A Beginners Guide to TOEFL

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

Do you start feeling anxious when you think about your TOEFL exam?

You and everyone else.

The good news here is that everyone else taking the exam is probably feeling the exact same way. You can make a great difference in your score by maximizing your potential before and during the actual exam. Maximizing your potential means that you’ll be totally prepared and ready to do your best.

Sounds pretty great, right?

Here’s how you can make this happen!

This blog is intended to provide readers with a complete overview about what to expect in their upcoming TOEFL Test, learn about how to best prepare for the test, and hopefully gain some tips and tricks for obtaining your best score possible 😊

Let’s start with the basics, and understand what the TOEFL Test really is by answering some questions.

1. What is TOEFL and what is it intended to test?

ANS: TOEFL is an English proficiency test that many schools use as a measure to test the spoken English of International Students. The test measures the ability of non-native English speakers to use and understand English as it is read, written, heard and spoken in the university classroom. For many programs, TOEFL can be an important requirement, and most schools do have a ‘cut-off score’ or a ‘minimum score’ that you are required to obtain before you can even be considered for an admission into their program.

For us dentists, not only do we need to surpass a ‘minimum score’ (Minimum score required varies depending on the school and program), but it is always a good idea to aim for a ‘good score’. This is because, the Advanced Standing Program, as we all know, is an incredibly competitive program. In order to be considered a top tier candidate, you will need a good TOEFL score, along with a solid application and personal statement. Not only is the cumulative score important, but many schools do have a minimum ‘cut-off’ for the individual sections as well (Reading, Listening, Speaking, writing scores) which need to be satisfied in order to be considered. Aside from the Advanced Standing Application itself (CAAPID), some preceptorship and observership programs also require you to take the TOEFL Test, and surpass the minimum score requirement. The TOEFL test has a maximum score of 120, and a good TOEFL score is generally considered to be 105 or above.

2.) What is the TOEFL test format?

ANS: The TOEFL iBT test has four sections and is taken on a computer at secure, authorized test centers.

Section Time Number of questions Overview

Reading 54—72 minutes 30—40 questions Read passages, then respond to


Listening 41—57 minutes 28—39 questions Listen to lectures or a classroom

discussion, then respond to questions

BREAK 10 minutes

Speaking 17 minutes 4 tasks Speak a microphone about

familiar topics and discuss material

you read about and listened to

Writing 50 minutes 2 tasks Read a passage, listen to a recording

and then type your written response

3.) TOEFL Test Scores

· Score requirements are set by individual colleges and universities.

· You’ll receive a score from 0 to 30 for each section and a total score of 0 to 120 for the entire test. Scores are valid for two years after your test date.

· You can try for a better score as many times as you’d like—there are unlimited retakes. (You just cannot take the test more than once in a 3-day period.)

· MyBest scores combine your best scores for each section from all of your valid scores in the last 2 years, so you can show schools your best performance. (Caution: Not all schools and programs accept ‘MyBest score. Please check with your program and school for a confirmation’

Accessing and Sending Your Scores

· At the end of your test, you will see your unofficial scores for the Reading and Listening sections, to help you make a well-informed decision about reporting your scores.

· Your official scores for all 4 sections of the test will be ready in approximately 6 days, and you can view them easily online.

· You can download a PDF copy of your score report from your account within 8 days after the test). A paper score report will be mailed to you within 11 days after the test, if you select that option when you register.

· Scores are sent free to up to four institutions that you select prior to test day.

· All score reports automatically include MyBest scores.

4.) How do I book my TOEFL Test?


· Registration is available five to six months prior to the test date. You can register online up to 2 days before a test date. However, I would recommend you to register early to reserve your seat. Plus, look for convenient afternoon sessions that have been added to select test dates.

· The test fee depends on the location where you will be taking the test.

· Registering online or through the TOEFL official app are the easiest methods.

5.) What resources can I use for my preparation?


· The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test: I highly recommend this guide! The book comes with a detailed explanation of each section and how to tackle it, as well as 4 full length practice tests.

· There are plenty of paid resources available on the ETS website catered specifically to different sections.

· TOEFL Go: Official app

· TOEFL Noteful

· YouTube videos: Sounds underrated, but definitely helped me

Now that we have the basics out of the way, lets talk about some tips and tricks that will allow you to achieve your best score. These are some tips that I devised after personally taking the test twice! They helped me achieve a good score, and I hope they can do the same for you 😊

Tips to achieve a great TOEFL Score:

1. Practice, Practice and Then Practice Some More

There’s no way around it, the more you practice, the higher you will score!

