So, you probably landed on this page because you want to go abroad. And you recently found that you need to take the TOEFL test to meet the entry requirements for your new university. Great, you have just taken a step forward because you now know what you need to do to get there. In this post I will share with you my experience with the TOEFL test. After reading this lengthy post you won’t need waste your time on YouTube re-learning the stuff about how the test works. Instead, we will focus on the areas that will give you a good score. Together we will go through all the steps necessary to prepare you for test day.
Wait. We, what do you mean we?
Because TOEFL scores are only valid for two years I had to take the test two times. First in 2016 as a undergraduate and later in 2018 as a graduate student. The TOEFL test has been around since the 1960’s and not much have changed. Therefore, to avoid buying and studying the same learning material over again, I thought it would be good to make a summary of what you need to know to get a good score. I will most likely have to take the test at least once more before applying for Ph.D. program after my master’s. Hopefully you will benefit from these notes too.
I have organized this post into three different parts. First, we start by discussing how the test works and everything that will happen as you walk into the test center on test day. Second, we discuss different strategies that we can use when we approach the four sections in the test. Third, being a student myself I know economy can be tight, so we discuss the most effective and affordable way to prepare for the test.
Before we dig into essays, test sections, grammar, scores and the like. Let’s pause and reflect a bit. According to the official TOEFL website: “the TOEFL iBT test measures your ability to use and understand English at the university level”. Let’s break that sentence apart so we can understand it clearly. “Measures your ability to use and understand English”. Because we learned English in high school, that sounds like a fairly easy nut to crack, right? Well, the sentence also mention “English at the university level”. Truth be told, no matter how many years you have lived abroad working in an English speaking country or traveled the world, the TOEFL test is not an easy test because academic English is like learning a new language.
Your university has a minimum TOEFL score that you as an international student must meet to be accepted as a student. It is very common that they will ask you to have a total score of X to be accepted. Sometimes they will also ask you to have a minimum score of X in a specific section of the test. Make sure that you ask your admission officer or check the university website for the TOEFL score you need to be accepted. Don’t let these words worry you because in the end of the day the TOEFL is just another test. Think about all the places the TOEFL will take you and all the new friends and experiences it will give you overseas.
Part 1: How the TOEFL works
Register for the test
Before you register for the test you should check test day availability. Go to the official ETS website, create a profile, log in and click “Register for a Test”. In the dropdown menu select “TOEFL Test” and click Continue. Agree to the terms and conditions by ticking off the checkbox at the bottom. Now, click on Continue. Select your country and region followed by your preferred date range. Test centers tend to get busy so, if you only see a couple of dates in your list, make sure you book an appointment as soon as possible. Trust me on this one, people will travel from all over the place on test day. Getting to know your test day now will also help you stay focused and motivated as you prepare for the test.
Alternatively, if you have the option, you could do your test in a different city or abroad. I prefer to do the TOEFL abroad in a major city because I get to choose from a wide variety of test days, the test center tend to be less crowded and the fees are sometimes lower too ($180 in Turkey and $280 in some countries in Europe). So, taking the test whilst on your long weekend in London or holiday in Spain could be an option. Regardless of where you choose to sit your test, it is the same test for any country. Most important is that you make sure your name is precisely as written in your passport, and that you bring your passport to the test center along with your driver’s license or other identification approved by ETS.
By now you should know where and when you will sit your test. Maybe your test day is 6 months or 1 week away, it doesn’t matter. First, lets discuss your arrival to the test center. Most TOEFL tests starts at 9 AM and doors into the test center open at 8:30 AM, so you should be there around 7 AM. Add more time if you expect a lot of traffic or if you think you will have trouble finding the test center. I recommend using Google Maps to check the distance between you and the test center. You can also view photos on the map to familiarize yourself with the surrounding area, and that way it will be easier for you to find.
When you arrive the test center you start by checking in at the reception. You will have to hand over your passport to the test center officer. The officer will verify that the name on your passport is the same as the name you used when you registered for the test. The officer will ask you to stand in front of their computer as a photograph will be taken of you. This is similar to the procedure in airport immigration. A locker and a key to access it will be available for your use. To avoid delays, only bring necessary items to the test center. Buy earplugs before test day! Earplugs is a must to help you reduce noise so you can stay focused during the Reading and the Writing section. It also helps to keep your headset on at all times during the test.
