How to Score Well on the TOEFL® Exam

The TOEFL® (Test of English as a Foreign Language) iBT (internet-based test) measures your ability to use and understand English at the university level. Intended for non-native English speakers, the TOEFL® offers test-takers an opportunity to prove their skills in reading, writing, and speaking in English as they prepare for college admissions to English-speaking schools.

Delivered as an online test via computer (paper-and-pencil administration is still available in some locations—contact your testing center to find out what your testing options are), the TOEFL® assesses the English skills in which you will need to excel in an English-based academic classroom in four areas: Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking.

To prepare for an excellent performance on the TOEFL®, there are some things you can do before you take the test.

Know what it is.

The TOEFL® is a four-part test totaling about 4 hours of testing time. The Reading section consists of three to four passages with 12–14 questions to be answered in 60–80 minutes (time variations depend on the method of test administration: computer-based versus paper and pencil). The Listening portion of the test requires test-takers to listen to four to six lectures and answer six questions about each, then listen to two to three conversations with five questions about each. This section of the test takes 60–90 minutes. After a 10-minute break, you can expect to face a 20-minute Speaking section where test-takers will use a microphone to talk about a given topic and to discuss material they read about or listened to. The Writing portion consists of two responses in which test-takers read a passage or listen to a recording and then type a response, supporting their opinion in writing.

Become comfortable with a time crunch.

Testing against the clock can be very nerve-wracking. To become more comfortable with the idea of taking a timed test, take timed practice tests or work on practice material with a timer set. This will help train you to stay focused on the task at hand (you don’t have time to let your mind wander) and make you more comfortable with the idea that the clock is ticking.

Practice with the format.

Not everyone is familiar or comfortable with an online testing format. The more you can practice navigating through online activities and familiarize yourself with the keyboard and moving the cursor, the more time and headaches you will save when you are in the testing situation. The Writing section of the test requires a longer-length written text, and in an online situation, that means typing your response. Becoming familiar with the keyboard and letter locations will help you concentrate more on your content than concerning yourself with finding the right letters on the keyboard. Practice taking online tests and typing responses in word-processing programs (Word® or Google Docs®, for example) to give yourself practice in this testing format. You may also want to practice speaking into a microphone and/or listening to information via headphones, since both tools will be used during the testing session.

Read everything carefully.

Each section of the test includes instructions for that section. Failing to read the directions may result in you misunderstanding your purpose and then not answering the questions correctly. The instructions may also include some helpful tips or suggestions. In addition to reading the directions, read each question and answer option carefully. If you are unsure of an answer, eliminating options you know are wrong or that are worded in such a way that it makes them very narrowly inclusive can help you make an educated guess.

Set yourself up for success.

You should try to take a practice test before the actual test date. Go online and search for some online test preparation materials (including those from Union Test Prep and ETS®, the company that produces the TOEFL® test) that will allow you to practice your skills. This will help you determine your strengths and areas that might need some more practice. Determine your target scores and see in which areas you are meeting those scores and which areas have a need for improvement. Then focus your review and practice in those areas.

Seek as much English practice (in all four tested areas) as you can before you take the TOEFL®. Practice reading, listening, writing, and speaking in English as often as possible. Here are some possible practice strategies:

Engage in conversations with friends and seek their feedback in terms of your enunciation, pronunciation, and use of idioms. Write quick notes to friends, teachers, or mentors, and ask them for feedback on how clear your ideas are when you write them down. To practice speaking, record yourself when no one else is around so you can listen to it later and assess your own clarity (this is also listening practice). To hone reading skills, read various length and genres of texts in English, from newspapers to online blogs to books. All reading is good reading practice. If you need to practice your listening skills, try watching TV, go to a movie (and talk about it afterward with others who have seen it so you can practice speaking, too), engage in conversations with others, or even listen in to conversations others are having and see if you can follow the discussion (but do respect their privacy!).

Opportunities to practice English in many forms can be plentiful if you seek them out. Online tutorials and skill-building programs are also available to support you in your practice. For more information about the TOEFL® test, look here.

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