If you’re thinking about studying in the US, UK, Australia, or Canada, you need to be able to prove you have the ability to speak and study in English. In addition to all the other application requirements like the personal essay and transcripts, you need to provide test scores from either the Test of English as a Foreign Language, aka TOEFL, or International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, as part of your application package.


How do you choose the right test?

With both exams offered at testing locations throughout the world and accepted at over 9,000 organizations, including universities, how do you know if whether you’ve chosen the right one? Well, the first thing to do, before even look at each individual test, is to determine which one is accepted at the institution(s) to which you will be applying. Universities in the US tend to favor the TOEFL whereas the universities in the other English speaking nations tend to favor IELTS, but it’s best to check with the individual institutions and specific programmess for which you are applying. Also note that border agencies may request test scores to obtain a visa, so it’s best to check those requirements before making your final test decision.

If you have a choice between the two, here’s a breakdown of the cost, structure, application process and other major differences for both tests to help you make an informed decision.


This entire test is taken online and broken down into four sections, including reading (60-80 minutes, 36-56 questions), listening (60-90 minutes, 34-51 questions with mainly American accents), speaking (20 minutes, 6 tasks), and writing (50 minutes, 2 tasks). There’s a ten minute break after the first two sections, and the whole test can be taken in one sitting of around half a day. One major difference with this test is that the speaking section is done via online microphone recording, so if you get nervous speaking in a face-to-face, interview-like setting, this could be a good option for you.

It’s possible to earn 0-30 for each section with a possible total of 120 points making up your combined score. The time of day that you take the test also determines the price you pay, and costs range from about $165 to $250 USD with four score reports included. Another bonus for this exam is that you can register and pay online, and can retake the test as many times as you want if you are unhappy with your scores, but not more than once in any twelve day period.


Like TOEFL, IELTS has four parts including listening (30 minutes, 40 questions with mostly British accents), reading (60 minutes, 40 questions), writing (60 minutes, 2 tasks), and speaking (11–14 minutes face-to-face interview) with a total test time of 2 hours and 45 minutes. The listening, reading, and writing tests are done in one sitting with no breaks, and the speaking test, which is done face-to-face with an IELTS examiner, and may be taken on the same day or up to seven days before or after the other test sections.

IELTS is scored on a scale of 1-9 with 9 being expert proficiency. Not happy with your scores? You can retake it as many times as you want as soon as the next test is offered. Testing fees will run you about $200 USD, including up to five score reports, and payment is taken in local currencies. To apply, print out and complete a paper application including two passport sized photos and a photo copy of your passport or approved ID that you’ll bring with you on the date of the test. Mail it or personally bring it to the testing center with payment prior to test day.

Both testing websites offer practice questions directly on their sites, but a quick internet search will provide you with many other additional options, many of which are free- check out our article, 10 free ways to prepare for your IELTS exam, too! Whether you choose the TOEFL or the IELTS, you’ll soon be on your way to studying abroad at a great university.

Here’s a table we’ve put together to allow you to compare the pros and cons of each English language test:

Image via Shutterstock.

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