Don’t take the test too soon. If you can afford to postpone the test for a few more months, you will gain more time to prepare. Do not sign up until you feel 99% ready. This means you will probably score higher. But be careful: You must make a commitment to yourself to use the extra time to study intensively or you may forget what you learned.

Make a study plan and stick to it. Try to start off with a full-blown practice test in order to gauge your strengths, weaknesses, and accordingly plan the rest of your studying. See how many practice tests and resources you can get access to, and make a plan. You should regularly take practice tests. Try to take one every week or every two weeks (If you have that kind of time). Remember the questions that you most often get wrong, and practice those areas of English. Spend the rest of your time improving your general level of English. If you don’t have access to as many practice tests as you’d like, you can create your own.

Pretend you are taking the exam. Save seven practice tests for the week before the exam. Wake up every day like you would on the day of the actual exam and pretend it’s the real thing. Take a full test every day, in exam conditions, and try to imagine you are at the exam. No dictionary, no phone, no help. Time yourself and stop when the time has ended. You will probably feel quite nervous, but that is a good thing! Overcoming nerves is something you need to do. Once you learn how to control your own level of stress, chances are good that the actual exam will seem just like another practice session. You will feel more familiar with the situation, and you will probably feel more confident and prepared. Remember, this is all depending on the amount of time you actually have before the exam. Customise it according to how much time you have at hand prior to test day. Many of us have a week or two prior to taking the test and accordingly we need to schedule our practice tests daily, or every other day.

Have a teacher or friend help with speaking and writing. You’ll probably be able to do reading and listening practice by yourself, but you are going to need someone to read your writing samples and listen to your speaking. You need some feedback. Ideally, this person should be a teacher or native speaker of English, but anyone who can speak good English can help you.

2. Instructions

All tests are created equal in terms of difficulty and what you have to do. You are going to read the same directions on every TOEFL test you take. These directions tell you what task you have to do (reading, writing, answering questions) and how much time you have to do that task.

If you do a lot of practice tests, you will not need to read the directions anymore. This means you can read them very quickly, click the CONTINUE button as soon as it appears and use this extra time on the questions. Extra time to read, think and answer questions is always good!

When you take practice tests, read the directions carefully. Try to remember the directions for each section. When you take the real test, read the directions of every section again quickly to make sure that you know what to do.

Make sure you follow directions and prove that you understand them. In the speaking test, whenever you are told to “use reasons and examples to support your response,” make sure you include specific reasons and examples! For every main point you make, you should present at least one reason and one example to support it.

Also, don’t forget that this is a language test, so you cannot just use the same words from the task directions. You must show that you know a variety of English words. Do not use the words “reasons” and “examples” repetitively in your writing, as this can sound annoying to the listener. Try to prove you have a wide range of vocabulary by using lots of synonyms. For example:

“My first point is__________. One of the arguments for this is __________. To illustrate this idea, let me __________.”

“Another point that I’d like to make is__________and here’s why: __________. In other words, __________.”

“Last but not least, __________. It is for this reason that I think__________. For instance, __________”

3. Time Is not the Enemy

Time is not the enemy…if you know how to use it. Keep one eye on the title and directions on your computer screen, but focus on the questions. Don’t waste time on minor issues, like one specific word you don’t know or can’t remember. If this is just one question, it is better to guess the answer than waste 5 valuable minutes thinking about it.

Just think about how many correct answers you can get in 5 minutes. You can go more quickly through easier questions, gaining you more points.

If you are taking the test online, work on your typing skills. Start doing this well in advance of the test so you can maximize your writing time. If you do a lot of practice tests while timing yourself, you will see that the time you are given is just about the right amount of time.

4. Focus on Grammar and Vocabulary

Don’t forget that this is a test of how much English you know. All languages are, in the end, about words (vocabulary) and how you connect those words (grammar). You need to prove your knowledge of English is at the right level for you to pass the test. How do you that?

Learn a few new words and expressions every day. Make your own sentences with them. If you just try to memorize them without using them in context, your memorization won’t work. You have to practice new words so they become a part of your active vocabulary. Your active vocabulary are all the words you can remember and use easily. This means you’ll be able to use them in speaking and writing without thinking too much. Prove you learned those words. Try to include them in your speaking and writing practice.

