This is one of the most common questions when prospective students begin to prepare their applications for university and see they need to take the TOEFL or an equivalent test. As you will see below, there are many reasons why this question is not easy to answer. We will explore those reasons and then look at how you can give yourself the best shot at getting a good score on the TOEFL.
Why the TOEFL exists in the first place
The TOEFL was born in the early 1960s in the United States of America, after public and private organizations met to find a way to evaluate students who did not have English as their native language.
Thus, the TOEFL was launched, and shortly after, ETS® and the College Board began running the program. A lot has happened since then. Now it has become the test of choice to evaluate incoming students’ language abilities, not only in the United States but also in many universities worldwide where English is used as the primary delivery language of education.
TOEFL boasts over 4500 testing centers in more than 150 different countries, making it the most easily-accessible test for measuring your English language abilities.
Not pass or fail – measures your ability
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the TOEFL is that it is not a “pass” or “fail” test, but it is a test that measures your English language ability. When you get your test results back, you will get a total score out of 120 points, and your score will determine your level.
In 2001, a government body in the European Union recommended to start using a common framework for measuring proficiency in European languages. This system became known as the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).
There are six different levels, and each level indicates a certain proficiency:
- A1 – Beginner
- A2 – Elementary
- B1 – Lower Intermediate
- B2 – Upper-Intermediate
- C1 – Advanced
- C2 – Proficiency
Since each test is different, it is hard to map each of these precisely to the CEFR, but after some research, TOEFL has come up with a proposed mapping of scores. Since most universities are looking for a B1-C1 level, this is what they have come up with:
- B1 – 42-71
- B2 – 72-94
- C1 – 95+
As we said above, it is hard to do an exact mapping, as the CEFR was made after most tests and incorporates different criteria. Still, these scores will give you a general idea of your level.
Your native language has a lot to do with it
If you know French and then start learning Italian, you will notice many similarities between them. Some things will be different, but they both have their roots in the Latin language.
It would be different if your native language was Italian and you started learning Hungarian. You would not find many similarities between the two languages!
It is the same thing when you learn English. If your native language has similar roots, it will be easier for you to learn the language. If it doesn’t have much in common with English, then it may end up being more difficult!
That said, there are also dangers with learning languages that are similar to your own. Sometimes you can rely on what you think is similar but may not be (e.g., false friends), and so you have a false sense of security as you learn. On the other hand, if you know you have to learn the language from scratch, you are better predisposed to understanding the way English works.
What are your gifts and background?
While your native language can have a lot to do with it, the way you are can also have a lot to do with it! If you are good at languages, then the TOEFL might end up not being that difficult for you because you enjoy learning.
If you have already learned some English or spent some time abroad at a young age, you may also have an advantage for doing well on the TOEFL.
In sum, each of us is very different, so the difficulty of the test will depend very much on all the factors we have mentioned thus far.
Now that we have spoken a lot about the various aspects of what might make the TOEFL easier or harder for you let’s look at how you can give yourself a good shot at doing well on the TOEFL.
It’s about skills
While reading is about reading in English, it is just as much about reading skills. At university, not only will you have to understand what is being said, but you will also need to go beyond that by drawing inferences, analyzing, synthesizing, and employing other critical thinking skills.
Know what the reading section is about
The reading section has either 3 or 4 passages of about 700 words in length, and each passage has ten multiple-choice questions. These questions are a combination of single-select and multi-select questions. For single-select questions, you will be asked to choose one answer. For multi-select questions, you will be asked to select multiple answers, the combination of which constitutes the correct answer.
You are not penalized for incorrect answers, so don’t leave any questions unanswered. If you are not sure of the correct answer, try using process of elimination to see which answers you think are incorrect. This will give you a better chance of guessing the right answer.
Identify key information
For this reason, a critical skill is learning how to identify crucial information and relate it to other parts of the texts. Identifying main ideas and supporting details will put you in a position to answer many questions on the test effectively.
A pointer can help you focus
When you read, it is also beneficial to use a “pointer,” whether it be a finger or a pen, or pencil. This will help you focus as you read, even if you are pointing at the computer screen.
When you first start reading a passage, skim through it once and see if you can understand the gist of the passage. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is this passage about?
- What is this passage trying to say? What is the main idea?
- What information supports the main idea?
Even if you skim it once and you don’t find all the answers, this will still be helpful as you read it through more carefully the second time because you have primed your brain to look for crucial information.
Practice as much as you can
Practice the above strategies while reading English texts, and you will become quite good at this! Keep in mind that the passages on test day will be about 700 words long, so it would be wise to divide up texts into sections of that length for practicing.
The texts you will find on the actual test will be academic, but don’t let that stop you from reading more widely than that. This will help you practice and be ready for real-life situations outside of the classroom as well.
If you would like to get more strategies for the reading section, check out this blog post, which expands on the strategies above and gives you a few more.
It’s about skills here, too
Just as for the reading section, while listening is about understanding English, is it also about learning skills. Again, you will need to look for key information as you listen. This will be the foundation for helping you answer the easy questions and some of the more difficult ones, which will ask you to relate different pieces of information.
Know the structure of the listening section
You will be listening to a series of brief lectures or classroom discussions, and the number of these can vary. The listening portion is 41-57 minutes long, depending on the number of questions. Typically, you will find between 28 and 39 questions in the listening section on exam day.
