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TOEFL Tips for International Students

Learn more about tips to prepare for TOEFL exam

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Students should sharpen their vocabulary, learn TOEFL content and familiarize themselves with academic English, experts say.

ENTRY INTO AMERICAN colleges and universities is determined by various factors, and one of the most important aspects for international students is their grasp of the English language.

Savvy students who excel in their home countries need to be prepared for a classroom and campus environment where they will live and learn almost entirely in English. Their understanding of the language will be the foundation upon which their academic success is built.

Enter the Test of English as a Foreign Language, best known as the TOEFL test and one of several exam options used by colleges to gauge a student’s English language skills. The exam is designed to measure how well a student understands English communication in an academic context, per Educational Testing Service, which offers the exam. According to the ETS website, more than 35 million students have taken the TOEFL since it was first administered in 1964.

“Colleges and universities use the TOEFL to determine if a student can use and comprehend English well enough to understand professors, do the coursework, contribute to group projects, and succeed at school,” Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of International College Counselors, a Florida-based admissions consulting organization, wrote in an email.

Though initially created as a paper-based test, the TOEFL internet-based test, or TOEFL iBT, has become the standard since launching in 2005.

What Students Should Know About the TOEFL

According to the ETS website, the TOEFL takes three hours, though students should arrive at the test center about a half-hour early to check in.

Students should also expect strict security measures, which are in place to prevent cheating on the exam.

“The TOEFL has four sections: reading, listening, speaking and writing,” explains David Recine, a verbal test prep expert at Magoosh, an online tutoring and test prep company. “The names of the sections pretty much indicate what you’re going to be studying for.”

According to the ETS website, the timing of a section may vary with longer reading or listening portions containing some additional questions. For example, students may have an elongated reading section that lasts 54 to 72 minutes with 30 to 40 questions plus a listening section of normal length, or an elongated listening portion that lasts 41 to 57 minutes with 28 to 39 questions plus a reading section of normal length.

Students get a 10-minute break afterward, followed by the speaking and writing sections. The speaking section is comprised of four tasks that must be completed in 17 minutes, compared with two tasks in 50 minutes for writing.

“Most items that you will encounter on a TOEFL test tend to be drawn directly from university-level textbooks, from the courses that students would typically encounter in a first- or second-year liberal arts class,” says Srikant Gopal, executive director of the TOEFL program at ETS.

Total TOEFL scores range from 0 to 120. Each section is scored on a scale of 0 to 30, with the “advanced” level in the 24 to 30 range for reading and writing, compared with 22 to 30 for listening and 25 to 30 on the speaking portion.

But what is a good TOEFL score? The answer, experts say, is whatever it takes for a student to get into his or her target school.

“Each school or scholarship sets its own score requirements,” Adler says. “Students scoring in the 90-100 (range) on the TOEFL will be accepted into most universities. Students looking to get into a highly competitive college or program should score at least 100.

“Gopal offers a similar thought. “There is no universal measure of a good or bad score.”

Recine adds that the baseline is about 65, which will open doors at many American universities, particularly less-competitive colleges.

“If you’ve got below 65 on (the) TOEFL you’re probably not going to get in anywhere except perhaps on conditional acceptance,” Recine says. Conditional acceptance, he explains, means that international students may get into a college with the requirement they take English classes first.

TOEFL Preparation and Study Tips

Experts suggest that TOEFL preparation should begin well in advance of the test.

“I recommend, if at all possible, to study for two or three months because it’s a good way to err on the side of caution and make sure you get the best possible score,” Recine says, adding that students also need to consider admissions deadlines when planning for the TOEFL.

Students should plan to take the test well ahead of the deadline for when colleges will need TOEFL scores. They may also want to add in time to retake the test should they do poorly and wish to submit scores from a later test date, which may help their odds of admission at a U.S. college.

While unofficial scores for reading and listening will be available immediately after the test, official scores will arrive in seven days. Recine says students should wait until they receive their official scores before retaking the test so that they can focus on areas where their performance was weak.

Official resources for TOEFL study are offered through ETS, including practice exams and a MOOC, or massive open online course, dedicated to the exam. Other materials are available through Magoosh and various other test prep companies to help students sharpen their skills before taking the TOEFL.

Adler’s TOEFL tips for international students include seeking out those sources and making other efforts to enhance English comprehension.

“Read every day to build your vocabulary and comprehension skills,” Adler says. “The listening portion tends to be the hardest section for many students, and we recommend taking good notes. Also, learn time management strategies. The time limits on the test are strict. Then, familiarize yourself with the QWERTY keyboard so you can type quickly on the writing section of the exam.

” Recine encourages students to watch English-language TV, particularly TED Talks, and to find a conversation partner.

“You want to find as many opportunities to practice general English as you can,” he says.

Gopal encourages students to seek out lectures, perhaps from a MOOC, to get a sense of what academic English is like.

“We encourage students to read widely,” Gopal says. “To listen to a number of sources in English, to practice speaking and writing with their friends and family and other colleagues, but to put the emphasis on academic sources when they can.”

TOEFL Home Edition

Among the many changes forced upon U.S. schools as a result of the novel coronavirus is the slowdown of standardized testing. But even as many colleges begin to go test-optional for upcoming admissions cycles, the TOEFL is unlikely to go away, experts say.

“I do think a language screening of some sort will probably continue to be required by universities and other agencies that have been using standardized tests, even if the SAT and ACT fall away a little bit,” Recine says.

Though many TOEFL testing centers remain open in countries where the coronavirus has largely been vanquished, online options are available for students. ETS launched the TOEFL iBT Special Home Edition in March as the pandemic spread quickly across the globe.

Gopal says the TOEFL Special Home Edition has been taken by tens of thousands of students in more than 165 countries.

“We’ve tried to simulate the experience that somebody has in a test center in a home environment,” Gopal says. That means strict security measures also apply at home, with a human proctor watching students online to prevent cheating.

Recine notes that results on the TOEFL Special Home Edition are “as respected as scores from a traditional TOEFL.”

“The content, the format, the onscreen experience, as well as the scoring and the score scale are identical,” Gopal adds.

And while it is unclear how long COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, will rage on, the TOEFL Special Home Edition will be available at least through September and possibly longer, if needed.

“We will keep the Home Edition for as long as we need to provide that flexibility and choice to test-takers,” Gopal says.

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