How to Prepare for the TOEFL Test the Right Way
Charlie Brown, a character from the popular comic “Peanuts,” once said:
Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, “Is life a multiple choice test or is it a true or false test?”
Then a voice comes to me out of the dark and says, “We hate to tell you this but life is a thousand word essay.”
Well, I have good news.
Preparing for the TOEFL test doesn’t have to be as complicated as Charlie Brown’s life.
In fact, studying for the exam can even be as fun as reading comics like “Peanuts”!
The TOEFL test is designed to measure the English skills of non-English speaking people by testing their writing, reading, listening and speaking abilities.
This may sound terrifying at first, but that’s okay. It’s natural to feel a bit nervous or overwhelmed (feel like you have too much to do). But I have even more good news for you: It’s a really useful test.
As a language teacher, I love that the TOEFL test is all about using real English in a real-life setting. It’s not about complex grammar and difficult vocabulary that you would never use in real life.
So when you study for the TOEFL test, you’re also preparing yourself for using English in real life—like at a university or job.
Okay, okay. But you still need to pass the test with a good score to reach your dreams. I know.
With the following proven strategies, you’ll be able to successfully prepare for your TOEFL test, take it with confidence and pass it like a professional.
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How to Prepare for the TOEFL Test: 12 Proven Tips for Success
1. Get to Know the Format of the TOEFL Test
If you want to take the TOEFL, it is very important to first get familiar with the TOEFL format.
Check out the official TOEFL website to find information on the test format, find answers to your questions and to locate your testing centers.
Another excellent resource to familiarize yourself with the whole TOEFL exam is Magoosh.
(Note: The Magoosh link below is an affiliate link, which means that we’ll receive compensation if you make a purchase on the Magoosh site. By purchasing through our affiliate link, you are supporting our ability to provide you with free language learning content—so, thank you!)
Go to Magoosh. This site offers a complete TOEFL course, including video lessons, hundreds of practice questions (with video explanations on how to answer them), study schedules and support from teachers. It’s an amazing resource for learning how the TOEFL exam works—and how to get a high score on it. It even has courses that are specialized to get you prepared for the exam in any amount of time: One year, one month or even one week!
Understand the TOEFL content. No matter which format you take, the TOEFL always has three parts: reading, listening and writing. The Internet-based TOEFL also includes a speaking section.
The Internet-based test (iBT) looks like this:
- Reading section: 60-80 minutes | 36-56 questions
- Listening section: 60-90 minutes | 34-51 questions
- Short break: 10 minutes
- Speaking section: 20 minutes | 6 tasks
- Writing section: 50 minutes | 2 essays
The paper-based test looks like this:
- Listening section: 30-40 minutes| 50 questions
- Writing section: 25 minutes | 40 questions
- Reading section: 55 minutes | 50 questions
- TWE test: 30 minutes | write one essay
Decide which format you want to take. Note that nowadays the test is usually taken via the Internet. The paper-based test is becoming less and less popular.
Take a look at some examples of some TOEFL test questions. This will help you gain further understanding of the types of questions to expect. Read the questions carefully. Try to answer them and then check the answers.
2. Know Why You Are Taking the TOEFL Test
More than 9,000 colleges, universities, agencies and institutions accept and require the TOEFL TEST in over 130 countries. To be well prepared, it’s important to know your reasons for taking the test.
For example, you might be taking the test:
- To find out your level of English with an official exam
- To apply to a university
- For a course or job
- For your immigration requirement
Make sure you know why you’re taking the TOEFL. Then, you can use this information to help you better focus your study time. For example, if you’re taking the test for a job where you’ll be talking on the phone a lot, it will be important to do well on the speaking and listening parts.
3. Have a Minimum Score in Mind
Different goals require different minimum scores. First, be sure you know the minimum score you’ll need to reach your goal. Then, choose what score you’d like to get. This is your ideal (preferred) score. For example, if I want to get into Arizona State University, the minimum score is 500. My ideal score might be higher, though: 530.
Write down your minimum and your ideal scores on a piece of paper or a Post-it note, and put it somewhere you see every day. You might put it on your bathroom mirror, on the fridge or on the wall behind your desk. Every time you look at the piece of paper, you’ll be reminded to study to reach your goal.
Make sure your ideal score is realistic. This means to choose a score you could likely receive, not a score that’s too high. To make sure you could receive your ideal score, take a practice test and check where you are now. How many more points do you need to reach your minimum and ideal scores? How many months do you have to prepare before the exam? How much time can you spend each week studying? Your answers to these questions will help you choose a realistic ideal score.
