Ten tips for preparing for the TOEFL exam

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Studying for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, also known as TOEFL, can be a very daunting task. Even mentioning TOEFL to a group of international English language learners can induce cringes and shudders of anxiety. There is no hiding that the TOEFL is a tough exam that can challenge even native speakers with its tough academic readings, high pressure timed responses, and technical lectures on unfamiliar topics. TOEFL preparation courses or solo preparation can be challenging as well. However, with a confident familiarity in the exam format, a solid study plan, and grounded expectations, the exam is a beast that can be tamed. You can get the score you want!

What is TOEFL?

First of all, take a deep breath. Exhale. Ready?

The TOEFL exam is a language proficiency test for non-native English speakers that uses authentic materials to replicate scenarios where you will use English in academic situations. It is widely recognized and respected as a measure of English proficiency, and it is used primarily for admissions purposes in more than 130 countries.

The exam comprises four major sections that correspond to the major language skills: writing, reading, listening, and speaking. The output sections, writing and speaking, are broken down further with integrated and independent tasks. The reading section primarily draws from academic texts on a variety of topics, and the listening sections will test your comprehension of academic lectures, class discussions, and collegiate conversations.

Are you terrified yet? Are you having flashbacks to staring down a timer for a speaking response question without knowing what to say? Another breath. Exhale. Relax. The truth of the TOEFL exam is that your score means to demonstrate how well you can use English in a university or college environment. In other words, it tests your real life English skills. This is better than a grammar or vocabulary test because studying for the TOEFL can be extremely rewarding and even fun.

Why take TOEFL?

If you’re a non-native English speaker applying for a high school, a college, or a university in an English-speaking country, you might have to take TOEFL as part of your application. Other tests may be accepted as well, but TOEFL is the most popular English language assessment exam. TOEFL scores are highly regarded among academic institutions as a worthy marker of individuals’ ability to speak English. For example, many universities will require international students to submit a TOEFL score as part of their admissions requirements.

Depending on the student’s desired program, there is a minimum required score. Prospective college students can find out what scores are necessary by checking with the admissions office or the academic department of the school to which they’ve applied.

Practically speaking, a good score is one that matches with the school’s requirement. Some schools require a score as low as 70, while others might want to see one as high as 110. The general provision here is that the score is what the school determines to be the level of English that is necessary in order for an international student to perform well academically at that institution. Your overall application will be the most important factor in regards to your admission, but by getting a high score, you prove to the school that you can be a great student there.

Your TOEFL score is good for two years after the test date, and there is no limit to the number of times you can take the test. You can keep taking it until you get the score that you want or need.

Preparing for TOEFL

It is very important to know what you’re getting yourself into when you start getting ready to take TOEFL. If you really want to get your desired score, you’ll need to prepare. Like any test, strategy and knowledge are key to being successful. To reach the score that you want, you’re going to need a plan, so here are seven tips to help you get ready.

Learn the test.

The very first thing to do when getting ready for the TOEFL is to learn what it is. What is the format? Where can I take it? How long will I have to take it? What will be on the test? There are so many basic questions that you need to figure out the answers to, and you can find most of those answers here, the ETS (Educational Testing Service) website. You don’t have to be an expert when you first get started, but you should start to build your knowledge in this area.

You also need to find out what score you need for your program of choice. Remember that the score you need is the score you want to achieve.

Identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Once you get an idea of the test format, you’ll want to take a practice test. You can get a free set of TOEFL test questions here. Follow the instructions and take the test within the specified time. For the speaking and writing sections, you’ll have the sample responses, which you can use to compare your own answers.

How did you do? Did you get a score equal or higher to what you need for your institution? If you did, sign up for the test right now! If you didn’t, then you should figure out which areas you need to strengthen to get the score that you need.

Focus on developing your weaknesses, but don’t ignore your strengths. You’ll still need a strong overall score to achieve the score you want.

Use English every day.

This might be the most important tip on this list from a teacher’s point of view. It’s absolutely critical that you find ways to use English in your daily life. Consume English media such as news, radio programs, podcasts, documentaries, films, and even cartoons. If you have English-speaking friends, talk to them about interesting things that you’ll be reading about as you study. Go to an art gallery or museum and talk to the docents. Exchange small talk with the person who bags your groceries. Chat about the weather with your mail deliverer. Write comments in English on social media posts and respond when people write back yours. Summarize the last TV episode you watched out loud while cooking your breakfast in the morning. Do it all!

Learn how to take notes

Taking notes while listening is an extremely important skill to have for the TOEFL and for college as well. You need to focus on the most vital information given and write it down fast enough to be ready for the next piece of essential information. A good way to improve this skill is to practice with materials that are already interesting or entertaining to you. You could even listen to the news and take notes on the headlines while they’re being reported. Pause the program to review your notes then listen again to see if you got all the essentials.

Turn everything into study material.

Believe it or not, TOEFL exam preparation can be really interesting and exciting. That’s because when you’re serious about studying for TOEFL, everything becomes study material. What better excuse to read social science articles from The Atlantic (like this one) or other great publications could you ask for? You can look forward to the newest episode of Game of Thrones not just to find out what happens to Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen but to mine it for new vocabulary terms and summary practice.

By reading and exposing yourself to many different ideas about the worlds of science, economics, politics, medicine, and so on, you can have a wider frame of reference to draw on when your answering questions on the TOEFL exam. By the same token, you can use any of your well-loved TV entertainment sources to practice summarizing and build your vocabulary. You won’t just be getting ready for a tough exam, you’ll be making yourself a better and more well-informed person in the process.

Time yourself.

New TOEFL students in my class are always alarmed by how fast 40 seconds goes by when you’re speaking. Many students feel like they’ve barely started by the time the countdown elapses. You’ll need to get used to delivering a cohesive and comprehensive response to a variety of topics within that time frame if you want to get a good score on the speaking section.

Keep a list of TOEFL questions on note cards or on your phone. Time yourself when you give your response. By doing this over and over, you’ll build up the confidence to speak concisely and clearly.

Record yourself

You should also be recording yourself as part of your study plan for the speaking section. By recording yourself and listening to what you said, you can identify where you made a mistake. I recommend recording yourself then transcribing what you said. When you write out your response this way, you can make edits to what you said before trying again.

Keep a journal

Writing is hard. But you can get better at it by doing a little bit every day. You can keep it simple to start. Just write for 5 minutes every day. You can write about what you did or what you want to do that day. If you’re a creative-minded person, you might enjoy working with these prompts.

Keeping a journal will help you practice collecting your thoughts and organizing them in writing. It’s also a very useful tool for meditation.

Set a schedule

Even if it’s just 20 minutes a day, you need to devote your personal time to studying for this test. The skills that you’ll use and the format of the test are not things that just come naturally to people. Setting a schedule is part of a promise to yourself to build up your English skills to get the score that you need. This is going to vary for different people, but set aside enough time that you can feel progress at the end of each week.

Take a class

LASC offers TOEFL preparation classes for international students. Our teachers are among the best, and they bring a wealth of knowledge, resources, and experience all pertaining to helping students achieve positive results on the TOEFL exam. Our courses are structured around the test itself, and every student will receive an individualized learning plan from our expert instructors. The classes are small to promote effective learning and practice settings, and every class utilizes score tracking techniques to demonstrate students’ performance data over time.

Call or visit one of our offices to learn more about our TOEFL preparation course program

Daniel Palacio
Head Instructor, Rowland Heights

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