10 min

Preparing for IELTS and TOEFL. Expert advice

Maria Primak, CEO & Founder of Primavera online school, told StudyFree how to prepare for IELTS and TOEFL international exams, and to improve your chances of success.

IELTS or TOEFL: what’s the difference?

IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) both are international exams testing your command of English as a foreign language. You may use the results for applying to foreign schools and getting a job abroad.

There are two types of IELTS: General IELTS and Academic IELTS. The exam takes 2 hours 45 minutes to complete. General IELTS tests your general knowledge of English, and is sufficient for immigrating and finding a job. Academic IELTS tests knowledge of academic English. You need to pass it in order to study in Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and some other countries.

TOEFL is suitable mostly for those who wished to study in the USA. It has only one format, academic, but its results are also good for immigrating and employment. Average length of an exam is 3 to 3.5 hours.

You may take either exam in either electronic or paper format. The key difference is the oral part: in IELTS, a student talks to the examiner directly, and in TOEFL the speech is recorded using a microphone and sent to a specialized center for scoring. 

What level of English you need to pass the exam?

You may start preparing with Intermediate level, although Upper-Intermediate is recommended. The better your English level, the less time you need for preparing, and the higher the score you are likely to get.

If a school accepts the results of both tests, which one should I choose?

Choose which variety of English you are used to. If British — pick IELTS, if American — go for TOEFL. 

Your typing speed also counts. The written part of TOEFL is accepted in electronic format: if you prefer writing by hand, IELTS will be more convenient for you.

Making notes is allowed in both exams, but in TOEFL this skill is crucial. In the Listening part, you will have to listen to large fragments of texts and dialogues, and answer the questions after the playback ends.

How much time do I need to prepare for IELTS or TOEFL?

Assess your English level first. If you start from Intermediate, I recommend reserving at least half a year for preparing. If your level is Upper-Intermediate, a month of intensive training will be enough, providing you study at least 2 hours daily. 

Is it true that you can’t improve your English while preparing for an exam?

No, it is not. When preparing for an exam, you can improve both your oral skills and your vocabulary. That was the case with me.

How to choose a tutor, what to look for?

Your best bet is to find a tutor speaking your native language. If your level is lower than Upper-Intermediate, the teacher will explain the terms and theory, point out your knowledge gaps, and give you a heads-up about problems the students usually face. You should engage a native English speaker only if you have at least Upper-Intermediate level, and want to brush up your oral and written skills.

Try to look for tutors who actually took the exams themselves. They will not only describe to you the stages and sample tests, but also give first-hand advice about what to expect at the exam, how to manage your time, what tactics and strategy to choose depending on the situation. It doesn’t pay to engage a tutor who scored lower than 100 at TOEFL or 8 at IELTS. 

Can I prepare by myself? 

You certainly can. The secret is to immerse yourself in the language, get surrounded by English on all sides: switch your phone menus into English, watch movies and TV in English, read news, listen to the radio. Have a notebook for writing down new words, learn and repeat them every day. Practice your speaking skills by talking with a teacher, a tutor, or  your friends, prepare answers to all topics that may emerge at the exam. This will form a solid base for passing the Speaking test.

I scored 8.5 in IELTS Academic, and I realize how much problems the prospective students face when starting the preparation. My main advice is — stay focused, and practice systematic approach.

Staying focused means that you can get fully concentrated in a short amount of time. This skill is honed by constant practice and doing test runs. Your goal is to learn how to efficiently perform the tasks in a limited amount of time. Systematic approach means maintaining discipline and training equally for all sections of the exam.

Many students get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new information, and spend their time and energy on activities not contributing to the overall score — for example, read numerous books and texts, trying to memorize all unknown words they run across. It consumes a lot of precious time that would be better spent on preparing for writing an essay, or listening and reading comprehension.

IELTS and TOEFL are about structure and keeping your timing.

Can I retake the exam if I’m not satisfied with my score?

You can retake IELTS as many times as you want to. TOEFL iBT may be taken once per calendar month, TOEFL PBT — once per three months.Each subsequent certificate does not cancel the previous one: you can use the one with the highest score.