Like the reading section, you are not penalized for incorrect answers in the listening section, so don’t leave any unanswered questions. If you are not sure of the correct answer, try using process of elimination to see which answers you think are wrong. This will give you a better chance of guessing the right answer.
Think like a journalist
As you are listening, think like a journalist to get a big picture of what is going on. Ask yourself pertinent questions to achieve this:
- Who is speaking?
- What are they speaking about? What is the main idea?
- Is there information that answers the question “when?”
- Where is this conversation taking place?
- Is there information that answers the question “why?” or “how?”
This practice will help you listen actively for relevant information. As you listen, take notes so that you can refer to them as needed. Find a system that works for you so that you can take useful notes quickly.
Practice, practice, practice
Listen to anything you can get your hands on: podcasts, audiobooks, news/talk radio, watch movies, and YouTube videos. Remember that if you are watching something, you will have visual cues (which you won’t have on test day!), so try not to rely on them too much. In the case of YouTube, maybe you can try listening to the videos instead of watching them.
Use the journalist-type questions above to help you identify essential information as you listen. With longer stretches of listening (such as audiobooks and podcasts), you may want to divide these up into smaller chunks of 3-4 minutes to make them more manageable.
While this may seem like a speaking exercise, it is also a listening one. When you have a conversation with someone, you are forced to listen to what they are saying so that you can continue the conversation. If you don’t understand what your interlocutor is saying, it won’t be easy to continue the conversation.
Apps such as MeetUp offer many opportunities to meet and chat in English, especially in major cities. If that is not an option for you, look for online conversation opportunities.
If you would like to get more strategies for the listening section, check out this blog post, which expands on the strategies above and gives you a few more.
Know the structure of the speaking portion
The speaking portion comprises four tasks, one of which is an independent task, whereas the other three are integrated tasks. Independent tasks require only speaking, whereas integrated tasks will require listening and/or reading skills as well.
When you are doing the TOEFL iBT, your test is 100% at a computer, so you will record the answers to the speaking tasks via a microphone hooked up to the computer.
You will have between 15 and 30 seconds of preparation time before recording your response for each question. Each response will be 45 to 60 seconds long.
Get comfortable with making mistakes quickly
Practice as much as you can and make mistakes so that you become comfortable doing so. If you can get over this hurdle, it will make you feel free! If others correct you when you make mistakes, you will be able to learn much more quickly.
You can make some mistakes on the speaking portion, as the graders know that you are speaking on your feet. Graders are looking for fluidity and effective communication, so if you make a mistake, but it doesn’t obscure the meaning of what you are trying to say, then you can still get a very high score.
Learn from your mistakes
Making mistakes will help free you from worrying about making them. However, it is also essential to learn from them to ensure that big mistakes don’t become a habit. When you listen to others speak (such as in a podcast, movie, YouTube video, etc.), listen for how they say things and try to identify areas where you may be making mistakes.
Speak, speak, speak…and speak some more!
Practice will help you become more comfortable with speaking in English. If you know somebody who speaks English (even better if they are mother tongue!), ask them if they can help you in exchange for a nice meal.
If you don’t know anyone, MeetUp and other services provide excellent opportunities for meeting people, especially if you live in the city.
While pronunciation is essential, it is only important for the TOEFL if it somehow obscures the meaning of what you are trying to say. If you can communicate clearly, don’t worry too much about pronunciation. If you want to go for a C1 or C2 certificate later on, that would be an excellent time to focus on pronunciation!
If you would like to get more strategies for the speaking section, check out this blog post, which expands on the strategies above and gives you a few more.
Finally, we will look at a few writing strategies, the first of which will not surprise you – know the structure of the section.
The writing section is made up of two tasks: an independent task and an integrated task. In the independent task, you will be asked to write about a personal experience or an opinion. However, in the integrated task, you will be asked to listen to a short lecture and read a passage. After that, you will be asked to write your response based on what you heard and read. The independent task is 30 minutes long, while the integrated task is 20 minutes long.
Plan what you are going to write
Before setting out to write, know what you are going to write. The best way to do this is to make an outline to organize your ideas. A good outline will usually have the main idea first, followed by the supporting details. For example, suppose the independent task asks you to write about whether Fridays be a day where you have no classes in the university. In that case, you could make the following outline:
There should be no classes on Fridays (main point)
Students can dedicate quality time to studying (reason 1)
- It is good to have more rest on the weekends
- Supporting detail 2
Students can have more options of students to study with (reason 2)
- Many students find it hard to get through their study material and do group study
- Group study helps get different perspectives
- Reason 3
Once you have your ideas coordinated, it will be a lot easier to sit down and write your response.
Vary your grammatical/sentence structures and vocabulary
Show the graders that you have a varied repertoire of vocabulary, sentence structures, and grammatical structures. They will see your command of the language. This will get you a high score if you use them correctly.
One way to help you do this is to read good classics such as Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Of Mice and Men, etc.
You can make mistakes
The graders know that your writing is a first draft, so they will tolerate mistakes. This is excellent news because it doesn’t have to be perfect to get a perfect score!
If you would like to get more strategies for the writing section, check out this blog post, which expands on the strategies above and gives you a few more.
Happy learning, and if you have any feedback for me, please send it on at firstname.lastname@example.org!