If you’re looking to further your education in an English-speaking country, you’ve probably heard of the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). I recently took the test and scored way more than I expected.
In this article, I’ll compile a list of tips on how to score high on the TOEFL. Along the way, I’ll share some strategies I used during my preparation and on test day. And at the end, I’ll reveal what I was able to score using these strategies.
About the TOEFL
The TOEFL tests your ability to read, listen to, speak, and write English. While it may seem daunting at first, the TOEFL is by no means a difficult exam. If you’ve been studying English since you were young, watching English movies and TV series, and have some experience speaking in English, this test should be easy for you. That being said, in order to score to your maximum potential, you will need to learn the structure of the test and prepare separately for each section. Next, I’ll go through the four sections of the TOEFL and share some tips and strategies for each of them.
This section tests your ability to read academic texts in English. You will need to read some university-level texts and answer questions based on them. It’s a very tiring section that has several long texts and lasts over an hour. The questions will test your understanding of the text, vocabulary, ability to read between the lines, and ability to summarize the most important points in the text.
Here’s how to approach the reading section:
1. First read the text quickly, without paying attention to detail. Just find out what the text is about.
2. Next, go through it properly, taking note of key pieces of information as you go. You don’t need to remember everything as the text is visible when you’re answering the questions. However, do try to understand the intent of the passage and what each paragraph deals with. You can come back and read each paragraph when necessary. In fact, most questions will have you reading the paragraphs several times.
3. Since the reading section allows you to review your answers at any point, start with the easy questions. If the answer to a question is not immediately obvious to you, just skip it. You can always come back to it later.
4. Once you’re done answering all the easy questions, go through the unanswered questions and repeat the process. Finally, leave yourself enough time to go through all your answers once and figure out if you’ve answered everything to your satisfaction.
5. The summary questions at the end of each round tend to be the most complicated and also worth the highest points. Spend a good chunk of time working on those. Start off by eliminating the wrong choices, then go on from there. Eventually, you should be fairly confident of the options you chose.
6. Try taking a few practice tests to get a feel for the reading section.
This is commonly regarded the easiest of the four sections on the TOEFL. However, you do need a good ear for details and a lot of concentration to do well here.
Here are some tips for the listening section:
- Listen attentively to the details. Sometimes the speakers are very fast, so you’ll need to be fully concentrated.
- Learn the art of note-taking. You don’t need to jot down everything the speaker says — in fact, it’s impossible. Instead, focus on noting the key words and phrases. The rule of thumb is: if you think something’s important, note down a word or two about it.
- You can’t review your answers on the listening section like you could in the reading section. So, make sure to answer the questions correctly in one go. The questions are fairly straightforward, so this should not be an issue.
- The test’s interface requires you to press “Next” as well as “Ok” to go to the next question. So, if you find yourself hitting “Next” and getting stuck, see if you forgot to hit “Ok”.
The speaking section is arguably the most difficult one on the TOEFL. No matter how good you are at spoken English, you will require a significant amount of practice to ace the speaking section.
Here are some tips to do well on the speaking section:
- Watch Notefull’s videos on speaking. The more times you watch them the better.
- The formats discussed in the Notefull videos help. A LOT. Make a note of the format for each question. You want to get to a point where you don’t even have to think about the formats anymore; they just flow through your tongue.
- Practice speaking with a timer. Just take up a practice question from the TOEFL, set the timer on your phone to 45 or 60 seconds depending on the question and start speaking. Make sure you are able to speak throughout the entire length of time and that you’re able to conclude your speech powerfully. This requires quite a bit of practice. Try practicing on the same question many times until you perfect your flow.
Practice, practice, practice! Don’t get discouraged. Unless you’ve been speaking a ton of English since childhood, everyone struggles with the speaking section. The key is to keep working on it patiently, watching yourself improve one step at a time. At some point you might feel like, “This is too difficult, I can’t do it”. At that point, just remember that if you keep working on it, you will improve, even if you can’t see it immediately.
