TOEFL and IELTS: Which Test is Easier?

Comparison and Overview

Overall, as tests of language IELTS or TOEFL are equally easy, since both test English language skills at a very basic level. Both also contain four sections – listening, reading, speaking and writing (the essay section). Grammar is not tested in a separate section in either test; rather, it is tested as part of the other sections. But there are some differences.

The main difference between the two is the format of the test. TOEFL is internet-based (iBT), IELTS is paper-based. Further, all sections of TOEFL are tested on the same day, while the speaking portion of IELTS, which needs a scheduled appointment for a one-on-one interview, may fall on another day. There are also a few other variations in terms of testing time and in the type and number of questions asked. For example, the TOEFL, unlike the IELTS, contains integrated questions in which you may be asked to listen to a conversation, read a passage and then speak or write out a response.

Below is a quick overview of the main features of the two tests.



Nature of Test: Paper-based Internet-based (iBT)
Sections: No. of sections: 4

  • Listening (30 minutes)
  • Reading (1 hour)
  • Writing (1 hour)
  • Speaking (~15 minutes)
No. of sections: 4

  • Listening (1-1 ½ hours)
  • Reading (1 hour-1 hour 20 minutes)*
  • Writing ( 1 hour)
  • Speaking (20 minutes)
Time: Total Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes Total Time: 4 hours approximately
Score: Scale: band 1 to band 9 Scale: 0-30 per section, 0-120 overall
Minimum Score:** Band 6 (or band 7+ for highly ranked colleges) 80 (100 for highly-ranked colleges, 110 for top-ranked colleges)
Cost: *** INR 8,900 $165 (~INR 8,800)
Administrator/ Owner: British Council, IDP, IELTS Australia & Cambridge University ETS

*If the listening section runs for 1½ hours, the reading section will run for 1 hour but, if the listening section runs for 1 hour, the reading section will run for 1 hour 20 minutes, so the total time will be always be about 3 hours and 40-50 minutes.

**Differs from university to university, however, this is the typical minimum score required

***This cost is for test takers in India. The cost depends on test location and usually differs slightly from country to country

Challenges in TOEFL and IELTS

Though TOEFL and IELTS both test the same set of basic language skills, there are some challenges and requirements that are unique to each.

Challenges in TOEFL

  • Firstly, The TOEFL can take up to 1¼ hours longer than IELTS (see timing in the table above) and is a much more tiring exam.
  • Secondly, the Listening, Speaking and Writing sections of the TOEFL require you to be really good at note-taking.
    • In these three sections you are required to answer questions or write an essay on a lecture or conversation, which is played only once.
    • Further, in the integrated speaking and integrated writing questions, apart from listening to a lecture (or conversation), you may also be required to read a short passage (or announcement) before you give your response.
    • An additional complication is that,the computer-based format is such that you can see the questions only one at a time and you cannot go back to a question once you have answered it.
    • So, in all these sections, it really helps if you have taken good notes of the lecture or conversation.
    • In contrast, in the listening section of the paper-based IELTS exam, you can see all the questions on a lecture or conversation before you hear it; and all the questions follow the order of the recording. This allows you to focus on the important points in the lecture or conversation as you hear it.
  • Thirdly, in the speaking section of TOEFL, you have a fixed time to prepare your response, a limitation which many students are uncomfortable with.

For the TOEFL, therefore, though the questions asked are not difficult, you need to get used to the demands of the format. Getting a lot of practice will help.

Challenges in IELTS

But there are some difficulties in the IELTS as well

  • IELTS, which is a paper-based test, requires you to write your essay by hand – so, if you have lost touch with writing, you will need practice to get comfortable with writing out your essays by hand.
  • Most students are more comfortable with the speaking section of the IELTS since there is a human examiner, rather than a computer, and there are no fixed limits for preparing or giving a response. However, the questions are asked in rapid succession, this requires you to be attentive and alert and give brief answers to the questions asked.

So, which of the exams should you give?

From the discussion above it does seem that TOEFL is the more challenging of the two exams. However, most of the difficulties with the TOEFL are NOT BECAUSE THE QUESTIONS ARE DIFFICULT TO ANSWER – in fact, for most speakers of English they are quite easy. The difficulties are related to mastering the specific format and requirements of the TOEFL exam i.e. you need to be able to take notes, you can see questions only one at a time and you cannot go back to a question once you have answered it. Most of these difficulties can be mastered with adequate practice on the exam format. So, the challenges offered by the TOEFL are not too hard to overcome.

Further, as we said in our last blog, even if the TOEFL does present some challenges, the choice of the exam to take really depends on which country you are applying to – if it is America, the exam to take would still be with the TOEFL. If it is Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand or the UK, the best exam to take would be the IELTS (see previous blog on which exam to take).

But, how do you prepare for the challenges of the TOEFL (and also of the IELTS)? Well, that is going to be discussed in our next blog: “What if I Get a Low Score in the TOEFL or IELTS?” Watch for it – it’s coming soon!