up the total speaking score. Given below are the corresponding TOEFL scaled scores and IELTS band scores in the speaking section:

TOEFL Speaking Scores IELTS Speaking Scores
0–11 0–4
12–13 4.5
14–15 5
16–17 5.5
18–19 6
20–22 6.5
23 7
24–25 7.5
26–27 8
28–29 8.5
30 9

 Writing Section

The writing section is graded similarly to the speaking segment. As there are two writing tasks in TOEFL, each is allotted the raw score points of 0-5, with the total score range being 0-10. These are then converted to scaled scores.

The writing tasks in IELTS are evaluated on four band descriptors, namely Task Achievement(Task 1)/ Response(Task 2), Grammatical Range & Accuracy, Coherence & Cohesion, and Lexical Resource. The band scores in the given four areas form the band score for the IELTS writing section. The below table exhibits the comparative scaled scores and band scores of TOEFL and IELTS, respectively:

TOEFL Writing Scores IELTS Writing Scores
0–11 0–4
12–13 4.5
14–17 5
18–20 5.5
21–23 6
24–26 6.5
27–28 7
29 7.5
30 8
30 8.5
30 9

Final Score Estimation

For each section in TOEFL, candidates get a scaled score in the range of 0-30, and then the scores of all four sections are summed up. Hence, the overall score lies between 0 to 120.

However, in IELTS, the final score is the average of all four sections’ band scores. The total score is rounded up to the nearest half or whole band.

TOEFL Vs IELTS: Where are the Scores Accepted?

This is one of the most important factors to consider while deciding to opt for TOEFL or IELTS. Although most institutes of the world accept both the tests’ scores, some of them prefer one over the other, and few others accept only one test. It is observed that the majority of American universities and colleges favour TOEFL scores. In contrast, the IELTS scores have better reception at institutions across the UK, Australia, and other European countries.

Therefore, it is a good idea to shortlist some institutes you aim to take admission to. Then, you can check which test scores they are more likely to accept. Accordingly, you can prepare for a suitable test.

How To Decide Which Exam Should You Give?

This choice depends on the preferred university or institution that the candidate wishes to be enrolled in. Further, the location and candidate’s individual strengths and weaknesses will also be instrumental in deciding which exam would be more suitable for them. For instance, if your preferred university is in the USA and you are more confident in writing short answers and Multiple Choice Questions, then TOEFL might be the right choice for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a good score in TOEFL?

As the educational institutes vary in their minimum cut off criteria, there is no one fixed good score. However, previous years’ data shows that a score of 80+ is an above-average score. While 80 may be the cut off in some colleges, the top institutes and universities accept scores of the range 90-100 only. Additionally, most colleges also consider the sectional marks, which means you should target a score of at least 20 in each section.

2. What is a good score in IELTS?

Similar to TOEFL, a good score in IELTS depends upon the institute you wish to apply for. The top-ranked institutes have a cut off criteria of overall band score 6.5-7.5 and sectional band score 6. Yet, some of the institutes do not place any sectional cut off. The minimum band score required by most other colleges is around 5-5.5.

3. How long are the TOEFL and IELTS scores valid?

Both the scores are valid for two years.

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Experienced IELTS prep trainer and education management industry veteran. Specializes in public speaking, international education, market research, mentoring, and management.