(Photo by Tim Hamilton)
The TOEFL is one of the most difficult tests you will ever take in your life. Here is a list of ten things that will help you get the highest score possible on the TOEFL iBT, and fulfill your dream of studying at an English-speaking university.
1. Make sure you understand the TOEFL!
The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is an English proficiency test produced by an American company called ETS. It is a test that measures your English reading, listening, speaking, and writing skills, and your ability to succeed at an English-speaking university.
Each section has a score of 30, for a total overall score of 120.
ETS, the company that makes the test, has a useful video introducing you to the resources available on its website:
2. Be prepared!
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You should give yourself 6 months – 1 year to be fully prepared for the test, especially if you have never taken the test before.
- When you sit down at the computer to take the test, nothing should be a surprise. You should know every reading question, every listening question, every speaking task, and every writing task on the test. You should know exactly what you have to do to answer every question properly.
- You should also know the exact score you need to achieve for each university you want to apply to. (Some schools require just an overall TOEFL score, but some schools require specific scores in each section.) You should know exactly what you need to do get the required score.
- Do not try to prepare for the test alone. At the very least, you need a textbook:
|This is by far the best and most up-to-date textbook available. It thoroughly explains each section of the TOEFL and includes hundreds of practice questions and multiple quizzes. There are also 4 practice tests included in this book. (The CD needed for the listening, speaking and writing sections is also included.)|
- Even if you use a textbook, it’s really important to work with a teacher, either in a course or in private lessons. You need someone to help you with your pronunciation, and to assess how you’re doing in the speaking and writing sections. Talk to friends who have taken the TOEFL. Who did they study with? What score did they get? What would they have done differently? Check at a university or college near you. Do they offer a TOEFL course? There are also several TOEFL instructors online. Do you know anyone who has studied with them?
3. Read Everything. Listen to Everything.
I cannot stress this enough. When you are preparing for the TOEFL, it is not good enough to just listen to and read things that you enjoy and are interested in. You need to read widely to build your vocabulary. On the TOEFL you will read passages or listen to lectures on everything from astronomy and American history to psychology and biology!
- The TOEFL has teamed up with a company called Lexile to help you find books at your reading level. If you have taken a TOEFL practice test or the actual TOEFL and you know your reading score, you can type in your score and Lexile will suggest books in the topic of your choice at your reading level.
- Three excellent resources on the Internet are BBC News, NPR, and VOANews. Many of the articles on the VOA and NPR websites also have .mp3 files, so you can also use the articles as listening lectures.
Science, Health, and the Environment:
NPR – Science
BBC – Nature
BBC – Science and Environment
BBC – Health
VOA News – Science and Technology
VOA News – Environment
VOA News – Health
- If you have just started studying for the TOEFL and you are not yet able to read (or listen to) some of the articles above without great difficulty, that’s OK! There are still lots of resources available to you:
ESLPod – This is a great podcast that all English learners should be listening to! The podcasts are dialogues on a variety of topics. In one podcast there is a slow dialogue, a discussion of vocabulary, and a fast dialogue. The transcript is also provided on the website.
VOA Learning English – This section of the website has articles similar to the news section, but they are easier to read and the listening clips are much slower.
Listen a Minute- If you are still struggling with listening or vocabulary, this website will help you build up your skills
- Here are some books you may find useful to help you build your vocabulary and improve your reading skills:
|This is a great book! The 400 words are divided into 8 themes and 40 lessons. For example, in the ‘Money’ section, the lessons are: Financial Systems, Wealth and Social Class, Personal Property, Employment, International Trade. There are 10 words in each lesson, and each lesson contains definitions of each word, usage tips, and three exercises using the words.|
There are many different versions of this book. You can get an English only version (‘monolingual), or you may be able to find a ‘bilingual’ edition (English and your native language). This book is well organized and has great pictures for the 3000+ words included!
The Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries have a great series of advanced ’100 Words’ books, like …
100 Words To Make You Sound Smart
If you are studying for the TOEFL, and you use some reading and listening resources that I have not mentioned, please tell me about them in the comments below!
4. Learn how to take good notes.
This is an essential skill you will need for the listening, speaking and writing sections of the test – AND a skill you will need later on at an English-speaking university.
