A Grad Schooler’s Guide To GRE, IELTS And TOEFL

North American universities typically require a GRE score, and a further IELTS or TOEFL score for non native speakers of English. But, what exactly are the differences between these tests?

US and Canadian graduate programmes often require a GRE General and/or a GRE Subject Test score. General, tests reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. Subject, tests knowledge in a specific area. International students may also need to prove English ability via achieving a certain TOEFL/IELTS score.

Each university, or college have their own specific requirements and these can also vary between courses and faculties so be sure to check before you book any tests.

What are the differences between IELTS, TOEFL and GRE?





Main purpose:

To prove your level of English

To prove your level of: verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills.

To prove your level of English

Required by

University admission, immigration depts.

Admission and fellowship panels/depts of graduate programmes

University admission, immigration depts.

Owned by

British Council, IDP Australia, Cambridge English

Education Testing Service (ETS), US based

Educational Testing Service, America (ETS)

Preferred in

Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe

USA and Canada

USA and Canada


1,200 centres across 140 countries

Over 1,000 centres across 160 countries

45,000 centres across 150 countries


General (employment and immigration), Academic (studying overseas)

GRE General Test,

GRE General Test at home,

GRE Subject Test: (Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Psychology)

TOEFL iBT Home Edition, TOEFL iBT (academic), TOEFL Essentials (general)

Retest policy

As many times as you want subject to availability.

General GRE: Once every 21 days. Five times total in a 12 month period. 

Subject GRE: Three times per year on specific dates only.

As many times as you want but not within 3 days.

Method of delivery

Computer delivered at test centres (CD IELTS) or paper based IELTS at centres.

General GRE: Offered throughout the year at Prometric test centres, or at certain dates outside of their network.

GRE Subject tests: Paper delivered tests delivered three times a year in September, October and April

TOEFL iBT taken on computer at test centres. 

TOEFL iBT Home Edition taken online at home.

TOEFL Essentials taken online at home.

Paper based TOEFL no longer available

Exam fee (US$)

$245 - $255

GRE General Test

$205 (Rest of the world)

$231 (China)

$213 (India).

GRE Subject Test 

$150 worldwide

$180 - $190

Length of test

2 hours 45 minutes

2 hours 50 minutes

TOEFL iBT Home: 3 hours

TOEFL iBT (academic): 3 hours

TOEFL Essentials (general): 1 ½ hours

Maximum possible score

Band 9

GRE General: 340 but skills scores usually listed separately.

GRE Subject: 990

TOEFL iBT Home: 120 points

TOEFL iBT: 120 points

TOEFL Essentials: 12

Test breakdown


Reading: 3 sections/30 ques/60 mins

Writing: section 1, 150 word letter writing task, section 2 discursive essay task 250 words

Listening: four sections of 10 qus in 30 mins.

Speaking: 11-14 mins face to face interview.


Reading: 3 sections/30 ques/60 mins

Writing: section 1, 150 word summary of chart task, section 2 discursive essay task 250 words

Listening: four sections of 10 qus in 30 mins.

Speaking: 11-14 mins face to face interview.

GRE General Test

Analytical writing: two writing tasks of 30 mins each.

Verbal reasoning: two sections of 20 questions, 30 mins each.

Quantitative reasoning: two sections of 20 questions, 35 minutes for each section.

GRE Subject Tests:

Chemistry - 130 multi choice questions

Maths - 66 multi choice questions

Physics - 100 (approx) multi choice questions

Psychology - 205 multi choice questions.

TOEFL iBT and Home

Reading: 3-4 texts/700 words/10 qus per text

Writing: Integrated writing task 150 - 225 words. Independent writing task 300 words.

Listening: 3 lectures/2 conversations 30 multi choice ques

Speaking: Answer recorded questions on computer.

TOEFL Essentials: 

Reading: qus about short academic and non academic texts

Writing: 15–19 qus and 2 tasks, everyday and academic tasks.

Listening: 30–45 qus in a variety of settings.

Speaking: 3 tasks with 19 responses.

4 Key Differences Between GRE, IELTS and TOEFL Explained

#1 Test Purpose

It is fair to say that the GRE is designed for a completely different purpose than the IELTS and TOEFL.

