How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam

Preparing for the TOEFL exam? Learn about the TOEFL exam pattern and syllabus, and preparation tips for Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking tests.

By Dr Shyam Kumar

How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam

The test of English as a foreign language or TOEFL is a testing system to assess a non-native speaker for the following communication skills in academic English — Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing. A scale of 0 to 30 points is used to interpret the TOEFL test score for each of the four skills, with a total score of 120 points. The entire test duration is about 3 hours. Also, the test is conducted more than 50 times in a year.

Tips to prepare for the TOEFL exam

Ideally, the time required to prepare for TOEFL would depend on how confident you are about your English language skills. It is also important that you are aware of the TOEFL exam pattern and syllabus to plan your preparation well in advance of your scheduled test date.

However, to achieve your goals, relying on the various TOEFL preparation books or downloading online preparation courses are not enough. You need to take TOEFL practice tests to improve your fluency for the Speaking test, develop good listening skills and widen your academic vocabulary for the Reading and Writing sections.

How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam
TOEFL preparation tips

In this article, we give you detailed preparation tips to help you achieve a high score in the TOEFL exams. But before that, let us quickly read about the reasons for taking TOEFL and the types of TOEFL available.

Reasons for taking the TOEFL exam

  • You may need to appear for the TOEFL exam if you are planning to study abroad and gain admission to reputed international universities.
  • The TOEFL test scores are also accepted by Australian and New Zealand immigration authorities to issue certain visas such as post-study, skilled migration or business visas.

According to Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organisation that conducts TOEFL, more than 11,000 universities and institutions in over 150 countries consider TOEFL results to assess the language capabilities of students in an academic environment. These include the top universities in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Types of TOEFL

There are two types of TOEFL tests –

  1. Paper version (PBT - Paper-based Test): The paper-delivered TOEFL test is offered only in locations with limited or no Internet access.
  2. Online version (iBT - Internet-based Test): This is the main form of TOEFL as 98% of test-takers appear for the Internet-based test, also known as TOEFL iBT.

TOEFL exam pattern and syllabus

How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam
TOEFL exam pattern

Here, we will discuss the pattern and syllabus of the more popular Internet-based test or TOEFL iBT.

  • TOEFL tests you on the four skills of English language — Speaking, Reading, Writing and Listening.
  • All the components of the test take place on the same day, except for a 10-minute break between the Listening and Speaking sections.
  • Candidates will be provided a standard English language (QWERTY) computer keyboard for the test.
  • Both the Listening and Reading sections may include additional unscored questions for either Listening or Reading.
  • All the four sections use real academic content to test if the candidate can meet the actual English language requirements of a university.

The TOEFL syllabus, exam pattern and preparation tips for each of the sections are explained in detail below.

TOEFL Reading test

The test is designed for reading comprehension testing of candidates to assess their ability to understand academic reading content in English, e.g., passages from a textbook. The reading comprehension topics can be from any subject like physics, psychology or literature.

Exam pattern for TOEFL Reading

  • Typically, the TOEFL Reading section comprises three academic reading passages with 30 multiple choice questions with a time limit of 54 minutes.
  • In some cases, there may be a fourth passage as well for which you will need to answer 40 questions in 72 minutes.
  • For each passage, there are 10 questions which you will need to answer.

How to prepare for the TOEFL Reading test

How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam
TOEFL Reading tips

Here are some of the best tips to improve your TOEFL Reading score.

  • TOEFL Reading practice involves trying out as many sample questions as you can to get a feel of the types of tasks given in the TOEFL Reading section.
  • If your reading comprehension skills are good enough, you can practise quick reading methods such as scanning and skimming through the content so that you can identify the answers without losing time.
  • However, it is important to carefully read through the passage once to answer certain questions which will require understanding the context of the essay.
  • Try to answer the questions sequentially. If you are unable to answer any question, it is prudent to move on to the next question. You can always come back and attempt the skipped question while reviewing the answers.
  • For some test takers, reading the questions first and then reading the passage works well. It helps in spotting the answers quickly as you remember which portions of the passage need to be focussed upon.
  • For better reading comprehension, ensure that you develop a good vocabulary. Some questions will be on the meaning of certain words based on the context in the passage.
  • Try to continuously learn new words that you encounter in academic textbooks, and the synonyms for these words. A strong vocabulary is a must to understand the passages and answer the questions.
  • Practise time management skills as it is not easy to answer so many questions within the given time limit.

TOEFL Listening test

The TOEFL Listening section is designed to assess the ability of a candidate to understand the English language as it is spoken in an academic setting such as a university classroom or campus. 

There are two parts in the Listening test:

  • Part 1 – Two lectures and one conversation
  • Part 2 – One lecture and one conversation

Exam pattern for TOEFL Listening

  • There are five listening passages in the TOEFL Listening section. Out of these three are academic talks, and two are campus conversations. 
  • Occasionally, there may be up to seven listening passages.
  • The time limit for five passages is 41 minutes and for seven passages is 57 minutes.
  • The academic lectures have six questions each, whereas the campus conversations have five questions each.
  • Questions will be on the screen as well as in audio format for which you need to have headphones on during the test.
  • Each question needs to be answered one after the other.

