Monday, June 09, 2014 at 1am

Four TOEFL Tips for Test Success

Four TOEFL Tips for Test Success main image

Hugo Varela

Achieving a good TOEFL score is a mandatory requirement for applicants to academic programs in the US who don’t come from an English-speaking background and haven’t previously studied in an Anglophone environment.

Preparation for the exam will differ depending on each test-taker’s abilities, skills and experience. However, there are a few basic things that it is important to get right. Here are my four top TOEFL tips…

1. Get familiar with the TOEFL exam

The first of my TOEFL tips is to learn about the exam itself; its structure, the time allotted to each section and how you are expected to address the different types of question.

This is essential, since exam preparation is not only about having the proper English skills, but also about knowing how to tackle the exam itself. It does not matter whether you are a native-level speaker if, in the end, you do not answer the questions properly and in the time you are given. Maybe you have no trouble maintaining a conversation in English, but you might have some when asked to think about who is you favorite musician and why in 15 seconds, and then articulate a compelling response regarding the matter in other 45 seconds. It may even be hard to do so in your native language.

So, a good test-taker will not only have decent English skills, but will also take his or her time to learn about the exam and the best way to address each question type successfully as fast as possible.

A good first step is to visit the ETS website.

2. Practice English

There are people used to speaking and reading in English who do so fairly well, that I know have scored below what they expected in the TOEFL exam, and below what could seem reasonable knowing their experience using English language. This is mostly because they took the exam with very little or no practice at all. As mentioned above, TOEFL is first and foremost an exam and, as in every other exam, improvement comes with exam preparation.

This brings me to the next of my TOEFL tips: don´t simply trust in your previous knowledge of English language; practice English until you constantly get high scores (or above-your-target scores) in every section of the test, feel comfortable facing each question type and writing about any topic.

For this purpose, there is a wide array of resources and materials available. An exam preparation course may not be necessary for everyone, but it is always advisable to have a book or some kind of guide that includes information and tips about each section and question type. One of the best is The Complete Guide to TOEFL IBT by Bruce Rodgers, as it includes detailed explanations and examples for each section and question type, keys and tips on how to best answer the questions, words or expressions to broaden your vocabulary and increase your score, and two complete mock tests. Another commonly used book is Cambridge Preparation for the TOEFL Test. There are also several websites that offer free resources, practice questions and tests.

3. Take every opportunity to improve your English skills

In addition to exam preparation and practicing the specific questions and topics tested in the exam, there is a lot that can be done in order to sharpen your English skills.

For those that like movies or TV shows, there is always the possibility of watching them in English. This will help you practice English listening and speaking abilities and strengthen both skills as you listen to new words and expressions that will become part of your vocabulary. Newspapers or magazines in English are easy to find through the internet, and they include many articles that cover topics you will find in the exam. And also starting a blog could be a great way to practice English writing, and get faster at it.

Something I would strongly recommend is to watch a couple TED talks per week, as they usually cover topics frequently featured in the TOEFL. This will help you practice English while improving your listening and note-taking skills (critical to succeed at this section).

4. Control your anxiety

When you practice English with mock exercises you gain self-confidence, but nothing can prepare you for that moment when you find yourself in front of the computer screen, about to start the exam. No matter how many questions or practice tests you have taken at home, deep down you know that those do not count, so you can never feel the anxiety or nerves that usually appear on exam day, when it really counts, and that can affect your performance in a very significant way.

The final of these TOEFL tips is, therefore, to do everything in your power to control your nerves. First, try to have a good night of sleep, since the exam will last for three to four hours, and a lack of stamina at the end of the test can kill your chances of getting a really great score. It is also very important to arrive early to the test center. Before entering the exam room every test taker has to read the instructions and go through the security procedure and there will also be many more test takers in line. So plan accordingly, as having to rush to the test center will only make you more nervous. Besides, if you arrive a little earlier you might be allowed in the room before schedule, and sometimes even be the first there, which will make it easier for you to focus.

Once the exam has begun, try not to lose focus. This is especially important in the speaking section, because there is less time to think and, therefore, anxiety or distractions can play a more significant role. In fact, it is usually the most feared part of the exam for most test takers. It is also advisable to take notes as you read or listen to conversations to keep track and organize your ideas.

About Hugo Varela

Hugo Varela is a pharmacist from Madrid (Spain), presently working as a resident pharmaceutical intern at La Paz-Madrid Hospital. Once he finishes his residency, he aims to enter a top MBA program in a US school. He blogs as a means for sharing his experiences 

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