For those of you who are not native speakers of English, and have a good amount of time prior to taking the test, a great technique I would recommend is ‘The Active learning technique’. This is a technique which can contribute to 25-30% of success in learning any language well. Read a passage from a book, an American textbook, or an article from a magazine, and translate every single word in it. Then, read through the passage again and again (3-4 times), and refer to your translation. Try to understand the meaning of every word, of every sentence. Do this every day for about 3-4 months, and you will notice a vast improvement in your understanding of the English language.

Most important: Only use words you absolutely know. On the exam, avoid using words you are not sure about. You will not be penalized for using lackluster words; however, you will lose points if you use a complex word, in a wrong manner. Steer clear of complex words that you do not know. This is not the test to show off your impressive English. They just want to know that you know the basic level of English.

5. Take Good Notes

Practice note-taking when reading and listening in your spare time. You can do this while relaxing with an article in your favorite magazine or a documentary. You can also work with more exam-like texts and academic lectures. Write down information using key words (the most important words) and symbols to save time.

You don’t need to write down everything word-for-word. You won’t be able to do that because there is not enough time. Writing full sentences will take you a very long time.

Try to develop your own note-taking style to help you save time. For example, listen to the following passage:

The study is the latest to suggest that snakes evolved from land lizards that lost their limbs while adapting to a slithery, subterranean lifestyle. Another theory posits that today’s snakes descended from marine reptiles—with a svelte body and lack of legs serving as adaptations to move through a watery home.

You may choose to take the following notes, by keeping only the key words and using arrows as helpful symbols. You may also use numbers to show the number of main ideas:

snakes <— lizards, no limbs

snakes <— reptiles, svelte body, no legs

6. Reading and Listening

Personally, these were the two sections I struggled with the most. Being a dental student, it had been awhile since I had been subjected to any ‘reading based exam’. I think most of us here would be in a similar boat. And let me tell you, the reading section is not a piece of cake. Now, if you’re someone who does come from a verbal or reading background (If you’ve taken the GRE), this test will definitely be easier for you. However, for the rest of us, please do not take this lightly.

With my experience of having taken this test, I have found some tips and tricks to help you get through the reading and writing section, and get a good score! I would encourage you to incorporate these tricks during practice tests so that they become familiar to you during the actual test. It will also help you to answer questions more efficiently, given that you are racing against that clock!

Tip: Every reading passage will have around 4-7 paragraphs. However, the tip to understand is, the questions asked in the reading section, also follow the order of the paragraphs! If I had known this earlier on, it would’ve saved me so much time on my actual test, where I personally found myself struggling with time! Instead of actually reading the entire passage word for word, my advice is to start with the questions, and then go and find the answer in the text.

For e.g. Question no 1 of the reading passage of the TOEFL Test, will almost always be found in the very first paragraph. So, if the question is something like ‘What has recent research on Peruvian Puff Peppers found?’

Look for the key words.

The key words here will be ‘recent research’ and ‘Peruvian Puff Peppers’, with the subject of the sentence being ‘Peruvian Puff Peppers’. Now, with this being the first question, you should instinctively know that the answer will be found in the first paragraph of the passage. Accordingly, go back to the first paragraph of the passage, and skim through it until you find the word ‘Peruvian Puff Pepper’. Next, read the sentence containing the key word, along with one sentence before, and one sentence after. 90% of the time, you will find the answer here. In the rare 10% of situations, if you do not find the answer here, you will need to read one more sentence, before and after, in order to find your answer. And there you have it. In less than 10 seconds, you can answer your first question! This technique is such a time saving technique, that prevents you from spending quality time going through the entire passage.

I understand this concept might be foreign to some of you, however I’d encourage you to give this method a try and see if it does improve your efficiency. At the end of the day, we want to be able to answer the greatest number of questions correctly.

7. Speaking and Writing

To practice speaking and writing you are going to need a partner to work with, ideally a teacher or a friend with good English skills.

But you don’t need a partner to be there for you all the time. You can practice speaking by recording yourself and then listening to yourself. You can read writing samples to see how your writing compares.

For speaking, everyone has an accent, even native English speakers. Don't worry about your accent, just focus on speaking clearly with good pronunciation.

