How to Ace the TOEFL iBT

The TOEFL iBT, pronounced as “toe-full,” is the internet-based version of the Test of English as a Foreign Language and it is taken on a computer in a dedicated test center. It is one of the most common standardized English-as-a-foreign-language tests that most, if not all, US high schools and colleges mandate from international students prior to admission. So, if you want to study in the US, whether it be for high school, undergraduate school, or graduate school, preparing for the TOEFL is a great starting point!

Learn and understand the format

First off, you should learn about the TOEFL format. It is 3 hours long and consists of 4 sections (in order): reading, listening, speaking, and writing. At the halfway point, between the listening and speaking sections, you will get a 10 minute break. Here’s the exact format, according to Educational Testing Service (ETS):

TOEFL exam format

It is a relatively long exam as it tests every aspect of your English capabilities and focus, which is why practice is key when it comes to the TOEFL (and honestly every other standardized test). Not only should you know what sections will be on the test, you should also familiarize yourself with the types of questions that will be asked. By no means do you have to memorize the questions on your practice exams, you should try to understand why the test is asking particular questions and how to answer them properly. If you’re able to truly understand the test and its format then the chances of acing the test will be higher.

Aim above the average score

Before starting your TOEFL journey, you should make a spreadsheet with all the schools that you are applying to (list them from most preferred to least preferred) and put each school’s TOEFL average into the adjacent column. A good rule of thumb is to aim for a TOEFL score that is higher than your top choice’s average score—this is now your goal.

The reading section 

For the reading section, you will have 54–72 minutes to answer 30–40 questions, meaning that you will have to allocate 1.8 minutes per question. You will be given a variety of reading passages that are approximately 700 words each and they will give you 10 questions for each passage. The different types of questions they ask include: factual information, inference and rhetorical, vocabulary, sentence simplification, and insert text. Make sure to familiarize yourself with every type of question and what they are specifically asking for. 

Some of the best ways to study for the reading section is to allocate 30 minutes of each day, maybe when you wake up in the morning, to read the news, blog articles, and stories in English. Try to read about a variety of topics, even the ones you’re not as familiar with or interested in, as it will expand your vocabulary and understanding of the written language. While you’re reading, search up the definitions of words that you do not know and write them down on some flashcards or a notebook so that you can look back at them. After every article, you should also ask yourself some applicable TOEFL questions like What did you read about? What is the main idea? and Who are the main characters? You can go through the article again to check if your answers are correct.

The listening section

During the exam, you will have 41–57 minutes to answer 28–39 questions about short lectures and classroom discussions, which means that you will have around 1.4 minutes per question. The different types of questions include: content/purpose, detail, function, attitude, organization, connecting content, and inference. This section imitates the real life experience of an international student studying in the US as you will have to sit in English-only lectures and listen to peers who will most likely communicate with you in English. So, it’s truly in your best interest to perfect this portion of the test. 

Listening can be a little difficult to practice especially if you don’t live in an English-speaking area. However, there are still many ways to get ahead in this particular section. For example, you can watch your favorite show or movie in English (try not to read the subtitles) or, even better, you can download educational podcasts and listen to them when you wake up, during your commute, while you’re cooking, or before going to sleep. As with reading, if there are any words that you did not know the meaning of, search up the definitions and write them down!

The speaking section

After the 10 minute break, you will start the loudest session of them all: speaking. This section is 17 minutes long with 4 different speaking prompts, meaning that you will have 4.25 minutes per prompt. The types of tasks include: independent and integrated. Everyone else will be starting the same section within the same room so you will hear everyone else answering their questions as well. However, anticipate that, do not panic, and try to block out what everyone else is saying so that you can focus on your own questions and answers. You also should not feel self conscious about your answers because no one else is really listening to what you’re saying as they’re all focusing on their own answers. 

The best way to study for the speaking section is to actually speak! Find native or fluent English speakers and try to practice with them as often as possible. If you really can’t find anyone who is relatively fluent in the language then you can try to find online communities to connect with and get on calls with. Either way, it is crucial for you to actually practice your ability to verbally communicate as you will have to be relatively good at speaking in English to be able to live in the US. Another way that you can passively practice your speaking skills is by creating sentence structures and saying them in your head. In the long run, this will help improve your speaking speed and flow.

The writing section

For this section, you will get 50 minutes in total for 2 writing exercises, which means that you will get 25 minutes to write each essay. Before you can write, you will have to read a passage or listen to a recording that is related to the topic at hand. The types of prompts include: independent and integrated.

To ace this section, you should practice writing in a timed environment often. The prompts are usually argumentative, meaning that they ask you to choose and defend your perspective. So, you need to learn how to take a stance and support your argument with three points of evidence. Your essay should be well structured with:

TOEFL Essay Structure

Start with topics that you feel more comfortable with defending and then move on to harder ones. You should always time yourself while practicing this section as it will help you learn how to pace yourself and when to quicken the pace or slow down. Moreover, you have to practice your grammar in order to do well as the test graders will be looking at how you structure your sentences and how often you make grammatical errors. In order to diversify your sentences, you should definitely learn a wide range of connecting verbs and how they’re individually used. This will help you to better transition from one sentence to the next.

Practice, practice, practice

The overall advice that you must take to heart is to practice as frequently as you can. Converse with friends, listen to podcasts, read the news, and write daily. You should also attempt the full test (yes, time yourself for the whole 3 hours) at least 5 times before the actual exam, in order to build up your endurance. As much as you want to take a shortcut, the only way to ace standardized tests such as the TOEFL is to practice constantly. Only hard work will get you to your dream score!

Some advice

You should book your exam date and prepare the right documents (and snacks as well as water for the break) ahead of time, so you won’t have to scramble the morning of. Make sure that you get enough sleep the night before, or else you won’t be able to focus and function properly. If you get enough sleep, you should feel refreshed the next day and be able to get to the test center at least 20 minutes before the scheduled exam time. By getting there early, you’ll have an easier time winding down and centering yourself before the 3 hour-long exam. Moreover, during the test, you should utilize the crap paper that is given to you. You can use it to jot down notes, especially during the speaking, listening, and writing sections. However, make sure that you are writing in concise bullet points and not full sentences as it’ll save you some time and make it easier to glance over and understand.

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