An Introduction to the Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL)
If you’re reviewing the admissions requirements at most colleges, you’re probably accustomed to the many acronyms you encounter along the way. There’s the FAFSA, the SAT, the ACT, and the CSS profile. There’s your GPA, and the difference between EA and ED. It’s enough to make your head spin.
If English isn’t your first language, you should also know about one last important acronym: the TOEFL. The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is one of two commonly accepted standardized tests that measures the ability of non-native English speakers to use and understand the English language as it is heard, spoken, read and written in the university classroom.
A trademark of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a private non-profit organization that designs and administers the tests, TOEFL is accepted by many English-speaking academic institutions as a measure of your readiness to undertake college level work in the English language.
In this post, we’ll give an overview of the TOEFL, including its format and content, along with other important information you should know if you’re considering taking it. Read on to learn everything you need to know about the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Who Should Take the TOEFL?
The precise requirements regarding who is required to take the TOEFL vary from college to college. Commonly, international students who have not studied for a minimum amount of time in an English-speaking school are required to submit a test showing their proficiency in college-level work in the English language.
Many schools will waive their requirement if you have attended school in the States for a number of years or have achieved a high verbal SAT score. For specific requirements about which schools require a TOEFL, check the individual school’s website.
When is the TOEFL Administered?
Like other standardized tests, the TOEFL is administered on fixed dates throughout the year. Unlike the SAT or ACT, though, it is offered frequently—more than 50 times each year. The exact dates it is offered vary by location, so you will need to first locate your closest test center before finding a test date that works for you.
What Skills Are Tested by the TOEFL?
The TOEFL is designed to assess your ability to complete college-level work in the English language. It specifically assesses your listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. In addition, it assesses your ability to combine these skills. Common tasks that combine these skills include listening and then speaking in response to a question, or reading, listening, and then writing in response to a question.
What Is the Format of the TOEFL?
The TOEFL is currently undergoing the transition to an Internet-based test (iBT). The TOEFL iBT is the most common version of the test, while the TOEFL Paper Based Test (PBT) is now only available at testing centers without Internet access. Both the TOEFL iBT and the TOEFL PBT test the same skills.
The TOEFL iBT consists of four test sections that coincide with the four skills it intends to assess.
TOEFL Reading Section:
The TOEFL reading section consists of 36-56 questions and lasts between 60-80 minutes. In this section, you will read 3 or 4 passages from academic texts and answer questions about what you’ve read.
The readings will be excerpts from university-level textbooks that would be used in introductions to a particular topic. They cover a variety of different subject matter, but are always introductory in nature. No pre-existing knowledge is assumed or required, so all the information you need to answer the questions will be included in the passage.
TOEFL Listening Section:
The listening section of the TOEFL consists of 34-51 questions and lasts between 60-90 minutes. In this section, you will listen to lectures, classroom discussions, and conversations, and then answer questions about them.
Questions in the listening section will be about academic lectures and longer conversations in which the speech sounds very natural. You might hear a variety of English accents to reflect various English-speaking countries, but the pronunciation will always be clear. You can take notes on any audio material throughout the entire test, including the listening section.
After you’ve completed the first two sections of the TOEFL, you will have a ten-minute break. You should use this time to visit the restroom, have a drink of water, and eat a quick, nutritious snack. You might also want to stretch a little or get your muscles moving. Aim to return for the remainder of the test feeling refreshed and ready to go.
TOEFL Speaking Section:
The speaking section of the TOEFL consists of six tasks and lasts for 20 minutes. In this section, you will be asked to express an opinion on a familiar topic and to speak based on reading and listening tasks.
The first two questions in the speaking section are referred to as “independent speaking tasks”. These require you to draw entirely on your own ideas, opinions, and experiences when you respond. There is no right or wrong answer; rather your response will be evaluated for your comprehension of the question and the cohesion and articulation of your response.
