In this article I am describing my personal experience with the TOEFL test all the way from preparing for the test to small tips and tricks for during the exam. TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is one of the most popular standardised English tests (besides IELTS) that is typically used during the admission process for English-taught study programmes at universities in the US, but also in other countries that offer English-taught education. All information below is referring to the internet-based test (iBT), which is the most common test format of TOEFL. Only in very limited locations, TOEFL still offers a paper-based version (PBT) of their test.

Basics

It is possible to do the TOEFL exam at more than 1,000 locations world-wide. You have to subscribe for the test in advance on the ETS website of using the phone hotline. Depending on your location, the costs range between US$150 and US$300 and have to paid in advance using a credit card. For certain locations, also other payment methods may be available. After successfully registering for a test you receive a confirmation that you have to print and present at the exam day along with your ID card or passport.

Start as early as possible with preparing and registering for the TOEFL test to make sure that you do not miss any application deadlines. Depending on your location, the next available test dates may be several weeks ahead. The evaluation of your test takes an additional 15 working days and after that, it can still take up to 1-2 weeks until you or the universities you applied to, receive your test results via mail.

difficulty

I often get the question how difficult the TOEFL test is. It is difficult to give a general answer to this question as the difficulty does not only depend on your overall English skills, but also on your abilities to deal with the different test sections.

From a subjective point-of-view, a required score of 79/80 points as it is typically asked for undergraduate and some graduate programmes, is very doable if you had a solid English education in high school (and you can read this text). The focus lies on understanding and making yourself understand in typical situations that you are facing while studying abroad. Neither your grammar has to be 100% perfect, nor do you need very elaborate vocabulary. However, be aware that many schools require the score to be balanced over the different sections (reading, speaking, writing, listening). If you have a deficiency in one of the sections (e.g. speaking) this means that you may not qualify even if you reach more than the indicated 79/80 points. Some schools also require a higher minimum score (e.g. 25) on the writing section.

On the other scale, if you need to reach more than 100 points, good preparation is required even if you are a native English speaker. You will be probably under pressure during the exam and the test format requires some time to get used to. Even if your English is impeccable, you may get into trouble if you have to repeat aspects about a lecture about the mating behavior of seals after 20 seconds preparation time and speaking into the microfone of your computer…

Test Structure

The TOEFL iBT test consists out of four different sections and takes about four hours to complete.

  1. Reading Comprehension
  2. Listening Comprehension
  3. Speaking
  4. Written Expression

In each of these four sections you can get up to 30 points. Accordingly, the maximum total score you can reach is 120.

Reading comprehension

The Reading Comprehension section takes about 60-100 minutes. You will get 3-5 short texts (about 700 words) about a general academic topic (e.g. astronomics, history, biology etc.). Each text is followed by 12-14 multiple-choice questions that refer to the content of the text as well as the grammar (e.g. “which person does the following word refer to?”). The time limitation is quite tight, so it is recommendable to first skim the text and then re-read certain sections if needed, while answering the questions. If more difficult e.g. scientific words are used, they are normally described and used several times, so that you can easily infer their meaning out of the context.

Listening Comprehension

The Listening Comprehension section tests if you are able to understand academic and everyday conversations. It takes about 60-90 minutes and you will hear 4-6 lectures/classroom discussions and 2-3 more general topics. The listening sections are about 3-5 minutes long each and they are only played once. You are allowed to take notes with the pen and paper provided. After each section you have to answer 5-6 multiple-choice questions about the content of the lecture/conversation. Sometimes, short sections of the recording are replayed before a question. The speakers of the recordings have slight accents and speak naturally (making small mistakes, clearing their throat etc.). They speak however very clear and slow and important aspects of the conversation are usually repeated several times. It should be therefore relatively easy to follow the conversation and answer most of the questions even without taking notes.

Speaking

The Speaking section tests yor abilities to talk about academic as well as everyday topics.In total you will talk about 5 minutes. Your answers are recorded and evaluated later by the examiner.

There are two so-called independend tasks and four integrated tasks. For the independent tasks you will get a question about an everyday topic (e.g. “do you prefer to eat out or cook at home?”). After 15 seconds of preparation time you have 45 seconds to record your answer. For the integrated tasks, you will first read a short text or listen to a short recording. After, you have 30 seconds to prepare an answer to the given question and 60 seconds to record your answer. You are allowed to take notes on the pen and paper provided. As the timing is very tight, it makes however only sense to write down few keywords.

Due to the strict timing and the unnatural way of recording an answer instead of talking to a person, this section is typically the most-feared among test-takers. It does indeed take some preparation to get used to this strange test format. The answers are however usually graded quite generously and it is taken into account that you may be nervous and under pressure during the recording.

Writing

The Writing section is divided into two parts. In the first part you read a short text and listen to a short conversation that relates to the text. After that, you have 20 minutes to answer a given question. You are usually asked to summarise the important aspects of the listening part and the text and highlight diffferences between the two. While you can listen to the recording only once, the text is displayed while you are typing your answer. The answer should be around 300 words long. The amount of words as well as the remaining time is displayed in the editing window.