In each section where listening is required, you can only listen to the clip ONCE! You cannot go back and listen to it again and again. You will then have to answer questions on what you heard (listening section), speak about what you heard (speaking section), or write an essay based on what you heard (writing section). Therefore you will need to take good notes! People who take good notes get higher scores on the TOEFL.
This is a skill that takes a lot of practice.
- Don’t try to write down anything and everything you hear. Don’t just write down words that you understand. Write down the essential information that you will need to understand the lecture later
- Use symbols and shorthand. Everybody develops their own system for this, but here are some suggestions: http://english-zone.com/study/symbols.html
- In tip #3 I told you about the resources available on the NPR and VOA websites. Those are great websites to use to practice note-taking as well. When you have finished listening, you can go back and compare your notes to the transcript.
- Another great resource you can use to practice listening and note-talking is Ted Talks. These are talks given on wide variety of topics from a wide range of speakers. They last anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes.
- If NPR, VOA and TED Talks are too long for you, practice note-taking with the shorter clips from Listen a Minute.
When you sit down to take the test, you will get 3 sheets of paper. Every time you put up your hand, the proctors are supposed to give you 3 more sheets of paper, but that doesn’t always happen. It may take a while for a proctor to see your hand, if they are paying attention at all. Use your 3 sheets of paper wisely! Don’t use all 3 pages on a single lecture or conversation.
5. Make sure your pronunciation is clear.
On the TOEFL, it’s OK to speak English with an accent. Your pronunciation doesn’t have to be perfect, but you need to speak clearly and be understood.
The speaking section measures three things:
- How well you answer the question and complete the task
- The grammar and vocabulary you use
- How you sound
My blog post ‘How to improve your pronunciation‘ has many more tips on things you can do to sound better. This is one area where it is important to work with a teacher or instructor. You need someone to tell you what you’re doing right and what you can do better.
When you are practicing the speaking task on your own, record yourself (most laptops and computers come with recording software). This is important for two reasons:
- You can hear yourself speak and evaluate your response
- You can get used to speaking to a computer! If you prepare for the test in a classroom or from a book, it may feel a bit strange talking to a computer.
Here are 3 videos from ETS that discuss the different speaking tasks.
Tasks 1 and 2
*Please note: several students have noticed a change in speaking task 1 topic. You may be asked to give advice to someone, which is different from what is discussed in this video. However, all the other information in this video is useful.
Tasks 3 and 5
Tasks 4 and 6
6. Get Used to a QWERTY Keyboard
The final section on the TOEFL is the writing section. You will need to use a QWERTY keyboard to type your responses into the computer. It’s called a QWERTY keyboard because the top row of letters starts from the left with the letters QWERTY. LOOK CAREFULLY!
You should practice as much as possible with a QWERTY keyboard.
Learn Touch Typing
Most people type by using the ‘hunt and peck’ method: you hunt (look) for the letter you need on the keyboard, and then peck (hit) it with a finger. When you learn touch typing, you will learn how to use all your fingers to to type WITHOUT looking at the keyboard! It’s a much faster method of typing, but it takes a lot of practice. Touch typing is not essential for the TOEFL, but it definitely helps you type faster.
Here’s a short video that shows you where to put your fingers on the keyboard:
7. Learn how to write an English Essay
As I mentioned in tip #6, the last section of the TOEFL is the writing section. There are two writing tasks. The last task, and the very last thing you will do on the TOEFL, is type a 300-word essay within 30 minutes.
Practice this essay as much as possible!
- Learn the traditional form of an English essay
- When you start practicing this essay, don’t worry about time. Begin by taking as long as necessary to write a good essay.
- Once you are able to write a good essay, start timing yourself and getting faster at it, until writing a 300-word essay within 30 minutes doesn’t even worry you!
North American writing tends to follow the same form:
- Introduction – this introduces your essay, and tells the reader your opinion and what you are going to talk about in your essay
- Body – 2-3 paragraphs that support your opinion
- One paragraph = one thought; the first sentence of the paragraph explains what the paragraph is about, and the rest of the paragraph uses clear, specific examples to illustrate your opinion
- Conclusion – a paragraph that summarizes your essay
If you would like to practice on your own, the ETS website has a list of typical independent essay questions.