You will need to sign or, alternatively, read out loud a confidential agreement before entering the test room. Students enter the examination room one-by-one, so the officer will likely ask you to take a seat and wait for them to call your name. The only personal belongings allowed in the examination room is your passport (without protection cover) and the key to your locker. If you are not the first person to enter the room, there will be other students that start the test before you and therefore they will be speaking into the microphone when you are doing the Listening section.
The Examination Room
The officer will call your name and he or she will accommodate you to your designated seat. Here, you will find a desktop computer equipped with one standard keyboard, a mouse and a headset. On the screen you will see your recent photograph and your name. You will need to confirm and read general information about the test you are about to start. Typically, this takes a minute or two, and also includes a check to see that your headset and microphone are working properly. Don’t worry you will know when you are on the final screen about to hit that “Next” button to start the test.
The TOEFL test beings
Understanding how the TOEFL test works is in my opinion the most important because then you know what to expect. You will also be good at managing your time during the test. This skill can give you the score you need even though your English is not perfect. No matter where or when you take the test it will always follow this order. You always start with the Reading section followed by the Listening section. Then you get a 10-minute break before you start the Speaking section and finally the Writing section.
|Reading||60 – 80 min|
|Listening||60 – 80 min|
|Speaking||Always 20 min|
|Writing||Always 50 min|
The time given for you to complete the Speaking section and the Writing section will always be the same. However, the amount of time you will be given for the Reading section and the Listening section will vary. One of these two sections will be longer, but not both. Let me give you an example of what I mean by that. If you see “You will have 80 minutes to complete this section”. This means you will have 60 minutes to complete the Listening section. Similarly, if you see “You will have 60 minutes to complete this section”. You will have 80 minutes to complete the Listening section. For convenience, let’s call these “Option A” and “Option B”. Because I find the listening easier than the reading, I always hope for a short reading when taking the test.
You just learned that the Reading will be 80 or 60 minutes long, and the Listening will be 60 or 80 minutes (60/80 or 80/60, but never 60/60 or 80/80). You also learned that the Speaking will always be 20 minutes, and that the Writing section will always be 50 minutes long. Let’s explore each section in detail so that we understand what will be going on in the examination room for next four hours. Now is also a good time for you to fill up your coffee cup!
Part 2: The Four Sections
The Reading Section
In the Reading section you will read several passages and answer questions that are related to what you read. And because you have to read under pressure, this section, is in my opinion, also the most difficult section on the TOEFL test. This is also true because the passages are just one big chunk of text that you need to skim through. Let’s discuss the Reading section in detail. The first thing you should do when you start the test is to look at the timer that appears in the top right corner of the screen. This timer is key for how you need to plan your time for the whole section.
If the timer counts down from 80 minutes, it means you got Option A. You will have a total of 80 minutes to read 4 passages from academic texts and answer 56 questions. Similarly, if the timer counts down from 60 minutes, you got Option B. You will have a total of 60 minutes to read 3 passages from academic texts, and answer 34 questions.
I use the word “total” with good reason because it is totally up to you to plan on how you will organize your time. If you waste too much time reading and answering the questions in the first passage, it will hurt you in the last passage because you will barely have time left to answer the last questions. Similarly, if you are fast in completing the first passage, you have more time to complete the other passages. Your aim should be to use no more than 20 minutes on reading each passage and to answer the questions.
Try this reading quiz to simulate the reading section of the TOEFL test. The passage in this quiz is around 700 words and have 13 questions which is about the same as on an actual test.
TOEFL Reading Quiz 1
Changing Your Answers
Good news! In this section of the test you can move back and forth between questions and answers as much as you like. This is a good thing because if you change your mind, you can quickly go back to any question in any passage, and change your answer. Similarly, if you get stuck on a difficult question, you could skip it, and answer it in the end. You will have the passage available on your screen while you answer the questions. In the left part of the screen you will see your passage and in the right part you will answer the questions.
