If you are interested in studying at an American college or university, you have probably heard about the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
The test is widely known as the TOEFL. It is the most widely used language assessment exam for American colleges. A TOEFL score may be necessary to get a student visa to an English-speaking country. Some businesses and even government offices use the test scores to measure the English language abilities of their employees.
Many foreign students worry about taking the TOEFL because it is important to meeting their goals. Good marks on the test will open many doors. But a low test score will limit your choices for financial aid and admission to top schools.
The most competitive universities generally expect an internet-based test, or iBT score of 90 or above. Others accept lower scores, and some do not require students to take the TOEFL at all.
Most universities do not publicize an actual cutoff score, but a high mark will always help.
Who should take the TOEFL?
Many students study for the TOEFL test before they are ready. You should have completed at least upper intermediate level English classes before you take the test.
If you scored below 70 on the iBT or 500 on the paper-based test, or PBT, it is wise to continue studying for a few months and come back to the TOEFL later.
Taking the paper or internet test?
Let’s take a closer look at the two major versions of the TOEFL.
The iBT is offered in most of the world and accepted by nearly every college and university, as well as scholarship program, in the United States.
The PBT is given in places where the internet is not widely available. The content of the PBT was changed in 2017; as a result, its line of questioning is now similar to that of the iBT.
Both the iBT and PBT have integrated tasks. That means questions involving listening, reading, and writing are mixed together. The revised PBT costs less, around US$180, than the iBT; however, costs can differ from country to country - $215 in Brazil; $245 in France.
The PBT has three areas -- Reading, Listening, and Writing – and takes two hours and 50 minutes to complete. The iBT has four parts: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Including time spent on registration, the iBT test lasts four and one-half hours.
Test-takers spend 20 minutes answering six questions involving speech. Each question requires first reading or listening to English examples, then expressing one’s opinion by speaking.
If you have a choice, take the iBT, unless you are trying to cut down on costs.
Practice makes perfect
Plan when you will take the TOEFL. If possible, register to take the test, even if the date is several months from now. This will give you a good reason to study. Take a sample test online or from a test preparation book to find out where you need to improve the most.
Do you do well in reading, but not so well in listening? This will help you to plan your studies to develop the skills you need to get a better score.
How will you study?
The Educational Testing Service, ETS) website has a free online course to help you prepare for the TOEFL. There are also sample preparation questions and games on the ETS Facebook page, like the 40-Word Challenge.
You can buy books with a guide to the test and sample questions from ETS or other publishers. In addition to answering those questions, try to surround yourself with English. Listen every day to podcasts or stories on VOA’s Learning English website. Try taking notes on what you hear.
Watch movies where English is spoken and listen to music with English lyrics. Read English-language newspapers to keep up with new words that relate to current events and technology.
When will you study?
Experts say that you should study for at least two months before taking the test. But if your practice test score is more than 20 points below your goal, you may need to improve your overall English ability, and that may take years.
To get a good score, you need to set aside time to study, set goals, and measure your progress. Think of it as a school where you are the top administrator. As the chief, you can decide your plan of action: "I will practice the listening section every night this week.
Then I will take a listening sample test. If I am happy with my score, I will practice the speaking section every night next week." Be sure you build in rewards for improving your score, like taking a weekend off from study.
Where will you study overseas?
Did you know that TOEFL has a search service? It can help connect you with colleges, universities and other educational institutions, as well as postgraduate programs.
TOEFL will send you information about other study programs, admissions requirements, financial aid, fellowships and other educational opportunities. Choose the search service when you create or change your registration.
You can also find out which schools will accept the TOEFL score you earned on the ETS website.
What other tests can you take?
There are other large-scale testing programs to measure one’s English ability. See our story comparing the TOEFL with the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC, and the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS.
You may need to take another test to meet the rules for immigration or studying overseas, so look around to find out the requirements.
And, don't waste time studying for the TOEFL if you will not attend school or go overseas in the next two years. Remember: colleges will only accept the test score for up to two years.
The bottom line is, the best way to do well on the TOEFL is to know English well. Do not depend on informal advice or tricks. Do not try to outwit the test maker. Think of reading, listening, speaking, writing, and grammar as a single connected idea: communication.
The real goal of the test is to measure how well a student can communicate in an English-speaking classroom. Immerse yourself in English on a daily basis and improvement is sure to follow.