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What are IELTS and TOEFL?

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Choosing which English test to take can be confusing. In this week’s blog we explore the two most popular tests, IELTS and TOEFL, and explain the differences between them.


IELTS, the International English Language Testing System, is designed to assess the language ability of candidates who need to study, work or migrate to English speaking countries. It is the world’s most popular English language assessment and over 2.5 million tests were taken in the last year*. The qualification is recognised around the world and is accepted by over 9,000 organisations including schools, universities, employers and immigration authorities.

IELTS for higher education

If English is not your first language and you wish to study at an English-speaking university you’ll need to prove you have the language skills to complete the course. As part of your application you may be required to list an English proficiency qualification and your score. There are two versions of the IELTS test, Academic or General Training. Admission to undergraduate and postgraduate courses is assessed by taking the Academic test. It will assess if you’re ready to participate in a course that is taught in English. The General Training test is aimed mainly at people who wish to migrate to an English speaking country. IELTS is not recommended for candidates under the age of 16.

Almost all higher education institutions in the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand (and over 3,000 in the US) will accept IELTS scores. Each institution sets a different threshold but typically you will need a score of 6.0 or above. If you’re wanting to study with us, we require a 6.0 (Academic) for our undergraduate courses and a 6.5 (Academic) for our postgraduate courses.

The test

IELTS assesses the four key areas of English — reading, writing, listening and speaking. The total test takes nearly three hours to complete. The listening, reading and writing assessments are done in one sitting. The speaking test is held separately and you will be required to have a one-on-one conversation with an assessor.

IELTS exams can be taken at centres worldwide. Candidates are required to pay a fee to take the exam and you may need tuition to help you prepare for the test. IELTS is scored on a nine point scale, where ‘9.0’ indicates ‘expert user’ and ‘1.0’ equates ‘non-user’. You can score whole (e.g. 6.0, 7.0) or half (e.g. 6.5, 7.5) bands in each part of the test and these will be averaged to calculate your overall score. No minimum score is required to pass the test but it is important to understand what score is required by the university/institution you are applying to.

It is easy to book an IELTS test as there are over 900 test centres located in more than 130 countries. Visit the IELTS website for more information.


TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language, is the American equivalent to IELTS. The test has the same purpose but was developed in America and is favoured by US universities. Almost every American college will accept TOEFL.

The test

TOEFL assesses the same key areas of English – reading, writing, listening and speaking. In the test you’ll be required to read a passage of text, listen to a lecture and then speak or write in response. These tasks are designed to mimic how you will use English in the classroom. The speaking test differs from IELTS as the conversation is one-way and you record your answers by speaking into a microphone. You may hear accents from North America, the UK, New Zealand or Australia.

Each section of the TOEFL is scored out of 30 and the four assessments are added together to provide an overall score out of 120 points. There is no pass or fail mark but each institution will set their own benchmark. Many of the top universities require a minimum of 85 points.

The TOEFL qualification is available worldwide and there are thousands of tests centres as more students apply for American universities. The cost is similar to IELTS and it takes around the same amount of time, 3 hours, to complete. Visit the TOEFL website for full details.

Which test should I take?

Generally, if you want to study in the UK or in an English-speaking commonwealth country (New Zealand, Canada and Australia) you should take IELTS. If you wish to study in America then TOEFL is better suited. However, the good news is that University of Essex Online accepts either qualification providing you have achieved a satisfactory score which is:

  • IELTS 6.0 (Academic) for undergraduate and 6.5 (Academic) for postgraduate.
  • TOEFL (approx.) 75 for undergraduate and (approx.) 85 for postgraduate.

* All figures for this article are taken from the IELTS website and the TOEFL website and are correct as of April 2016.