How to Prepare For the TOEFL: Top 13 Expert Tips for Success
So you've got your mind set on taking the TOEFL.
You dream of studying abroad, working abroad, getting a better job, being up for the challenge and taking over the world with your mad English skills!
But now is time to get ready for it, and we don't blame you if your palms have started getting somewhat sweaty.
Preparing for the TOEFL can be a daunting task.
What materials should you use? What should your priorities be? And what if you are way too nervous to get anything right?
Do not worry - we are here to help you craft a plan and prepare for the challenge!
These are the golden rules of preparing for your English language exam.
They help you get the right mindset for succeeding and provide some tips on how to get organized so you avoid feeling overwhelmed!
1.TOEFL iBT or Paper Test? Making a Decision.
Before preparing for your exam, the first thing you'll want to do is choose whether you will take the TOEFL in its computer version or the paper-delivered version. The only two options you have and their official names are the TOEFL iBT (Interned-based) and the Revised TOEFL Paper-delivered test, which has started being administered after July 2017.
It is important that you know that 98% of test-takers go for the computer-based test, and that this is the version most universities will require for a college application. That is because the computer-based test is more inclusive of all language skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking. The paper-delivered test, on the other hand, focuses only on three of those skills, excluding the speaking section.
For those reasons, the TOEFL paper-delivered test only exists in countries that do not have access to the computer-based version to begin with. That means you are very, very likely to have to take the computer-based exam, and you won't have a choice. Visit this page to select your country and know which versions of the TOEFL you are allowed to take.
Do not worry about the validity of your test - both versions will keep you certified for 2 years.
2. Check Your Dates...But Be Strategic.
Check the dates for the TOEFL in your country, but do not book the test immediately.
It is important that when you book your TOEFL exam you already feel confident about your English skills, because you will have to focus on the exam structure and the types of questions that might appear instead.
You might want to ask yourself these questions to know whether you are ready for the TOEFL:
- Are you comfortable with basic functions in English typically taught in A1 and A2 levels? For example, can you tell the time? Can you make plans with a friend? Can you explain a basic problem or make a complaint? Can you write an informal letter? Can you talk about complex numbers? If you still struggle with these basic tasks, you should reconsider taking the TOEFL.
- Can you talk and write about past, present and future with a wide variety of tenses? Can you do it without making mistakes? If you still can't, you should reconsider taking the TOEFL.
- Same with conditionals: are you familiar with all conditionals in English and can you use them almost effortlessly? If you can't, you should reconsider taking this exam.
- Can you picture yourself having both a pleasant conversation at a bistro with a college friend and a successful exchange at a job interview? If you can, great! That means you are familiar with formal and informal tone in English. However, if you can't, you should reconsider taking the test.
- If you feel 100% comfortable with everyday situations and materials, but struggle to understand academic articles, lectures and materials (such as charts), you should reconsider booking the test for now.
The bottomline? You have to be strategic.
Rather than wasting your time and resources on an exam you are still not ready for, start preparing for it before you even book it in the first place. When you have an idea about how frequent the exam is and what dates exist, you can start creating your study plan.
What this means is: start studying way before the exam. This is important because while preparing for the TOEFL, you will not only have to study the type of questions that could appear and how you should answer them, you will also have to focus on developing side skills that will allow you to succeed. These are key TOEFL skills such as:
- Scanning - Being able to read quickly in search of a particular piece of information, rather than having to read the entire text in detail and having to understand every single word to answer a question.
- Reading and listening for gist - Being able to read or listen only to get a general idea of what is being talked about, rather than focusing on every single detail.
- Reading and listening for detail - Being able to read or listen with care, in order to find a particular detail you need for an answer.
- Predicting - Being able to look at the questions before even reading or listening to the actual answers, so you can predict what kind of answer you need and should expect. For example, looking at a sentence with a gap and predicting what kind of word is likely to belong.
