How to prepare for the TOEFL test

How to prepare for the TOEFL test

What is the TOEFL?

The TOEFL is a standardized test, accepted in thousands of educational institutions worldwide, that measures your knowledge of academic English in 4 sections or skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

Some important things you should know about the TOEFL are:

  • The TOEFL is neither pass nor fail. Each institution or program of study demands different minimum TOEFL scores to accept its candidates.
  • Your TOEFL scores do not have an expiration date. It is very common, however, that tests older than 3 or 4 years are not accepted.
  • All sections of the exam have a common theme. If the topic is, for example, pollution in cities, the questions you will find in the reading or writing section will all be connected to this topic.
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What do you need to prepare for the TOEFL?

Just as when you want to follow an exercise routine on YouTube you need to have your weights, bands, or yoga mat ready (depending on your routine), you also need to have certain elements ready before you start your TOEFL self-preparation.

  • Get a specific TOEFL preparation book. You can order them online, borrow them from your local library or buy them second-hand from someone you know.
  • Design a specific schedule for your practice. It can be 3 or 4 days a week from 8 to 9 pm or 9 to 10 am depending on your availability. Be methodical, create study spaces and a schedule to study the different sections of the TOEFL test online. Consistency and repetition are the keys!

Advice for each section of the TOEFL test

1. READING (60 to 80 minutes, 36 to 56 questions)

Your task: Carefully read 3 or 4 academic texts and answer questions related to these readings.

  • Practice and feel comfortable doing quick readings. In the beginning, you will probably take longer than recommended to read each text. This is totally normal! The important thing is that you train your reading speed to take no longer than the recommended time and understand the general idea of the texts.
  • It is not necessary to know the meaning of 100% of the words that appear in each reading. What the TOEFL is looking for is to measure your ability to infer an idea from a context. If you come across words you have never read before in your life, don't panic! You will probably be able to answer the questions correctly after understanding the general idea of the text.
  • Increase your vocabulary. When you practice for this section and find words you don't know, look them up in the dictionary and write them down in a primer. This method helps a lot in learning several languages and can even be turned into a game that you can involve friends in. Use business card-sized cards so that on one side you write the new word in English and on the other side you write its meaning in your first language. Another strategy that works is to associate new words with pictures.
  • Finally, use your free time (waiting in line at the bank or supermarket, waiting in a doctor's office, etc.) to read texts in English, whether in newspapers, magazines, etc. Nowadays it is very easy to access this material online.
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2. LISTENING (60 to 90 minutes, 34 to 51 questions)

Your task: Listen to classroom lectures, discussions, and conversations in an academic context and answer questions about this content.

  • Use your preparation book not only to listen but also to carefully read the text of each audio several times.
  • Keeping in mind that during the exam you will listen to each audio twice, take short notes on a piece of paper while listening to the first recording and use the second recording to corroborate your notes. You don't have to write down complete sentences, just record keywords that will help you answer the questions you are presented with. Try to have symbols that you can use to abbreviate keywords or ideas.
  • Pay attention to the tone of voice of the speakers (happy, scared, dissatisfied) as this will also help you decipher the content of the audio.
  • Use all your downtime and leisure time to expose yourself to English content. You can watch TV series (try not to read the subtitles), listen to English music and look up the lyrics, subscribe to English podcasts, and familiarize yourself with the intonation and pronunciation of the speakers.

3. SPEAKING (20 minutes, 6 questions)

Your task: give personal opinions on a topic, summarize conversations or summarize other people's opinions.

After listening to each question, you have a few seconds to prepare your answer. Use this time to organize your ideas on paper, again using keywords.

  • In the personal opinion question, you do not have to tell the truth. Use your imagination and make up a fictitious but coherent answer if ideas do not come to mind as quickly as you would like. Remember that time is running out and the important thing is not whether you are for or against a topic, but how effective you are in communicating this idea.
  • As you study for the rest of the sections, collect in a notebook useful phrases that you think will help you express your ideas during the speaking section. Repeat these phrases out loud several times, as if you were having a conversation with yourself.
  • Use the material from the other sections to reinforce your speaking. How? When you write your essay and have corrected it, read it out loud. When reviewing texts for the reading section, read them aloud. When practicing for the listening section, pay attention to intonation and read the texts aloud.
  • Find a conversation group in your city, sign up to volunteer to be a tour guide, or do some other activity where you will be forced to speak English.

4. WRITING (50 minutes, 2 essays)

Your assignment: write one essay based on reading/audio and another where you express your personal opinion about a topic.

  • Use your preparation book to familiarize yourself with the type of questions you will be asked to answer in this section. From the list of questions you see, choose the topic that most appeals to you first so that you will be motivated to write about it.
  • Research the generic structure of an essay (introduction, body, and conclusion) and of a paragraph (introductory idea, supporting ideas, thesis statement). Once you are clear on this structure, use it as a template for all your essays!
  • Have at hand a list of ¨keywords¨ (connectors, verbs, etc), another list of ¨keyphrases¨ ("according to the speaker/lecturer....", "the reading states...") and a dictionary to flesh out your ideas effectively.
  • Before you start writing, put together a draft of the arguments you will make in your essay. Once you are clear about the structure of an essay and the ideas you will present, writing it will be much smoother.
  • Once you are familiar with the type of questions and are confident that you have gained some writing skills, start measuring the time it takes to write each essay.
  • Revise your texts critically, always analyzing how you can improve them. If you can, share your work with a friend who can help you with corrections.
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Final tips: other TOEFL advice

  • Familiarize yourself with the test format (time per section, answer formats, the logic of the questions, etc.). This way you will not waste time on test day digesting the information you already know and you will be able to ration your time for each question more efficiently. There are TOEFL simulators, in books and online.
  • Complete several mock exams before taking the final exam. Remember, practice makes perfect.
  • It is not enough to know English. What you need for these exams is, in addition to practice, to have a toolkit or set of phrases, words, grammatical, and writing structures that you will naturally use to answer each question. Be sure to assemble this toolkit from your first practice.
  • Develop skills during your preparation period. These skills are key to your success on the TOEFL. These entail quick note-taking, speed reading, understanding texts or audios guided by context, paraphrasing, putting together an essay template in a matter of seconds, etc. Make sure that constant practice leads you to develop these critical skills.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and eat well before the exam. You will be sitting in front of a computer for about 4 hours and these are the last things you should be worrying about.
  • Finally, give your best effort on test day! Remember that by day zero the TOEFL will be familiar territory for you and the only new thing you will encounter will be the topic around which the questions will revolve. You already know the timing, the methodology, and the tools to solve each section. Trust yourself and before you start, talk to yourself and repeat: let's do this!
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