What is the TOEFL Test, and How Should You Prepare for It?
The TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, is an exam for non-native English speakers who wish to attend a university in the United States. Most English-speaking academic institutions accept the TOEFL test, and they use the results to determine whether the student is proficient enough in English to succeed in college level courses and take part in both classroom situations as well as campus life.
What to Expect When Taking the TOEFL
The TOEFL test is available at over 500 locations in the U.S. and over 4,500 locations globally. You should expect the entire test to take about four hours.
The TOEFL exam measures four areas of English language skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Each individual section is scored separately from 0-30, and the total score of the test will range from 0-120.
Content-wise, the exam’s subject matter will focus primarily on things related to college courses and campus life. You should expect to read, listen to and write about excerpts from college level textbooks that cover a wide range of subjects like English literature, American history, science, geology, anthropology, and other academic subjects. Studying materials that will help improve your vocabulary and general knowledge of these topics will increase your chances of scoring better on the TOEFL exam.
TOEFL Reading Section
The reading portion of the TOEFL test is designed to gauge how well you can read and understand materials commonly used in an academic environment. After reading 3 or 4 passages from college level textbooks, each approximately 700 words long, you will answer 10 questions on each segment. You will have 54 to 72 minutes to answer all the questions.
The passages cover a variety of different subjects and will contain all of the information you will need to answer the questions, so don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the topics. There is also a glossary available to define words not commonly used, if you need it.
Listening Section of the TOEFL Exam
Understanding conversations and lectures in English is the main objective of the listening section of the TOEFL. You will be tested on basic comprehension but also on the speaker’s attitude and degree of certainty. This part of the test is broken up into two sections:
- 3–4 lectures, each 3–5 minutes long, with 6 questions per lecture
- 2–3 conversations with 2 speakers, each 3 minutes long, with 5 questions per conversation
You are allowed to take notes on any audio item throughout the test, and you will have 41 to 57 minutes to complete this section.
TOEFL Writing Section
The writing section of the TOEFL measures your ability to write in English clearly and in a well-organized manner in an academic setting. There are two tasks for the written portion of the exam:
- Integrated writing (20 minutes) — you will read a short passage, listen to a brief lecture, and then write a response.
- Independent writing (30 minutes) — you will be expected to write an essay based on a personal experience or opinion in response to a given topic.
The Speaking Portion of the TOEFL Exam
This part of the TOEFL test measures your ability to speak English effectively in an academic setting. It is designed to mimic real-life college situations both in the classroom and on campus. There are four tasks to complete for this section. From the TOEFL official site:
- Question 1 is called an “independent speaking task” because it requires you to draw entirely on your own ideas, opinions and experiences when you respond.
- Questions 2–4 are called “integrated speaking tasks” because they require you to combine your English-language skills — listening and speaking, or listening, reading and speaking — just as you would in or out of a classroom.
- You’ll get 15–30 seconds of preparation time before each response, and your response will be 45 or 60 seconds long.
- To respond, you’ll speak into the microphone. Your responses are recorded and sent to ETS, where they will be scored by a combination of AI scoring and certified human raters to ensure fairness and quality. See the Speaking Scoring Guides (Rubrics) (PDF) for more information about how your responses are scored.
Speaking English is a skill that takes special preparation for the TOEFL test. Being able to confidently speak on command requires not only the ability to process information and clearly articulate your thoughts, but must also include the ability to speak clearly with an accent that can be easily understood.
Preparing for this section is definitely a time-intensive activity, and you’ll want to practice as much as possible before your exam. Reducing your accent and pronunciation patterns is key to being clearly understood for this portion of the test. Taking a TOEFL prep course is a great way to prepare for this and the other sections of the test. Additionally, listening to podcasts and trying to mimic the speech you hear can be a good way to get in some extra practice getting familiar with the sounds of English speech.
Preparing for the TOEFL Test
Ideally, you’ll want to take a TOEFL preparation course before sitting for this exam. The more you prepare and practice, the better chance you have of getting a good score that will be accepted by an American university.
Here at Excel English Institute, our TOEFL prep course is three months long and divided into three 4-week sessions, which may be taken independently. Each session consists of 72 hours of classroom instruction. The three-month class is designed to give students the strategies and coaching needed to achieve an optimal score on the TOEFL test; preparing you section by section. After an initial evaluation and throughout the class, we determine which parts of the test need additional attention in order to maximize results.