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10 tips to help prepare for the TOEFL exam

Sean Campbell
Last Updated: 2 August 2021 • 6 min read

Given the importance of the TOEFL exam to those who wish to study abroad, it’s natural that it can be a daunting prospect. But it doesn’t have to be as frightening as you think. As with just about every task, preparing the right way and familiarising yourself with the process will help dispel any nerves. 

Fortunately, I’ve taught TOEFL to hundreds of students, and along the way I’ve picked up some great tips to prepare for the TOEFL exam. 

  1. Get to know the format
  2. Pick up a study guide
  3. Create a study routine
  4. Read and listen to English outside of TOEFL
  5. Practice speaking (even to yourself)
  6. Practice timed writing
  7. Practice note taking
  8. Practice test, practise test, practice test
  9. Make a game of it
  10. Don’t forget the QWERTY keyboard

1. Get to know the format

No matter how great your English may be, it’s still possible to be thrown off by the format of a test. Spend some time on the official TOEFL site to get familiar with the way it works, and to find out any information you need. Know that there are two ways for you to take the test --the internet based test (or iBT), and the paper-based test. The former is much more popular nowadays, and it’s likely the one you’ll be doing. But just in case, here’s how each is set out. 

The internet based test follows this format:

  • Reading (36-56 questions; 60-80 minutes)

  • Listening (34-51 questions; 60-90 minutes)

  • Speaking (6 tasks; 20 minutes)

  • Writing (2 essays; 50 minutes) 

On the other hand, the paper-based test takes the following format:

  • Listening (50 questions; 30-40 minutes)

  • Writing (40 questions; 25 minutes)

  • Reading (50 questions; 55 minutes)

  • Test of Written English (1 essay; 30 minutes)

By simply becoming more familiar with the layout of the test, you’ll feel much more prepared and know better what to expect on the day. 

2. Pick up a study guide

Another fantastic way of preparing for TOEFL is by getting your hands on a study guide. A good TOEFL book will walk you through all the sections, giving sound advice, strategy pointers, practice questions and example answers. There’s a whole range of good TOEFL books out there, and a whole load of not-so-good ones too. Luckily for you, we’ve written about the best ones here

3. Create a study routine

... Well in advance of your test ideally. By drawing up a schedule and sticking to it, you’ll save so much time and get a lot more done. Rather than procrastinating for five hours, simply put your head down and study for one or two. I’d recommend starting off with just an hour each day (if your test is a few months away), then as your test comes closer, perhaps ramp this up to two or three hours. In the final week before your exam, you can lighten the schedule again, just spending an hour or less fine tuning your skills. 

Ideally, you’ll not have to “cram” for your exam, as you’ll be well prepared thanks to your routine. 

4. Read and listen to English outside of TOEFL

Not all of your TOEFL revision has to be TOEFL-specific. After all, this is a test that gauges your real world English, not just your grammatical accuracy. By exposing yourself to everyday English, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of “passive learning”. Try reading novels or comic books, watching YouTube videos and movies, and even listening to songs. It’s not only entertaining, but you’ll accidentally learn a lot too. 

 5. Practice speaking (even to yourself)

Speaking a language is often the hardest part for most of us. It’s not that it’s technically so difficult, but it can be embarrassing if we lack confidence. As well as that, when we speak we don’t have so much time to think, and so we can make mistakes. 

But here’s something to remember: Every single speaker in the world, no matter their language, makes mistakes. Trust me -- I make mistakes all the time when I speak in English. It’s the language I raised in! I’ll bet you too, make mistakes in your first language. But we don’t let them bother us because we’re usually more confident. 

With that in mind, try to get some speaking practice in. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to another person, talk to yourself! In the TOEFL iBT, you’ll be speaking into a microphone after all, and nobody will be listening to you live. 

 6. Practice timed writing

Writing under a time limit can be stressful. I remember when I sat exams at school and university -- I’d spend most of the time just thinking of an idea, and then I’d have to furiously write my essay in fifteen minutes just to beat the deadline! 

One thing I’ve always encouraged my students to do is to sometimes set time limits when they practice writing. This will help you manage your time better, allowing a certain amount for planning your writing, enough time to actually write the thing, and enough to check your work over when you’re done. 

7. Practice note taking

In the TOEFL test, you only get one chance to listen to each audio clip before answering questions or having to speak about them. With that in mind, you’ll have to take notes as the clip plays, to remind yourself what was said. But very few people can write at the speed of speech, so becoming a keen note taker is key. 

Luckily, I have a little hack for you -- key word notes. 

Here’s an example. The sentence, “My name is Sean, I’m thirty years old and I’m from Ireland,” has 12 words, and it took me at least 10 seconds to write, yet just 3 seconds to say! 

But what’s the key information? Sean, thirty, Ireland. Make it even shorter in your notes: Sean, 30, Ire. By only making a note of the key information, you can piece the rest together logically in your head. 

Start off by listening to simple audio clips on YouTube or elsewhere. Practice taking down the key info, while making sure that you still understand the clip at large. When you’re done listening, try to use these notes to piece together the story or clip again. 

You can even take notes in your own language if it’s easier for you. As you practise more, increase the difficulty level and see how you do. 

8. Practice test, practise test, practice test

I can’t stress this one enough. Once every week or two, or maybe even more regularly, set some time aside to complete not just practice questions, but a full practice test. This is again to help familiarise yourself with the entire test experience, as well as giving yourself a chance to hone your technique and skill. 

Practice really is the very best preparation. By the time your actual test comes around, you’ll be so used to the experience that you’ll not be put off by any part of it. 

9. Make a game of it

Test preparation doesn’t have to be all discipline, focus and pressure all the time. When you get the chance to lighten up the work a little, take it! 

The thing about turning learning into a game is that it makes it more memorable, making a greater impact than simply reading something in a study guide. 

For things like learning vocabulary, try playing some Scrabble, Pictionary or 30 Seconds. For speaking practice, try to memorize the lyrics of a song and record yourself. Do whatever makes it fun and memorable!

10. Don’t forget the QWERTY keyboard

This is one that I never appreciated until an ex student told me. The QWERTY computer keyboard is challenging if you’re not used to it. I grew up with it, and so I’ve taken it for granted ever since I learned to type. 

If you’re taking the TOEFL iBT though, you’ll be doing so on one of these keyboards, so try to get as much practice in as possible. The last thing you want is to run out of time for an essay because you’ve been typing slowly!

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