- On the actual test, finish your reading and listening as quickly as you can and be the first one to step into the break. That way, when you start the speaking section, you will get a nice, quiet environment for most of your speaking questions. It’s very hard to concentrate with everyone in the room screaming into their microphones at the same time.
- During the break, jot down the format for answering each question, as suggested on Notefull. This will help you take better notes as well as to speak more confidently.
Don’t speak too loudly or too softly. Speak in your normal speaking voice. Remember: the TOEFL just wants to test if you can frame your ideas into coherent sentences in English. Use simple language and vocabulary, but be as fluent as you can. Speak in a BBC-esque manner — simple, clear, fluent and deliberate.
Write notes quickly and practice the first few sentences you’re going to say during the preparation time. This will help you avoid being stuck for the first word and get you into a steady flow.
- Make sure to include all relevant points when speaking, but avoid going into details since you have very little time.
Take a long, deep breath each time before starting to speak. This gets you calm and confident so you can do your best.
- If you do badly on one of the questions, don’t spend time feeling bad about it. Just focus on the next question.
The writing section is a fairly straightforward one. If you can compose clear, coherent sentences in English, you should have no problem with it. There are two questions in the writing section: writing task 1, which tests your ability to compare and contrast information between a passage and a lecture, and writing task 2, which tests your ability to analyze a real-world scenario and write a clear essay on it.
Here are some tips for the writing section of the TOEFL:
Writing Task 1
- Read the passage quickly, taking notes of the important points.
- The passage will be available to you as you’re writing your response. So, keep your notes brief, only jotting down the important words in each paragraph.
- Listen to the lecture very carefully and take detailed notes. You will only be able to listen to the lecture once, so you’ll need to be careful here. This is what determines how much you’ll score. In 99% of cases, the lecture will contradict the points made in the passage. So, in your notes just draw a table with the points in the passage on one side and the lecture’s contradictory points on the other. This will help you compose your written response.
- When writing the response, divide it into paragraphs. Start with an introductory paragraph, then in each successive paragraph, discuss one issue in the passage and contradict it with the points made in the lecture. Make sure to include all the relevant points. Keep your sentences short and grammatically correct.
- You’re neither expected nor required to provide your own opinions on this task. So, keep your response focused on the passage and the lecture.
Writing Task 2
Writing task 2 is much simpler and asks for you opinion on a real-world topic. Here’s how to approach it:
- You have 30 minutes to compose your essay. Spend the first 3 to 5 minutes outlining your essay by listing relevant points you want to include.
- Start with a solid introductory paragraph that hints at what’s coming next. Include your opinion on the subject and a short list of reasons why you think so.
- In each of the successive paragraphs, explain in detail about your reasons for your opinion on the subject. Your writing should be not be disjointed — that is, it should be linked from one paragraph to the next.
- Finally, write a conclusion that summarizes what you’ve said and ties everything up nicely.
- Leave yourself some time to review your essay for spelling/grammatical errors. As you review, improve the parts that you’re not quite satisfied with.
- Word count is very important. If your essay is 500-750 words long, you have the best chances of scoring well.
- Make your essay very specific. Include as many examples as you can.
General Tips for Preparation
- Take as many practice tests as you can. Analyze your strengths and your weaknesses. Then, work on the sections where you are weak. On the TOEFL, just like in life: hard work has no substitute.
- Focus a lot of time on the speaking section. That’s where a lot of your preparation time should be directed.
General Tips for Test Day
- Have a lot of sheets handy right at the beginning. Ask for some extra sheets of paper right off the bat, so you don’t need to later.
- Be well-rested and well-fed. Take a light snack for the break.
- Go in feeling confident and relaxed.
- If you feel you did badly in a previous section, don’t worry about it. Focus on the section at hand.
I have compiled these strategies using my own experience in the TOEFL. I used them during my test day and, combined with a bit of luck, managed to do very well. Here are my scores on the various sections:
The TOEFL is not a difficult exam to ace. You just need a familiarity with the patterns of the test and a bit of luck. So, go out there and do well. Hopefully, I’ve been able to give you some useful tips on how to score high on the TOEFL.
Best of luck!