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TOEFL strategies for a top score

Katie Schenk - August 24, 2017

TOEFL strategies top score

Most international graduate programmes require applicants to take a test of English proficiency as part of their application. Not all do, mind you; some universities that prefer to deduce your English level through the GMAT or GRE, your essays, or interviews.

Generally speaking, if English isn’t your mother tongue, you haven’t completed your undergrad in English, or you live in a country where English is not an official language, you’re going to have to take one test or another. (Alternatively, you may be able to apply for an exemption.)

There are plenty of different English tests available, and every school has their preferences and minimum score requirements, so you need to do your research before you begin intensively studying for the wrong exam or with a target score that won’t enable you to apply to your top programmes.

For many (but, again, not all), that means the TOEFL exam: the Test of English as a Foreign Language as proctored by ETS.

Understanding TOEFL scoring

Most schools accept (and even prefer) the internet-based TOEFL exam, though there is a paper-based version available for applicants from areas where the internet is not as stable, or the testing facilities simply don’t allow for the internet-based exam. Previously, the paper and internet-based tests were scored differently. However, the structure has been changed so that scores now fall on the same scale.

  • Reading: 0-30
  • Listening: 0-30
  • Speaking: 0-30
  • Writing: 0-30
  • Total: 0-120

To understand how your score is calculated, it’s important to get an idea of how each section is tested.

Reading (60-80 minutes). You will be asked to read three to four passages; each one will be followed by 12 to 14 questions. If you were to have exactly 30 questions, then each question would be worth exactly one point on the scoring. However, you may have 48 questions which means each response is worth less than a point towards your final score.

According to the ETS:

There are three question formats in the Reading section:

  • Questions with four choices and a single answer in traditional multiple-choice format
  • Questions with four choices and a single answer that ask you to “insert a sentence” where it fits best in a passage
  • “Reading to learn” questions with more than four choices and more than one correct answer.

Listening (60-90 minutes). You will hear four to six different lectures; each one will have six different questions. You will also hear two to three conversations, each one is followed by five questions. That means you could have as many as 51 questions, though the maximum score is still only 30. That doesn’t mean you will achieve a top score when you have 30 correct answers; the amount of points each question is worth will be reduced according to the number of questions – just as with the reading section.

The ETS says:

Most of the questions that follow the lectures and conversations are traditional multiple-choice questions with four answer choices and a single correct answer. There are, however, some other types of questions:

  • Multiple-choice questions with more than one answer (for example: two answers out of four or more choices)
  • Questions that require you to put in order events or steps in a process
  • Questions that require you to match objects or text to categories in a table.

After a short break, you’ll move into the (often trickier) second part of the exam.

Speaking (20 minutes). There are six different tasks in this section; two independent questions and four integrated questions. Some questions don’t have right or wrong answers and, of course, there are many ways to say the same thing in any language, so scoring is a little different for the speaking section. Four different areas are tested for each question, and given a mark between zero and four. The four areas examiners are required to mark are: general description, delivery, language use, and topic development. Luckily, ETS provides a speaking rubric so you can understand how you’ll be scored on each speaking section.

You’ll be asked to speak about these topics:

  • A personal preference
  • A choice
  • Campus situations (both where you explain the opinion of another person and express your own)
  • Academic courses (both where you explain the opinion of another person and express your own)

Writing (50 minutes). You’ll be asked to write one independent piece and one integrated one. As with speaking, there isn’t always a right or wrong, nor will you be expected to find exactly the right word if you can describe or get to the desired meaning. As such, turning to the writing rubric will help you to understand the aims included under the marks of zero through five.

There are two different prompts that you will need to respond to:

  • An integrated piece (where you will read something, then hear a speaker with a different opinion, and then be asked to write a response).
  • An independent piece (where you will need to be able to give your opinion on a topic based on your own experiences or viewpoints).

Of course, knowing how you’ll be scored is only the first step. You’ll need to hit your target to achieve the international education you want. And that, of course, takes plenty of practice - and a few tips to help you achieve your best score.

TOEFL reading section tips

As pointed out by the ETS, the best way to prepare for the reading section of the exam is to, well, read. Reading the Prodigy Finance blog is a good start, but you should be reading as much as you can – every day – in English.

To increase comprehension and vocabulary, literary and scholarly works, as well as current events (news) is best. Consider reading books recommended by Lexile according to your target score. But, remember that the pieces you’ll be asked to read for the exam will be significantly shorter.

