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Getting your application ready for graduate school can be tricky, especially with so many components and choices—what recommendations to get, essays to write, or test scores to send in. Specifically, students applying to grad school in English speaking countries must submit either a TOEFL or IELTS test score that demonstrates their English proficiency level. So which test to take? Often it depends on the visa requirements of the particular country or specific university requirements, so it is best to check the individual country and university websites. However, there are some basic differences that are a good place to start, especially when generally, you should be able to choose only one test (less to study for)!
Let’s start off with a bit of information about the two exams—although they both measure English language skills, they are still distinct. The TOEFL exam, which stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, is divided into three sections that test your ability to read, speak, write, and listen to English through multiple choice and written responses. According to their website, the TOEFL is accepted by over 9,000 institutions in over 130 countries, making it a versatile test that counts for many purposes. The TOEFL test uses American English vocabulary and accents, as well as expressions, so it is better to take if you are more familiar with that speaking style. Be prepared, the TOEFL also lasts four hours. Scores on the test range from 0-120 points.
The IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, was created by three organizations in England and is also accepted at institutions all over the world. Specifically, the IELTS is a requirement for immigration to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Because it is a British test, the IELTS is more widely accepted in countries within the Commonwealth, but it is also accepted by many schools in the US. As for gaining a Visa to the US, the US State Department requires foreign students to have proof of English proficiency with a TOEFL score, though an IELTS score would be acceptable if that test was required by the school you plan on attending.
Unlike the TOEFL, the IELTS has two versions: the Academic Version and the General Training Version. The Academic Version, clearly, is deigned to test takers who are applying to universities or other higher education institutions, while the General Training Version is for those seeking non-academic training, work experience, or immigration.
The IELTS material tests listening, reading, writing, and speaking abilities through a module divided by each subject, which are comprised of multiple sections. The test lasts for 2 hours and 45 minutes and scored on a 0-9 scale, with 9 being Expert User. As for the TOEFL, different institutions have varying requirements for testing scores depending on their acceptance rates and level of rigor. As compared to the TOEFL, the IELTS uses British expressions, vocabulary, and accents.
As for major differences, the duration of the test is a big one—the TOEFL is over an hour longer—especially if you are the kind of test taker who gets distracted easily or can’t work for a long time consecutively. The response structures of the exams are also different. If you are better at straight forward multiple choice, the TOEFL may be a better choice; the IELTS uses more types of responses in addition, like fill in the blank and matching exercises. The TOEFL also requires better note taking skills for the listening section because you answer questions after hearing the entire audio, while questions on the IELTS listening are interspersed throughout.
As for costs, the fees for the TOEFL range from $160-$250 depending on where you take the exam. The IELTS fee also differs by the testing country and is typically priced similarly to the TOEFL.
According to Inside Higher Ed, “The most notable difference in the tests may be the way speaking is judged. IELTS uses a live, face-to-face interview with the test taker, while ETS has students taking the TOEFL speak into a microphone for analysis by a panel of test reviewers later.” This can mean that the IELTS is more realistic, but more likely to be influenced by the specific grader and lack consistent quality control, unlike the TOEFL. If you are comfortable talking to an actual person versus a computer, the IELTS may be the best choice for you.
Whichever exam you choose, it is important to take your time and thoroughly prepare before the test day. Both tests offer free online practice tests, paid practice tests and classes, and study guides on their websites (TOEFL and IELTS) that will help you do your best on either exam. Overall, the TOEFL is best when applying to an institution in the US, while the IELTS is best for institutions within the Commonwealth, like England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Most importantly, remember to check the individual requirements of the institution.
Good luck and happy testing!