If you'd like to study in Canada as an international student, and you don't come from a predominantly English-speaking country, chances are you'll have to write an English language proficiency test. Two of the most popular around the world are IELTS and TOEFL. But what is the difference between IELTS and TOEFL and how do you know which test to take?
The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests your capacity to read, write, listen to, and speak English. Though IELTS is based in the United Kingdom, you can use either British/Canadian or American spellings. There are two versions of IELTS depending on why you need an English language test:
- IELTS Academic
- IELTS Academic is the English test for you if you want to study at a college or university in Canada at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, or if you want to join a professional association where English is a prerequisite, like engineering and healthcare.
- IELTS General Training
- The IELTS General Training test is for if you want to study at the high school level or lower, work in an English-speaking environment in Canada, or move to an English-speaking region of Canada.
The Academic track is more valuable if you're coming to Canada for undergraduate or graduate level education. It includes more graphs, diagrams, and illustrations than the General test, but it still has an emphasis on real-world communication skills. If you're in doubt over which track you should choose, the safe bet is Academic.
IELTS test format and scoring
The IELTS test consists of four sections: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. You’ll have 60 minutes to complete the reading section and answer 40 questions about what you just read. You’ll also have 60 minutes to complete the two tasks in the writing section — one being an informal essay. For the listening section, you’ll have 30 minutes to complete 40 questions. The speaking section is a face-to-face conversation with an examiner, which consists of three parts, and lasts 11-14 minutes.
You can now take the IELTS test on paper or on a computer at an IELTS test centre. Both tests include the same content and are still completed at a test centre, but the reading, writing, and listening sections are just filled out differently. The speaking section of the test will still be carried out face-to-face with an examiner.
IELTS uses a band system from 0 to 9, with separate scores across the four sections — reading, writing, listening, and speaking — averaged to give your final score.
Bonus: Our friends at the British Council have prepared their 8 Top IELTS Tips to help you with the test.
The Test of English as a Foreign Language internet-based test (TOEFL iBT) will also test your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in English, with a focus on authentic communication in a classroom setting. You'll encounter high-level material as though you were on campus. TOEFL is an American test, but like IELTS, permits both British/Canadian and American spellings.
TOEFL iBT test format and scoring
While there are other versions of TOEFL, like ones written on paper with a different scoring mechanism, 90% of TOEFL takers write the iBT, though, so that's our focus.
TOEFL iBT consists of four sections, each equally weighted, and is entirely computer-based. You'll be asked to do both reading and listening, followed by speaking and writing, which means you'll have to combine your competencies to succeed. The whole test will take just under two hours to complete.
TOEFL iBT uses a single score, from 0 to 120 points. Each of the four sections — reading, writing, listening, and speaking — is worth up to 30, and you'll get your score in each section alongside your total.
What are the differences between IELTS and TOEFL iBT?
While the content is largely similar, with four basic areas of competency, the structures of the tests differ quite a bit. IELTS tests have many types of questions throughout, including short answer, small essays, and gap-filling tasks — where you'll fill in missing words, while TOEFL questions are almost entirely multiple choice.
Further, IELTS speaking tests are done face-to-face with an examiner, which can be nerve-wracking for some. TOEFL being entirely computer-based means you won't have to interact with an actual human.
In the listening portion, IELTS will have you listen to recordings and answer questions as you go. For TOEFL, you’ll listen to and take notes on lectures from a university class and snippets of on-campus conversation. You'll then use your notes to answer multiple choice questions.
Which test should you choose?
First off, determine which test(s) the institutions you're interested in will accept. If you're not constrained, consider which test fits you best: IELTS or TOEFL.
TOEFL is shorter, and conducted entirely with a computer, so if you're nervous about your handwriting — or your English when talking with a native speaker — it may be a good fit for you. IELTS is a longer, perhaps more intense test, with a broader variety of questions and tasks, including speaking directly with an examiner.
In Canada, TOEFL tends to cost anywhere from $240 CAD, while IELTS can be a bit more expensive, at $305 to $410 CAD. If you're on a strict budget, this may be a factor.
Ultimately, which test is right for you comes down to your preferences. Each test is accepted by thousands of institutions worldwide, and has test dates throughout the year. The IELTS and TOEFL tests are common for Canada, and if the institutions you're interested in will accept either, then you're free to choose. Once you've decided, it's time to study — but that's a story for another time!
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