Here’s a video that explains how to structure your TOEFL independent essay:
(Essay topic: Some people prefer to live in a small town. Others prefer to live in a big city. Which place would you prefer to live in and why?)
Here’s a video from ETS that explains a bit more about the TOEFL independent essay.
*I disagree with one thing in this video: don’t write your outline on paper! Type your outline directly into the space where you’re going to write your essay. You can build your essay around your outline.
Understanding the traditional English style of writing an essay will help you in almost every section of the TOEFL. If you know that one paragraph = one thought, you can understand the structure of the reading passages better. You will also need to state an opinion and support your opinion with clear, specific examples in the speaking section.
Here are some more points to remember:
- Answer the question that’s being asked! Don’t try to change the question. If it asks you to make a choice, make a clear choice – don’t try to argue both positions. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Your essay is scored on how well you answer the question.
- Type your outline in the essay space on the computer! You waste time if you write it by hand and then type it.
- Keep it simple and be specific!
Here is another video from ETS that explains the first writing task, the integrated essay:
8. Practice, practice, practice.
This is the best tip I can give you. Students are always looking for a trick or a secret they can learn to help them do better on the TOEFL. This is it! Once you know the TOEFL inside and out, the only thing that can help you get better at it is to keep practicing it!
- In the book I recommended in tip #2, there are 4 practice tests
- The same publisher has another book with 6 more practice tests:
(This is the book + audio CDs)
- There are 4 practice tests available on the ETS TOEFL website (http://toeflpractice.ets.org/).Do at least one of these tests before you take the TOEFL so you can get used to taking the test on a computer
That is a total of 14 practice tests!
9. Learn how to relax!
You’re probably laughing at this tip, but this is very important! A lot of people find this test quite stressful. Let’s be honest: it’s not an easy test! It is important to remain calm and relaxed throughout the test.
Before the test:
- If possible, visit the testing centre ahead of time. Make sure you know where you’re going and how long it’s going to take you to get there. The last thing you want to do is get lost or stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the test!
- Don’t try to ‘cram’ the day before the test. Just relax and rest.
- Get a good night’s sleep
The day of the test:
- Eat a good breakfast!
- Before you leave your house and on your way to the test, make sure you warm up your brain! Reading something in English for 30 minutes (something you have read before – no need to stress yourself out before the test!) and listen to English. Make sure your brain is thinking in English before you start the test!
During the test:
- Take deep breaths throughout the test. Make sure your breathing is normal.
- There is a 10-minute break between the listening and speaking sections. Use this time to use the bathroom if you need to, eat a snack, and do some stretching to relieve the tension in your back and shoulders!
- If you miss a question or you feel like you didn’t do well in a section. Don’t worry about it. Just go onto the next section like it’s a new test. This is where being prepared for the test helps. For example, if you know how many questions you need to answer correctly to get your required score in the reading section, then missing one question is not a problem.
Remember, you can always take the test again!
10. Take the test at least twice, if not more.
No one will ever know your TOEFL score unless you tell them. The university you want to attend won’t know if you’ve taken the test once or 10 times. They will only know the score you tell them. Don’t worry if you get a low score the first time – no one will ever know but you! You can keep taking the test as many times as you need to.
Students rarely get the score they need on the first try. Taking the TOEFL can be a quite shock the first time you try it:
- The test goes by very, very fast!
- Some test centres are very large with lots of people taking the test at the same time. There is a lot of noise and a lot of distractions.
- Someone may have started the speaking section while you are still listening. You might be trying to write an essay while the person next to you is doing the speaking section.
- You may not be able to get the proctor’s attention to get more paper or to get help with your computer
ETS just announced (Dec. 14, 2012) a change to how many times you can take the TOEFL. Please read this carefully:
Beginning in January 2013, there will be a change in the Repeat Policy for the TOEFL iBT® test. Test takers can still take the test as many times as they wish, but only once within a 21-day period. If a test taker has an existing test appointment, he or she cannot register for another test date that is within 21 days of the existing appointment.
This is very important to understand! You can only take the test ONCE in 21 days. If you take the TOEFL, you will have to wait 21 days until you can take the test again! Plan accordingly.
Have you taken the TOEFL? Please share some of your tips in the comments below!