toefl guide

How difficult is the TOEFL?

James Liu October 12th, 2021

Whenever talking about an exam, a question always comes up. It's "how difficult is the exam?" It is no difference with the TOEFL. Before taking the test, many test takers wonder about the difficulty level of the TOEFL. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to that question.  TOEFL is a language test and real research has proved that it is very difficult to scientifically determine the difficulty level of a language. However, we will try our best to estimate the difficulty level of the TOEFL with all the information we know.

How hard is the Reading Section?

Generally, the TOEFL reading section is designed so that the difficulty level is similar to authentic American news sources. Yet, the subject matter and vocabulary used are not exactly the same, since the TOEFL is aiming at a more academic approach. There are not as many history and science articles in the news as in the TOEFL.

Compared to the news, it is said that the academic focus is what makes TOEFL slightly more difficult than the average written text that Americans face in everyday situations. According to a study in 2012, this higher level of difficulty of the TOEFL is due to the academic vocabulary, especially with the scientific articles. However, on the other hand, that also does not mean that the TOEFL will always be harder for you. The fact that TOEFL only talks about academic subjects and use university level academic vocabulary may work in your favor depending on your native language. Many academic vocabularies, especially the scientific ones, have Latin roots. So if your native language also has Latin roots such as Spanish, French, Italian, may find many academic vocabularies are easier to guess than conversational English. If your native language is not Latin-based, then the academic language of TOEFL does make it harder for you because academic terms are not often used in daily conversation and you may have never heard of the words before.

Besides materials, the reading section can also be difficult because of the limited time given. As said earlier, TOEFL reading articles can be more difficult than conversational English because of all the academic vocabulary. However, if you want to succeed in TOEFL reading, you should be able to read academic articles roughly at the same pace as if you are reading conversational, daily English. Within 20 minutes, you need to read about 750 words and answer 14 multiple choices.

How hard is the Listening Section?

To many people, listening section is the hardest section in the TOEFL. Reading section has the most difficult vocabulary, but listening is the hardest for many people because of two major issues.

1) The recordings in the listening sections are generally slower than natural speech. But besides the speed, everything else is completely natural about the conversations and speech, which means, besides all the necessary information, you will also hear things like "Uhmm", "like", or "you know”. You need to be able to pick them out to filter only necessary information.

2) Some recordings are short, some are long. Regardless of the length, you only get to listen to the recordings once. You also need to take notes while fully paying attention to the listening. And sometimes, when the recordings are too long, it is harder to pay attention for the whole amount of time.

On the other hand, the listening section is not more difficult than natural speech or American and British conversations. During a TV show, for example, the character can use many more slangs and speak way faster. However, the listening section is still very hard because of the amount of information you have to retain by the end of the speech in order to successful all the questions. So besides the listening itself, there is a lot of attention and memorization involved.

How hard are the Speaking and Writing sections?

These two sections go together into one analysis section in this post because they are equally hard to determine their level of difficulty. That is because of the integration between skills in these two sections. The TOEFL does not only expect you to speak well or write well but they also judge your ability to receive information through other skills and process the info into speeches and essays. And the second reason why it is hard to determine the difficulty level of these two sections is because there is no solidly right and wrong answer. It all depends on how you organizes and explains for you answers.

For the integration section, the difficulty level is only a little higher than the reading and listening sections, since you technically use the same skills and knowledge to help you through the integration section. However, you need to do one step further that is to process and re-organize the information to create your own essays or speeches. That is what makes it a little more difficult.

However, on the other hand, you can determine your own level of difficulty with questions that do not require you to gather information from readings or recordings. With a question such as "Name a person who you always look up to and explain why." Depending on your level of English, you can answer this question in simple ways using familiar vocabulary and easy sentence structures, or make it difficult with more complicated word choices and structures. It is all up to you.

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