The last four questions in the speaking section are referred to as “integrated speaking tasks”. These questions require you to integrate your English-language skills—listening and speaking, or listening, reading, and speaking—just as you would in or out of a classroom. The prompts may ask you to summarize a conversation that you’ve just listened to, or to compare the points made in a text to points made in a sample lecture that you listen to.
As you take this section of the test, you will speak into the microphone on your headset and your responses will be recorded and sent to ETS, where they will be reviewed by certified scorers. To learn more about how the speaking section of the test is scored, review the Speaking Rubrics (Scoring Standards).
TOEFL Writing Section:
The writing section of the TOEFL includes two tasks that you’ll have 50 minutes to complete. In this section, you will write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks, and support an opinion in writing.
The first task is the integrated writing task. For this question, you’ll have 20 minutes to read a short passage and listen to a short lecture. You’ll then write a response to what you read and listened to.
The second task is the independent writing task. For this question, you’ll have 30 minutes to write an essay in response to an assigned writing topic.
You can review the Writing Rubrics (Scoring Standards) for more information about how this portion of your test will be scored.
How Is My TOEFL Scored?
The multiple-choice portions of your TOEFL are scored by a computer that scans your answer sheet for correct answers. The speaking and writing sections are sent to ETS and assessed by certified scorers using the official scoring rubrics.
In order to receive an official TOEFL score, you must answer at least one question each in the Reading and Listening sections, as well as write at least one essay, and complete at least one Speaking task.
For the TOEFL iBT test, you will receive four scaled section scores and a total score:
▪ Reading Section (Score of: 0–30)
▪ Listening Section (Score of: 0–30)
▪ Speaking Section (Score of: 0–30)
▪ Writing Section (Score of: 0–30)
▪ Total Score (0–120)
What Score Is Required to Pass the TOEFL?
More than 9,000 colleges, universities and agencies in 130 countries accept TOEFL scores. To learn more about which specific schools accept the TOEFL, see Who Accepts TOEFL Scores.
There is no official, uniform “passing” score on the TOEFL. Instead, each institution sets its own score requirements. You can start your score requirement research with the TOEFL® Destination Search and then contact the institution for more specific requirements.
Are There Testing Accommodations Available for Students With Disabilities?
Yes. ETS is committed to providing equal testing opportunities, and reasonable accommodations that are appropriate given the purpose of the test are allowed. To request accommodations, you will need to submit a formal request through ETS Disability Services.
Do not register for the test until you have received your approval. Be sure to allow plenty of time, as decisions can take up to six weeks.
How Much Does the TOEFL Cost?
The cost to take the TOEFL varies by location, but in general the test is one of the more expensive standardized tests. Usually, costs range from about $170-$300, and there is an additional fee for late registration or score reports beyond the included four free reports.
You may apply for a fee reduction if you have financial need. Instructions for doing so are available in the TOEFL Fee Reduction Service 2016-17 Guidelines and Procedures and the Fee Reduction Service Voucher Request Form.
Where Can I Find Free Study Materials for the TOEFL?
There are many online resources for free TOEFL study materials. Here are a few of our favorites:
TOEFL Interactive Sampler provides free unlimited access to past TOEFL iBT questions from all four sections of the test.
TOEFL iBT Test Questions provide a free set of TOEFL iBT® questions used in previous tests.
TOEFL Test Prep Planner provides an eight-week plan to prepare for the TOEFL test, but some of the references it recommends are paid services.
TOEFL iBT Quick Prep is a free practice tool with real TOEFL iBT questions from past tests. Each Quick Prep volume includes questions from all four sections of the test.
If you’re a non-native English speaker considering attending an English-speaking college or university, the TOEFL will likely be one of your first tickets to admissions success.
For more information about attending a college or university in America as an international or first-generation student, check out these CollegeVine posts:
- The American College Admissions Process Made Easy: a Guide for International Students
- U.S. College Scholarships for International Students
- A Guide to the Citizenship Section of the Common App (Can I Still Get Into College if I’m Undocumented?)
- How Does Being A First-Generation College Student Affect My Application?
- Will I Fit In at College as a First-Generation Student?
Want more tips on improving your academic profile?
We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.