The IELTS and TOEFL are the leading tests used to prove how good your level of English is. These are usually taken to prove to an employer overseas that your English is good enough to cope with the demands of a future job, that you will be able to deal with the language demands of a university course you are applying for, or to satisfy visa requirements.

The GRE on the other hand is for candidates wishing to enter onto a a graduate programme, i.e a masters or PhD level programme and in order to get onto the programme they may be asked to, or decide to prove how good they are and stand out from other candidates by presenting their GRE score(s).

The GRE General score reflects a candidate’s real world study skills and is a way of showing that you are ready for the demands of higher level study and that you will fit in with other members of the course. Similarly, the GRE Subject tests are a way of standing out from other applicants and showing how good you really are in terms of your subject knowledge.

Unfortunately, generally speaking, non native speakers will still have to do a TOEFL/IELTS test even if they are planning on doing, or have completed a GRE test. This is mainly so that the university/college is secure in their belief that you will be able to cope with the demand of the course. 

I have written a full length comparison article of IELTS vs TOEFL here which should help you decide which of those tests will be easiest for you.

#2 What GRE/IELTS/TOEFL Actually Test

IELTS and TOEFL essentially test your ability to comprehend and use English in a variety of setting that you are likely to encounter in day to day life, careers and education establishments. IELTS Academic focuses more on the educational setting whereas IELTS General focuses more on educational settings.

If you are doing the GRE to apply for a grad programme then you will need to do the IELTS Academic version of the test and will likely need to achieve at least a 6.5 although that would be on the low side and a 7.5 overall, perhaps with a band 8 in writing is a more realistic target for entrance to a grad programme given the high level of language you will need for the course. 

In contrast the GRE is focused on testing your verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills which are highly prized when assessing candidates against each other in the highly competitive world of grad programmes.

#3 Exam fee: GRE vs IELTS vs TOEFL

Unfortunately, all of these tests come at a price which can quickly become exorbitant if you have to take multiple tests, multiple times. IELTS Academic will cost you $250 dollars, whereas, the GRE General test costs $205 with slight variations for India ($213) and China ($231).

The good news is that you can take the IELTS Academic or General version of the test as many times as you like so long as you can secure a test date. TOEFL can also be taken as many times as you like but no more than once in a three day period which is no real problem.

You can also take the GRE a generous 5 times per year but only once every 21 days. However, the GRE Subject Test can only be taken on three dates per year and you can only take one subject test per date. 

#4 Which Countries prefer GRE/IELTS/TOEFL

The UK does not readily accept a GRE score to prove either English ability or subject knowledge. An IELTS or TOEFL score will still be required and another form of proof of subject ability for university entrance.

The GRE caters specifically for North American graduate programmes and universities. It provides a common and understood framework for comparing candidates’ thinking skills, language skills and subject specific knowledge.

IELTS and TOEFL are both accepted as proof of language ability across the US and Europe, however, TOEFL is the more dominant certificate in the US and IELTS is more prevalent in Europe.

Other ways of proving your English language ability are the PTE test and the fast growing in popularity Duolingo test which looks set to become a major force in English language testing as it is much cheaper at just $49 a test and is already being accepted in major universities across America and it is only a matter of time before it is accepted in the UK.

If you do end up taking IELTS then you may be interested in reading my detailed article about whether you should take IELTS with British Council or IDP.

Is GRE harder than IELTS/TOEFL?

GRE is considerably harder than IELTS or TOEFL, especially for non native English speakers. GRE tests thinking and analysis skills, or subject knowledge if you take the GRE Subject test, but both are done in English. IELTS and TOEFL only test English ability and not knowledge or thinking skill thus making them easier.

Writing: IELTS vs TOEFL vs GRE

In IELTS writing tasks it is easy to avoid explaining highly complicated topics as in your essays you can simply choose an angle you are more comfortable with, and in your summary task you simply focus on interpreting a chart in English so there are no real analytical skills required.

On the other hand, in GRE analytical writing tasks you are being assessed on your thinking skill, how you build your argument and position. Whilst you will have to use high level language skills to do this, those language skills are not what is being assessed.

