Kate Hardin

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.

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.

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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.


  • Kate Hardin

    Kate has 6 years of experience in teaching foreign language. She graduated from Sewanee in 2012, where she studied and taught German, and recently returned from a year spent teaching English in a northern Russian university. Follow Kate on Google+!

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