Score 100+ in TOEFL iBT®— tips and resources
It’s a dream for many students worldwide, especially from developing nations, to pursue their undergrad, post-grad or doctorate from a top university in a developed country. But the process is not straightforward as there are a number of things to be done in terms of preparation and application, which is for sure a time-consuming exercise. One of the important requirements in the process to secure a seat for your desired program is the TOEFL test.
Test in a Nutshell
TOEFL stands for — Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is a family of English language assessments and this article talks about the iBT (internet based test) version of the TOEFL. The test aims to evaluate your preparedness to succeed in conversations in the English language in an academic setting. The test comprises 4 sections namely — reading, listening, speaking and writing.
Each of the sections has a maximum mark of 30 making the total test of 120 marks. The time duration for these sections is not uniform. The test can be taken in 3 modes: a computer at a test centre, a computer at home (Home Edition) or on paper. This article talks about the test in a conventional test centre setup on a computer. All the questions will be displayed on the screen and you will be provided with a headphone to listen to the listening section conversations and to record your speaking section answers. The writing section answers have to be typed using the keyboard. More about the test can be found on the ETS official website.
Purpose in application
The test serves as a filtering criterion for universities in the application process which means that all the scores above the cut-off are the same. But here comes the twist. The cut-off scores vary a lot with different universities in different countries. Hence, you cannot really prepare to aim for a specific cut-off score. Nevertheless, a score of 100 or more will guarantee that you clear 99.99% of the cut-off all throughout the world. I gave the TOEFL iBT last year around the end of October scoring a 100+ and understanding the nuisances of the preparation and time-consuming process of finding the correct resources, I wanted to write this blog to help the students save time (my scores are disclosed at the end). As a disclaimer, the blog is based on my personal experience and advice. I would be more than happy if you could share your comments, agreeing or disagreeing.
Assessing the difficulty
The test is one of the costliest tests I have ever given with a test fee of around $190 (~₹14,600) in India. One would likely link the cost of the test with the difficulty level but it’s not linked in reality. The difficulty of the test is not really high if you have a general reading-writing understanding of English. Challenges arise for candidates from non-native speaking countries like India, Bangladesh, etc. Though the questions are not difficult given a decent knowledge of the language, the cost of the exam does create pressure that if your time management or knowledge fails you in the exam, you would have to give it again as you cannot risk your application. The TOEFL score cannot ensure your admission but for sure could sabotage it if the cut-off is not reached.
Planning and Resources
With planning ahead of preparation and accumulating resources to focus on, one can easily avert the risk of failing to score well and re-spending for the exam. There are tons of resources present on the internet for free but at the same time, they are not necessarily in an ordered manner. In my opinion, you wouldn’t have to go for paid resources to prepare as I will provide some of the best online free resources for the same.
Each of the sections requires a dedicated understanding of the format of the questions and the duration of the section. The test is around 3 hrs long (excluding a 10 mins break after the first 2 sections) and hence each minute counts. If you are not prepared for the format well in advance, the test can overwhelm you. The format can be understood using the official — The TOEFL iBT ® Test Prep Planner.
Not going in the details of every question type asked and directly jumping in the tips for each section:
Reading section: you will be given passages to read and answer questions based on it. Points to focus (links to resources given in brackets):
- Improve vocabulary to understand texts that are not scientific in nature as well. (link1, link2).
- Improve your reading ability and record your reading time to assess yourself. Read articles and blogs focusing on scientific aspects and discussions (https://magoosh.com/toefl/toefl-science-reading-practice/).
Listening section: this section will require practicing note taking while listening to the conversations. These notes will help you answer the questions that follows. Note taking tips are mentioned towards the end of the article.
- Regularly listen to English podcasts to improve your listening abilities (link1, link2).
- Practice using timed test sets given in official preparation guide (link to access it free given later).
- Watching movies, web series, news, etc., in English can be a entertaining way to prepare as well.
Speaking section: this is a relatively shorter section in duration but one of the most important in terms of deciding your score and stress level for the writing section. You answers spoken into the microphone of the headset will be saved for evaluation.
- The format of the question is well specified which means that with sufficient practice, i.e. atleast 5 times the entire section, you will not ruin the actual test.
- Due to fixed format it is highly suggested to use a template. If you are good at using your template, I would predict you will never face nervousness given any speaking task.
