Personally, I knew the TOEFL was not what will stop me from attending a PhD program in the US unless I bombed it. When I wrote it, someone else in the waiting room claimed that I was UCLA material without even knowing what I would have gone to UCLA for, much less what I would be building my application upon. Not that I would have aimed for UCLA, now that I know that UCs in general have tightened international PhD admissions. I realized that UCLA did not have a particle cosmologist on hand. Anyhow, enough of anecdotes, now move on with the test. Of course, some of these tips are variable, especially if you’re using TOEFL for a different purpose.
1. Make sure you understand the TOEFL! Although its intended purpose is to test the English skills of people, the truth is that the level of English tested is, in fact, quite shallow. I personally found the TOEFL to be not much harder than ministerial high school English tests (Secondary V version) but that might not be the case for you. Each section is scored out of 30 (iBT, or Internet-based test) but PBT (paper-based test) scores are quite different. You don’t pass or fail the TOEFL per se, or even a given section of it. What constitute passage or failure in the TOEFL depends on who is assessing your score, more on that below. Here is the test structure (per ETS’ website):
- Reading (60-80 minutes, 36-56 questions): read four to six passages from academic texts and answer questions based on the texts.
- Listening (60-90 minutes, 34-51 questions): Listen to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations, then answer questions.
- A 10-minute break; please use it wisely even though it is here for a reason
- Speaking (20 minutes, 6 tasks): Express an opinion on diverse topics; speak based on reading and listening tasks.
- Writing (50 minutes, 2 tasks): Write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks, support an opinion in writing
2. Be prepared!
it’s a good idea to review what you need to aim for before you sit down and assemble your study materials, if any. Your target score will depend on what you’re using the TOEFL for. If you’re using TOEFL to enter a high school-level study abroad plan, you won’t have the same target score than if you were a prospective undergraduate or graduate student. For example, McKinney Christian Academy, a Texas private high school, asks for 50 on the IBT from an eighth-grader, and 75 from a tenth-grader, while the University of Toronto asks for 100 on the IBT, with a minimum of 22 on writing. So pay attention to whether the chosen program only has an overall score requirement or a subscore requirement.
Now, if you’re taking the TOEFL to enter a US university (other than for a JD; American law schools usually trust the LSAT to test one’s English-language skills at the JD level; LLMs for foreign-trained lawyers usually require it), you will notice that some of the tips I gave for the GRE are applicable to the TOEFL as well, and that there is some overlap with other admissions tests, especially with respect to reading and writing. When that overlap does occur, use that overlap wisely.
My advice: if you must use a textbook, please consider using a high school-level textbook for the writing and reading sections (it needs not be a TOEFL-specific textbook).
3. Read and listen to everything.
It is definitely not enough to just read and listen to things in your field of interest. You need to read and listen widely, not only for vocabulary reasons but for understanding reasons as well. You will read and listen to lectures about history, literature, even biology or astronomy. Some good resources include, despite the political bias and downsizing that has plagued CBC as of late, the following:
- CBC News (written and spoken; all fields)
- Businessweek (written; business)
- VOA News (written and spoken; all fields)
- Listen a Minute (if you’re a beginner)
4. Learn to take good notes.
You probably are better at note-taking if you’re aiming for a graduate degree, but I can’t stress this enough: 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. You can listen to each clip only once. You will then have to answer questions based on what you heard (it can be questions on what you heard, speaking about it or writing about it). Therefore you will need to take good notes!
- Don’t write down everything you can, or even the words that you understand. You will need to write down the essentials. Otherwise you will use up your allotted three pages of scratch paper (OK, they’ll last you longer if you write on both sides of these sheets) before you know it.
- Use symbols and shorthand wisely. Poor use of symbols and shorthand will likely hurt you rather than help you.
- If you do find journalistic resources with both a video and a transcript, you may use them to practice note-taking. However, should you use journalistic resources to this end, I advise you not to look at the transcript before the video is over.
- When you raise your hand during a test administration, you may ask for extra scratch paper. It takes a while for proctors to notice you, though.
5. Make sure your pronunciation is clear.
It is OK to speak with an accent. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it has to be clear, or else you can lose quite a bit of points. You have very little time to prepare your responses and even less to deliver them. The speaking section evaluates three things: the quality of the content, the grammar of the content and, to a lesser extent, how you sound.
That said, some questions will be about giving advice to people (I personally had to answer a question about on/off-campus housing, as well as another one for work-study) while others will about giving an opinion.
6. Learn how to write an essay in English
Forget about posterity, or even writing a life-changing document. Even though writing on the TOEFL is likely to be quite different from actual writing in your field, here you need to learn about the infamous five-paragraph essay if you are to achieve any kind of success on the TOEFL writing section.
- Introduction – it introduces your essay (topic is introduced, defined, and then divided, each in increasing levels of specificity) your opinion as well as the topic you’re writing about
- Body: 3 paragraphs that support your opinion (or, if you’re writing a dialectic essay, 2 that support your opinion and 1 that refutes the counter-opinion)
- One paragraph, one idea; 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
7. Learn how to relax
It can mean quite a lot of things but, in the context of the TOEFL, this means primarily the following things:
- 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! You will likely be fatigued by the halfway point.
- Get a good night’s sleep beforehand
- Get a good breakfast
- Know your way around the testing center once you made your selection of a venue (you won’t want to get lost on test day)
- 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. Make use of the noise-canceling headphones.
- Due to the various speeds of the test-takers, some people will be starting the speaking section while others are still doing the listening section, and this applies to writing vs. speaking as well.
- You can retake the TOEFL as many times as you wish but you cannot take it more than once every twelve days. Before retaking the test I would advise you to wait for the results of the first sitting. If you do retake, I would advise you not to do it more than three times because after the third retake, scores tend to plateau. But it’s the first retake that often yields the greatest improvement.