English Proficiency Exams for Non-Native English Speakers: IELTS or TOEFL


IELTS and TOEFL are English proficiency exams that can be taken by non-native English speakers. As a non-native English speaker, with exception to few circumstances that may exempt you from requiring an English proficiency exam, you are most likely required to take one for educational, migration or occupational purposes, for English speaking countries. The two most globally accepted English language tests are (IELTS) the International English Language Test System and (TOEFL) Test of English as a Foreign Language. Although both accurately test your English proficiency and are widely accepted by thousands of institutions globally, the two tests vary in their approach, structure and teaching criteria. Therefore, you should confirm which of the tests is accepted for the purpose you require it and think carefully about your abilities, before deciding which one you choose to sit.



What is IELTS?

IELTS, which is the International English Language Testing System, is an international standardized test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers. It is mutually owned by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English. It is an English language test used for various purposes, including educational, immigration and occupational purposes.  It is a widely accepted test of English proficiency, as it is accepted by over 10,000 institutions across 140 countries worldwide. IELTS is an internationally accepted language test, thus, you can use either US or UK spelling.

What is TOEFL?

The TOEFL test is more academic based and seeks to test your ability to communicate in English especially in academic, university and classroom-based settings. It is not as widely accepted as IELTS. However, it is accepted across 130 countries by over 8,500 institutions, including the USA, UK and Australia, and most of the world’s top 100 universities accept it. TOEFL is administered by the Education Testing Service, a US-based organisation, and as such is conducted in American English. As a result of this, TOEFL is more preferred for and better accepted by American institutions.


Nigerians can find available dates and make bookings for IELTS at:



Cost of Examination


The cost for IELTS examination varies from country to country and can be found on the official British Council website for each country. For Nigerians, the cost is between N79,000 to N85,000, depending on if it is for UKVI or for other countries. The cost for IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training is the same in either categories.


Minimum IELTS and TOEFL Score for Universities

All university have their standard requirements and guidelines for admission and these includes eligibility criteria for external exams like IELTS and TOFEL. This means that candidates have to meet all established requirement by the university or educational body they want to enrol in, to be eligible for admission. By the foregoing, there every institution does not have the same acceptable entrance score. Therefore, confirm the school or country requirement for your choice destination.


General differences

The exams are mostly alike, as they test proficiency in English language. Nevertheless, while IELTS accepts both US and UK English, TOEFL accepts US spellings. Also, TOEFL exam questions are almost entirely multiple choice, whereas IELTS tests you through a range of different question types such as short essay writing, short answer and gap-filling tasks. Notwithstanding the type of questions, IELTS takes approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete, while TOEFL takes 4 hours to complete.

Furthermore, there is only one type of TOEFL exam whereas there are two types of IELTS. The Academic IELTS exam, for non-native English students applying for programmes in English speaking tertiary institutions, especially where the programme is taught in English language. Whereas the IELTS General Training Test is for those who want to go to major English-speaking countries for secondary education or job experience. It is mostly used for migration to major economies around the world, such as the USA, UK, Australia and Canada, UK.


IELTS and TOEFL assess different skills, problem solving and modes of thought. TOEFL primarily being a multiple choice examinations, accesses the critical thinking skills of students, as it requires them to think analytically to weigh up the differences between their options. IELTS accesses comprehension skills and requires more use of memory, as students are faced with different question styles.


Exam Structures


Although both exams have a speaking component, the speaking tests are not conducted in the same manner. Whilst IELTS speaking test is taken face-to-face with an examiner, for TOEFL exam, the speaking test is done by you answering into a microphone, which would record your answers and send it to six reviewers. TOEFL speaking record is sent to 6 different reviewers while IELTS speaking is conducted by one examiner. IELTS speaking test takes less than 15 minutes to complete while TOEFL lasts about 20 minutes and covers six questions. The TOEFL speaking test is done on the same day as all the other components of the exam, but, IELTS speaking test is almost always done on a different day from the day of the other components.

Whereas the IELTS exam foresees and accepts a range of different accents speaking in English, TOEFL favours American speakers.



The written component of the TOEFL test is completely online while IELTS test has both paper based and an online exam. TOEFL has two tasks that make up the written session. The first requires you writing a five-paragraph essay between 300-350 words. The second task, requires you listening to a lecture and reading an excerpt on the same topic, from which you will write a 150-225 word response. Similarly, the IELTS writing test also has two sections. The first section requires you to look at information presented in a graph, chart, table or diagram, and summarise or explain the information. In the second section, you will write a 200-250 word response to a prompt that presents a point of view, argument or asks you to write in a specified language style.



The TOEFL reading test consist of 3-5 reading sections, which you need to complete within 20 minutes, each taken from academic content you would possibly encounter in a classroom. Then, you will answer series of multiple-choice questions testing how well you have understood the texts you read.


The IELTS reading test has 3 sections, each 20 minutes long and with texts that are academic in nature, but with a wider range of question styles that ranges from short answer questions to ‘‘fill in the gaps’’. The questions are designed to test your understanding of the texts you have read, especially as it relates to particular use of language, style and ideas.



The listening test for both TOEFL and IELTS are not as similar as the other sections seem to be. The TOEFL listening test takes about 40-60 minutes to conclude, and involves you listening attentively to extracts from university lectures or conversations had on a university campus. It is ideal to take notes whilst listening and use your notes as a guide to answer a series of multiple choice questions, which is used to comprehend your listening abilities.

On the contrary, for the IELTS listening test, students can answer questions whilst they are listening to the recordings, and unlike the TOEFL listening test, IELTS listening test questions comprises of different question types and exercises of different lengths.


Scoring Methods

The speaking and writing sections of the TOEFL are graded based on how they appear, including your range of vocabulary, writing style and grammar. This means for TOEFL an essay with a logical progression of ideas but poor grammar will score higher in a TOEFL exam. Conversely, IELTS answers are considered based on separate grades of individual criteria such as your use of logic, cohesion, grammar and fluency. Thus, an essay with strong grammar and vocabulary that is weaker in expressing an idea will do better by the IELTS criteria.


TOEFL is graded over 120 points and is a single test. Whereas, IELTS is graded on a band system of 1-9 and your overall score is the average of your different scores from the Speaking, Writing, Reading and listening test. Finally, the total score is rounded up to the nearest half band.



Most scholarships clearly state which exam is a prerequisite for application. If the English proficiency exam you intend to write is for scholarship purposes, endeavour to ensure the test you are writing is what is required by the scholarship body before registering for any exam.

There are different things non-native English speakers should consider before deciding between IELTS and TOEFL. The first thing is the purpose of the exam, as this will determine if it will be accepted for that purpose. Secondly, always consider the requirement of the school, organization or country, which you are writing the exam as proof of your English proficiency. Thirdly, consider the test structure and scoring method of each test. Finally, consider your abilities with regards to each of the exam structure.



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