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Updated: May 28, 2022

More likely than not, international students applying to universities in the US and most other English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia, and Singapore will be required to submit English Proficiency Test results. The two most common ones are the TOEFL and the IELTS. Their goal is to see how well of a command you have over English. They want to ensure you can understand and keep up inside and outside of the classroom if you do end up getting admitted into one of the universities in these countries.

It is recommended that students take them in the summer of their 11th grade, before they get swamped with personal statements, supplemental essays, and other required documents needed to apply to college with. You don’t want to take it too early though, since these tests are usually only valid for 2 years. You’ll only need them to enter college, but it’s worth the price and time. You don’t want to be rejected just because you didn’t include a test result when you could have.

The biggest difference between the two is that currently, the TOEFL can only be taken as internet-based, which means you’ll still be at the site but you’ll be interacting with a designated computer, and the IELTS is paper-based where you write your answers and talk to an examiner. We’ll go over that further into the article. The IELTS is accepted at most universities that require an English Proficiency Test, while the TOEFL is accepted everywhere else but in the UK. Unfortunately, your IB English HL scores, SAT grades, and other certificates won’t work since these two are standardized tests universities have agreed on accepting for the longest time.

Not to worry though, the TOEFL and IELTS are both easier than the SAT and ACT. You won’t need a lot of time to prepare or study. So, what’s the difference between the two and how do I know which one to take? First, let’s break down the contents and grading rubrics of each test.

The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) takes about 3 hours. It consists of 4 sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. For most of the test, you do not need to have a prior understanding of the presented topics in order to get the correct answers, just a basic understanding of what’s going on in the passages, audio files, and questions.

The Reading Section requires you to read academic-related topics, after which you’ll answer 30–40 questions. This section should take you about 60 to 80 minutes. It will test your understanding of rhetorical functions, such as argumentation, cause-and-effect, and compare-and-contrast. You will read a few passages, after which you will need to answer multiple choice questions identifying specific ideas, themes, inferences, essential information, vocabulary, and more. There are:

  • 4 - 6 passages, each 700 words long.

The Listening Section measures your ability to understand English conversations and lectures, and should take 60 to 90 minutes. It includes listening for basic comprehension, pragmatic understanding, and connecting information. You will listen to audio files on lectures and conversations, both of which use campus-based language, and then answer questions on main ideas, implications, relationships between ideas, important details, speaker purpose, organization of information as well as the speakers’ attitude. There are:

  • 3 - 4 lectures, each 3- 5 minutes long, with 6 questions per lecture.

  • 2 - 3 conversations with 2 speakers, each 3 minutes long, with 5 questions per conversation.

Note that you only get to listen to the files once each. You can and should take notes while listening as you will have the opportunity to look over those while answering each question.

In the Speaking Section, you are given 20 minutes to demonstrate your ability to speak English effectively in academic settings. You will be presented with 4 questions presented as 2 different tasks that resemble real-life situations you might encounter both inside and outside of a classroom:

  • Question 1: The independent speaking task requires you to draw entirely on your own ideas, opinions and experiences when you respond.

    • You will be given questions on familiar subjects.

    • Answer by stating your opinions and speaking spontaneously and coherently communicate your ideas.

  • Questions 2 - 4: The integrated speaking tasks require you to combine your English language skills just as you would in reality. Expect to:

    • Read a short excerpt and listen to an educational lecture or conversation on campus life. Answer by combining the appropriate information from both textual and spoken sources.

    • And also, listen to an academic course lecture or campus life conversation and respond to a question about what you heard by effectively communicating the required materials.

  • The preparation time is 15 - 30 seconds before each response, and your response time should be 45 - 60 seconds long.

To respond, you'll speak into the microphone and your responses will be recorded then later sent to be graded by both AI and certified staff to ensure fairness and quality. This section grade your responses based on 4 categories, scoring from from a range of 1-4 each:

  • General Description

  • Delivery

  • Language Use

  • Topic Development

It doesn’t have to be perfect though. Errors are allowed as long as they do not obscure the intended response’s meaning. The keys to acing the Speaking Section are that your responses must be:

  • Well developed in general

  • Coherent in speech

  • Relevant in topic

  • Well-paced flow-wise

  • Effective use in the use of grammar and vocabulary

  • Varied in sentence structures

  • Clear in the progression of ideas.

The Writing Section will require you to present your ideas in a clear, well-organized manner in 50 minutes through 2 tasks. You’ll have 20 minutes for the 1st task and 30 minutes for the 2nd task:

  • Integrated writing task: read a short passage and listen to a short lecture, then write in response to what you read and listened to.