For both the writing and the speaking sections, you will be given a prompt. For eg. ‘Which is your favorite vacation spot, and why?’

To tackle this, I would suggest you to spend 10-30 seconds writing down basic ideas. For the speaking section you will have less time (10 seconds), and for the writing section you will have more time (Roughly one minute).

For e.g. For the above prompt,

My favorite vacation destination:

· Paris

· Why? Beautiful city, many tourist attractions

· Tourist attractions: Louvre, Arc de Triomph, cafés, Champs Elysee

Organize your answer into three solid points. This will allow you to deliver a more structured and clear answer. Always structure your answer into an:

· Introduction

· Body

· Conclusion

For the writing section, ALWAYS try to aim for four- five paragraphs. This is the most effective way to get a great score on the writing section. This is one of the only tests where you should always try to exceed the word limit! If you have about 4-5 paragraphs in your essay, and no mistakes with respect to spelling or grammar, you can almost always be assured a 30/30 in the writing section 😊

With both speaking and writing, make sure your message is very clear. You can achieve clear writing by following these steps:

Decide on your main ideas. Do not change the focus of your writing after you start writing.

Make sure you understand the connection between your ideas. Are the ideas different from one another? Are they cause and effect? Are they part of a numerical list or series of steps?

Use discourse markers to signpost the main ideas and the connections between them. For example, you can use the following phrases:

To show contrast or difference: however, nevertheless, on the other hand

To show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, therefore

To show a numerical list or series of steps: firstly, secondly, finally

8. Work on Your Attitude

Everybody has exam nerves. Some level of stress is good because it can help you focus on your goals and motivate you.

But if you worry too much, you will not be able to prove your real English skill level in the exam. You will answer questions wrong or make mistakes because you are too nervous and not paying attention to the exam.

Remain calm and confident, and do not let that happen!

The good news is that if you simulate exam conditions by taking a lot of practice tests, you will be more relaxed in the exam.

Go to the real exam with confidence. Feel strong. Feel intelligent. Think about all the time you spent studying.

Don’t worry about the unfamiliar topics you may come across on the exam. This is not a general knowledge quiz, so you do not have to know about every topic or theme. This is a language test. You are not supposed to focus on your knowledge, opinions or ideas. You are supposed to focus on communicating clearly.

Now, let’s talk what you can expect on the actual test day!

TOEFL Test day tips:

What to bring: You must bring an acceptable, valid form of identification (ID). The name on your ID must exactly match the name you provided at registration. Also, be sure to re-check your Registration Confirmation the day before the test and bring it with you to the test center.

Checking in:

Arrive at the test center 30 minutes early.

If you’re late, you won’t be able to take the test!

You will have to:

1.) Show an ETS-approved form of identification that contains a photograph and signature.

2.) Provide handwriting and signature samples.

3.) Have your photo taken. This will be displayed at your computer station and embedded into your paper score report.

Your testing station: You will be assigned a seat a few minutes before your start time. No mobile phones or other personal items are allowed in the testing room. You will be provided with safe lockers to keep your phones and bags, with a key that will remain with you.

You can use the restroom at any time, just remember — the clock for your test does not stop (Except for the formally scheduled break time)

Keep in mind:

The test centers are generally cold. I would suggest you to wear comfortable clothes for the test, and preferably something that can keep you warm. Also, some of these test centers can have many people present, taking TOEFL, or other exams too! Some people might be in their speaking sections while you might be in another section. This can cause a lot of distraction and disturbance, especially if you do not anticipate this in advance. My advice would be to practice a few ‘practice TOEFL tests’ amidst some disturbance to get yourself acquainted with the similar environment of the test. Finally, if you’re someone who needs a glucose fix in between an exam, I would suggest you to bring a small, easy snack. A piece of fruit, a chocolate bar, or some biscuits would do the trick. You will have a fifteen-minute break after the first two sections (Reading and Listening) and before the next two sections (Speaking and Writing). This would be your time to use the washroom, take a sip of water, and eat that snack. Use this time wisely and qualitatively!

To sign off, I’d like to wish everyone taking TOEFL in the near future, all the very best! Take this as an opportunity to not only ‘practice English’, but also, perfect your language skills for life. I’m sure all of you will do amazing 😊

14 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
  • Facebook
  • Instagram

©2020 by Life Under The Oath.