- Do not use phrases like — aa, umm, etc., and try to pace out your speech giving yourself enough time to think and speak. For example, if your speech has variations in pace, it would force you to run out of your next words and you will inevitably take an abrupt pause, that might lead to stammering.
- Tips for scoring well in the section — https://tstprep.com/articles/toefl/ten-awesome-tips-for-the-speaking-section-of-the-toefl/.
Writing section: this section is easier than other sections if you know how to organize your thoughts and type them out fast.
- Since your answer is to be typed on the computer using keyboard, you must get comfortable with typing continuously for an hour straight.
- If you have a slow typing speed, try typing down your thoughts on varied topics, 2 topics each day. Try to write around 300 words per topic.
- You must try completing atleast 5 sample writing section from the official guide.
After preparing for these sections separately, the next step should be practice all 4 sections in one go atleast 2–3 times to simulate the real test situation. The real test with one section after the other can be much more challenging that estimated by practicing individual sections. ETS provides you with 1 such online test that you can practice multiple times with the same set of questions each time. It also provides sample questions for different sections. But you will need more sample tests than these to practice.
The official TOEFL guides created by ETS are the best source to get acquainted with real exam questions but these are paid books. Nevertheless, these can be accessed online from various websites like https://libgen.is/.
- The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test — Fourth Edition
- Official TOEFL iBT Tests — Second Edition (free GUI version available link)
These two books have a total of 8 complete tests. The GUI version will familiarize you with the real test environment. You must note that the book is based on an earlier pattern and you should understand the current pattern from the official The TOEFL iBT ® Test Prep Planner.
There are plenty of websites providing free material for TOEFL preparation but only some of them resemble the actual test. Some of these are:
- BestMyTest YouTube channel — contains videos for preparation and note-taking for each section separately.
- MagooshTOEFL YouTube channel — excellent explanatory videos of TOEFL iBT.
All the sections, except the reading section, will require you to take notes to answer the questions. This maybe the thoughts of the speaker in a conversation, points talked about in a lecture, opinion of a student on an college announcement, etc. These notes will help you as you will not remember most of the things once the questions start.
NOTE: At times you will think you can answer the questions without notes but DO NOT COMMIT THIS MISTAKE.
Note taking is not so easy in terms that if you make detailed notes, you might actually miss listening to the points said in the recording and on the other hand, lesser notes might lead to missing out important information. The correct balance for you can be figured out by practicing solely. Useful links:
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_YCFu4vp4o (listening only)
The test has a fixed format with a few variations possible. This makes room to use template for the different sections such as speaking, note-taking for listening and writing tasks. In my opinion, without deviating much from the template that you have prepared for yourself, you can easily score very high.
A natural question is — do the evaluators not detect that someone is using a template? The answer is — they do. But the test does not forbid you to use it as it just analyses your ability to respond to the questions asked to demonstrate your English capability. I would also advice that trying out something new i.e. responding to a question in a way that you have not practiced prior, should be avoided. It is because it can make you nervous and panic in case it did not work well as you cannot pause the test to collect yourself after a small fumble. Some useful links:
- TOEFL Independent Writing — How to write the introductory paragraph Part 1 — YouTube
In my personal experience, trying out nothing new that what I had practiced was very fruitful and using a template did not hurt my scores at all. You can find the template that I used for my TOEFL exam through this link.
Golden Advice: You will be provided with a sharpened pencil and a blank sheet of paper (you can ask for more anytime). At the beginning of the test, take a few minutes and scribble down the template for different sections so as to eliminate the possibility of forgetting it as the exam goes by. If you have the template for say, speaking, handy and visible, it is far less likely to mess it up.
Thank you for reading it out till this point. I managed to score a 110/120 in the TOEFL iBT using the same free resources which I mentioned above. I scored a 27/30 in reading, listening and speaking and a 29/30 in writing. To understand the scoring you can go through this link (credits to Ashutosh Sahu, CSE IIT Bhilai for some images in the template).
I did not plan very well and just prepared in less than 10 days, with most sincere efforts towards the end. I would suggest to not invest more than 20 days for TOEFL exam as other exams like GRE or GMAT are more difficult and require more preparation time.
I would thank you all for devoting your time for reading the blog. I hope it was useful to some of you. I believe as a community we must share our experiences and resources as it can save significant time searching for stuff in a vast ocean called the internet. Please comment down your thoughts and hit a clap if you found it helpful.
ALL THE BEST FOR YOUR TOEFL!!!