If you want to study abroad but English isn't your native language, it’s very likely you will need to pass a language test to get admitted to an international university offering English-taught degrees.
But which English language test should you take? The answer depends on many factors, like which test/exam is recognised by the university where you want to apply, what exam centres are available near you, how much you’re willing to pay, etc.
It may look confusing, but don’t worry. In this article, we’ll compare 3 of the most popular English language exams:
Our goal? After reading this article, you’ll know exactly which exam to choose, and you’ll be ready to find a suitable exam date and register.
Before diving in, here are a few top universities that accept the English language tests listed above:
- Columbia University, the US
- King's College London, the UK
- Tilburg University, the Netherlands
- Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany
- KU Leuven, Belgium
Structure of English language tests
The IELTS Academic exam is structured in 4 parts:
- Listening: 30 minutes. You will listen to four recordings of native speakers. Afterwards, you’ll need to answer 40 questions.
- Academic Reading: 60 minutes. You will read 3 texts, and then you’ll have to answer 40 questions.
- Academic Writing: 60 minutes. There are 2 tasks. For the first one, you have to describe a graph, table, chart or other visual information in your own words. For the second one, you need to write an essay as a response to a point of view, problem, or argument. You need to write in a formal style for both tasks.
- Speaking: 11-14 minutes. There are three parts, during which you will talk with the examiner about yourself, you will describe or express your opinion about a particular topic and end with discussing more abstract ideas or concepts.
The TOEFL® iBT exam has 4 sections:
- Reading: 54 – 72 minutes. You’ll read 3 or 4 passages from academic texts. Then, you’ll need to answer 30-40 questions.
- Listening: 41-57 minutes. You’ll listen to 4 recordings of native speakers, and then you’ll have to answer 28-39 questions.
- Speaking: 17 minutes. You need to express your opinion on a familiar topic and provide answers based on reading and listening tasks.
- Writing: 50 minutes. There are 2 tasks. You’ll need to write essay responses and support your opinions.
The number of questions in the Reading and Listening sections for TOEFL® varies. Why? Because the number depends on the length, type, and difficulty of the text(s) and audio recording(s).
The PTE Academic or Pearson Test of English has 3 parts:
- Speaking & Writing: 54 – 67 minutes. You’ll have to complete several tasks, including introducing yourself, reading aloud, describing an image, summarising a text, writing an essay, and others.
- Reading: 29 – 30 minutes. You’ll have to complete tasks like filling in the blanks, answering multiple-choice questions, and re-ordering paragraphs.
- Listening: 30 – 43 minutes. You’ll have to answer a series of questions after listening or watching audio or video clips.
How long do the IELTS, TOEFL® and PTE tests take to complete?
- IELTS Academic: 2 hours and 45 minutes
- TOEFL® iBT: 3 hours
- PTE Academic: 2 hours starting from November 16, 2021 (used to be 3 hours before)
Test results and minimum grades for admission to the university
Each exam uses a different grading system. The IELTS Academic test is graded on a 0 – 9 scale. Each test part (or section) receives a score. The 4 scores are then averaged and rounded to obtain an overall score.
The TOEFL® iBT test is graded from 0 – 120. Each section has a maximum of 30 points. To receive an official score, you must answer at least 1 question in both Reading and Listening, write at least 1 essay, and complete at least 1 Speaking task.
The PTE Academic exam is graded from 10 – 90 using the Global Scale of English.
Each university or college is free to establish the minimum grade you need in order to be admitted. Most educational institutions require:
- A minimum score of 6.0 or 6.5 for IELTS Academic. Some universities accept scores as low as 5.0 – 5.5.
- A minimum score of 70 – 80 for TOEFL® iBT. Some universities accept scores as low as 65.
- A minimum score of 55 – 60 for PTE Academic. Some universities accept scores as low as 50.
How long is each English test valid for?
All three tests (IELTS, TOEFL®, and PTE) are valid for 2 years after the results are released. If you have to prove your English skills after that period, you’ll need to retake the exam.
How much does each language test cost?