What is similar though is that there is no right or wrong answer in IELTS essays or GRE analytical tasks. You can show great English skills for IELTS and critical thinking skills for GRE by developing your essays in a wide variety of directions which is down to your choice.

In TOEFL writing, you must complete a task that integrates your reading, listening and writing skills to complete an essay that compares a text with a lecture on the same subject. 

If that sounds tricky then yes it is more complicated than either of the tasks you will get in IELTS. In IELTS General, you will have to write a standard 150 word letter and then a discussion essay but once more none of these tasks are as intellectually challenging as the GRE writing tasks, you have been warned.

Incidentally, you can read my full guide to IELTS essays here including tips, samples, question type explainers and more.

Reading: IELTS vs TOEFL vs GRE

GRE reading tasks as part of the verbal reasoning section come in three forms: multiple choice (select one answer), multiple choice (select two answers), and finally the select a sentence question type.

In IELTS reading, however, there are a lot more question types, including: matching sentence parts/headings/names/information to paragraphs, summary completion, sentence completion, table completion, true/false/not given, yes/no/not given, multiple choice questions, short answer questions, and labelling a diagram question types.

This greater range of question types in IELTS means that reading and following instructions is particularly important in IELTS to make sure you are answering questions in the right way. Conversely, it means that in GRE there are less exam strategies to understand and to practise for GRE reading tasks.

GRE reading topics focus on the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, arts and the humanities, and everyday topics taken from books and periodicals where as IELTS academic reading focuses on similar topics but sources are from a wider range of sources than the GRE including journals, books, and newspapers for Academic IELTS and notices, advertisements, company handbooks, books, magazines and newspapers for General IELTS.

Overall GRE reading is harder than IELTS reading due to the consistently higher level of questioning and because the source material used is generally more dense in information, complexity and therefore uses more higher level vocabulary.

TOEFL, however, only uses academic texts; it means they are more dense with information, containing more complicated/specialist vocabulary than IELTS reading texts, especially when compared with IELTS General but in my experience TOEFL reading is still not as consistently difficult as GRE reading.

Speaking and Listening: IELTS vs TOEFL vs GRE

The GRE test does not feature a speaking or listening test which could be considered a bonus and this may be one of the reasons that GRE is generally not accepted as proof of English language ability.

The TOEFL speaking test is more presentation-like and is not a face to face interview like IELTS is. Instead, you simply answer a series of prerecorded questions and are recorded. This can seem rather unsatisfactory to some and a less than ideal system since it is not reflective of real world communication.

TOEFL listening is generally seen as easier than IELTS listening due to the style of questioning being multiple choice with less instructions to follow and there is no need to listen and write/type at the same time as there is in IELTS listening.

You might also be interested in my full guides to IELTS speaking and IELTS listening here.

Which is more important: GRE or IELTS/TOEFL?

GRE is more important than IELTS or TOEFL for grad schools as a good GRE score indicates the necessary study and thinking skills to succeed. English language ability can be improved if IELTS/TOEFL scores are not high enough over a shorter time frame than GRE scores can be improved. 

It is not unheard of for candidates to be admitted to a graduate programme on the proviso that they improve their English/take a certain English course before the start of the semester if they have achieved good GRE scores.

I also have a highly popular course showing you how to get a band 7+ in every section of the IELTS test located here.

Recommended IELTS Study Tools

Thank you for reading this article. I always get lots of questions about how else to get a better band score quickly. So, this is what I recommend:

Complete IELTS Course: Of course, my full course ‘INCREASE YOUR IELTS‘ covers everything you need to need to know to pass IELTS, including practice questions, model answers, grammar work, strategies for every possible reading, writing and listening question type, as well as a complete speaking course too, check it out here.

IELTS Essay and Speaking Feedback: To complete full mock tests and get feedback from IELTS examiners on your IELTS essays or speaking tasks then visit: IELTS Feedback and Mock Tests, here.

Improve your grammar fast by using the Grammarly suggestions to improve your writing. Every IELTS students should have this free grammar improving tool.

Improve all-round English skill with EnglishClass101.com. If you have failed IELTS more than once then you probably need to improve your general level of English. Use the free online lessons and vocabulary building tools here and start improving today! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

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