Everything You Need to Know About the TOEFL and IELTS Tests

May 20, 2021

In the U.S., institutions of higher education require non-native English-speaking students to demonstrate English language proficiency. While some institutions will accept English as a Second Language or English immersion courses and programs, most accept either the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) to certify proficiency.  Validity studies show they are both reliable, so which exam should you take?

Planning on studying in the United States?

If you are planning to study in the U.S., the TOEFL and IELTS are the most widely and commonly accepted.  If you are deciding between studying in Australia or America, but are more comfortable with Australian English, for example, the IELTS may be a better option. Do your research and see which schools accept which exam and choose accordingly. In addition to comfort level there are some technical items to consider when deciding which exam to take, such as format, use of a computer, cost and more.


The companies that administer these exams have secured locations all over the U.S. and world.  They each boast over 1200 locations with 48-50 test dates a year. If you are planning to pursue the LL.M. in International Law at Stetson University College of Law, for example, both exams are offered locally and in many locations throughout Florida.

A lot of students applying to U.S. law schools already live and work in the States and use English daily.  They often ask why they have to take the exam. Schools want you to be successful and in order to do that, they need to be sure your language skills are up to par with your classmates’ skills. These exams test on your four main language skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking.

How to decide which English language proficiency test to take

Cost (face it, this is #1)

The prices vary depending on country. The US costs are currently $195 for the TOEFL and $240 for the IELTS. Prices change so be sure to check with the companies directly! 

Paper, Computer or Both

The TOEFL has both a paper and an internet version (TOEFL iBT and TOEFL Paper-delivered Test). Check to see if your school requires one or the other or lets you take both.  Stetson prefers the iBT because the Paper-delivered Test does not have a speaking component. The IELTS offers both a paper-based and computer-based exam. However, for the IELTS, you will write your essays using paper and pen; for the TOEFL you will type your essays. If you have bad handwriting or if you type slowly, perhaps factor this into which exam you select!

Exam length

The IELTS is 2 hours and 45 minutes and can be completed in two sessions. The speaking section can be done either a week before or after the other tests, depending on the location.  The TOEFL takes 4 hours and they do not let you split sections across multiple sittings.

Key Test Differences

The speaking section is really different for each exam. For the TOEFL, you talk into a computer and for the IELTS you speak to a real person who will be asking you questions. The other key difference is that the TOEFL is multiple choice and the IELTS uses different question types to assess proficiency, such as True, False or Not Given, Sentence Completion, and Matching Headings.

Scoring Differences

The exams use vastly different scoring systems.  There are some excellent websites that have score comparison charts. Magoosh has one that is up-to-date. Most schools post their required scores on their websites. Stetson’s LL.M. requires a TOEFL of 88 or higher or an IELTS score of a 6.5 or higher.

The bottom line? You need to prep

Regardless of which exam you choose, they are both hard. All of the scores expire two years after your test date. Like any other standardized exam, you will want to prepare for either the TOEFL or IELTS. You can study on your own with print or online materials, or if you need to, invest in a preparation course either live or online. Invest time in preparing for the exam so you are comfortable with both the format and the tasks assigned to you. The time spent preparing will pay off when you get your score!  

Topics: International Law