4. Create Three Ideal Study Spaces
A good study environment is important to achieve the score you want. Use these tips to create your own study space:
- Find your top three ideal study locations. It may be your room, the library, a cafe, your office, your living room or anywhere else. But it’s important that you feel comfortable in the spaces. Why three? If you feel unmotivated in your room one day, then you can always more to the library or your favorite coffee place, for example.
- Create a quiet zone. When choosing your study locations, create a space without distractions. Let your family and friends know that you are studying so they won’t disturb you. Turn off your phone and log off social media.
- Keep your study space clean and organized. Clear off your desk and organize your files. Use a system that works for you. Make sure that your pencils are sharpened and your pens are working. Maybe you could get a new, clean notebook just for the TOEFL test.
- Schedule your breaks, snack and mealtimes. By scheduling your breaks, you will be able to focus better during study time. Scheduling when to eat will ensure you don’t forget! And eating healthy food will help you concentrate better. Keep a bottle of water near you when you study so that you drink enough water.
- Clear your mind. Exercise and do some meditation or relaxation exercises for a positive mindset. The apps Calm and Headspace are excellent for meditation. Taking three slow, deep breaths can also be very beneficial.
You can try the 4-7-8 relaxing breathing exercise as well. Count to 4 while breathing in slowing. Then hold your breath for 7 counts. Then exhale slowly counting to 8. Repeat this 3 or 4 times. If you feel frustrated or unable to concentrate during a section, take a few breaths again to calm down. Relax. Get focused.
5. Get a Study Guide
Here’s an official study guide that can be helpful. Read the explanation of the test and study tips carefully. Get familiar with each section before starting with any exercise or practice test. When starting, you can take a practice test just to give you an idea of your current abilities.
To get feedback on your performance—from a professional TOEFL grader—you can use a resource like ScoreNexus. With ScoreNexus, you can take a full TOEFL exam and receive a grade, feedback and advice for improving your score from a real teacher. This is a great way for you to see where your strengths and weaknesses are.
When doing the exercises in a TOEFL study guide like this, here are some tips for the various sections:
- Reading. Underline the main ideas and take notes on the side of the book or on a piece of paper. Check your answers afterwards and review your errors. If you need to, you can use your dictionary during practice exercises.
- Listening. Write down notes while you’re listening to help you remember details. Don’t write down full sentences, just write down the most important ideas.
- Writing. Think about the topic first and then write down your ideas. Create an outline, including an introduction, your main points and a conclusion. Start writing once you have an outline. When finished, read it again and correct your mistakes.
- Speaking. Answer the exact question that was asked; don’t talk about something else. Keep it simple. Practice speaking in a relaxed tone.
6. Get Support from a Teacher or Peer
You don’t have to do this alone. You can get support from peers (other students) and teachers.
Hire a teacher or a tutor
The benefit of having a teacher or a tutor is the qualified and professional advice and support you will receive. These people are experienced in explaining the grammar rules, and can give you specific and personalized exercises and help.
Here are some places to help you find a tutor:
- Local university job boards.
- Local English schools.
- Verbling — Choose from hundreds of online English teachers based on their availability, price range, experience and certifications. You’ll probably be able to find someone here who specializes in teaching English for the TOEFL.
- Wyzant — Find an ESL teacher in your local area, who will tutor you in person!
- italki — Find an online teacher for video lessons.
- Craigslist — You can post an ad for an English tutor, or see if anyone is already offering the service.
- Buddy School — You can search for English language tutors and schedule Skype lessons with them.
Find other English learners and native speakers in your area
On Meetup you can look for language exchange events near you. Through Couchsurfing you can find events, travelers and English speakers in your area. Send them a message and meet up for a coffee. There is nothing better than face-to-face communication.
Native speakers will be happy to practice English with you, if you teach them your native language in exchange. Language exchanges are fun and benefit both. You may even develop life-long friendships as an added bonus. To find native speakers online that will correct your writing for free, use Lang-8.
Other language learners will be excited to exchange strategies, to study together and to motivate each other. To study together, pick the same listening or reading material. Ask each other questions and discuss what you’ve listened to or read. Summarize the information and fill in the details together.
Find support within online communities
On Facebook, type in “TOEFL” into the search bar, for example. Scroll down and click “see all results.” On the top right click “more” then click “groups.” You will then see all TOEFL-related groups on Facebook.