  • Independent writing task: write an essay based on personal experience or opinion in response to the given topic.

You'll type your responses on a computer keyboard or by hand depending if you’re taking the test paper-based or internet-based. A good response would be about 250-300 words for each task.

In regards to grading, the test is scored on a range of 0-120 from 4 separate tests for the 4 parts. There is no failing this test, as each university has their own standards. However, a high score would usually be 90 & above if you’re aiming for high ranked universities. Each section has a score range of 0–30, where they each have 4 or 5 proficiency levels. Whatever score you get for within these ranges tells you your proficiency for that skill:

  • Reading

    • Advanced (24–30)

      • Understand a range of academic and low-frequency vocabulary as well as less common meanings of words.

      • Understand explicit connections among pieces of information and make appropriate inferences, even when the passage is conceptually dense and the language is complex.

      • Recognize the expository organization of a passage and the purpose that specific information serves within the larger context, even when the purpose of the information is not marked, and the passage is conceptually dense.

      • Follow a paragraph-length argument involving speculation, qualifications, counter-evidence, and subtle rhetorical shifts.

      • Synthesize information in passages that contain complex language and are conceptually dense.

    • High-Intermediate (18–23)

    • Low-Intermediate (4–17)

    • Below Low-Intermediate (0–3)

  • Listening

    • Advanced (22–30)

      • Understand main ideas and explicitly stated important details, even if not reinforced.

      • Distinguish important ideas from less important points.

      • Keep track of conceptually complex, sometimes conflicting, information over extended portions of a lecture.

      • Understand how information or examples are being used (for example, to provide evidence for or against a claim, to make comparisons or draw contrasts, or to express an opinion or a value judgment) and how pieces of information are connected (for example, in a cause-effect relationship).

      • Understand different ways that speakers use language for purposes other than to give information (for example, to express an emotion, to emphasize a point, to convey agreement or disagreement, or to communicate an intention).

      • Synthesize information, even when it is not presented in sequence, and make appropriate inferences on the basis of that information.

    • High-Intermediate (17–21)

    • Low-Intermediate (9–16)

    • Below Low-Intermediate (0–8)

  • Speaking

    • Advanced (25–30)

      • Speak clearly and use intonation to support meaning so that speech is generally easy to understand and follow; any minor lapses do not obscure meaning.

      • Speak with relative ease on a range of general and academic topics, demonstrating control of an appropriate range of grammatical structures and vocabulary; any minor errors may be noticeable, but do not obscure meaning.

      • Convey mostly well-supported summaries, explanations, and opinions, including both concrete and abstract information, with generally well-controlled organization and cohesion; lapses may occur, but they rarely impact overall comprehensibility.

    • High-Intermediate (20–24)

    • Low-Intermediate (16–19)

    • Basic (10–15)

    • Below Basic (0–9)

  • Writing

    • Advanced (24–30)

      • Produce clear, well-developed, and well-organized text; ungrammatical, unclear, or unidiomatic use of English is rare.

      • Express an opinion on a controversial issue, and support that opinion with appropriate details and explanations in writing, demonstrating variety and range of vocabulary and grammatical structures.

      • Select important information from multiple sources, integrate it, and present it coherently and clearly in writing, with only occasional minor imprecision in the summary of the source information.

    • High-Intermediate (17–23)

    • Low-Intermediate (13–16)

    • Basic (7–12)

    • Below Basic (0–6)

Now that we’ve gone over the basics and rubrics of the TOEFL test, let’s dive into the IELTS exam. The IELTS (International English Language Testing System) takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes. It consists of the same four sections as the TOEFL: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. Again, you do not need to have a prior understanding of the presented topics to answer correctly, just an understanding of the passages and questions.

In the Reading Section, you will be asked to answer different types of questions in 60 minutes for a total of 40 questions. There are two types of IELTS test to choose from, IELTS Academic or IELTS General Training. Everyone takes the same Listening and Speaking tests but different Reading and Writing tests, so ensure that you prepare for the correct version. Generally, you want to take IELTS Academic, the one students take for higher education.

IELTS Academic contains 3 long reading passages taken from books, journals, magazines or newspapers that have been written for a non-specialist audience. You will need to complete a variety of tasks, some of which includes:

  • Multiple choice questions

  • Identifying information and the writer’s views/claims

  • Matching information, headings, features, and sentence endings

  • Sentence, notes, table, and summary completion

  • Short-answer questions

The Listening Section has you listen to a number of different question types in the form of recordings you can only go over once. The section consists of 4 parts followed by 40 questions that will take 30 minutes, with an extra 10 minutes for you to write your answers on a separate answer sheet. Each part has 10 questions, each with a different focus. The answers appear in the order they are heard. The first two parts present situations set in everyday social contexts, while the final two parts present situations set in educational and training contexts:

  • Part 1: Listen to a conversation between two people.

