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English Language Tests: A Guide for International Students

learn English
standardized testing
Last updated on October 20, 2020

What are the differences between IELTS and TOEFL English language tests?

Almost every university you apply to in the US will want to know your ability to speak, write, read, and understand the English language. Most schools rely on two standardized English language tests: The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System exam (IELTS).

Since the majority of American schools enrolling international students accept both tests, it is important to review the similarities and differences between the two. Use our guide to English language tests for international students to help you decide which test is better for you.

TOEFL: An Overview

The TOEFL is produced and governed by Educational Testing Service (ETS). There are different versions of the TOEFL, but most students—around 97%—take the internet-based version (or iBT) on a computer.

The TOEFL is a three-hour test with four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Each section is graded on a scale of 0-30 for a maximum point value of 120.

Here is how the sections are broken down:


  • Question breakdown: 3–4 reading passages, 12–14 questions each

  • Time: 54–72 minutes


  • Question breakdown: 4–6 lectures, six questions each; 2–3 conversations, five questions each

  • Time: 41­–57 minutes


  • Question breakdown: six tasks: two independent, four integrated

  • Time: 17 minutes


  • Question breakdown: two tasks

  • Time: 50 minutes

If you take the TOEFL iBT test multiple times, you can use your best scores on each section.

TOEFL Reading Section Overview

The questions in the reading section are meant to test your ability to read English to find information, for basic comprehension, and to read to learn.

The reading section is comprised of three question formats:

  1. Multiple-choice format requiring you to select the correct answer from four choices

  2. Inserting a sentence where it best fits in a passage from four potential choices

  3. A “reading to learn” section with multiple correct answers

TOEFL Listening Section Overview

The listening section of the TOEFL English language proficiency test covers the following:

  • Basic comprehension

  • Recognizing a speaker’s attitude and the purpose of what the speaker is saying

  • Understanding the importance of order, relationships, inferences, and connections

  • Topic changes

Here are the question formats:

  1. Traditional multiple choice

  2. Multiple choice with more than one correct answer

  3. Questions that require you to sequence events correctly

  4. Matching questions

TOEFL Speaking Section Overview

The speaking section measures your ability to speak English in and out of academic settings. The six categories are broken up into independent and integrated speaking tasks.

  • Independent speaking tasks require you to draw upon your ideas, experience, and opinions. There are two independent speaking tasks per test.

  • Integrated speaking tasks require you to combine speaking with listening or reading to answer questions. There are four integrated speaking tasks per test.

For all speaking section tasks, you will be required to use a headset with a microphone on the iBT version of the test.

TOEFL Writing Section Overview

The writing section of the TOEFL English language tests your integrated and independent writing skills.

  • Integrated writing tasks require you to write academic argument in response to a prompt.

  • Independent writing tasks require you to express an idea or opinion in writing.

IELTS: An Overview

The IELTS exam is produced and managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge Assessment English. The academic version of the test consists of one listening, reading, writing, and speaking section and lasts two hours and 45 minutes.

Each section is graded on a 0–9 scale, with zero representing a non-user or someone who skipped the test and nine representing an expert. Your scores are added up across all sections and then averaged and rounded to give you a comprehensive score. 


  • Question breakdown: four recordings, 10 questions each

  • Time: 30 minutes


  • Question breakdown: three readings, 40 questions total

  • Time: 60 minutes


  • Question breakdown: two questions

  • Time: 60 minutes


  • Question breakdown: one oral interview

  • Time: 11–14 minutes

The IELTS used to be paper-based, but recently a computer-based version became available and is being rolled out to testing locations worldwide. It is worth noting that the speaking section of the computer-based IELTS exam is still administered face to face, the same as the paper-based test, and can be completed at some testing centers as much as a week in advance of your official test date.

IELTS Listening Section Overview

In the listening section, you will answer multiple choice questions, matching and labeling questions, and sentence and diagram completion questions. There are four recordings you will have to listen and respond to:

  1. An everyday social conversation between two people.

  2. An everyday monologue or speech.

  3. A conversation between as many as four people in an educational context.

  4. An academic lecture by one person.

IELTS Reading Section Overview

The topics of reading section passages on the IELTS English proficiency test can range from descriptive and factual to discursive and analytical. There are many question types in this section, from multiple choice to matching to sentence and diagram completion.

IELTS writing section overview

In the writing section of the IELTS English language proficiency test, you will have to answer two task-based questions.

  • The first question will ask you to describe some visual cue, such as a graph or flowchart. You will have to write approximately 150 words in 20 minutes.

  • The second question will ask you to respond to a point of view or argument. You will need to write 250 words in about 40 minutes.

IELTS speaking section overview

The speaking section of the IELTS English language exam consists of three parts and assesses your spoken English skills.

  • Part 1 lasts around five minutes and requires you to speak your answers to general questions on familiar topics.

  • Part 2 requires you to respond to a topic written on a card. Your interviewer will also ask follow-up questions.

  • Part 3 lasts about five minutes and will continue with questions related to the topic on the card in Part 2. Expect these questions to be more abstract and difficult.

Other English Language Tests Available

The TOEFL and the IELTS are not the only tests accepted by US universities. While not as widely accepted as the two outlined here, these tests are growing in popularity and represent different formats and styles, which may be beneficial to you as a test taker. Here are two more that are on the rise:

  • iTEP exam: The iTEP, or International Test of English Proficiency, is accepted at approximately 700 different schools, including Shorelight partner universities Cleveland State University and Adelphi International. You can receive your iTEP exam results as quickly as 24 hours after you take the exam.

  • PTE Academic: The PTE, or Pearson Test of English Academic, is sponsored by Pearson, the largest textbook publisher in the world. The PTE Academic is accepted at more than 900 universities in the United States. The PTE Academic uses artificial intelligence (AI) to grade the test, claiming a boost in unbiased results.

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