English Proficiency Exams for Students

By Jennifer J | Monday, August 15, 2022

Students from non-native English-speaking countries typically need proof of English language proficiency if they wish to study in a native English-speaking country. Globally, these two tests are very popular: IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

Here is a comprehensive review of the two tests:

TOFEL iBT( Internet Based test)


The total testing time for this exam is 3 hours. There are four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing, with a 10 minute break between listening and speaking.

  1. Reading Section:

The reading section has 3-4 passages with 30-40 questions with a maximum time of 54-72 minutes depending on the number of passages. If the section has 4 passages, then one passage is not scored and instead used to standardize the test scores by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The questions can be done in any order and students can jump from one passage to another. One unique feature of the reading section is that the questions for a passage follow an order. For example, if Question 1 refers to passage 2, then Question 3 cannot be from passage 1.

Question Patterns

So what types of questions can be expected?

All of the questions are multiple-choice usually with 4 answer choices. The question types include:

  • Factual information: These are straightforward questions that test your ability to recognize textual information such as the major ideas, definitions, etc.
  • Inference and Rhetorical: These questions test your ability to comprehend information not explicitly stated in the reading passage.
  • Vocabulary: These questions will ask you to identify the meanings of words and phrases given in the passage.
  • Sentence Simplification: Students will need to correctly identify a sentence that carries the same idea or meaning as a sentence from the passage.
  • Insert text: One of the questions per passage will have an insert test question. This question tests your understanding of the order of the sentences presented in the reading passage.
  • Prose Summary: Asks students to summarize the major ideas in a reading passage. There will be 6 answer choices instead of 4, and asks to select the 3 correct choices that express the most important ideas in the passage.

There are no strict time restrictions to do an individual question, so keeping track of time to ensure you finish all of the questions in the section is key.

  1. Listening Section:

Unlike the reading section, students are allowed to take notes while listening to the audio clip, and can use those notes to answer the questions that come after the clip. The recording will only be played once and will have accents from North America, the U.K., New Zealand, or Australia. There are again no strict time restrictions to do individual questions, but keep in mind there is an overall time limit for the section. You will answer 28-39 questions within 41-57 minutes. Students are not allowed to go back and forth between questions. Once you have answered a question, the next one shows up.

Question Patterns

There is some similarity in the question pattern with the reading section:

  • Gist-Content/Purpose: These are very straightforward questions and ask you to identify the main topic or purpose of the audio clip.
  • Detail: These questions ask you to remember specific facts (important details) about the lecture or conversation in the audio clip.
  • Function: These questions test your ability to identify the ‘’true’’ meaning of a statement in a given context.
  • Attitude: These questions test your understanding of the speaker’s attitude from their tone or conversation in the audio clip.
  • Organization: These questions ask you how a the lecture was structured and the reasons why it was structured the way it was.
  • Connecting Content: These questions test your understanding of the flow of ideas and their relation with each other, such as cause and effect, classification, process, etc. You may be asked to fill out a chart or table.
  • Inference: This question tests your understanding of the underlying meaning (implication) when it has not been directly stated.
  • Speaking Section:

The speaking section has 4 tasks: 1 independent task and 3 integrated tasks. The speaking section is 17 minutes long.

The independent task will be the first question. You will be given 15 seconds of preparation time before you have to share your own opinion on the prompt for 45 seconds.

For the next two integrated tasks, there will be a reading passage (3 min) and a listening section (you are allowed to take notes) before the question asks you to share the opinion of the speaker. You will be given 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to speak. My recommendation is to speak the main point of the reading passage before stating the opinions of the speaker.

The last integrated task has an audio clip and you are given 20 seconds of preparation time with 60 seconds of speaking time.

  1. Writing Section:

The writing section will have 2 tasks: 1 integrated task and 1 independent task. The overall time limit is 50 minutes. The first question is an integrated task with a reading passage and listening section (you are allowed to take notes), and the prompt asks to write a summary in 20 minutes. It is important to take note that the person speaking in the audio clip opposes the viewpoints of the author of the reading passage.

In the independent task, you will be asked to share your own viewpoints and given 30 minutes to write.

Score and Evaluation

The TOEFL exam is not Pass/Fail. The exam analyzes each test taker’s language skill with that of a native speaker. The test compares your skill from B1 to C1 level in CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).

Each section is scored from 0-30 with an overall maximum score of 120. You will receive an unofficial score in the reading and listening section immediately after your exam ends.

Depending on the score, there are 4 levels :

  • Advanced: To be considered advanced level (CEFR: C1), you must score a minimum of 24, 22, 25, and 24 in reading, listening, speaking, and writing, respectively. If you score full in any of the four tests, then you might have CEFR: C2 level, but this can not be confirmed with this exam.
  • High-intermediate: To be considered for advanced level (CEFR: B2), you must score a minimum of 18, 17, 20, and 17 in reading, listening, speaking, and writing, respectively.
  • Low-Intermediate: To be considered for advanced level (CEFR: B1), you must score a minimum of 4, 9, 16, and 13 in reading, listening, speaking, and writing, respectively.
  • Basic: If you scored a minimum of 10 and 7 in Speaking and Writing, respectively, then you are considered to have a basic understanding of the language. This level is parallel to CEFR: A2 level. Reading and Listening tests are not part of this level.


The scores are valid for up to 2 years after your exam date.

IELTS Academic (Paper based & Online based)


The IELTS exam can be given online or on paper, depending on your preference. The test spans over 2 days, but the overall test time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

There are 4 sections: Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking. The Reading, Listening, and Writing sections of all IELTS tests are completed on the same day, with no breaks in between them. The Speaking section can be completed up to a week before or after the other sections.

