How To Prepare for the TOEFL
Applying to colleges is never a simple process. There are applications to fill out, essays to write, and recommendations to collect. It’s enough to intimidate even the best prepared and organized of students.
But applying to college can be even more intimidating if English isn’t your first language. You’ll still need too complete everything that a native English speaker does to complete your profile as a competitive applicant. Beyond that, you may have to take an additional standardized test to show that you are prepared to undertake college-level work in the English language.
The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is one of two tests commonly accepted and sometimes required by colleges and universities in the United States. The purpose of the test is to measure the ability of non-native English speakers to use and understand the English language as it is heard, spoken, read and written in a college classroom.
The TOEFL is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the same company contracted by the CollegeBoard to administer the SAT. Each year, nearly a million students take the test, hoping to earn a place at an English-speaking college or university. The test is also sometimes used as an admission standard to private high schools or as an assessment for job-readiness.
Many colleges or universities require the TOEFL or a similar test to prove your English language skills if English is not your first language, but the exact requirements vary from college to college. Many schools waive their requirement if you have attended school in the United States for a minimum amount of time or have achieved a high verbal SAT score. For specific requirements about which schools require a TOEFL, you should check the individual school’s website.
In this post, we will outline the format and content of the TOEFL before moving on to our insider tips for the best, free TOEFL study resources available. With our top tips on how to prepare for the TOEFL, you’ll arrive for the test confident and receive a score that reflects the peak of your ability.
What Does the TOEFL Assess?
The TOEFL assesses your skills in four areas: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. During the test, you will also be asked to complete tasks that combine the application of these skills. For example, you might be asked to listen and then speak in response to a question about what you’ve heard, or read a written piece and then respond to it verbally.
What is the Format of the TOEFL?
There are four primary sections of the TOEFL, each corresponding to one of the key skills that the test aims to assess.
The Reading section comes first. It contains 36-56 questions that are based on three or four passages from academic texts. You will have 60-80 minutes to read the texts and respond to the corresponding questions about them.
The Listening section comes next. It is composed of 34-51 questions that are based on lectures, classroom discussions, and conversations you’ll listen to in the 60-90 minutes that you spend on this section.
After the Listening section, you will have a ten-minute break. During this time, you will have the chance to use the restroom, or have a drink and a snack.
Following your break, you will complete the Speaking section of the test. In this section you are given 20 minutes to complete six oral tasks. You will be asked to express an opinion on a familiar topic and give verbal answers in response to questions about reading and listening tasks.
Finally, you will take the Writing section of the test. In this section you will have 50 minutes to complete two tasks. For the first task, you’ll have 20 minutes to read a short passage, listen to a short lecture, and write a response to them. The second task will be a more open-ended essay for which you’ll have 30 minutes.
How to Prepare for the TOEFL
The best way to prepare for the TOEFL is by practicing your grasp of English, ideally in an academic context. You can practice your speaking skills by having conversations about current events or academic subjects with English speaking friends. You can read the newspaper or, if you’re still just getting started, try this list of great English learning sites from the New York Public Library.
Aside from the standard real world experience of practicing your skills with friends and family, there are a number of online resources that are either specifically designed for TOEFL prep, or are otherwise useful for that purpose. Here are our favorites:
Official ETS Resources
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.
There are also many paid resources from ETS, available on their website.
Podcasts are a great way to practice your English listening skills. The TOEFL Podcast provides some great tips for taking the exam.
If you’re looking for more authentic content, many top universities also have podcasts that post content similar to what you might expect on the listening section of the TOEFL. These will help you to become accustomed to hearing formal, academic discussions in the English language.
You can find podcasts from Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, and Yale, along with many other top universities.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
The Purdue Online Writing Lab is a great resource for preparing for the writing section of the TOEFL. It provides free resources to assist with writing, research, grammar and mechanics, and even has a section specifically devoted to ESL (English as a Second Language).
The ESL section of Purdue OWL includes valuable resources, such as this list of Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: The Basics and an overview of Key Concepts for Writing in North American Colleges.
TOEFL Resources Facebook Page
This independent site is rich in preparation materials, including links to free tutorials on Youtube, a step-by-step essay guide, and sample essays. While there are some services on the site that you will have to pay to access, there is a wealth of material available for no charge.
TOEFL EdX Course
EdX is known for providing free online courses in a variety of content. The TOEFL Test Preparation: The Insider’s Guide is produced by ETS, so you know that it’s accurate. This highly interactive course helps you understand what you can do to achieve your best TOEFL test score. Instructors guide you through each section of the test using archived test questions.
Specific information is given about how to register for the test, how it is scored, and how to prepare for test day. While there are discounted test prep offers included throughout the course, there are also many free resources.
ThoughtCo is a site that is committed to lifelong learning. It provides instructional materials in many subject areas ranging from science, tech, and math, to arts, music, and exploration. The ThoughtCo Free Online TOEFL Study Guides compilation is a comprehensive collection of free online study guides from a broad variety of sources.
This site includes specific links to grammar and structure, vocabulary, reading, and listening practice. It also includes general standardized test-taking tips, which can be easily forgotten when preparing for a specialized test like the TOEFL.
Of course, the amount of preparation that you’ll need to put into the TOEFL will depend on your existing English skills. Some students find that they can perform well on the test with only a few practice tests in the week or two leading up to it, while others find that they need to study and work extensively to perform well.
The bottom line is that any student who wants or needs to take the TOEFL should begin preparing about a month or two in advance, by taking an initial practice test to gauge their readiness. From that initial test, a comprehensive study plan can be created, using these resources to focus on your specific strengths and weaknesses.
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?
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