- Planning your texts - Being able to quickly come up with relevant points (regardless of the topic), plan with bulletpoints and know exactly what you are going to write before you even start.
- Integrated writing - Rather than writing an essay isolatedly, you should be able to take notes on what you hear at any given moment, retrieve information from a chart or a table, and then combine those to write an essay.
3. Know the Structure of the TOEFL Inside & Out.
This is perhaps the most important advice you will ever get when it comes to preparing for the TOEFL.
You might be a fluent English speaker, know the language like the palm of your hand, have fantastic communication skills, write inspiring essays and you might even have lived in an English-speaking country...and still get a bad score at the TOEFL.
Why? It all comes down to knowing what to expect. And in order to do that, you need to know the TOEFL and its structure inside and out.
Here is what the TOEFL Internet-based test looks like and what you should expect, according to the official TOEFL website by ETS.
Based on the image above, you can count on four main sections for your computer-based exam.
As for the revised TOEFL paper-delivered test (from July 2017), here is what the exam should look like, according to the document provided by ETS themselves:
As we can see, the speaking section is missing. However, all other sections have been revised to be more closely aligned with the internet-based exam, meaning the type of skills under examination do not differ radically.
4. Don’t Study English...Study the TOEFL.
You can and should review complex vocabulary, tricky grammar topics, writing techniques and pronunciation tips before you take the TOEFL.
However, a couple of months before the exam, your major concern should be formatting your brain to think for the TOEFL specifically, because the exam assumes your English is already at an advanced level.
Remember when we said you should know what to expect? That is absolutely valid here too! What you want to do is prepare your brain to respond almost automatically to different types of TOEFL questions. You should know the exact type of question you will get, what is expected from you, and how to cut to the chase before you even step into the examination room.
Know the structure of the exam, the types of questions you will get and your strategy for each type by heart!
5. Become a Robot.
A common complaint I get as a language teacher experienced in preparing students for English exams is:
"But what do I write about?!
I am not creative at all, I do not know what to say because I do not have an opinion on X or Y topics!
I will not be able to say or write anything special!"
Here is what I believe to be a helpful piece of advice that definitely helped me when I took the TOEFL myself. Forget about being creative.
Let's face it. TOEFL examiners might enjoy a creative text, but most of all they enjoy good English! And after all, isn't that what the TOEFL is testing? Good English skills?
The TOEFL is not the place to ask why things are the way they are, think creatively, defy rules, think out of the box or become the new Shakespeare. Very specific answers according to very specific models are expected from you, which not only makes your life easier and your preparation much quicker, it also allows you to think less and do more!
So here is what we can do as TOEFL takers. We can read a task, remember what we are expected to do and do it according to what is expected.
Even if our ideas seem a little bit dull or the expressions we use have been seen a thousand times, as long as they are written in correct English, correspond to an advanced English level and answer the question, you will be fine!
Which will lead us to...
6. Answer the Question.
Before you even start studying for the TOEFL, there is one piece of advice that seems very obvious but most people end up forgetting: you have to answer the question in front of you. If you do not, your score will drop.
Whenever we are being evaluated, watched and pressured to perform - and especially when we have invested a significant amount of money - it is absolutely natural that we feel nervous. As we sit in front of the computer and see that timer ticking, sometimes we just want to get it over with. The problem is, you might be so focused on doing things fast that you completely miss the point of the question.
Do not take a question for granted: always read instructions carefully, pay attention to details and know exactly what you are supposed to do.
An example that often happens in my English exam preparation classes is this: imagine a question asks you to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of something. Sometimes students will be so "all over the place" that they just list one advantage, one disadvantage and then start giving their opinion the rest of the time. Actually, the question asks you for advantages and disadvantages (plural) so you should always list at least two or three for each. Also, if the exam does not ask you to give your opinion explicitly, you probably shouldn't. If it does, you definitely should.
Get used to becoming a robot (see point 5!) and answer exactly and precisely what is in front of you.
7. Do Not Memorize Answers.
Answers to the TOEFL cannot be memorized.
