toefl guide

How to score high in TOEFL

Kayla C. October 12th, 2021

Unlike most exams or tests, when it comes to the TOEFL there is no passing or failing. What you do get is a score for each section and the test as a whole. You can then compare it to the basic entry requirements of any colleges or universities you are applying to. If you are trying to apply to multiple colleges/universities, then it is advised to strive for the highest required TOEFL score.

Are you unsure about where to start?  The following guide can help you achieve a higher TOEFL score.

How to score high in TOEFL speaking

If you want to achieve a score above 26/30 on the TOEFL, then you will need to improve communication, pronunciation, language usage, and topic development.

Pronunciation and tone of voiceA student seems to be having issues with their pronunciation and/or tone when speaking in English. A TOEFL iBT pronunciation specialist can listen to the student speaking to determine what the student needs to work on most. The speaking specialist will then provide specific lessons for the student to follow. 

Grammar and vocabularyIf you struggle with your grammar and vocabulary, then you should complete both an independent and integrated speaking practice test, daily. Once you complete enough of these tests, your speaking responses should be evaluated by a TOEFL iBT speaking specialist. This is so the speaking specialist can determine what you need the most help in.For example:A student completes a few independent speaking practice tests. The speaking specialist begins to notice that the student is avoiding or misusing adjective clauses. The specialist will then help the student learn how to rephrase the sentence to be more complex and accurate.A TOEFL speaking specialist notices that the student is using mainly basic English vocabulary or is struggling to find the right word to say. The speaking specialist will then give recommendations for alternative synonyms. This is so the student will learn more English vocabulary and score higher on the TOEFL speaking section.In both cases, the TOEFL iBT speaking specialist will recommend a variety of specific grammar and vocabulary lessons. These lessons will help the student achieve a higher score for the speaking section of the TOEFL.

Communication and topic developmentIf you need to improve your topic development and communication, you will need to complete an independent and integrated speaking practice test. This is so a TOEFL iBT speaking specialist can determine whether or not you are having problems organizing and developing ideas.You will need to learn how to coherently organize your ideas. Knowing how to coherently organize your thoughts and idea is so your audience can distinguish between your most important and least important ideas.Example:A student is unable to create sharply-focused topic statements, or the details they are trying to use are not specific enough to strongly support the generalizations. A TOEFL speaking specialist will determine what the student is missing or needs to correct. The specialist will then be able to help teach the student how to organize their ideas more effectively, as well as how to provide more relevant supporting details.

How to score high in TOEFL Listening

Listen for the main idea(s) in the lectureExpect the first question after almost every lecture to be a question about the main idea of the lecture. These types of questions are very common, so it is important to listen for the main idea. At the beginning of every listening passage, the professor usually mentions what the main topic of the lecture will be about. However, sometimes the topic might be branched into something more specific.Make sure you pay attention to the main idea of the lecture at the beginning and be mindful when the topic changes!Sample question:Q. What was the lecture mainly about?a. A comparison of two types of detective novelsb. Ways in which detective novels have changed over timec. The Moonstone as a model for later detective novelsd. Flaws that can be found in the plot of The Moonstone


Listen to the speaker’s tone of voice or changes in intonationSometimes you will encounter questions that are about the speaker’s attitude or opinion. To answer these questions correctly, you need to pay attention to the speaker’s tone of voice.For example, does the speaker sounds excited, confused, or sad?Sample question:Q. What can be inferred about the professor when he says this: “Uh, it’s hard at this juncture to read this novel and realize that no one had ever done that before because it all seems so strikingly familiar.”a. He is impressed by the novel’s originality.b. He is concerned that students may find the novel difficult to read.c. He is bored by the novel’s descriptions of ordinary events.d. He is eager to write a book about a less familiar subject 

Listen to how the ideas are connected throughout the lectureWhen listening to the lectures, make sure you take lots of notes about the way the ideas in the lectures are connected. Pay attention to how the professor organized the lecture. Taking these notes will help you in case you encounter a question asking about how the lecture is organized. You can then refer back to your notes for the answer.Some of the main relations between ideas include cause and effect, compare and contrast, and steps in a process. 

Listen for the key points of the lecture instead of specific detailsTOEFL listening questions are not going to test you on the specific or small details. You won’t see any questions that are about a specific year, name, or location. Instead, you may see questions that will test your understanding of various key points mentioned in the lectures.Sample questions:Q. In what way is The Moonstone different from earlier works featuring a detective?a. In its unusual endingb. In its unique charactersc. In its focus on a serious crimed. In its greater lengthQ. According to the professor, what do the roses in The Moonstone represent?a. A key clue that leads to the solving of the mysteryb.  A relief and comfort to the detectivec.  A romance between the main charactersd. Brilliant ideas that occur to the detective 

Listen for any and all signal words that indicate different parts of the lectureTo help you capture the various key points in the lectures, you need to learn how to listen for specific signal words or transition words. These signal words are like the road signs that tell you what is about to come next in the lecture. Signal words can tell you the beginning or the ending of a topic. They can also help you move through the middle of the lecture by introducing other topics. 

