Do you start feeling anxious when you think about your TOEFL exam?
You and everyone else.
Yes, the good news here is that everyone else taking the exam is probably feeling exactly the 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 absolute best work.
Sounds pretty great, right?
Here’s how you can make this happen!
You Can Do It! Get a Fantastic TOEFL Score with These 8 Tips
1. Practice, Practice and Then Practice Some More
- 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. 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. 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.
- 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 really good English can help you.
2. Know All the Directions
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. Here are some really good resources to help you improve your vocabulary and grammar.
- Prove you learned those words. Try to include them in your speaking and writing practice.
- Only use the words you know. On the exam, avoid using words and structures you are not sure about.
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
Practice by reading academic texts and listening to lectures and by doing exam-like practice tests. Look for the main ideas. They are usually signposted (marked) with discourse markers. Click that link to learn more about discourse markers. Basically, they are common phrases that introduce information.
After you learn what they look like, you will see them everywhere.
For example, look for phrases like,“another point that I’d like to make…” and “this takes us to… ” or rhetorical questions like, “why is this so important?” You will find important information near these kinds of phrases.
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.
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.
With these tips in mind, get started on your study plan. Write it down and post it somewhere so you can see it every day. Remember that language skills don’t improve overnight, but you can certainly make every day count!
Ana Maria Hopartean teaches English as a foreign language at university level in Romania. She designed TOEFL and Cambridge exam preparation courses. She has a PhD in Psychology applied to language learning and her main focus is trying to help adult learners cope with anxiety while learning a foreign language.
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