IELTS vs TOEFL: Which is easier?

A question I regularly get from students is ‘Should I take the IELTS or TOEFL test,’ and also ‘Which is the easiest?’

This post will look at the main similarities and differences between the two tests and then look at which one you might find easier. I have asked many teachers and students who have experience with both tests and used their thoughts in this article.

IELTS vs TOEFL which is easier

IELTS vs TOEFL: Availability

The first thing you need to check is which universities and colleges accept each test. If you really want to go to a certain university and it only accepts IELTS, then that is the test you should do. You can check which institutions accept IELTS and the band score you need here.  For TOEFL you should check here.

You should also check if there is a test center in your local area. The test is already stressful without having to do lots of travelling. You can find your local IELTS test centre here.

You should also think about why you want to do the test. If it is for university entrance there is not much difference between the two tests, but if you are not attending university and just need it to move to another country, the General Training paper that IELTS offers is proabably much more suitable for your needs.

IELTS vs TOEFL: Similarities

Both test the four main language skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. They are both standardised tests which- in theory- means that the scores are consistent throughout the world.

There is not much difference in price either, with both costing between $150 and $250 dollars depending on where you do it.

That is where the similarities end and there are many more differences. Below I will look at how each of the four skills are different.

Differences: Speaking

This is probably the biggest difference between the two tests. In the IELTS test you will talk to a real person and in the TOEFL test you will speak to a computer!

Some people find talking to a computer very strange while others actually prefer it.

In the TOEFL test you will be asked 6 questions and it lasts around 20 minutes. You will be asked two questions on familiar topics, such as your home town or family. You will also be asked to summarise information from a text or conversation and to give your opinion.  Finally, you will be asked to summarise information from a short conversation.

The IELTS speaking test consists of 3 sections and lasts around 15 minutes. This test is with a real person and feels more like a real conversation. The first part is on familiar topics such as your home, job or studies. You will then be given a topic and you will have one minute to prepare a monologue of between 1-2 minutes. Finally, you will be asked question linked to the topic you spoke about in part 2.

Some of my students have commented that they find the TOEFL test more of a challenge because it feels very unnatural talking to a computer. However, lots of other students (normally the shy ones) actually prefer talking to a computer and don’t like talking to a stranger.

Another point I should add is students have remarked that they can clarify information with examiners and ask them occasionally to repeat a question. This is obviously not available in the TOEFL test.

Please visit our IELTS Speaking page for more information.

Differences: Writing

IELTS vs TOEFL Writing

The biggest difference here is how you actually input your words. For TOEFL you will type everything on a keyboard, but for IELTS you will be writing on paper.

I would hate to do a test on a computer, but lots of my students, especially those with bad handwriting, actually like it. Think about how neat your handwriting is and how fast your typing is. If the examiner can’t read your writing at all, they will have to give you are very low grade.

Both writing exams have two questions but the formats are a little different.

In the TOEFL writing test you have to first read a text and then listen to a 2 minute lecture on the same topic.  You must then write a short response to a specific question on that topic. Some students prefer this approach because it does not require as much prior knowledge about the topic.

The second question is a longer discursive essay on a particular issue, similar to a university style academic essay.

IELTS has two different types of writing paper: Academic and General Training. Academic is suitable for people hoping to attend university and General Training is mostly used for immigration purposes.

The test has two parts and they both take 1 hour. In the Academic paper you will be required to write a short essay about a graph, chart, map or process. In the General Training paper you will be asked to write a letter for task 1. In the second part you will be asked to write a short essay on a particular topic.

Lots of my students have remarked that the IELTS writing test tends to follow the same format again and again and it is therefore easier to prepare for. Please visit our task 1 and task 2 pages for more information.

Differences: Listening

The main differences here are the length of the test, context, question type and accent.

The TOEFL test is 60 minutes long and the IELTS listening test is 30 minutes. Most of my students have never listened to English for more than a few minutes at a time and find the TOEFL test very long and this results in them losing concentration and missing answers.

The TOEFL test is all in an academic context whereas the IELTS test is half academic and half social.

The TOEFL test is multiple choice only, so if you like those questions this might be the test for you. IELTS has a range of different questions including sentence completion, matching headings and True, False or Not Given.

You will also hear a range of different accents from English speaking countries such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the USA, Canada and Australia on the IELTS test whereas the TOEFL test will always be standard American English.

Some students have commented that it is easier to listen to American accents and this makes the TOEFL listening easier, but you should also bear in mind that you will never get a very difficult accent on the IELTS test.

For more information on listening, please visit our IELTS listening page.

Difference: Reading

IELTS vs TOEFL Reading

The two main differences here are questions types and context.

The TOEFL test is multiple choice only and the IELTS test has a wide range of question types. If you like multiple choice then TOEFL might be the test for you but other people really don’t like them and feel that a range of question types gives them a better chance of getting a high score.

TOEFL has only academic texts available, but with IELTS you can choose either the Academic paper or the non-academic one, if you would like to do the General Training paper.

Students have remarked that the TOEFL paper is much longer than the IELTS paper and it requires greater levels of concentration and mental stamina. Many have also said that they did not like the fact that it was just multiple choice questions and they found it very difficult to do the same thing over and over again.

For more information on the IELTS reading test please visit our IELTS reading page.

IELTS vs TOEFL: Which should I choose?

If you can answer yes to most of the following questions you should do the TOEFL test:

I find American accents easy to listen to.

I like multiple choice questions.

I prefer reading and listening in an academic context.

I can concentrate for long periods of time.

I prefer talking to a computer.

I am good at typing.

I can easily follow a lecture and take notes.

I am comfortable with computers.

If you can answer yes to most of the following questions you should do the IELTS test:

I like talking to people one-on-one.

I don’t like multiple choice questions.

I don’t like reading or listening to academic contexts.

I like to write by hand.

I can understand a variety of English-speaking accents.

I prefer shorter tests.

I prefer a range of questions.

I find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time.

IELTS vs TOEFL: Which is easier?

I know quite a few students who have done both tests, including some students who did both tests at the same time and nearly all of them prefer IELTS. Most of them even got comparatively higher scores in the IELTS test.

I also looked on a few IELTS and TOEFL forums and Facebook groups and this also seems to the consensus there. What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts especially if you done both tests.

Pham commented: ‘Half way through the TOEFL exam I was exhausted. I found it impossible to maintain 100% concentration for that long. I did much better in the IELTS test and felt it was a true representation of my English abilities’.

Nguyen commented: ‘I’m pretty shy and spend most of my time on computers every day, so TOEFL was a natural fit.’

Chi said: ‘Multiple choice grrrrr……I hate them. It felt like a multiple choice test and not an English test and talking to a computer is just weird. I really liked the IELTS speaking test because the examiner was really friendly and it felt like a real conversation.’

Banan Shams gave his thoughts ‘According to my experience in teaching both tests and according to the educational system we have in Gulf Countries, I found that IELTS is easier than TOEFL because our educational system has likely being more European. So, whenever students ask for an advice I recommend IELTS.’

I hope you found this article useful. For more help with IELTS please check out IELTS Preparation- The Ultimate Guide.

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  1. Shyama says

    Hi.. I plan to move to us..can you please tell me whether ielts or toefl is prefered there?

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