How to prepare for the TOEFL listening test

How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam
TOEFL Listening tips

Here are some valuable TOEFL listening practice tips to score high in the Listening section:

  • Improve your listening skills. Listen to all kind of audios — podcasts, documentaries or television shows to get a feel of the different accents you can expect in the Listening section.
  • Practise listening to audios in a slightly noisy environment and focus on not getting distracted by the activities around you. This will be useful in a real test situation with a lot of candidates taking the test in the same room as you.
  • While listening to the passages, try to anticipate the type of questions that are going to be asked, especially the main idea, the structure of the topic and the conclusion. Focus more on these portions.
  • Practise taking notes quickly as the audio plays in the background. The notes are for your reference alone. You can refer to these while answering the questions.
  • Timing your practice tests is very important. You need to practise answering the questions quickly as there is very limited time to answer each question.
  • Learn more and more words to strengthen your vocabulary.

TOEFL Writing test

The TOEFL Writing section is designed to assess a candidate’s ability to write grammatically correct sentences in English and presenting the points clearly.

There are two tasks in this section:

  • Task 1 — Integrated writing task
  • Task 2 — Independent writing task

Exam pattern for TOEFL Writing

  • Task 1 or the integrated writing task involves reading a short passage and listening to a short lecture.
  • The response will be based on both the activities, reading and listening, and the word limit is 150 words with a time limit of 20 minutes.
  • Task 2 or the independent writing task involves writing an essay in response to a given topic such as the environment, education, business or social issues.
  • The essay will be based on your own ideas and personal experience and must be limited to 300 words with a time limit of 30 minutes.
  • Your responses must be typed on the computer using a QWERTY keyboard.

How to prepare for the TOEFL Writing test

How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam
TOEFL Writing tips

Here are some tips on how to go about the TOEFL Writing section:

  • Focus rigorously on TOEFL Writing practice. This will help you finish both the tasks in the prescribed word limits and time limits. If you spend too much time on task 1, obviously you will be under pressure during task 2.
  • Before beginning your essay, take a minute to think about what you are going to write and prepare an outline of your response.
  • Express your ideas clearly in your own words. Use appropriate connecting words and transitional phrases to prepare your essay.
  • For the integrated writing task, go through multiple TOEFL writing samples and topics available online to understand how to build your responses by comparing the passage with the audio lecture.
  • Practise taking notes as you will need to jot down the points during the listening portion of task 1.
  • For the independent writing task, structure your essay carefully with an opening paragraph, the main paragraph and the conclusion. It should state your viewpoint, the reasons for supporting this view, and a summary of the essay.
  • Study from various sample essays and TOEFL Writing topics to get a feel of what to expect in the actual TOEFL exam.
  • During the exam, set aside a minute or two at the end of each section for editing and reviewing both your essays.

TOEFL Speaking test

The TOEFL speaking test is designed to test your ability to speak and communicate effectively in English in an academic setting.

There are four tasks in the TOEFL Speaking section:

  • Task 1 — Independent speaking task
  • Tasks 2, 3 and 4 — Integrated speaking tasks

Exam pattern for TOEFL Speaking

  • The Speaking test consists of four tasks and the duration is 17 minutes.
  • The independent speaking task consists of one task. You will be given a familiar topic and asked to verbally summarise the information presented. You will need to speak based on your own ideas, opinions or beliefs about a given social issue.
  • For this task, you get 15 seconds to prepare your answer, and 45 seconds to speak.
  • The integrated speaking tasks section consists of three tasks.
  • In this section, the first question will be related to a campus situation and the second question related to an academic topic. There will be a passage to read followed by an audio lecture.
  • In the third task, you only need to listen to a lecture. There is no passage to read.
  • You get 30 seconds to prepare your answer for the first two tasks and 20 seconds for the third task.
  • For all three questions of task 2, you get 60 seconds each to speak your response.
  • Your responses need to be spoken into the headset microphone which will be recorded and sent for evaluation to ETS.

How to prepare for the TOEFL Speaking test

How To Prepare For TOEFL Exam
TOEFL Speaking tips

Here are some important tips to help raise your TOEFL Speaking score:

  • Prepare a list of topics to speak on for your TOEFL Speaking practice. Practice, practice, and more practice is the only solution to improve your speaking ability, pronunciation and vocabulary.
  • Watching a lot of English movies or listening to podcasts or news alone will not help. Practise speaking with a native English speaker if you know someone or whenever you get the chance to speak in English.
  • Record while you are practising speech and playback the recording to understand your weaknesses relating to vocabulary, grammar, fluency and pronunciation.
  • Go through various TOEFL Speaking topics that are available online or in TOEFL preparation books. Get an idea about the kind of TOEFL speaking questions asked in the actual exam.
  • Practise speaking clearly and coherently about the opinion you want to convey. Since you get hardly a minute to speak your response, it is important to practise timing your answer.
  • For the first two questions of task 2, swift note-taking is important since you will be listening to an audio after reading a passage related to the same topic. Quickly jot down the main points as you will not be able to listen to the audio again.
  • Give an answer which is complete and logical enough yet easy to explain with one or two supporting points. Remember, you only have about a minute to speak your responses.
  • Focus intently on your computer and cut out all distractions. The exam room can become quite noisy with all the candidates speaking into their microphones during the test.

With hard work and diligence, it is possible for you to crack the TOEFL exam. Be sure to make use of all the TOEFL preparation tips given above to ensure that you achieve a good score and fulfil your academic goals.

About the author:

Written by Dr Shyam Kumar on 7 April 2020

The author holds a degree in Homoeopathy with an MBA in Hospital Management and has worked across multiple disciplines including healthcare and technology. As a nature lover, he attended the world's first underwater CEO's conference to combat marine pollution.

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