Useful study methods to help you improve your TOEFL listening scoreWhen it comes to passing the listening section of the TOEFL, you are most likely not going to benefit much from watching movies/ TV shows or listening to music in English.The most effective way to prepare for the TOEFL listening section is to listen to various types of academic English material. Since this will be what you encounter on the official TOEFL listening portion of the test. A great example of academic English is listening to English documentaries or listening to audible recordings of academic literature in English.Once you have all of your  TOEFL listening practice materials at hand, you will then need a systematic studying method to achieve your desired score for this section of the TOEFL.

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How to score high in TOEFL writing

Being able to express yourself clearly in writing is an essential skill, both inside and outside the classroom. It is a skill you will definitely need to have if you want to attend an English-speaking university. Most universities and colleges require students to write multiple academic essays and/or other academic-related works such as case-studies or a thesis. If your writing isn’t well-structured and fluent, then your grades will suffer.

This is the main point of the TOEFL writing section. The TOEFL writing section's main goal is to ensure that you are well equipped to flourish in an academic environment.

It can be hard to write in a language that is not your first language, but you don't need to worry as many people struggle with this too.The key to scoring well on the writing section of the TOEFL is to understand what the TOEFL requires. Once you determine the TOEFL writing rubric and standards you can then hone your academic writing skills. If you want to score high on the writing section of the TOEFL then you will need to spend time perfecting your English academic writing.

Unsure of how to improve your writing? Here we provide you with five basic writing tips that can help you perfect your academic writing skills:

Learn how to properly structure your essay 

All of your answers in the written section of the TOEFL will be in essay format. A decently written essay breaks down into three essential parts:

The introduction – a brief paragraph consisting of two or five sentences that introduce the main topic. It should also present a thesis that is a direct response to the question asked. You should also include two to three main ideas that will be discussed in the body of the essay.

The body – two to three paragraphs that support your thesis statement. Each paragraph should cover one main idea.

The conclusion – a short paragraph of three to five sentences that summarizes your thesis and draws conclusions and readdressed the key points of your essay.

If you want to do well on the TOEFL, you must be able to organize your thoughts quickly and structure them well in an essay so that what you have written is easy to understand and read. It is advised to create an outline first and then write your essay using the outline as a guide.

2.) Get used to picking sides on an issue

TOEFL essays often require students to pick a side on a particular issue, articulate a thesis, and then support the thesis with clear writing.One of the best ways to prepare for the written portion of the exam is to learn how to evaluate a topic. You should try to pick the argument that will give you the best chance of writing a compelling essay. What often surprises many students is that they do not have to agree with the thesis they are proposing.Once you pick the topic you want to write about, you can then brainstorm a few ideas for each side of the issue. Then you pick the side that you feel has the most compelling arguments.If you are unsure about what topics are given on the TOEFL, you can easily find lists of typical TOEFL topics online and use them to practice. The more you practice writing about various topics the higher the chance is that you will score well in this section of the exam.

3.) Focus on the quality of the writing rather than quantity of words

Writing a long essay is not necessary. The quality of your writing shouldn't suffer as a result of writing a long response. You will be better off keeping your written responses short so as to assure a quality essay. The structure and clarity of your written responses will determine your TOEFL writing score.As you prepare for the written portion of the exam, your main goal should be to get as comfortable as you can with the process of writing. You should strive for a clear and compelling essay that supports your main argument. It is not unheard of for short essays to get a higher score than the longer essays.

4.) Practice writing different sentence structures

Academic writing must be clear, but it shouldn't be too simple either. If you have read any well-written essay, you will notice that the sentence structure varies. Some sentences are short and straightforward, while others are can be long and more complex.

You don’t have to know all the ways to structure a sentence, but it is a good idea to study sentences and have a few structures that you can easily use correctly.

5.) Learn how to proofread and edit your own writing

If you have a few minutes after you finish writing an essay, use that remaining time to read over your essay and edit it as needed. It is fairly common, even for native English speakers, to make mistakes as they write. Sometimes we think faster than we can write. This can result in using improper grammar, poor punctuation, poor sentence structure or vocabulary.Some of the most common writing mistakes to look for are:

  1. Spelling errors, including improper use of homonyms
  2. Punctuation errors
  3. Subject/verb agreement
  4. Repetitive words or phrases
  5. Poor sentence structure or run on sentences
  6. Improper use of a vocabulary word 

Make sure you read slowly and carefully over what you have written. This will help you catch any mistakes and allow you to correct as much as you can within the remaining time that you have. Attention to detail can make a huge difference in your final writing score.

In addition to these five tips, you should always try to write in English every day. Keeping a journal or diary can help you with your writing. All you need to do is spend at least five minutes writing about your day before you go to bed.

The more ways you apply your English grammar and vocabulary, the better your writing skills will be.

How to score high in TOEFL reading

1.) Improve your reading speed

Time is of the essence when it comes to the TOEFL. In fact, having good timing and the ability to pace yourself well can make or break your TOEFL score. In other sections of the exam, time is specifically called out. For example, when you are speaking, you will have 15 seconds to prepare an answer and 45 seconds to record it. In the Listening section, you can only hear the dialogue when it is played out to you.