  • Part 2: Listen to a monologue on a general topic.

  • Part 3: Listen to a conversation between two or three people.

  • Part 4: Listen to a monologue on an academic subject.

Again, you will hear the recordings only once so make sure you pay attention. You’ll also want to take care when writing your answers on the answer sheet as you might lose marks for poor spelling and grammar mistakes. The Listening section includes a range of accents, including British, Australian, New Zealand, American and Canadian, compared to the American-based TOEFL.

In the Speaking Section, you will be put face-to-face with an examiner, where you will be assessed based on your use of spoken English for 11 to 14 minutes. They will read you passages and questions. Note that this section can be taken up to a week before or after the other sections as a separate portion of the whole exam. Without the use of AI, they will be able to provide you with more encouragement and comfort, as well as be able to understand your accent to ensure you get the best possible score. There are 3 parts to the Speaking test.

  • Part 1, Introduction and Familiar Topics: For 4 to 5 minutes, the examiner will ask you general questions about yourself and a range of familiar topics, such as home, family, work, studies and other interests.

    • A question-answer format focusing on your ability to communicate opinions and information on everyday topics by answering a range of questions.

  • Part 2, Individual Long Turn: A topic will be handed to you on a card and you will also be given a piece of paper and a pencil for making notes. The examiner will ask you to talk about the topic, where you will have 1 minute to prepare to speak for 2 minutes. The examiner will then ask one or two follow-up questions on the same topic.

    • An assessment of your ability to speak at length on a particular topic, using appropriate language and organising your ideas in a logical way.

  • Part 3, Two-Way Discussion: You will be asked further questions connected to the topic in Part 2 for 4 to 5 minutes, where you can discuss more abstract ideas and issues.

    • A test on your ability to express and justify opinions and to analyse, discuss and speculate about a range of issues connected to the general topic you spoke about in Part 2.

In the Writing Section, your answers are hand-written & should be about 250 words. The section introduces 2 tasks that should be done in about 1 hour. A general rule of thumb for when a test asks you to write “at least” a certain number of words is to definitely go over that limit. You don’t need to write an entire novel, but writing over the requirement shows that you know your topic and have a good understanding of the written English language.

  • Task 1: Write at least 150 words describing some visual information from a diagram, chart, graph or table.

  • Task 2: Write a short essay of at least 250 words responding to a given point of view, argument or problem.

As far as grading goes, you’ll be scored from a range of 0-9 from 1 test for all the same 4 parts. Scoring a 9 would mean that “The test taker has fully operational command of the language. Their use of English is appropriate, accurate and fluent, and shows complete understanding” based on A high score would be 7 & above, where they use section band scores translating your correct marks into their own “bands” that you can read more about here.

  • Listening

    • Each correct answer is awarded 1 mark. Scores out of 40 are converted to the IELTS 9-band scale. Scores are reported in whole and half bands.

  • Reading

    • Each correct answer is awarded 1 mark and converted on the same scale.

  • Writing

    • An assessment criteria is used by the examiners to award a band score for each of the four criteria, from which the final score for this section is the average:

      • Task Achievement (for Task 1), Task Response (for Task 2)

      • Coherence and Cohesion

      • Lexical Resource (relating to the words or vocabulary of a language)

      • Grammatical Range and Accuracy

  • Speaking

    • Examiners use similar assessment criteria to award a band score for each of the four criteria, where your total is averaged out again:

      • Fluency and Coherence

      • Lexical Resource

      • Grammatical Range and Accuracy

      • Pronunciation

As mentioned, you don’t really need to prepare as much as you would for the SAT and ACT, but there are free official IELTS practice materials you can find online that will help you:

  • Familiarise yourself with the test format,

  • Experience the types of tasks you will be asked to go through,

  • Test yourself under timed conditions,

  • Compare your answers with the example answers.

Are there other options other than TOEFL and IELTS?

Actually, yes! Recently, most colleges in the US have been accepting the Duolingo English Test as a legitimate English Proficiency exam. This might not always be the case since it is very recent. It might not even be accepted in the majority of the UK.

What does it include and how does it work? For a quick overview of the Duolingo Test, please see our mini guide on our Instagram. It explains the basic premise, price, and steps you’d need to follow.

We hope this helped. To learn more about TOEFL, click here. To learn more about IELTS, click here. For more tips, guides, and information, feel free to visit our YouTube Channel, Website, and Instagram. Thank you for reading and we’ll see you in the next post!

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