TOEFL vs. IELTS: Fact and fiction

What’s the difference between the TOEFL and the IELTS?

Perhaps like you, we’ve heard this question so many times! We at ScoreNexus are experts on the TOEFL, but we definitely know the IELTS as well. We have written materials for both, we have trained teachers for both, and we have taught both extensively.

The next time one of your students asks for a comparison, here is a list of what is definitely true and false:

The TOEFL is for the U.S., and the IELTS is for the U.K. or Australia. FALSE.

The IELTS was created by two U.K. organizations and one Australian organization, and it is definitely promoted in those countries. However, both the TOEFL and the IELTS are accepted around the world. Most schools and organizations accept both TOEFL and IELTS scores, so either one is most often OK. Of course, you should check with your specific situation, but most of the time you have a choice.

The IELTS is shorter than the TOEFL. TRUE and FALSE.

This statement is both true AND false. If you count up the number of minutes you are sitting in a chair being tested, then the IELTS is shorter. The length of “testing time” is about 3 hours and 15 minutes for the IELTS, and it is about 4 hours for the TOEFL.

However, this is not the complete story. When you take the IELTS, you take the Listening, Reading and Writing sections together. This lasts about 3 hours. However, after that, you must come back to take the Speaking section at a later time. This can be 1 hour later, 4 hours later, or even the next day! The last time I took the IELTS, I had to wait 4.5 hours between the end of the Writing section and the start of my Speaking portion.

I was tired from the test, but I had to wait around with nothing to do until my Speaking appointment. So, from start to finish, the IELTS took me about 8 hours.

The TOEFL does all four sections in a row. You do Reading, then Listening, take a short break, then do Speaking and Writing. The number of minutes actually doing the test is more, but the total time from start to finish is less because there is no waiting around.

One test is easier than the other. FALSE.

Some students completely believe the TOEFL is “easier” than the IELTS, and other students believe the exact opposite. In fact, no test is “easier” than the other. What is “easy” depends on the student. Some students hate taking tests online, so they say the IELTS is easier. Other students are afraid of talking to a live person for the Speaking section, so they say the TOEFL is easier. This discussion has no end.

All you can do is research the differences, and then decide for yourself.

IELTS is mostly paper-based, and the TOEFL is completely online. TRUE.

This is true. The first part of the IELTS (Listening, Reading, and Writing) uses old fashioned paper and a pencil. You have a book of questions for each section, and then you fill out answer sheets using your pencil. (The second part, Speaking, is a little different. See below.)

The TOEFL is taken on a computer, online. You have paper and a pencil to take notes, but you answer all of the questions on the computer. This involves clicking multiple choice answers, dragging-and-dropping, speaking into a microphone, and typing written answers.

The IELTS Speaking section is with a live person, and the TOEFL is online. TRUE.

With the IELTS, you go into a room with just you and an examiner. The examiner looks at your identification and gives you some very basic instructions. The Speaking test then officially starts, and you are recorded. The general format is the examiner asking you questions according to different pre-arranged scripts, and you answer as best as you can. However, there is one part in the middle in which you read a longer question, take notes for one minute, then give a longer answer that should last around two minutes.

With the TOEFL, you record your answers using a headset and a microphone. You have six tasks to answer, and each answer is either 45 seconds or 60 seconds long.

It is easier to “guess” answers on the TOEFL. TRUE.

This sounds strange, but this is generally true for many parts of the TOEFL. The Reading and Listening sections of the TOEFL are almost all multiple choice, with a handful of drag-and-drop questions. Most always, even if you are completely lost, you have a one-in-four chance of guessing the correct answer (YES, you should guess, and NEVER leave blank answers). In addition, there are different tasks in the Speaking and Writing sections that always follow certain patterns, so for those tasks you can also “guess” what will happen.

The IELTS has a combination of various multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank questions and put-in-the-correct-order questions. Of course you can guess on the multiple-choice questions. But there is no real way to guess fill-in-the-blank questions (and SPELLING COUNTS!). The put-in-the-correct-order questions are tricky, because one wrong answer can cause all of the following answers to also be wrong.

So, at least for Reading and Listening, the TOEFL gives you an easier format to guess. Don’t know an answer? Just click on an answer and move on. You have a 25% chance of being correct–and there are techniques to eliminate poor answers, which can often leave you an even higher chance.

Here is a SUMMARY:
Situation You should take
You are afraid of interviews with a live person TOEFL
You are afraid of taking tests online IELTS
You cannot type in English IELTS
You cannot write with a pencil for an hour straight TOEFL
You don’t want to wait around all day at the test center TOEFL
You prefer less test time, even if I have to wait around IELTS
You like to be able to guess answers TOEFL
You don’t mind skipping answers you don’t know IELTS

Until next time,
Ed, founder of ScoreNexus