What you can do is focus on particular expressions and common vocabulary you are almost certainly going to use. For example, regardless of the topic you get in the writing section of the exam, you are almost certainly going to use expressions such as:
- "On the other hand"
- "It is believed that..."
- "Some people claim that..."
Additionally, you might be asked to give your opinion, express a personal preference or make a meaningful choice in the speaking section of your exam. In that case, useful expressions to repeat and remember will be...
- "In my opinion,..."
- "From where I stand,..."
- "I strongly believe that..."
- "It seems to me that..."
This relates directly to the fact that you should be strategic when preparing for the TOEFL - do not waste your energy trying to memorize entire lists of vocabulary. Instead, go for the "most popular" ones that could serve you in any context.
Focus on being versatile and forget the "copy-paste" type of mentality!
8. Save Your Energy, Avoid Surprises.
Picture yourself taking the TOEFL on the computer.
Do you really want to waste two or three minutes just staring at the platform wondering how it works, what you are supposed to do or just getting surprised because you were completely caught off guard?
Or visualize yourself taking the paper-based version of TOEFL. Is it really the time to be looking at your blank answer sheet wondering what you are supposed to do?
Our advice: save your energy by practicing with real tests as much as possible. The golden rule is that you want to avoid surprises. The TOEFL is not the time to be shocked, unprepared or nervous.
You can practice right here for free! You can also try these sample questions as suggested by ETS.
9. Know What is Important.
Raise your hand if you have ever obsessed over these insecurities:
- My accent is horrible! I do not sound like a native speaker at all! There's no way I'm passing that Speaking section.
- "I wish I had the perfect British accent - my accent is so obvious! What if I'm excluded because I can't sound 'English' enough?"
- I don't know if I agree or disagree with this topic...I'll take ages to answer this question!
- "What if I do not know anything about the topic in front of me? I will never be able to say something intelligent!"
Wow, wow! Stop right there! What we need is a moment of rationality and setting our priorities straight. Know what matters the most for your score.
TOEFL candidates will often worry to death about insecurities like the ones you have seen above. This leads to test takers crying, postponing, suffering with anxiety or unnecessarily putting themselves down.
Always keep in mind that your priorities are:
- Answering the question in front of you
- Answering the question using correct English
- Being understood and expressing yourself accurately
Both during your speaking and writing sections, whether you agree or disagree with an opinion is not actually important to TOEFL examiners (even if that is what the question is asking), but your ability to express that opinion in correct English is. It is important that your ideas are coherent and that you express them cohesively, but no examiner is looking for the next Nobel prize or the next genius. Think of a couple of relevant bullet points for what the question is asking, and then focus on using your very best English!
As for the speaking section in particular, always remember that your goal is not to sound like a native. Your accent is not exactly the most important thing that will be evaluated, actually - your pronunciation is. There is definitely a difference there! That means that you should pronounce words correctly in order to be understood (for instance, trying not to mistake "three" for "tree"), but be confident that your score will not be damaged just because people can tell you are not an American. Having said that, you can join us for free here on Speechling to practice your pronunciation by recording yourself repeating some useful expressions in English and having an actual human coach giving you feedback on each recording!
See, the TOEFL is all about form, grammar, appropriateness, accuracy and just having a logical reaction to what you see and hear. The rest will come with time!
10. Remember What the TOEFL is For.
Or perhaps just planning on moving to an English-speaking country?
Being aware of your personal motivation for taking this test can be quite useful. However, it can also be a bit tricky. In fact, depending on your personality, reminding yourself of your life goal and why you are personally taking the TOEFL can become extremely overwhelming and create unnecessary pressure on your shoulders.
If you have ever found yourself thinking "My goodness, if I get a bad score, I will never be able to go abroad!", then the advice that follows is for you: remember what the purpose of the TOEFL is. Not your personal motive - but the purpose of the exam itself.
