TOEFL Test Overview

The TOEFL Exam

Ever wonder the difference between these prominent English tests for university admittance? The TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC & the new PTE are the most common English tests administered at this time and prospective test-takers might wonder the differences between them. Here’s a quick 101 on the differences between each.
TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language): This exam is currently the most common for non-native English speakers. The TOEFL is often a requirement at most colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada and other English-speaking countries. In addition, government agencies, licensing bodies, businesses or scholarship programs might also require the TOEFL. At this time, an individual’s TOEFL score is valid for two years and then subject for re-evaluation after the two-year period.

The TOEFL itself was first administered in 1964 and has been taken by more than 23 million students since then. There are two types of TOEFL tests, the iBT (Internet Based Test) and the PBT (Paper Based test). In February of 2012, ETS announced that they will be phasing out the PBT—in many areas the last PBT was administered May 2012.

TOEFL iBT Format

Sections Details
Total Sections: 4 Sections: •Reading •Listening •Speaking •Writing
TOEFL Reading Question Type: 3-5 passages (about 700 words each); 12-14 questions each; Total No. of Questions: About 50; Total Time: 60-100 minutes
TOEFL Listening Question Type: a) 4–6 lectures (3-5 minutes long, about 500-800 words); 6 questions each about 30 questions in total; b) 2–3 conversations (about 3 minutes long, about 12-25 exchanges); 5 questions each about 12 questions in total; Total No. of Questions: 40+; Total Time: 60-90 minutes
TOEFL Speaking Question Type: a) 2 independent tasks (prep time: 15 sec; response time: 45 sec); 2 integrated tasks – Read/Listen/Speak (prep time: 30 sec; response time: 60 sec); c) 2 integrated tasks – Listen/Speak (prep time: 20 sec; response time: 60 sec); Total No. of Questions: 6; Total Time: 20 minutes
TOEFL Writing Question Type: a) 1 integrated task – Read/Listen/Write (20 minutes) (reading time: 3 min; listening time: 2 min; writing: 15 min); b) 1 independent task (30 minutes); Total No. of Questions: 2; Total Time: 50 minutes
Time: Approximately 4 hours
Summary New integrated-skills questions test ability to learn, to integrate information across multiple tests. They are more difficult and more reflective of actual academic English

Can test-takers change their answers on the TOEFL?

-The Reading section runs continuously without sub-sections so test-takers can go back to previous passages and change answers within the time constraint.

-On the Listening section, test-takers can change their answer as many times as they wish until they click on the Confirm Answer (OK) button.

-On the Speaking section, test-takers will be cued with a beep to begin and end speaking and cannot change the answer since everything will be recorded during the peeps.

-On the Writing section, the essays can be revised until the clock runs out or the Submit button is hit.

TOEFL Reading Section Details

In this section you will read 3-5 passages and answer 12-14 questions about each passage. The section is scored based on the number of correct reading comprehension responses. Each passage is around 700 words and the entire section lasts 60 - 80 minutes. Test takers are able to view the entire passage while answering. In addition, the test allows you to click on some special purpose words and phrases in the reading passages to view a definition or explanation.

TOEFL Writing Section Details

What is a good written response on the TOEFL? The essay should effectively address a topic. The response should be well-organized and well-developed using relevant explanations and detailed support. Furthermore, it should also display unity, progression, and coherence. If you want to achieve a high writing score, make sure that you demonstrate syntactic variety and appropriate word choice with minor grammatical errors.

TOEFL Listening Section Details

You will listen to 4-6 recorded academic lectures (6 questions each) and 2-3 recorded conversations (5 questions each). Then you will answer questions regarding the information you hear. The more correct responses you give, the higher your score will be.

TOEFL Speaking Section Details

For you to earn the highest scores in the Speaking Section, your responses must fulfill the demands of the task given with only minor mistakes or lapses. The test graders are looking for a highly intelligible and sustained conversation. There are three main factors that comprise scoring for the Speaking Section.

The IELTS Exam

IELTS (International English Language Testing System): The IELTS is administered by the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations, the British Council & IDP Education. There are two primary versions of the IELTS: the academic version & the general training version. Basically, the academic version is meant for students who want to enroll in universities and other higher education institutions, as well as for medical professions, such as doctors or nurses who need to work or study in an English-speaking country. The general training version is meant for those looking to gain work experience or for purely immigration purposes.

  • Similar to the TOEFL, an IELTS score is valid for two years.
  • While both the academic version and the general version differ in terms of content, their structure is the same, dividing the test into three parts: Listening (40 minutes), Reading (60 minutes) and Writing (60 minutes). For a total of 2 hours and 40 minutes
  • While the test is about the same difficulty as the TOEFL, there are some conditions that could make it more or less difficult. The test does not focus on US English, but rather all of the regional dialects, which could trip you up if you've only been studying one. In addition, the IELTS exam tends to favor concrete thinking (facts, spelling, grammar) while the TOEFL is more concerned with structure and coherency.
  • Question Types: Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking. No integrated (mixed) questions.


The New Pearson Test of English (PTE) was launched in October 2009. It is administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the same company that administers the GMAT. Similar to the TOEFL test, the Pearson Test of English (PTE) tests in all four sections: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Scores range from 10 to 90.
The test is computer based and takes about three hours to complete. Its main differences from the TOEFL include:

  • automated speech and writing scoring providing consistent and accurate grading
  • score reports offering recorded speech samples to admissions offices at universities worldwide
  • challenging question types including filling blanks, matching items, selecting multiple answer choices in the same question
  • results are available online in just five days
  • the fee ranges from $150-$220, depending on each country

The TOEIC Exam

TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication): As quoted from the TOEIC website, “The TOEIC is an English language test designed specifically to measure the everyday English skills of people working in an international environment.” The point system ranges from 10 to 990 points and the test itself is two hours in length, multiple choice, testing listening comprehension and reading comprehension.The TOEIC gives certificates to those who take the test, with different colors differentiating the range of advanced skills. In 2006 a new TOEIC was released with longer reading passages and also British, Australian and New Zealand English-speakers, whereas the previous test only featured American speakers.

  • The test is divided into two parts which can be taken together or separately. The Listening and Reading section lasts 2 hours. The Speaking and Writing section takes about 90 minutes to complete. The whole test takes about 3 and a half hours.
  • The TOEIC is designed to test a person's proficiency in business English where the TOEFL is used as a college entrance exam. Students find the TOEFL to have questions that are more challenging than the TOEIC. However, like the IELTS, the TOEIC contains British, American, Canadian, and Australian dialects which might confuse those unfamiliar with the regional dialects.
  • Question Types: Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking. Integrated (mixed) questions are given.
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