Myths about TOEFL: 2022 Update

In this blog, I will address the TOEFL myths that I have heard over 12 years of teaching TOEFL.

​This blog will cover the most common misunderstandings that students have about the TOEFL test.

20. My friend used a certain template, so if I use the same template,  I will get the same score.
The reality is, you do not really know why your friend got the score he or she got. Perhaps the friend also had good grammar and topic development, and that template also worked for that particular prompt. As you will see later in this blog, templates are not a guarantee of a score. 

19. I don’t have time to study for TOEFL, but I will still pass. 
I know people have busy lives, but if you do not study I do not think you can pass unless you are very, very lucky or you are close to a native speaker. You need to make time to study. This will affect the rest of your life. 

18. There is a “list” of vocabulary words somewhere. If I study them, I will have all the vocabulary I need.
English has more words than any language on Earth. Unfortunately, no single list will cover all the words you may see.

17. My accent will lower my score.
Not necessarily – everyone who takes the TOEFL has an accent. You have to be intelligible. This means the raters must understand you. (“Intelligible” is not related to “intelligent.”)

16. Tutors and teachers make the test too hard. It’s actually an easy test, but they complicate it to make money.
This makes me CRAZY. I’ve heard OTHER TUTORS say this to STUDENTS! It is shocking. Tutors do not create the test, and we certainly did not create the English language! The fact is, this is a hard test! It’s much harder than you might expect – my students are often shocked that the board tests are easier.

15. The TOEFL won’t be expensive. I can save money by using free resources.
Free is good – everyone likes free! Me too! But one thing you must accept is you DO need to spend some money on resources to pass the test. Every day I see people posting for free resources, asking for free lessons, or demanding free PDFs online. Don’t worry – when you get into your career, you will make the money back (and much, much more.)  But like getting a degree, you do have to spend some money on books and possibly a tutor. I’ve had students spend THOUSANDS of dollars before they spend a little on a tutor and some books and finally pass. They often express regret that they did not buy some books and spend a little on a tutor right from the start! They later realize how much money they wasted just paying for the test over and over because they wanted to learn for “free.” The test itself is expensive – and ETS will take any money you give them and continue taking it. They will never tell you to get help- they sell tests! You might as well spend a little to have a better chance of passing it. Also, the Official Guide can be purchased used for a MUCH cheaper price than a college textbook. Just buy it. Please.

14. If I hire a tutor, I don’t have to study on my own. That’s what the tutor is for.
Tutors are like personal trainers – we show you what to do, and how. But think about hiring a personal trainer because you want to lose weight. The trainer can show you how to use the machines, but if you do not exercise on your own and you go home and eat a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke, you will not lose weight. In other words, what you do on your own time is just as important – perhaps more so – than what you do with a tutor. We are guides, but it’s your journey.

13. The test is “too scary” to take. 
Yes, I hear this a lot. However, one thing we know about the human brain is that if we do not face our fears, we will never overcome them. We have to do things we are afraid of. If you do not pass, you can take it again. When students avoid it, they end up taking it just months or weeks before a deadline, and by then it’s much, much scarier. 

12. One rater grades my speaking test.
In the TOEFL, all your responses are sent to ETS, where they are sent out to different graders. EACH prompt is scored by a different person. So, that means the person who scores your task #1 will NOT be the same person who scores your task #2, and so on. This eliminates bias—for example, if you do not do well on prompt one, the grader who scores prompt two will not be aware of this. It’s all scored separately.

​11. I can rush the TOEFL and pass it in a few weeks.
Some students come to me a few weeks before their test and expect to get a high score. I honestly believe that students need to study for at least a few months if they want a high score, even if they have been studying English for several years. This is because of the complexity of the test. I recommend three months of studying as a minimum.

10. The TOEFL is easier in some countries.
Many of my students think if they go to another country to take the TOEFL, they will be given an easier test or the grader will be more generous in their scoring. This simply is not true.  The TOEFL is a standardized test, which means it is the same anywhere you take it.  In addition, all your responses are sent to the ETS center in New Jersey. From there, the responses are sent to graders all over North America, and even some who are abroad. This means that it does not matter where you take the test.

9. I do not have to worry about grammar on the TOEFL test.
I hear this a lot from students.  They think grammar isn’t important, or they do not have to study it very carefully. However, if you look at the scoring rubric for the writing and the speaking, it is very clear that grammar is important on the TOEFL.

8. Practice is boring and not helpful.
Many students find practice “boring” or they think that it isn’t going to help their score very much. This is absolutely untrue. If your child wanted to learn a musical instrument, of course you would understand that in order to improve the child must practice often. It’s the same with a language, but the English language is much more difficult than an instrument and requires more practice.

7. Native speakers would pass the TOEFL easily.
If you took a random English-speaking person off the street and asked them to take the TOEFL, they would probably not get a very good score. The TOEFL is a unique test. Many of the questions, especially in the reading, are tricky, difficult, and confusing. Even a native speaker would need some preparation and understanding about question types and the tricks used to score well. 

6. My score is a true reflection of my English skills.
Just like #7, you must remember that many of the questions on the TOEFL are designed to be tricky and confusing. In addition, keep in mind that the speaking section is NOT a natural conversation. Many factors might impact your score, especially if you are very nervous or suffer from test anxiety. Do not be too hard on yourself or think you will never pass if you do not get the score you expect. It’s very normal for people to try the test several times before they get their required score.
Furthermore, note that if your score goes up or down from one test to another, that doesn’t mean you got “better” or “worse.” There is also luck involved in this test. 

5. I will do very well on the speaking section because I speak to my co-workers every day.
It’s very common for native English speakers to be able to communicate easily with non-native speakers, especially in the United States where there are many immigrants and people with accents. Most native speakers will politely ignore grammar errors or pronunciation mistakes in non-native speakers, especially if the goal is just to communicate. For instance, if you work as a pharmacy technician or dental assistant, you may speak to native speakers every day with no problems. This is because it’s considered very impolite to correct someone else’s grammar.  However, the ETS is not concerned about your feelings! Therefore, you should work with a tutor or teacher who will be honest with you about your mistakes.

4. Once I pass a section once, I do not have to study it anymore and should focus on the section I did not pass.
Unfortunately, I have seen students make this mistake many times. You must keep in mind past scores are not a guarantee of future scores. Please study and practice all sections, even if you passed one section with a high score on a previous test. Again: Past scores do not guarantee future scores.

3. If I make a mistake in the speaking, I should not correct it.
It’s common for native speakers to make little mistakes and correct them, and the ETS expects this to happen during the TOEFL. Correct your mistakes quickly. You can simply say, “I meant…” or “I mean….”  For example: “Yesterday, I go to the store… I mean, I went to the store.”  This is acceptable on the TOEFL.

2. Templates will save me!
Templates, templates, templates. Students are always asking about them. I have no problem with templates, but they are not a magical solution!  I prefer the term “useful phrases.” There are some useful phrases you can have ready to say during the speaking, but the graders are not interested in your template. They are interested in the content of your response that makes YOUR response DIFFERENT from everyone else’s.

A lot of students, especially pharmacists, want to give up. I understand. It’s frustrating, expensive, and a long process. But I truly believe anything worthwhile is worth putting a lot of effort into achieving. You spent a lot of time studying pharmacy, dentistry, physical therapy, etc. in your home country. Do not waste all that education because of an English test. You may just need to study harder or find the right tutor. I always tell my students, “It’s hard to beat someone who never gives up.”