If you are an international student who intends to apply to a university in an English-speaking country like the United States of America, you can expect to be tested on your English language skills. Colleges require this step because they wish to determine whether you can read, speak, and write English well enough to succeed in their programs. Schools typically rely on one of two standardized tests: the Test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
Perhaps you have heard quite a bit or relatively little about one or both of these exams. These tests assess similar skill sets, but beyond that, there are significant differences that could leave you wondering which exam is right for you. If you are not sure which standardized test you should take, it can be useful to explore their similarities and differences before making your decision.
In the broadest sense, both the IELTS and the TOEFL assess your English-speaking abilities, so if you are confident in your English skills, you will likely do well.
When determining which exam is right for you, one of the most important items to take into consideration is the type of learner or test-taker that you are. For instance, the TOEFL is often administered on a computer with little human interaction. If you are not comfortable with computers, or if you type at a slow speed, taking an exam on the computer could affect your overall score.
Similarly, the Speaking portion of the IELTS has a very particular format. As it is computer-based, the TOEFL’s Speaking section involves a microphone that records your answers. The IELTS Speaking portion, however, is conducted with an actual person.
Most test-takers likely wish to know, “Which exam is easier?” Ultimately, this is a difficult question to answer. As previously mentioned, if you dislike computers, the TOEFL may not be ideal for you.
In addition, the IELTS may seem more flexible to some students, particularly in regard to context. For example, the questions on the TOEFL assess you on academic knowledge, like that which you have learned in a textbook or classroom environment. The IELTS sometimes involves more familiar or “real world” contexts.
Finally, the IELTS is quite a bit shorter than the TOEFL—a bit under three hours, whereas the TOEFL is about four hours. Make no mistake, both tests are formal measures of your language abilities, and both are rigorous. The most important differences are primarily in their formats.
It is also important to keep in mind that, while the TOEFL is widely available and accepted at nearly every college or university, the IELTS may not be. Before making your decision, speak with each of the schools to which you are applying, and ask which exam scores they accept. If you are free to take either assessment, make sure whichever you choose is available in your area and is offered regularly, to allow for repeat testing should your results require it.
David White is a contributing writer for UniversityTutor.com, the world's largest global marketplace for finding independent tutors.