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IELTS, TOEFL, SAT - The Complete Guide to English Tests

Jewel Enrile
May 17, 2021
Illustrations by Yuxuan Wu

I wish they told me about English certification tests before setting my eyes on foreign universities. I'd have saved myself from a lot of stress figuring things out - until I pass one, I could kiss my dreams of studying abroad goodbye. 

Quick comparison - TOEFL, IELTS, SAT

I want you to save yourself from all the headaches, so listen up. I'm outlining everything I've learned about the TOEFL, IELTS, and SATs below:

What is the TOEFL?

TOEFL stands for Test of English as Foreign Language. As a non-native speaker of English (you and me!), this is one of the tests we could choose to complete. 

TOELF Exam summary and cost

Key Takeaways:

  • Has 2 versions you can take: Internet-based (iBT) or paper-based (PBT or PDT)
  • Valid for two years
  • Costs anywhere from $160 to $250
  • Each version has four parts: Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking/Structure
  • Score range: 0 to 120 (iBT), and 0 to 677 (PBT or PDT)

Over a hundred institutions worldwide accept TOEFL results, but it's not that easy. You also need a minimum grade to get into a specific institution.

Study Abroad Tip: Keep an eye on the requirements needed. Aim for the minimum TOEFL score whatever you're aiming for has set, along with other documents and tests you may need!

There are some exemptions. Yep, you probably don't have to take the TOEFL if you come from previously colonized countries that already have English as one of the official languages.

TOEFL Tools: Want to know if you could be exempt? Out of 21 American universities, this list has the number that will exempt you from TOEFL!

The paper-based test is only available for a select amount of countries that don't have reliable access to the Internet. Otherwise, you're stuck with the iBT.

What is the IELTS?

The IELTS or International English Language Testing System is another English certification test you can take.

IELTS exam summary and cost

Key Takeaways:

  • Accepted by over 3,000 institutions worldwide
  • Doesn't have a minimum score required, just "bands" to determine expertise (bands 0-9)
  • Has four parts: Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking
  • Most institutions need a band of 5-9, with the strictest rules at around 8-9
  • Valid for two years
  • It can cost up to $240

Like the TOEFL, the IELTS also has two versions. You can choose to take the paper-based IELTS or the computer-delivered one.

You get one score for the overall test and one for each sub-section.

Got learning or visual difficulties? They allow special requirements!

Again, there are exemptions available! Check your institution's requirements to see if you can find an exemption for your case.

What Are the SATs?

You probably know the SATs as one of the major stressors for American high schoolers. We non-Americans can celebrate… Until you realize you probably need it for studying abroad.

(Yup, it's probably a requirement for us. Sorry if I'm the one to break the news to you. Please don't come for me.)

SAT exam summary and cost

Key Takeaways: 

  • Most undergraduate programs accept SAT results, while some deem them optional 
  • Scores range from 400-1600; 1100+ is an above-average result to aim for 
  • Has four parts: Reading, Writing and Language, Mathematics (with calculator and no calculator), and Essay-writing
  • Costs from $50 to $100

But the SATs come with some good news. If you get a high enough score, the TOEFL/IELTS requirement could be waived. 

The SATs used to stand for the "Scholastic Aptitude Test" and many other names since its inception in 1926. Now, people just call it the SATs, and it's a requirement for many colleges in the United States. Said colleges set a minimum grade requirement for your overall score and each of the subsections.

Which Test Should You Take?

Okay, you've got these three options. That doesn't mean you're going to take every single one of them - unless you've got the budget and the time. But if you're like us mere mortals who're looking for the most convenient option, run through some brief considerations below. 

1. Consider the Availability 

First, check what your goal institution requires applicants to take. There's no sense in taking a test if it won't serve you! 

Study Abroad Tip: Aside from the certification, look into other requirements, fees, exemptions, and financial assistance as an international student. 

Got an idea of which test you're gunning for? Take note of the following: 

  • Test centers' proximity to your area
  • Registration deadlines
  • Test dates 
  • University/college application deadlines 

Line all the dates up on your calendar and check the test centers on Google Maps. Ask yourself the following questions: 

Which one allows me to have the most review time? 

Which test is nearer to my area? 

Aim for the most convenient option. If the required test doesn't fit into these convenient goals, see if it's a deal you're willing to take. 

2. Look Into Your Budget 

Going abroad requires a lot of fees, so you want to be cost-efficient. The cheapest test is the SATs, but that's not accounting for the late or non-US region fees yet. I'm pretty sure it's still more affordable than the TOEFL and IELTS, but it can't hurt to register early and double-check how much you should pay. 

Out of the three, the IELTS is the most expensive option, leaving TOEFL as our middle-range option. 

price for TOEFL
Cost comparison

3. See If The Test Format Fits Your Goals

These tests follow specific formats that can allow you to tweak your English learning goals to secure success.

We'll leave the SATs out for this round. It's already at a disadvantage: you have to go through Math to get an English certification... You might as well just go with either the TOEFL or IELTS. 

Or, you might have to take the SATs, whichever English certification test you take. Let's jump into the two: 

Which one is for you? TOEFL or IELTS

TOEFL 

  • Speaking is recorded via computer - perfect for students nervous about their speaking skills
  • Best for typists
  • More academic texts for reading
  • Requires note-taking for listening subsection

IELTS 

  • Requires face-to-face-speaking
  • Equally great for those who prefer typing and handwriting their answers
  • Balance of academic and entertainment (magazines and newspapers) text
  • IELTS allows answering during the listening subsection

Choose the format you're most confident in . It's best to play to your strengths so you can secure that English certification quickly!

How Do You Prep For English Certification Tests?

Review centers and tutors can be expensive! You can definitely polish your English skills on your own. I have more tips on how to learn a language (and make it fun!) here, but the following are helpful, too:

1. Read - and Listen - to Books

One of the best ways to practice English is to look for an audiobook and its accompanying text.

Read along, highlight or take note of unfamiliar words, and write a summary of what happened after. Audiobooks also make it possible for you to hear the proper pronunciation.

Need a dictionary that can help you practice your vocabulary? Lockcard pops up as a notification to help you practice English words!

2. Write Regularly and Have It Evaluated

You don't have to spend a cent to have your writing evaluated! Look for friends who are good at writing and speaking English. Request teachers to look over your essay and see how you can improve!

3. Use Sample Tests

There are mock IELTS, TOEFL, and SAT exams everywhere. Some even give you a score as if you had taken it in real-time! When you use these tests, check which questions you most struggled with and how you did under time pressure.

To Sum It Up

TOEFL, IELTS, and the SATs are popular test choices for students looking to go abroad. I hope I elevated their status from mere abbreviations to comprehensive tests for you today!

If you ever find yourself confused at these English certification tests, check back here. Tell me if this article helped! 

Charlotte Chen, Designer @Duolingo

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