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Test Prep 101: Tips for the TOEFL

By Richard, IvyWise Master Tutor

For some international students applying to US universities, the SAT or ACT might not be the only test scores required as part of their application. Some colleges and universities might require international applicants to submit TOEFL scores, too.

The TOEFL exam stands for “Test of English as a Foreign Language” and it is precisely that. The TOEFL is the test for students who have learned English as a second (or later) language, and it is an exam that offers a chance for these students to show how well prepared they are (in terms of English) for US universities and graduate schools.

For international students in particular, the good news is that the English on the TOEFL is not quite as hard as the English students will find on the SAT or ACT and improving on the TOEFL will also help students to improve on the harder exams such as the SAT and ACT. However, most students still find that the TOEFL is still quite challenging because of the time constraints and the range of skills that the exam tests, so here are five key tips to help international students prepare for the TOEFL exam.

Know the Exam: Part 1
The TOEFL exam has four sections: Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening. Each section is worth a maximum of 30 points, for a potential top score of 120. However, a score of 25 or higher on each section is considered solid by most universities, and even top students almost never score above 110-115 on the exam. Keeping this in mind, students should aim to reach a 100+ score and not spend all their time worrying about getting a perfect score.

Know the Exam: Part 2
The TOEFL exam is now almost always administered as an “internet-based test,” which is why it is often referred to as the “TOEFL ibt.” This means it is different from most tests that students have taken in a couple of important ways. Computer skills will matter, because students will be typing their essays and generally needing to navigate their way through the exam on a computer. While this is not a problem for many students, the experience of taking a computer-based test can be a bit disorienting the first time, which is why I recommend that students take practice TOEFL exams on a computer in the month before sitting for the official test. This also has implications on the speaking section in particular, where students will speak their answers – which doesn’t sound too hard, until they realize that everyone else who is taking the test with them will be speaking their answers at the same time! This can be a bit confusing and students who take the time to prepare for every section of the test will find that this practice pays off when they take the official exam.

Practice the Four Skills of English As Part of Daily Life
The TOEFL’s sections correspond to the four main skills of the English language, and the best long-term way to prepare for the test is to practice each of these skills (Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening) as much as possible. For reading, students should read things they find interesting yet still challenging. Some suggestions include reading articles from outlets such as:

(For students who need easier English at first, they can start with www.voa.gov – but please be advised that the English on this website is not as hard as what you will need for the TOEFL exam, so this is just a place to start to prepare.)

For Writing, Listening, and Speaking, students should continue to practice these skills as they already do at school and in their day-to-day lives. However, they should know that most students find the Reading and Writing sections of the TOEFL to be the hardest, so these are usually the sections where students need to put in the most effort to practice and improve. Then, as their Reading and Writing scores move to 25 or higher for each section, with continued effort for whichever sections of the exam they find “easier,” students will frequently find that their Speaking and Listening scores will move into the same range.

Get Help!
I recommend that students use aids and guides in order to help them prep and also provide practice tests. I recommend the Longman’s TOEFL ibt book for most students. Getting a test prep book works best when students set a clear schedule for using the book and have help for this process. This is where professional help can come in. An experienced tutor or TOEFL prep class can greatly speed up the process, which is very helpful for at least two reasons. First, preparing for the TOEFL exam is a long-term process, which may take a while for the student to become fluent in academic English – six months is normal and a year or more can be required depending on the student’s level of English.

Fortunately, the good news is that when international students improve their TOEFL scores, in my experience working with hundreds of international students on this exact process, then the students’ SAT and/or ACT scores will also always improve later on. This happens because at their core, the ACT and SAT are reading exams, so when students improve on the reading skills required to do well on the TOEFL, this helps them become ready to make the same kind of improvements for the reading levels required by the SAT and ACT.

In conclusion, a 100+ goal score on the TOEFL is recommended, both because that is what many selective universities look for from applicants, and because in my experience when international students get above a 100 on the TOEFL exam, their SAT (or ACT) scores go up as a result of having improved their English skills (particularly in reading and writing.) While this process may seem complicated, students should always remember that practice makes perfect and that with the right practice routines and advice it can be done!

For more information on our tutoring and test prep services for international students taking the TOEFL or SAT and ACT, contact us today!