A guide to TOEFL

If you thought you were done mugging obscure English words… think again! Prepare to relive the tiring days and the sleepless nights again. From the makers of the critically acclaimed GRE, comes another mind-blowing masterpiece. Starring Literary Award Winner ‘Writing’, Literary Award Winner ‘Reading’, Literary Award Nominee ‘Listening’ and a spectacular debut by ‘Speaking’. This is going to change your life…. again. Giving the publication houses like Barron’s, Princeton Review, and Kaplan yet another route to making exorbitant profits. This Eid, Diwali, Summer, and Christmas face a whole new era of standardized testing. A sad-romantic-comical-thriller based on the true requirements of most US Universities: The TOEFL

While some countries still offer the paper-based test (PBT), the Internet-based test (iBT) is the most common form of TOEFL. Therefore, I will refer to the iBT when I talk about TOEFL throughout this post. TOEFL (or Test Of English as a Foreign Language) is designed to measure the ability of non-native English speakers to use and understand English as it’s read, written, heard, and spoken in the university classroom. Simply put, if you haven’t been speaking English since you were born, they want to make sure you are able to comprehend the written material and participate in discussions academic or otherwise during your time at the university. Some universities also use the TOEFL scores as eligibility criteria for Teaching Assistantship (TA) and Research Assistantship (RA).

TOEFL has four sections of 30 marks each, making the range for the final score anywhere between 0-120. The four sections are (in the order you will face them in your exam): Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing with a 10-minute break after the first two. While all the sections contribute equally towards the total score, all of them are not necessarily of equal length. Since they don’t judge your analytical skills, this is, generally speaking, easier than the verbal section of GRE.

You won’t have to struggle with the TOEFL preparation if you have prepared well for GRE. The reading and writing sections are easier than their GRE counterparts. You won’t have to learn new words, assuming you have spent a good amount of time doing that during your GRE preparation. While you might struggle a bit with the speaking section, the listening section should be a breeze. The two free standard practice tests from ETS are really helpful and you should take them before actually going for the real one. There are a lot of other internet-based sample tests available, you can find them with a simple google search. Again similar to GRE, practice is what takes you from an okay score to a good one. The official book from ETS is a good resource for preparing for the TOEFL. It includes some extra sample tests, along with helpful pointers for each section of the test.

The Reading Section

The reading section of the TOEFL may contain 3-4 academic passages each having 10-15 multiple-choice questions. The topics of these passages may range anywhere from history, art to science and literature. You should aim to complete each reading passage within 20 minutes. Try to adhere to this timing when you start the preparation so that it comes naturally to you on the exam day. While there is no one right way to solve the tackle the reading passages, you should try to pick the strategy that works best for you. You can choose to read the whole passage thoroughly and then answer the questions, or you skim through the passage first and then try to answer the questions, re-reading the part that needs special attention in order to answer the questions. You can also read the questions first and then try to find the answer to each question in the passage. The last option would obviously take more time. You can choose whatever way works for you the best. For an in-depth analysis of the reading section of TOEFL, read this article.

The Listening Section

This section should be the easiest of all four. You should, however, be comfortable with understanding your native English accent. While most of the listening tasks would be in the American accent, you will face at least one task in a non-American accent, which could be British, Australian, or from somewhere else. This section of the TOEFL will have 5-6 clips, each three to five minutes long, that can be based on lectures, classroom discussions, or just conversations and will take 60-90 minutes. Note-taking is the most crucial part of the listening assignments. Try to take detailed notes while you listen to the given audio clips. They would be your only source of information when you get to answer the questions. Some questions will replay a part of the clip. Pay special attention to these as they could contain additional information that you might have missed in your notes. If you have enough time, watching English movies is the best way to familiarize yourself with the native accent. So fire away those Friends episodes and if someone asks, just say you’re preparing for your TOEFL ;). Podcasts can also be a great source to improve your listening skills as you won’t have any textual or visual feedback and listening closely would be the only way to comprehend what’s being said.

The Speaking Section

Coming to the speaking section (the shortest of all), this would be 20 minutes long comprising of 6 tasks. 2 of them require you to speak on familiar topics, while the other four would be ‘integrated’, asking you to speak about things you’ve read or heard in that task. You’ll have some time to properly organize your thoughts before responding. The speaking section can be a bit challenging if you don’t feel comfortable speaking fluent English. While you’re not penalized for having a non-native accent, you should make sure your pronunciation is clear and comprehensible. Practice for the speaking section by talking to your friends and family in English. You should aim to make English a medium in which you can articulate your thoughts in a coherent manner. Another strategy that can help you prepare for the speaking section is to record yourself speaking on some sample speaking questions and then evaluating your response by replaying it. You can also time yourself to make sure you’re speaking for the full 45-60 seconds as required by the question. Also on the test day, speak loudly into the microphone. You don’t have to shout into it but make sure you’re not speaking so softly that you are not heard clearly on the other side. If the speaking section appears to be challenging for you, you can focus your effort on other sections as each of them contribute equally towards your TOEFL score. After having mastered all the other sections you can return to prepare the speaking section.

The Writing Section

Finally, the writing section would comprise of two tasks. The first one is 30 minutes long and would ask you to write an essay on a given topic. The other, being 20 minutes long, would require you to write in response to the things you read/listen to. Try to prepare an outline of what you’re going to write before you actually start writing. This would help you make transitions from one paragraph to the other in a smooth fashion. As with any other section practice for the writing section while timing yourself. Read some sample highly scored answers to get an idea of how you’re expected to write or read some of our other blogs ;). Try to use some creative words that you learned while preparing your vocabulary for the GRE or TOEFL. While they do not expect you to write ornate (see what I did there :P) sentences, you should not be writing like a 5th grader as well.

As a final thought, keep in mind that TOEFL doesn’t have any negative marking so never leave a question blank. Bring on your guessing game and attempt all the questions. Since the TOEFL would be an effectively 4 hours long test, prepare yourself for it by taking timed tests and conditioning your mind to work effectively for continuous periods. Lastly, before the D-day, make sure you get enough sleep and a heavy-but-not-so-heavy breakfast in the morning.

Best of Luck!

Let us know in the comments if you need help with any particular part of the TOEFL or if you have any general feedback about this article.

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