The not so good news is that you won’t have time left to do a “full review” of your answers before they are submitted by the computer. There is really no value in wasting your time surfing between the passages and the questions. This is because you won’t be able to memorize and keep track of the information in the passages you just read. I highly recommend that you read the question carefully and give your final answer, and then move on to the next question. Only use the back button for “emergency situations”. That is when you know for sure that you messed up, and would like to use 30 seconds or so to go back and pick the better answer.
Strategies for the Reading section
Because you have the passage available on your screen when you answer the questions, there are two different strategies that you can use when you approach the Reading section. I have used both strategies on the test and because we might have different preferences I would like to discuss the advantages and disadvantages with the suggested strategies. If you run out of time, never leave any question unanswered. It is better to make a guess than leaving some questions unanswered.
Strategy A: Read the question and answers, then the passage
Using this strategy you begin the Reading section by ignoring the entire passage. Instead, you go straight to question 1 without knowing what the passage is about. You read the question and the available answers, and immediately start searching the passage for keywords that is related to the question and the answers. Once you have found where in the passage the details are discussed, you find the information and pick the best answer.
This strategy will give you a general understanding of the passage and the authors purpose for writing it. You will pick up pieces and get a clearer picture every time you search the passage for related keywords. Be aware that you will need to keep both the question and the answers in your memory as you work your way through the passage searching for keywords. I used this strategy on my second TOEFL test because it worked well during practice in the weeks before the test. However, on test day I got lost because I used too much time looking for the information in the passage. It took too long to re-read parts of the passage to figure out where in the passage the topics were discussed, and it was a stressful experience.
Because you skip reading the passage, you will have a few minutes left in the end of the section. You can use this time to review your answers. For me this strategy involved too much guessing and I ended up getting a lower score than when I used the strategy to be discussed.
Strategy B: Read passage, then read and answer the questions
This strategy is the more traditional way used when sitting an exam. You start by reading the passage before you start working on the questions. When I start the reading I dedicate 4 minutes to each passage before I go to work on the 12-14 questions for 16 minutes. Because you have read the entire passage you know approximately where in the passage the topic related to the question is discussed. This is, in my opinion, the safest strategy and the one that I recommend.
You don’t need to read the passage in depth, but skim through the passage and you will pick up the main idea and the important details. Moreover, using this strategy you will be able to answer some questions without having to look at the passage. The challenge with this strategy is that you barely have time left in the end of the section, so you may need to make a guess on the last questions.
The Listening Section
Working on it…
The Speaking Section
Working on it…
The Writing Section
In the Writing Section you will write two essays to demonstrate your English writing skills. The Integrated Essay and the Independent Essay respectively. As a reminder, you will always start with the the Integrated Essay and you will have 20 minutes to plan, write and finalize your essay. When the time is up the computer will submit your Integrated Essay and you will start the Independent Essay. Here you will have 30 minutes to plan, write and finalize your essay.
The Integrated Essay
For the Integrated Essay you will read a short passage and then listen to a lecture. Your job is to write a summary of what you read and what you heard. It’s that simple! Even better, because we will be using templates that we memorize before the test, you can plan most of your essays before test day. All you need you need to do is to make a summary, but more on that soon.
You will be given 3 minutes to read a passage that is about 400 words long. This is roughly half the size of the passages you read in the reading section, so it is less stressful. The topic in the passage is similar to those discussed in the reading section, such as social sciences, arts, and economy. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure that you understand the general idea being discussed. In the passage the author will give his opinion followed by three examples. Let me give you an example of what I mean by that.
Lets say the passage you read is about the impact plastic has on the environment. The author will usually list three reasons for why he thinks plastic is bad for the environment. He may give his opinion and write that plastic is bad because plastic bottles end up in the sea. The author then gives an example by writing that recent research shows whales get sick when consuming plastic, and therefore plastic is a threat to whales. When you have read the passage you write notes, that is short keywords.
- What the passage is about (the big picture / main idea)
- The authors attitude
- Opinions and examples given (note two details for each reason/example)
The details in the lecture is much more important to note down than those in the passage. This is because the passage will be available on the screen while you write your essay. Remember that for this essay you are asked to summarize and not to give your own opinion thus no need to write conclusion in the end.