Ensure you know exactly what you’re being asked before answering each question. You’ll find help in the format of the text itself:

  • The title and sub-headings usually provide clues to the main points and ideas.
  • Every paragraph has a main idea; find the main idea in each paragraph before looking for the details.
  • Be sure you know whether there is a single point of view or different opinions expressed; if there are two or more sides to the story, learn to quickly summarise each one so you don’t answer according to the wrong perspective.

Don’t underestimate the importance of vocabulary in the reading section; the larger your personal word bank is, the faster you will be able to read each passage, offering you more time for critical thinking and response. Best My Test offers a comprehensive vocabulary list of TOEFL-level words. There are free flashcard apps that can be accessed from your computer or Smartphone to help you build your vocabulary; Anki and StudyBlue are two often-recommended platforms by language learners.

TOEFL listening section tips

As with reading, listening requires you to spend time engaged in hearing as much English as you can. That means watching television and listening to radio programmes. Fortunately, the internet has so many of these resources available that you may never need to pay extra to access these types of materials.

Some of the best resources for free listening can be found on NPR (American accents) or the BBC’s Learning English page (British accents). Remember that you will hear at least one passage with a British or Australian accent during the exam; you will want to ensure you vary your listening sources.

And, there are a few practical tips too:

  • Reading the questions (and ensuring you’re following instructions) before you hear the passages will help you to identify keywords when listening.
  • Pay attention to conjunctions (because, but, and, however) and similar words as these will assist you to predict where the conversation will go.
  • The tone and attitude of a passage will tell you almost as much as the words themselves; are the speakers happy or angry? Do they have questions or answers?
  • Remember that you never need to know every word as long as you can deduce the meaning; focus less on the words for specific topics and more on the vocabulary that you’re likely to hear frequently.

TOEFL speaking section tips

For many test-takers, the speaking section is the most difficult – especially if they live in an area where English is rarely heard or spoken. But, just because you may not a multitude of English-speaking friends or family to speak to, it doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself for these sections.

Consider the questions you’ll be asked and practice speaking to yourself on these types of topics. Talk about what you did yesterday or what you’ll do tomorrow. Read articles and attempt to summarise them verbally in less than a minute. You should also be able to provide directions, offer opinions, and describe problems.

English, as you well know, has some of the strangest pronunciation rules – and the pronunciation often varies between British and American versions of the language. You may want to spend time listening to native speakers pronouncing specific words so you can be certain you’re saying them correctly. The Cambridge online dictionary provides both American and British pronunciations (as well as handy synonym and idiom tools).

And, remember contractions (isn’t instead of is not) and idioms (it takes two to tango); these will automatically boost your score as this is how English native speakers communicate.

Record yourself speaking freely and reading passages so you can replay them to uncover areas where you might be able to improve on some of all of these areas. And, of course, never pass up an opportunity to speak English (no matter how shy you may be in front of some people).

TOEFL writing section tips

Correct written English is very different than the conversational English you probably have the most exposure to; that can make it difficult for even advanced English speakers. You may be able to think in English, but when you’re writing, there are other rules you must apply.

As with anything, you will need to practice writing. But, you should also practice editing too; once you’ve written something, you should go back to apply the rules. That means looking for correct punctuation and spelling. It also means checking verb conjugations and whether they are consistently in the same tense(s) throughout the piece. And, you don’t want to miss critical fillers and adjective placement. You may go over the same paragraph a dozen times to ensure you’ve gotten it right, but this preparation will pay off.

Summarise as many different texts as you can in preparation – and don’t be afraid to write about your personal activities as often as possible.

The best tip for every section is to read through the information provided by ETS on their Test Prep Planner. This guide is available for free – and although it points to some paid resources, there offer many free-to-use resources that you don’t want to be without.

Where can you find TOEFL study resources?

There are many, many TOEFL resources available online, as well as books you can work through offline.

Free practice tests are available at:

If you’re looking for inspiration to keep you studying - as well as refresh a few grammar skills you may have forgotten, the TOEFL Go Anywhere Blog is filled with both and offers a variety of additional test-taking tips.

And, the best free study resource is available in a course format on edX. The TOEFL Test Preparation: The Insider’s Guide course was produced by ETS and can be worked through at your own speed.

If you’ve given yourself enough time to work through the course as well as the Test Prep Planner, you may want to check out the paid ETS resources; not everyone needs them, but they’re one of the best ways to ensure you can put your best foot forward. 


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