You can also search for “language exchange,” “English learning,” “EFL,” “ESL learners” and many other keywords. Online communities are great, especially if you live in a small or remote area without in-person opportunities.
Communicating online will help your writing abilities. Exchanging ideas within a forum or a chat box gives all parties time to think about their answers and give proper advice. You can set up Skype calls with your online contacts to practice speaking as well.
7. Practice Reading Non-technical English
The TOEFL test’s reading section, you will read some passages and answer questions related to them. The topics are all in non-technical English that everyone can understand. Here are some ways to prepare:
Read for 30 minutes every day
Start reading for 30 minutes each day with clear focus and attention. There are some excellent websites with interesting things to read, including:
- Breaking News — This is one of my favorites, which uses the news to create a variety of readings and exercises.
- Story Archives — This has many news stories from CNN for ESL learners.
- The English Server — You can find many easy short stories and fiction here.
Ask yourself questions
Stop after every few paragraphs and ask yourself some questions. For example, What did you read about?, What was the main idea?, What was the conflict?, Who are the main characters?, etc. Read the story again to check back for answers. In the end of your reading, summarize what you’ve read about. You can do your summary in writing or by speaking to practice for the writing or speaking sections at the same time.
Improve your vocabulary
When doing this reading practice, be sure to underline new words. Look up their meanings in a dictionary and write them down in a notebook or on flashcards. Use these new words in sentences throughout the day, and during your speaking and writing practice.
8. Practice Listening to English with Your Learning Goal in Mind
In the listening section, you’ll hear different people speaking, both in monologues (one person speaking alone) and dialogues (two or more people conversing). You’ll then answer questions based on what you’ve heard. Use these tips to prepare:
Always listen with a learning goal in mind
Before you begin listening, decide what your focus will be. Here are some topics you can listen for:
- The main ideas. What is the main topic?
- The purpose. Why is the speaker talking? To educate? To give an opinion? To complain? Etc.
- Transitions. How does the speaker change from one idea to the next?
- Stress and intonation. Where does the speaker place stresses within sentences? When does the pitch of their voice get higher and lower?
Pages 28-31 of this TOEFL test prep planner have many more ideas for specific listening goals.
Listen to English speakers as much as possible
To practice this listening, you’ll want to listen to audio with native speakers. Here are sources of listening materials:
- Real people. Use the sources from #6 to find native English speakers. If you don’t understand something, ask them to repeat it. Join in the conversation and ask follow-up questions. Remember, you can set up a Skype call if you don’t have an English-speaking community in your area.
- Audio for English learners. Listen to academic lectures on UIC, a variety of audio clips on Many Things or ESL-friendly podcasts on A4ESL, for example. Select the level that’s appropriate for you. Then to push yourself a little more, choose a level that is a bit more challenging and one step higher than your current level.
It is recommended that you start with the EnglishClass101 podcast series by Innovative Language. The podcasts here come with transcripts and tools to practice your English. Since these podcasts are made for English students in particular, they will be clear and it will be much easier to take notes. Plus, there are podcasts for all skill levels, from beginner to advanced, so you can practice basic English skills or choose to challenge yourself.
- Audio for native speakers. There is so much content out there, so here are just some ideas to get you started. Watch YouTube clips, TED Talks, TV shows and movies in English. Listen to the radio, music and the news. Take online courses.
The FluentU program can be particularly helpful here, since it has hundreds of native English videos like movie clips, music videos, news segments, vlogs and more. You can check the meaning of any word by hovering over or clicking on it in the subtitles.
You can turn off the subtitles to focus on listening, and easily play back any individual sentence as many times as you need. After each video, a quiz will test how well you understood the vocabulary. Plus, you can add words as flashcards and review them with exercises that change to your learning speed.
Stop your clip or audio every 2-5 minutes and ask yourself some question. What’s the topic? What was the main idea? Who are the characters? What’s your opinion about the topic? etc.
Listen again to check your answers. Rewind if you didn’t understand something. Write down any new vocabulary you find, and look up its meaning. Listen to the same audio 2 or 3 times to find new details.
At the end of your listening, summarize what you’ve heard. You can summarize it by writing or speaking out loud, to practice for the writing or speaking sections. Use your new words in your summary.
9. Practice Timed Writing Before the Test
To prepare for the writing section, practice timed writing.
During the real exam you will have 50 minutes for two essays. This gives you 25 minutes for each topic, including review. When practicing writing about a specific topic, time yourself.