Michael from toeflresources.com have made an excellent video where he explains how you make your introduction and two body paragraphs for the Integrated Essay. I recommend reading the comments on YouTube too. Sit back and relax, and follow his instruction and you are guaranteed a good score on the Writing section. All you need to do is to remember the template and use it on test day.
The Independent Essay
Because the Independent Essay is about your opinion on a given topic, it is also easier to write than the Integrated Essay. In addition, because you just finished writing your Integrated Essay you already have your writing skills warmed up. If you run out of words you can always come up with something. Below I have listed three example questions and your question might be similar to one of these.
- “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is better to live in the city than on the country side.”
- “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Visiting a restaurant is better than cooking at home”
- “Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Holiday in South America is more advantageous than holiday in Europe.”
Part 3: Improving your score
There are many ways you can improve your English skills. Our focus here is to improve your TOEFL skills, so let’s discuss some of the options.
A wide variety of well written study guides are available for your use. The official study guide from ETS is comprehensive and will improve your reading skills. Your best option here is to borrow a book from a library nearby or buy second-hand. My experience is that the passages in the reading exercises that comes with the books are similar to those on the actual test. Personally I prefer to read physical books when preparing for an exam, except the TOEFL. This is because you write your TOEFL test on a computer, and reading on a screen prepares you for the reading section. If you are a student your library may have e-books that you can use. I recommend that you don’t highlight text when you are reading passages on your computer, instead use the mouse pointer to keep track on your reading in the passage.
The great thing about YouTube is that there are so much free TOEFL resources available. This is especially true for practicing the reading and the listening section of the test. Both the recordings and the passages are also similar to those on the actual test. Another benefit with the videos is that it helps you practice under timed conditions. Play the video and note down your answers on a scratch paper. You will find the answers in the description. The disadvantage with YouTube is that sometimes the answers noted in the description are incorrect, so make sure you read the comments in the video when you compare your answers. Example query to search YouTube is “TOEFL Reading Full Practice Test with Answers and Explanations”.
Magoosh is a learning platform where you can practice all sections of the test. They offer a great number of exercises that is useful for improving your reading and listening skills. You get access to 150 lessons and more than 500 practice questions. In my opinion the reading passages in the exercises are the same length, but easier to read compared to those on the actual test. I highly recommend Magoosh if you are a last-minute student planning to sit the test within 1-3 weeks. This is because Magoosh offers different subscriptions and you only pay for what you need.
If you register on Magoosh using this link you will get a limited 7 day free trail. In addition, you will get $10 USD discount on any purchases. And if you want you can also claim a full refund without giving any reason. Magoosh discount: https://toefl.magoosh.com/invite/PFTGJA
Prepscholar is another learning platform that can help you to improve your TOEFL skills. The main difference between Magoosh and Prepscholar is that the latter is a very comprehensive, and they guarantee that upon completion you will improve your TOEFL score by 15 points. They offer more than 1000 practice questions. They basically teach you how to read, listen, write and speak in a TOEFL-ish way. Prepscholar also offers a 5 day free trail and a full refund if they don’t meet your expectations. Unlike Magoosh, Prepscholar will give you full access to their learning platform during your free trail. The only disadvantage is that they will charge your credit card before you can access the free trail. I highly recommend Prepscholar if you plan to sit the test within 1-6 months. The reason being their subscription gives you 1 year access to their learning platform.
Start writing your own blog to stay motivated and to improve your TOEFL skills. I have found blogging to be an inexpensive yet effective way to stay ready for the writing section. If you go for WordPress as publishing platform, I highly recommend you to install Yoast SEO because this free plugin will analyze and highlight issues in your writing. For example when I started blogging, I learned that my sentences were too long. I also learned that I used too much passive voice. These were issues that likely affected my score in the writing section. Sharing your own essays and templates for the writing section are likely to benefit others preparing for the test. The easiest way to get started with WordPress is to create an account on WordPress. This free service will give you the most responsive hosting available with leading experts behind the bars: https://wordpress.com/alp/?aff=12834&cid=1451962
The test is something you just have to overcome. Continue to work hard to test day, understand your weaknesses and improve your TOEFL skills. It will pay off in the end, trust me. I wish you the best of luck on your test and abroad.