The reading section, however, is where having a sense of time and pace will be left up to you. You will need to judge how much time you have left to complete the required readings and answer the questions. This can be a bit tricky because you will be dealing with three to four difficult texts that may be difficult to understand.

The TOEFL reading section can have up to 56 questions for 3 to 4 passages, and the maximum time given for the whole section is 80 minutes. What this basically means is you will only have 5 minutes to read each text and approximately 1 minute to answer each question. If you want to have more time to answer the questions, then you will need read each passage in just 3 to 4 minutes.  Also, you will probably want to read each passage multiple times to adequately answer the questions given.

To do well on the TOEFL reading section, you will need to improve your reading speed. As you study and practice, try to time yourself. Take note of how long it takes you to go through a given passage. You may notice that you slow down when your level of comprehension drops down. Don't worry this is perfectly normal and fixable!

When you understand less, you end up needing to slow down and read more carefully. Everyone reads at a different pace even native English speakers. What you will need to do is to make your reading pace slightly faster for this specific test-taking situation. This is so you can get through the reading section and have enough time to answer the questions for each passage.

In order to improve your reading comprehension, you should try to read from various sources. The TOEFL-style academic passages are just one source you can use.  Other sources for English language material are English literature, newspapers, and magazines. When you read a variety of English writing styles you become more comfortable with the English language and you will improve your reading speed too.

2.) Work on your reading comprehension speed

Once you have worked on your reading speed and are comfortable with reading a variety of complex English passages in less than 4 minutes, you can now move on to reading comprehension.An important test-taking strategy is to teach yourself to remain calm and avoid stressing out when you come across a word you don't know. The reading section will be full of unfamiliar words. The TOEFL  puts in these unfamiliar words on purpose.

The reading section will ask you to determine the meaning of a word or use context clues to determine the unfamiliar words meaning. This is what the TOEFL reading section is mainly testing for. The TOEFL is not testing your ability to memorize a thesaurus. It is instead testing your skill at dealing with vocabulary words that you do not know.

Not knowing a word is normal, and is often expected from non-native English speakers. When you come across a word you don't understand, you might try to check an online translating tool, translating app or consult a dictionary. These types of tools are not always available. You also waste time when you panic or get hung up on an unfamiliar word.

When this happens you need to relax, skip the unknown word and continue reading. More often than not, you will find the meaning of the whole text to be fairly easy to understand, even if you were unable not understand a few of the words.3.) Learn specific vocabulary by making a variety of vocabulary lists

You should always strive to broaden your vocabulary. This will help you to lessen the chances of stumbling over unfamiliar words.  As you study for the reading section of the TOEFL, whether you are at home, on a work break or in class, go ahead and try to look up any words you don’t understand.

While you practice for the reading section of the TOEFL, try to read each and every passage completely without having to look up any words. Once you have read the whole text and tried to understand everything on your own, then you may look up any unfamiliar words. This is similar to the actual TOEFL reading section of the test.

It is important to make a list of unfamiliar words and translate them using an English-to-English dictionary. You must avoid any temptation to use a dictionary which translates words from the English language into your native language. Using these dictionaries too much can cause you to become too reliant and hinder your ability to expand your vocabulary.

The English-to-English dictionary can be very helpful. It gives you a clear English explanation for the word you do not understand and will help you familiarize yourself with synonyms (words that are similar in meaning) and antonyms (words that have opposite meanings).

Being able to recognize these types of words will come in handy for the TOEFL reading section and improve your English language skills too. Your vocabulary will grow and so will your confidence. By the time you get to your test day, you will have a much larger English vocabulary to help you out.

4.) You must keep moving, don't stop!

The TOEFL is a test after all, so timing is extremely important.

When it comes to the reading section of the exam, you must remember that you will not have more than 4 minutes per passage. Do not get hung up on every passage. Avoid stopping as much as possible. You have to keep moving no matter what!

There are 3 to 4 passages in the TOEFL reading section, and you are will most likely feel more comfortable with some of the reading passages over others.

Some passages will seem harder and some will seem easier. Skim each passage, note keywords in the sentences and remember to leave the unfamiliar terms behind. Bear in mind that the TOEFL reading passages may contain words that even native English speakers don’t typically know.

Also, the TOEFL is can be very specific.

You may see questions on the TOEFL that look like this: “The word X on line Y is closest in meaning to…” with four choices of words following. Most of the choices will either sound similar or have very similar meanings. You will need to read the text carefully in order to identify the correct answer.

5.) Use the line numbering provided on the TOEFL

The TOEFL numbers ever fifth line in each of the passages. This is meant to help you navigate quickly to the words or sentences referred to in the questions. Practice locating specific lines by the numbers provided. This will help prevent you from wasting time on the exam.

When starting the actual TOEFL, make sure you take a deep breath and remain calm throughout the reading section of the test. With all these tips, lessons, practice and so on provided in this guide, you are bound to get the high TOEFL score you worked hard for!


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