Think about it this way: the TOEFL was not created to test your creativity, to test whether you could pass for a native speaker or to test the value of your opinion. It was created to know whether you can express yourself in correct English and be understood in an academic context!
Always keep this in mind - you are expected to speak good English and answer logically to the question in front of you. The rest is secondary.
11. Collect the Right Resources.
Watching YouTube videos might help, but it will not be enough to get an excellent grade. Nor will it be enough to watch movies or TV series in English.
That is because the TOEFL is testing academic skills for the most part. You are expected to deal with academic material, not understand a love story. Your grade will be better the more you blend resources and practice the same skills on different types of media.
To begin, you should have at least one solid, helpful manual with all the basic information about the TOEFL exam, its structure and several practice activities and exams.
You should start with the manual, and only then dive into the world of online resources, which can get pretty overwhelming. As somebody who actually took the TOEFL internet-based exam, I can confidently say a manual saved my score because I would have felt completely lost fishing for resources on Google, ultimately wasting precious time. Here are two very popular and helpful resources:
- ETS' Official Guide to the TOEFL($25)
- TOEFL iBT Prep Plus 2018-2019 by Kaplan ($25)
- Barron's TOEFL iBT ($27)
Additionally, you should practice online by accessing either the official ETS TOEFL website and purchasing their training products, or try other popular platforms such as Learn 4 Good, TOEFL Go Anywhere and Good Luck TOEFL.
If you prefer watching YouTube videos, take a look at Learn TOEFL with Daniel, or Magoosh TOEFL.
If your speaking section is weak (People who come from foreign countries are really struggling in this section), you should check out the new emerging website/app called Speechling focusing on how to speak English better. Besides many tools that you will get hooked to practice other sections of TOEFL test, a few features that you can not find elsewhere: a. Answering questions; b. Describing images; c. Freestyle model (say anything). Be remember to use their in-browser/in-app recording function that allows you to compare your speaking to the recording by a native speaker. If you upload your recordings for your coach, a native English speaker will help you with feedback within 24 hours. Many TOEFL examine takers found out that they inproved their scores by using Speechking.
12. Create your Study Plan.
Depending on your learning style, you could try doing several things at the same time, such as completing one chapter in your manual, then watching some YouTube videos, reading some articles on Good Luck TOEFL, and then practicing by reading some newspaper articles or academic pieces.
However, a good strategy is to focus on one item at a time. For instance, dedicate a good chunk of your schedule to completing the manual you have gotten. Do it from start to finish, and write down any questions you might have, the sections you found challenging and the parts you feel need more practice.
It is a good idea to start with an overview of all sections of the TOEFL, and then start all over again per section with more detail. After completing your manual, you could then procede to watching YouTube videos about the different sections of the exam, reading more about useful tips for succeeding in each part and practicing section by section.
Do not make the mistake of focusing on one section of the exam (for instance, writing) for several months and then dedicating only one week to listening and reading. Also, do not forget speaking practice, since it is easy to postpone it thinking that you will just say whatever comes to your mind when you get there.
13. Be Consistent, not Perfect.
Being consistent is more important than being perfect. Most will think "Practice won't help me, because the exam will be different each time anyway, so it's not like I will know the answers once I am there".
The thing is, you are not just practicing English when you are doing practice tests.
You are getting your brain used to a certain structure, and you are training your intelligence to look for particular cues, work faster, think more accurately and be more TOEFL-oriented.
If you try several practice tests, you will get more and more used to a TOEFL way of thinking and once you actually sit to take that exam, nothing will seem surprising or unexpected anymore. You will be able to focus much better.
Found This Useful?
Glad we could help!
What if we told you there's more juicy advice coming up to help you keep up with the TOEFL and its tricky ways?
Stay tuned for our TOEFL Preparation series!
- (1) How to Prepare the Speaking Section of the TOEFL;
- (2) How to Prepare the Reading Section of the TOEFL;
- (3) How to Prepare the writing Section of the TOEFL.