First, choose a topic (here are many options), and then set a timer for 20 or 25 minutes. Write for about 15-20 minutes, then leave 5 minutes for review and corrections.
Here are a few more tips that will help you improve your timed writing practice:
- Review your grammar. Here are some online review exercises from Purdue OWL. Review your irregular verbs and practice using a variety of verb tenses. Make sure you understand modal verbs and conditionals. Review the difference between gerunds and infinitives. Have a good understanding of prepositions and articles. Finally, practice phrasal verbs in sentences. Ask the help of a teacher or a native speaker to clarify your doubts.
- Write in English every day. Write a journal, emails, shopping lists, to-do lists, letters and even Facebook posts in English. To get used to writing in English for a period of time set your timer for 15-25 minutes when journaling, writing letters or blog posts. Pay attention to your grammar even if you aren’t working on a specific exam topic.
- Check for spelling and grammar mistakes. Don’t forget to pay attention to your punctuation. Use Grammarly to check your spelling and grammar. (It’s much better than regular spellcheck.) If possible, ask a friend or a tutor to correct your writing.
10. Practice Speaking English Alone and with Others
The speaking section of the TOEFL is broken down into small tasks. It may feel strange to speak to a computer, but don’t worry about it. To prepare, you’ll want to speak both alone and with others.
Practice speaking even if you are alone
When taking a practice test or doing specific TOEFL exercises, say your answer out loud, instead of mumbling under your nose or saying it ‘in your head’ without words. Be loud and clear. Here are some more ideas when you’re alone:
- Talk to your pets or even house plants in English.
- Speak in front of a mirror.
- If you have trouble with a particular word, practice it until you get it right. Repeat the same word or phrase in English over and over again until you get comfortable.
- Check the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for pronunciation guidance. Don’t forget that most online English dictionaries will have a button that says the word aloud, too.
- Record yourself speaking. Then, listen to the recording for errors.
Practice speaking with teachers, other students or friends
With your friend or tutor, listen to recordings of yourself speaking. Ask them for feedback on your pronunciation, clarity and grammar. Take notes on your common mistakes so you can keep practicing when you’re alone.
Set up Skype calls to get used to speaking via a headphone. Bring in specific topics to discuss. I recommend using recent reading or listening materials as your topic.
You can even speak to non-English speakers in English. They won’t be able to correct you, but you will still be able to practice speaking out loud.
11. Use Active and Passive Learning Strategies
There are two different types of learning: active and passive. Make sure you’re using both strategies in your study plan.
Active learning happens when you are making an effort and studying with a goal in mind.
For example, when you are taking practice tests, working with a teacher, memorizing your vocabulary, listening closely to a podcast—pausing often or doing grammar exercises, you are actively learning. Tips 7-10 in this post are active learning strategies.
Passive learning happens naturally without effort. To learn this way, use English in your free time and for fun even when you are not actively studying. For example:
- Watch movies or TV shows without the pressure of using your dictionary. Pick your favorite film and watch it again.
- Choose a book that will capture your interest, and again, don’t read with a dictionary. I usually suggest reading novels by Agatha Christie for my ESL students. They are relatively short and easy, but not too easy reads. Since they’re interesting detective stories, you’ll want to finish reading to find out who the murderer is.
- Speak or correspond online in English without a learning goal in mind. There are so many Facebook groups out there. Choose one that’s about your hobbies—not about ESL. For example, as a runner I would choose a group that is about running or endurance sports.
12. Take Practice Tests
If you are preparing for a test, it is only natural to practice taking the test.
Measure your progress. Take the practice tests from your study guide to measure your progress. Go over your mistakes and practice the areas you’re struggling with. After a few weeks, take the same test again. Compare your scores and check for improvements.
Create an exam environment. When you take practice tests, pretend you’re in a real exam environment. You’ll want a quiet space and to time your practice test properly.
At the exam center, you can’t take your personal belongings with you. So lock your phone, notebooks and other distracting items away. No aids, like notebooks, dictionaries, calculators and so on can be used; put everything away.
At the exam center you also won’t be able to eat or drink during the test, so make sure that you drink water and eat something before your practice test. Schedule your bathroom break before taking the practice test as well.
There is no minimum or maximum number of practice tests to take. Be determined until you get your minimum score (or even your ideal score) consistently. Don’t give up.
Once you’ve done the preparation, go and take that test! Remember your hard work. Relax. Be confident.
With consistency and hard work, there is no doubt that you will pass your TOEFL. I believe in you. You should believe in yourself too. Good luck!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)