Differences between IELTS and TOEFL …which one is easier?

If a person needs to take an exam to prove his/her English language skills, to migrate to countries that accepts  proficiency in English as one of the main criterion for higher studies or job purposes, the TOEFL and IELTS are two of the most popular options for candidates. But should you take IELTS or TOEFL? 

This post will look at the main differences between the two tests and then look at which one you might find easier and has a wider acceptance abroad.
1. Medium of Interaction ( Speaking Module): This is probably the biggest difference between the two tests. In the IELTS exam, when a candidate appears for the Speaking module, an external examiner will be there who will conduct the test. While in TOEFL, one has to finish all the modules only on the computer, which includes the Speaking module as well. Some examinees find this system of talking to a machine strange and uncomfortable, while others might prefer it.

The IELTS Speaking Test consists of 3 sections and lasts around 15 minutes. This test is taken by an unknown, external examiner, but it feels more like a real conversation. The first part is on familiar topics like your home, current job or studies. You will then be given a topic and you will get 1minute to prepare a monologue between 1-2 minutes. Finally, you will be asked questions linked to the topic you spoke on in the second part.

However, in the TOEFL test, the candidate 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 your family by the computer. Then you will be asked to summarise information from a text or conversation and opine on that. Finally, you will be asked to summarise that information into a short conversation.

It is difficult to state which one is better and which is easier because some students find TOEFL exam more challenging as it feels unnatural talking to a computer. On the contrary, many students may prefer interacting on the computer as they do not like to strike up a conversation with a stranger. However, one advantage of IELTS exam in this respect for the Speaking Module is that, students can clarify information with the examiners and even ask them to repeat a question. This facility is not available for the TOEFL Test.

2. Preferred mode of Communication ( Writing Module): This is another very important difference between IELTS and TOEFL exams, especially in the Writing module. It is how you input your words. For IELTS, the candidate has to write on paper with a pencil and a rubber. However, for TOEFL, one has to type everything on the keyboard, in front of the computer. This has again got a mixed response regarding which is better; because although many students are still comfortable with the traditional system of writing an exam with pen and paper, there are many who are much more comfortable typing on the keyboard and find it faster and easier too!
In fact, one disadvantage of IELTS is that, if the handwriting is not legible and clear and the examiner is unable to read it, he/she might give a very low grade irrespective of the matter provided on the exam papers!


The format of the Writing module is also little different for both the exams. Both have two questions and the time frame for both is 1 hour. But the similarity ends there. IELTS has two different types of writing paper: Academic and General Training. Academic is suitable for the people who want to travel abroad for pursuing higher studies, while General is mainly used for immigration purposes. In the Academic Paper, you will be required to write a short essay about a graph, chart, map or process. In the General Paper, you will be asked to write a letter for Task 1.  In the second part, you will be asked to prepare a short essay on a particular topic.

In the TOEFL Writing module, you have to first read a text and then listen to a 2 minutes lecture on the same topic. You are then required to write a short response to a specific question on that topic. The second question is a long, discursive essay on a particular issue, similar to a university style academic essay.

Many candidates find the  IELTS Writing module easier to prepare for as the format has remained the same more or less over the years. That way IELTS definitely becomes easier to tackle, practise and obtain a better score than TOEFL.
3. . Differences in duration, context, question type and accent ( Listening Module) : In the Listening module test of IELTS vs TOEFL, the main differences are quite pronounced and in all the aspects mentioned above. The duration for IELTS exam in this module is for 30 minutes, while that for TOEFL is 60 minutes or 1hour. Here, IELTS scores over TOEFL, as candidates find the TOEFL test very long which results in losing concentration and missing answers.

The context of the IELTS exam is half academic and half social, whereas the TOEFL test is all in the academic context. IELTS Listening module has a range of different questions like sentence completion, matching headings, True, False or Not Given. But the TOEFL exam in this module is multiple choice only.

The accent is another major issue as in IELTS the candidate hears a range of different accents from all the English speaking countries like UK ( Scotland, Ireland, Wales all have distinct accents o their own), USA, Canada, Australia etc, whereas the TOEFL test will always be standard American English!

Some examinees have commented that it is easier to listen to American accents and this makes the TOEFL Listening test easier to handle and score.. However, one should bear in mind that in IELTS also, one would never get a  starkly different accent.

4. Preference of question types and contexts ( Reading Module): The Reading module in both the exams have same duration more or less. However, the main differences here between the two lie in the pattern of questions that the candidate has to crack successfully within the stipulated time frame as well as the context of the questions.

The IELTS Reading module exam has a varied range of questions to choose from and has the choice of Academic paper with the non-Academic one, which you could opt for in case you are going for the General test. However, the TOEFL Reading test is multiple choice only, with no wide range of questions. If you like multiple choice, then TOEFL might be the exam for you, but  most students feel that a range of question types give them a better chance of getting a high score. Moreover, candidates have also remarked that IELTS paper is shorter and requires less concentration and focus on their part. Whereas, the TOEFL paper is much longer, and requires a lot of more mental stamina and concentration to crack the exam with a  respectably high score. Many have also said that they did not like the multiple choice pattern of questionnaire as they found it very difficult and boring to do the same thing over and over again.
5: Recommended Essay Lengths (Writing Module for both): A candidate is required to write two essays for the Writing section in both the exams. However, in IELTS, you are required to write a recommended 400 words in a stipulated time period of 60 minutes; while in TOEFL you are recommended to write about 500 words in only 50 minutes. You can submit your essays even though they do not meet the required word counts in both the exams, but you tend to lose points for not giving a comprehensive response. If writing in English is a struggle and it takes a long time, it becomes easier for the candidate to crack the Writing module of IELTS more successfully, since fewer words are expected.
These are broadly, the major differences in the modules between the two  main exams, for judging your English competency abroad. However there are some other basic differences as well. Below is an overall comparison chart which shows some of the insignificant yet key differences.

Total Test Time 3 hours and 30 minutes 2 hours and 45 minutes
Score Range 0-120 0-9
Sections (in order) Reading








Numbers of Institutions That Accept These Scores Over 9,000 Over 9,000

*The Speaking section on the IELTS can be taken before or after the other sections.

The TOEFL score is more commonly accepted by American institutions, while the IELTS is more commonly accepted in UK, Australia, Canada and other European countries. Many institutes  in all the countries accept scores from either exam. However, some may have a preference to which test you take, so that is also worth checking out.

Conclusion: The TOEFL and IELTS are the two most commonly administered English language proficiency exams. Both test the same four areas: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing, but the tests vary in terms of format and the way they test skills. Most students find the IELTS exams little easier to score, as the format is easier to practise and it encourages freedom of thought and writing prowess.

TOEFL is more of a multiple choice exam, the format is more fluid with the accent being a distinct American accent that many might find difficult to comprehend. However, it all depends on the candidate’s preference and which country he/she is opting for his future goals. Good luck and all the best!

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