Prices are set in your local currency; therefore, costs vary depending on the country and centre where you take the exam:
- 215 – 240 USD in the USA
- 162 – 180 GBP (210 – 234 USD) in the UK
- 2,950 – 3,000 NOK (331 – 337 USD) in Norway
- 229 (255 USD) in Germany
- 340 AUD (236 USD) in Australia
Prices vary depending on the country:
- 205 USD in the USA
- 210 USD in the UK
- 290 USD in Norway
- 255 USD in Germany
- 300 USD in Australia
Same story. Prices will vary depending on the country in which you take the test:
- 200 USD in the USA
- 155 GBP (201 USD) in the UK
- 255 USD in Spain
- 231 USD in Germany
- 357 AUD (246 USD) in Australia
The prices and countries mentioned above are only given as examples. The exams are offered in many other countries and test centres around the world.
Does the exam test British or American English?
If you’re taking IELTS Academic, TOEFL® iBT, or PTE Academic, you can use either British or American English.
However, make sure you are consistent throughout the exam. For instance, if you start using “colour” and “specialise” don’t switch to “color” and “specialize” later during the exam. It’s your choice.
Where are the English language tests accepted?
All 3 English language tests are popular and recognised by thousands of institutions worldwide:
- IELTS is accepted by over 10,000 institutions in over 140 countries. IELTS is especially popular in the UK, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa.
- TOEFL® is accepted by more than 11,500 universities and other organisations in over 160 countries. TOEFL® is usually preferred by universities from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Germany.
- PTE Academic is also accepted by thousands of institutions in numerous countries. It is especially popular in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.
It is common for universities and colleges to accept two (or more) English language proficiency tests. If you plan on studying at a specific university, make sure you check what language tests it accepts so you know which English test to take.
How and where can I take each test?
Where can I take IELTS Academic?
You can take the IELTS Academic test on a computer or on paper at a test centre. If you register for the computer-based IELTS, there are more exam dates available from which you can choose.
Starting from early 2022, you will also be able to take IELTS Academic online, from the comfort of your home.
In terms of structure, content and timing of the test, there are no differences between the computer, paper-based, and online test. The Speaking part is face-to-face with a certified IELTS examiner or through a video call (only for the online test).
Where can I take TOEFL® iBT?
TOEFL® iBT is offered as a computer-based exam in official test centres, but there is a Home Edition (can be taken using a personal computer at home) and a Paper Edition (for locations where internet is not available. The Speaking part will be taken from home, using a personal computer).
Where can I take PTE Academic?
The PTE Academic test used to only be available in a computer-based format at test centres. But from November 16th, 2021, you can also register for PTE Academic Online.
It has the same format, difficulty, and scoring as the regular PTE Academic, but you can take it from the comfort of your home.
How difficult are IELTS, TOEFL® and PTE?
It’s challenging to assess which English proficiency test is more difficult. But an easy way to evaluate your current English level is to try out the free materials offered by IELTS, TOEFL®, and PTE on their websites.
Keep in mind that the way you prepare for an exam is more important than how difficult it is or what people say. These tests are not meant to be obstacles, but rather an opportunity to prove you have the English skills to live and study in a foreign country.
Successfully passing an English language test shows you’re motivated and disciplined enough to work hard, which makes you an ideal candidate for undergraduate (Bachelor’s) or postgraduate (Master’s, PhD) studies.
General steps to prepare for an English language test
How much time to dedicate for exam preparation?
It depends a lot on your current English level. Some students already have advanced English skills; for them, the test is only a way to receive official certification.
For others, the exam will be a real challenge, so they need to start preparing well in advance. From my experience, I’d say that it’s wise to begin learning and practising 1 or 2 years before the exam, if it’s possible. If not, you can improve a lot even in a few months, but it will involve a lot more effort, discipline, and stress.
Online practice for the exam
You can find free practice materials on the official IELTS, TOEFL®, and PTE websites. If you’re going to use the IELTS materials available online, make sure you work on the Academic Reading and Academic Writing sections. The General Reading and General Writing parts are used for the IELTS General Training test, which is not designed for students interested in higher education (Bachelor’s, Master’s, or PhD studies).
These free online materials are a great way to evaluate your current English level and understand what the exam will actually be like. Other websites also offer free practice samples, but you should always check if the materials are up-to-date and if they follow the exam structure.
Useful learning resources
There are other ways to prepare for your English proficiency exam. If you’re still a high school or university student, check with your teacher/professor(s) and see if they have any book or materials which can help you.
In my case, the English book we used in high school was specially designed to prepare us for an English exam, so we were practising Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking all the time. Make sure you don’t miss that opportunity if it’s available.
You can also find a teacher who specialises in preparing students for this type of exams. Some of them work individually, others have classes in private English language centres. If prices aren’t too high, that’s always a great option.