The second part requires more creativity. You will get a (controversial) topic and have to give your personal opinion to that topic (e.g. “should students wear school uniforms?”). Most questions are yes/no questions (“do you agree or disagree with the following statement?”). The answer should be around 300 words and you have 30 minutes time to write your answer. It is expected that you list arguments for both sides and clearly state the reasons behind your opinion on the topic.

When the time runs up the text disappears immediately and you cannot do any changes anymore. The essays are evaluated by a computer algorithm as well as an examiner. Only if the computer-based grade differs too much from the examiners’, a second examiner is evaluating the essays as well.

Considering the way the essay is evaluated, a good structure and avoiding spelling mistakes is more important than the content of the arguments itself. Very important is the correct use of linking words to structure your line of arguments. Especially for this test section, good preparation pays off. Writing some test essays and reading example answers helps to get a feeling for the time limits and how to structure an essay in the best way.

Test Preparation

I prepared for the TOEFL test with a book as well as a test software that simulates the original test. This worked quite well, but it has the disadvantage that you do not get feedback how well you are doing in the speaking and writing section. An interesting alternative are therefore online preparation courses that also include test simulations that are evaluated by an English teacher.

I summarised the different ways to prepare for TOEFL in the following article:

Preparation with book/CD-Rom

Personally, I made the best experience with the Longman Preparation Course for TOEFL. The book itself is in particular good to practise for the Writing section. The included CD-ROM contains realistic mock tests that I mainly used to prepare for the other sections. Convenient: besides full-length mock tests that take 4h to complete, there are mini tests that are to completed within 2h as well as the possibility to only practise a particular test section. The Listening and Reading Part are graded by the software. For the Writing and Speaking part, grading checklists are offered that are however not really helpful to do a realiable self-assessment.

Other books are structured in a similar way, for example from Kaplan or ETS. Have a look, e.g. on Amazon for the most recent editions. Even though it is 2017, many of them still offer a CD-ROM and those, offering access to an online platform for practice tests receive relatively poor ratings.

Preparation with an online course

If you do not want to rely on self-assessing your writing and speaking skills (and you are lacking a CD-ROM drive), an online preparation course is probably a good solution for you. I had a look at the offers out there and TestDEN is the one that I liked most.

It offers plenty of practice material and, in contrast to many other offers, four completely graded practice exams. Graded means, that a teacher is having a look at your speaking recording and your essays and you receive feedback on what you still need to improve to reach your desired TOEFL score.

With about US$100 it is a bit more expensive than a practice book, but a good investment if you want to make sure to reach the TOEFL score you need. Re-taking the TOEFL test does not only cost you US$200-300 but it also takes a lot of time (and you may miss important deadlines).

During the test

When heading to the test location you have to bring your printed confirmation and your ID/passport. If you are not bringing an accepted ID you will not be able to participate and probably losing your full test fee. Same if you arrive late to the test. I planned in a safety buffer to arrive at the test location well in time (and so should you!).

The test location in Paderborn (where I did my TOEFL exam) is a computer room of the language department of the university. Desks with computers are right next to each other and only separated by a thin cardboard divider. There is a headset for the speaking and listening part. TOEFL test centers world-wide should be equipped in a fairly similar way.

There are some strict rules in place that aim at avoiding fraud of all kinds. When checking in, your ID will be checked and you have to fill out and sign a form. After, a picture of you will be taken. This picture will be printed on your TOEFL test score certificate, so better smile! As the last step of the check-in you will be randomly assigned to one of the computers. After a short explanation of how things work you can get started.

You are not allowed to bring anything else but a bottle of water into the exam room. However, there is a 10-minute break between the listening and the speaking section where you can leave the room to grab a bite and use the bathroom. You should avoid to leave the room outside the break as this means you have to repeat the whole check-in and log-in process again.

If you did some practise tests beforehand, the test content and the software environment should be already quite familiar to you. You can probably skip most instructions, explaining how to use the TOEFL software. This is however a great opportunity to relax between the different excercises. When typing, pay attention to the keyboard layout. It may be different than the one you used on your computer when preparing for the test.

The trickiest part during the test is the speaking section. As you are not alone in the room and you are probably just separated by a small cardboard wall from your neighbor, it can get quite noisy in the room. To make the best out of it, there are two strategies:

If you are quick in the first two sections (e.g. by skipping the instructions) you get to do the speaking section before most other participants (who are still in their 10-minute break at that time). On the other hand, it will be quite noisy during the first part of your writing section, as the other participants are still busy with the speaking part.

The other alternative is, doing the exact opposite and trying to finish later than your neighbors. Stay at your desk during the break and you can already take some notes, while the person next to you has started with the speaking section. With that additional knowledge you can already prepare your speaking part and probably score some additional points!

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