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The TOEFL iBT and How It’s Different from the PBT

Over the years, the TOEFL has existed in three basic formats: the Computer-Based Test (CBT), Paper-Based Test (PBT), and, most recently, the Internet-Based Test (iBT). But which one should you take? For many students, there will probably not be a choice at all. Why? ETS, the test-maker, generally administers the TOEFL iBT and the TOEFL PBT in different parts of the world.

A few years ago, most TOEFL testing centers switched from a paper-based test or computer-based test to an Internet-based test, called the iBT. The CBT is not used any more, and the PBT is now offered in relatively few countries: Afghanistan, Angola, American Samoa, or Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Fiji, Gaza Strip, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Micronesia, Myanmar, Namibia, Netherlands Antilles, Niger, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Turkmenistan, and Zimbabwe. If you live elsewhere, the iBT is likely to be the only test-taking option you have.

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Differences Between the iBT and the PBT

The PBT and the iBT differ in more ways than the medium. Although the iBT was released in 2005, there is still conflicting information regarding the format of the tests. Here are some of the major differences you need to be aware of.

First of all, the scoring scales are dramatically different. The score range on a PBT goes from 310-677, whereas the iBT ranges from 0-120. You can see the required iBT scores of many top US universities here.

The skills tested are even different, reflecting a change in the expectations of higher education in general. Both tests have four basic sections, including Reading, Writing, and Listening. But while the PBT has a Structure (i.e. grammar) section, the iBT replaces this with Speaking. Grammar isn’t tested directly on the iBT at all, but rather is tested indirectly through the writing and speaking sections. The differences are large enough that preparing for the iBT is different from preparing for the PBT. If you are taking the iBT, you should study with material that is specifically for the iBT.

In terms of length, the PBT is about an hour shorter than the iBT. This is mainly due to the fact that the reading sections on the iBT are much longer (about 700 words instead of 300), and the iBT requires two essays instead of one.

One of the most interesting changes is the addition on the iBT of integrated tasks, which require you to work with a written source and a spoken source at the same time. Many integrated tasks will give you a reading sample that informs you of a topic, then a listening sample that presents an more information or an opinion on the same topic.

Which is Easier?

Many students ask this, but the answer is actually irrelevant. Usually, you will not have a choice. The PBT is given in areas where there is little internet access. If there is internet access, the iBT is used. It is very rare that you can choose between the tests.

Besides that, because the tests include different skills and different formats, they are hard to compare. If the speaking tasks of the iBT are scary for you, maybe the PBT would be easier. If the grammar questions of the PBT aren’t your strong area, maybe the iBT would be better. But in most of cases, your PBT and your iBT score would show the same thing: your general English level. If you score high on one, you can score high on the other, generally speaking. And again, you probably have no choice; you will have to take the test that’s available to you.

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12 Responses to The TOEFL iBT and How It’s Different from the PBT

  1. Kristen April 17, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    Hi Kate,

    I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this article. I actually couldn’t find a good general description on ETS that compared the iBT to the PBT, and this was very helpful (and from a reliable source!).

    I thought it was interesting that here (Panama) ETS only lists iBT locations and does not give the option for pBT tests, although there is still a location that offers the PBT exam (and for less than half the price!). For some students here that are challenged by the Speaking Section (more so due to nerves than anything), the PBT seems like a good option as long as they are up to snuff on their grammar.

    Do you know of any full-length practice exams for the PBT test? ETS offers this Practice iBT exam, which most students find helpful to take as they know their score and see the same format on the screen as on the actual test: http://toeflpractice.ets.org/cart.aspx?program=TFP Is there anything comparable for the PBT?

    Thanks again!

    Kristen

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin May 18, 2014 at 6:44 am #

      Hi, Kristen– I’m sorry for my slow response–somehow I missed your comment! I hope I’m not too late to be helpful. If you live in a place that offers both, then you’re pretty lucky. As far as I know, most places only offer the iBT these days. Unfortunately, because of this it’s difficult to find good, up-to-date resources for the PBT. Here are some free sample questions from ETS: http://www.ets.org/toefl/pbt/prepare/sample_questions Other than that, I’d say that you should read the information about the PBT on the ETS website, but otherwise be very cautious about what materials you’re studying from, since a lot of them will probably be illegitimate or out of date. That doesn’t mean you should avoid them–just that you should be aware that the test you take might not be identical to the practice materials you’re using, and vice versa. Sorry I can’t provide any full-length practice PBTs–if I knew them, I would send them!

  2. Zohreh September 29, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    great job! thanks 🙂

  3. abdu November 12, 2014 at 11:54 pm #

    very helpful. but is the highes score in pbt?

  4. Khizer December 5, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    Can we move on to the next section in toefl IBT as soon as we finish our current one? I know we don’t get any extra time.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas December 8, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

      Good question. Yes, you can. But keep in mind there is a mandatory 10 minute break in between listening and speaking. You cannot start the speaking section until the ten minutes has passed (that gives you time to have a snack and a drink, so it’s a good thing!)

  5. Sarthak February 19, 2015 at 9:06 am #

    Hi Kate,
    I am a student in grade 11 here in Myanmar. Your article has been extremely helpful as I am planning to take TOEFL in the coming months. I am very anxious to know the value of iBT vs. pBt. Is the iBT format favored over the pBT, because so far I have researched some universities which only state their minimum iBt score and there is no sign as to what their requirement for the pBT score is. So is taking the pBT not as helpful as taking the iBt? Please clarify.

    Thanks
    Sarthak

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas February 19, 2015 at 11:33 am #

      Some schools only list required IBT scores because they get very, very few applicants with PBT scores. Around 98% of scores are IBT. But any school that accepts the IBT will also accept the PBT. There is no big advantage to taking one test or the other. If you have a choice, then take whichever is more convenient for you!

  6. Nirajan Basnet May 11, 2016 at 10:05 pm #

    . I am from Nepal so I guess both the PBT and IBT are available here,though I cannot say it confidently as I haven’t done a lot of research regarding it.I just wanted to know,what the speaking section of IBT mostly focuses on.I mean,whether it requires your confident and reasonable speaking skills or your correct use of verbs,grammars, and other stuff or maybe the mixture of both.I also want you to make me clear about the eligibility of TOEFL in other countries like Austrailia and some European countries.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 21, 2016 at 3:42 pm #

      TOEFL iBT Speaking doesn’t emphasize grammar as much as the grammar-focused section of the PBT. You will lose points for grammar mistakes only if your grammar problems are serious enough to make your speech hard to understand. There’s much more of an emphasis on the way you organize your response– the logical order of the ideas in your speech, the use of clear, good supporting details for your claims and arguments, that sort of thing. To get a full picture of the priorities for Speaking on the TOEFL iBT, read ETS’s official TOEFL Speaking score guides. These rubrics outline the skills focus of TOEFL iBT Speaking in great detail.

  7. Himat January 14, 2017 at 10:21 pm #

    Hi, Kate
    It’s a pluseare that I am a part of TOEFL iBT test.
    It’s very helpful thank you,


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