How to prepare for the Reading section
You saw this coming: read more! You don’t even have to read books, just read as many English texts as possible.
During the Reading section, you might have to answer tricky questions. They will test how well you understand the text and if you’re able to catch things that are implied, but not said directly. It’s best to look at different types of content (descriptive, persuasive, informative), different styles (formal, informal), and try to understand what the author tries to express directly, indirectly, and also what he/she doesn’t say.
A great way to practise is to start reading English articles on topics you’re interested in. If you like sports, politics, nature, or any other topic, start reading content written in English, especially content created by native English speakers. Also, check out academic texts, see how they are different from other written materials, and where you might encounter difficulties understanding them.
How to prepare for the Listening section
To improve your listening skills, start watching online videos and movies without subtitles. It might be a bit difficult in the beginning, but it will get a lot easier with time. You’ll end up surprised by how fast you progress.
If you find this too difficult, use subtitles in English, but not in your native language. Found a word you didn’t know? Great! Look for its meaning and learn it. Make sure you understand how it is used and in what contexts. The next time you hear it, you won’t have to stop the audio/video again.
Another great way to practise is to choose random songs in English and try to write down the lyrics while listening to them. You might be surprised by how many words are different when compared to what you initially heard while listening to the song.
Make sure you don’t always go for easy audio/video materials. Explore different accents (American, British, Australian, etc.), native speakers, and have patience because listening is a skill that takes time to develop.
How to prepare for the Writing section
Your reading practice will also help you prepare for the writing section. You cannot write great texts if you don’t even know how one looks/sounds, right? Reading will also help you develop your vocabulary, which is a great asset for any future international student.
While writing might be hard, start where you are and don’t overcomplicate things. See if you can describe something you love in one or two paragraphs. Then try to do it better: use the right adjectives, split long sentences in two, check if ideas are linked well. Is the grammar okay? What about the punctuation? Spelling? Is the main idea clear? These are all aspects you need to keep in mind while writing a text.
There’s also style. It would be a huge mistake to write an informal text when you’re asked for a formal one. Or vice versa. Also, a persuasive text has a different approach when compared to an informative text. You need to know these things. You also need to know the structure of an essay and what differentiates a good essay from a bad one.
All this preparation requires a lot of writing, reviewing, improving and writing again. You might not like it, and it can become frustrating, but it would be a shame to be a great English speaker without mastering the art of writing.
How to prepare for the Speaking section
Many students feel the Speaking part is the most challenging. Why? Because being nervous and speaking with an examiner isn’t easy. You can make mistakes, lose your ideas, or not know how to continue what you want to say. That’s okay. Speaking, like any other skill, takes time to master.
You’ll be happy to hear that only the IELTS exam requires you to speak face-to-face with an examiner. TOEFL® and PTE allow you to record your answers using a microphone. If you really don’t want to speak face-to-face, you can choose one of the other two exams as long as your university accepts them.
You will still need to speak, so practise, practise, practise! The fear of making a mistake is often the biggest challenge. But that’s alright. Many people make mistakes when they learn something new. You need to overcome that fear and keep on talking even if you know you didn’t pronounce a word right or maybe you missed the right adverb.
Vocabulary is a great way to improve your confidence. Often, not finding the right word is both annoying and discouraging; you might have something to say, but don’t know how. To overcome this, try to create a new sentence (or even sentences if needed), which explains the missing word or allows you to leave it out. It doesn’t sound great, but it allows you to keep speaking and keep practising.
As you learn new words, you’ll hesitate less and one day you’ll be proud knowing that you can express yourself in English without problems.
Which English language test should I take?
Expecting us to say this or that test? Sorry to disappoint. If you’ve made it this far, you know that the IELTS, TOEFL® and PTE tests are similar in structure, prices, and availability.
Your choice might be limited by the university where you want to apply. While some institutions accept all 3 English tests, others only accept IELTS or TOEFL®, or maybe only one of them.
Even if you can choose between these tests, you should first see what exam dates and test centres are available near you. Travelling to another city is an option, but if the distance is too long, you might be inclined to choose a centre that’s closer to you.
You should also try free online materials and see if one exam seems easier than the others. This is an easy way to make up your mind.
Overall, it doesn’t matter if you choose IELTS Academic, TOEFL® iBT, or PTE Academic. They are all great exams which enable students to go abroad and fulfil their dreams. If you have the ambition and willpower to work hard and prepare yourself, you can ace any English proficiency test and start your international studies on the right foot.