  1. Reading Section :

The reading section consists of 3 passages with 40 total questions (each question is worth 1 mark), with a section time limit of 60 minutes.

This section will test for gist (summary), main ideas, details, skimming, understanding of logical argument, writer’s opinions, attitudes, and purpose.

Question Pattern:

  • Multiple choice question: You will choose the best answer from 4 choices, the best 2 answers from 5 choices, or the best 3 answers from 7 choices.
  • Identifying Information: You have to mark the answer as ‘’true,’’ ‘’false,’’ or ‘’not given’’
  • Identifying writer’s views/claims: You have to mark the answer as ‘’yes,’’ ‘’no’’ or ‘’not given’’’
  • Matching information: You need to locate specific information such as details, examples, explanations, etc. within the passages.
  • Matching headings: A list of headings will have to be matched with its respective paragraphs.
  • Matching features: Match a set of statements or pieces of information to a list of options. For example, events to historical periods, etc.
  • Matching sentence endings: The first half of a sentence will be given, and based on the text, you have to choose the best way to complete it from a list of possible options.
  • Sentence completion: Completing a sentence with a limited number of words as specified in the question.
  • Summary, note, table, flow-chart completion: Completing a summary, table, etc., with the information from the passage.
  • Diagram label completion: Completing the labels of a given diagram based on the reading passage.
  • Short-answer questions: Answer questions related to factual details in the text using words from the passage.

You will be instructed on how to complete/write your answer, such as how many words, etc., and there are penalties for writing beyond the word limit.

  1. Listening Section

You will listen to four recordings of native English speakers and then write your answers to a series of questions. There will be 10 questions for each recording (each question is worth 1 mark) and you will have around 30 min to answer them. The recording will be played once and will include a range of accents including British, Australian, New Zealand, American, and Canadian. You’ll listen to recordings and answer questions as you go (you will not be permitted to take notes)

  • Recording 1 – a conversation between two people set in an everyday social context.
  • Recording 2 – a monologue set in an everyday social context, e.g., a speech about local facilities.
  • Recording 3 – a conversation between up to four people set in an educational or training context, e.g., a university tutor and a student discussing an assignment.
  • Recording 4 – a monologue on an academic subject, e.g., a university lecture.

Question Patterns

  • Multiple choice: You will have to choose the best answer out of 3 choices (or more than 1 if there are more answer choices)
  • Matching: You need to match a list of items (from the listening text) to a set of options (criteria)
  • Plan, map, diagram labeling: Completing labels (by choosing answers from a list) on a plan, map or diagram.
  • Form, note, table, flow chart, summary completion: Fill in the gaps in a form, note, flow chart, or summary by selecting answers from a list or writing the missing words to complete the main idea outlined in the text.
  • Sentence completion: Complete sentences summarizing key details of audio.
  • Short-answer questions: Provide short answers (given a word limit) to questions using information from the audio recording.

You will be instructed on how to complete/write your answer, such as how many words, etc., and there are penalties for writing beyond the word limit.

  1. Writing Section:

The writing section has 2 tasks to be completed in 60 min. Individual tasks do not have a time limit, but it is better to spend 20 minutes on task 1 and spend 40 minutes on task 2 as the latter contributes double to the writing score.

Task 1: You will explain/describe/summarize a data/graph/process/table/chart/diagram in your own words. You need to write a minimum of 150 words in academic or semi-formal styles.

Task 2: You will be asked to write an essay (formal style) in response to a point of view, argument, or problem. You need to write at least 250 words in about 40 minutes.

You will be penalized if your answers are too short.

  1. Speaking Section:

The speaking section has 3 parts and a total time of 11-14 minutes. Each part will be recorded.

  • Part 1 - Introduction and interview: The examiner will ask you general questions about yourself and a range of familiar topics, such as your life at home, family, work, studies, and interests. This part is about 4-5 minutes.
  • Part 2 - Long turn: You will be given a card that asks you to talk about a particular topic. You will have one minute to prepare before speaking for up to two minutes. The examiner will then ask one or two questions on the same topic.
  • Part 3 - Discussion: You will be asked more questions about the topic in Part 2. These will give you the opportunity to discuss more abstract ideas and issues. This part is about 4-5 minutes.

Score and Evaluation

You will be given a score from 1-9 where the average of the four sections is rounded to the nearest whole or half. Depending on the score, there are 3 levels:

  • Proficient user: Those who are proficient users have a minimum score of 7 (CEFR C1 and C2). You will need to score at least 8.5 to get to the C2 level. Proficient users have a good command of the language; they can speak and understand the complexity of the language.
  • Independent user: Those who are independent users have a score above 4 (CEFR B1 and B2). Independent users have an effective command of the language and can handle communication in a familiar situation.
  • Basic user: Basic users have limited competency in the language


The scores are valid for up to 2 years after your exam date.

Which test is right for you, IELTS or TOEFL?

You will first need to confirm which test your preferred school accepts. Most universities generally accept both tests, but you can check here:

If your university accepts both tests, then you should choose the test you are most comfortable with. Do you prefer an online exam or the traditional paper-and-pencil exam? Would you rather answer mostly multiple choice questions or a variety of questions like in the IELTS? Are you inclined to finish all of the sections in one day or over two days? Do you favor an oral interview or computer-based speaking? You will have to determine for yourself which exam is better suited towards your preferences! Good luck!

Thank you Sharon V for editing this article!

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