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In this article, I’ll to share my insights from taking the TOEFL exam three times. My first encounter with TOEFL was in 2018, when I was considering undergraduate studies in the US. The second time was in 2021, right after completing my university degree, as I contemplated over pursuing a master's degree. Most recently, I sat for the TOEFL again last month. While I'm still contemplating a master's program, I decided it was prudent to update my scores since, like IELTS, TOEFL scores are valid for only two years.
Each TOEFL experience was distinct, reflecting the test's evolution over time. The 2018 version was a comprehensive 3-4 hour ordeal, complete with an experimental section that tested endurance as much as proficiency. By 2021, the exam had become slightly shorter, but it remained a challenging and fatigue-inducing experience, akin to the GRE, and still included an experimental section. The latest TOEFL removed the experimental section and makes the test very (relatively) short but the strategies, in my opinion, haven’t changed. Whether you're a first-time test-taker or looking to improve your score, I hope my experiences and advice can pave the way for your TOEFL score goal.
Before we begin, a quick background: I've studied in English-speaking institutions throughout my education and spent my early years in the US. This experience has made me as fluent in English as in my native Bengali. This fluency gives me an edge in tests like the TOEFL. If English is not your first language, you might need to put in more effort, but effective strategies can lead to success regardless of your starting point.
- Increase Attention span: In the era of short-form content, many find that their attention span has diminished, posing a challenge for the sustained concentration required in the TOEFL reading section. To counteract this, incorporate regular book reading into your preparation. Engaging with long-form content helps in gradually extending your attention span and improves your ability to concentrate on lengthy passages.
- Selective Reading Strategy: For most questions, you don't need to read the entire passage in detail. However, pay special attention to the last question, which typically asks you to select three ideas fitting a certain description. This question, worth 2 points, may require a comprehensive understanding of the passage.
- Simplicity of Vocabulary Section: If you have prepared for the GRE, you will likely find the vocabulary questions in the TOEFL relatively straightforward. This section tests basic to intermediate level words.
- Stick to the Passage: Avoid making assumptions or interpretations beyond the text. Treat the information given in the passage as the definitive source, except in questions where inference is explicitly required.
- Inference with Caution: When answering questions that ask what can be inferred from certain lines, be careful. While some level of assumption is necessary, ensure that your inferences are closely aligned with the passage's overall theme and context.
- Process of Elimination: Always consider all answer options before making your choice. Even if an answer seems immediately correct, evaluating all options can prevent careless mistakes.
- Obvious Answers: Often, the correct answer may seem apparent, but it's always advisable to double-check. This will help in avoiding overconfidence and ensures accuracy.
- Practice Skimming: Develop the skill of skimming through passages quickly to grasp the main idea. This technique saves time and helps in answering direct questions more efficiently.
- Understand Question Types: Familiarise yourself with the different types of questions asked in the reading section, such as detail, purpose, attitude, and organisation questions. This understanding will help you quickly identify what is being asked and where to find the answer in the passage.
- Use Paragraph Leads: Pay attention to the first and last sentences of paragraphs. They often contain the main idea or a summary that can guide you to answers more quickly.
- Effective Note-Taking: Develop the skill of jotting down quick, comprehensible notes. These notes should capture key points and details, aiding in recalling information for answering questions.
- Practice with Conversational Videos: Enhance your listening skills by watching videos that mimic the conversational style of the TOEFL listening section. While watching, practice taking notes and then recalling the content.
- First Response Best Response: Remember, questions in the listening section will only be asked once. Trust your initial understanding and select the option that aligns with your first impression. Changing answers frequently can lead to confusion.
- Do Not Change Scratch Paper: Avoid changing your scratch paper during the listening section. If you do, you risk losing your notes for that segment. Keep all your notes on one sheet to prevent any loss of valuable information.
- Avoid Assumptions: Similar to the reading section, base your answers strictly on what you've heard. Do not infer or assume information that wasn't explicitly stated in the audio.
- Dealing with Distractions: Be prepared for potential distractions, especially from nearby test-takers who might be in their speaking sections. Although noise-cancelling headphones are provided, their effectiveness varies. Mental preparation for this environment is crucial.
- Identify Speaker’s Purpose: Pay attention not just to what is said, but also why it's said. Understanding the speaker’s purpose can often guide you to the correct answer.
- Familiarize Yourself with Accents: The TOEFL listening section features a variety of accents. Practice listening to these accents beforehand to avoid confusion during the test.
- Listen for Signal Words: Signal words like "however," "for example," and "in conclusion" can help you anticipate what type of information will follow, which is critical for effective note-taking.
- Review Your Notes Quickly: After each listening piece and before the questions, quickly review your notes to refresh your memory. This will help you answer questions more accurately.
- Take a Definite Stand: In opinion-based questions, it's crucial to choose a side and stick to it. There's no right or wrong answer, but your ability to confidently support your opinion is what counts. Clearly state your position and back it up with solid reasons.
- Follow a Structured Format: I always adhered to a clear format in my responses. For instance, I would start by saying, "I agree with this statement for two main reasons." Then, I would elaborate: "First..." and "Second..." This format not only helped me organise my thoughts but also made my response coherent and easy for the evaluator to follow.
- Length of the Response: It's a common misconception that you must speak for the entire allotted time. In my experience, speaking for 5-8 seconds less than the stipulated time didn't hamper my score; I still achieved a 30/30. It's the quality of your response and how effectively you convey your ideas that truly matter, not just the length.
- Effective Note-Taking: Similar to the listening section, taking concise and clear notes is vital. During the conversation, jot down the main arguments and any supporting details. These notes will be a crucial reference when constructing your response, ensuring you cover all the relevant points.
- Organise with a Two-Column Table: For the integrated task, I found it incredibly helpful to create a two-column table in my notes. On the left side, I listed the author's arguments from the reading passage, and on the right side, I noted the corresponding rebuttals or comments from the listening segment. This method provided a clear visual distinction and helped in effectively organising my response.
- Structured Paragraphs for Each Argument: In my essay, I dedicated one paragraph to each argument. Each paragraph began with the general idea or main point of the author's argument, followed by a detailed description of what the author stated. Then, I included how the speaker from the listening section opposed or debated against it. This approach ensured uniformity and clarity in my response, making it easier for the evaluator to follow my line of reasoning.
- Independent Argument in the Second Task: In the independent writing task, which involves writing on an academic topic, it's essential to contribute uniquely to the discussion. While I could choose to support or oppose one of the two students' points, my response needed to stand on its own. It was critical to avoid merely summarising the students' arguments. Instead, I focused on developing an independent argument, providing a fresh perspective or additional insight into the topic.
- Use of Examples and Evidence: To strengthen my arguments, especially in the independent task, I made sure to include relevant examples and evidence. This approach not only supported my points but also demonstrated my ability to think critically and analytically about the topic.
- Clarity and Coherence: Throughout both tasks, I prioritised writing in a clear, concise, and coherent manner. I paid attention to sentence structure, grammar, and paragraph transitions to ensure that my essay was not only well-argued but also well-written. It is okay to have a few spelling mistakes but it’s always recommended to not use words you aren’t exactly sure fit the context. I had used a relatively simple set of vocabulary and got a 29 on 30.
- Time Management: Finally, effective time management was crucial. I allocated specific time slots for planning, writing, and reviewing my essays to ensure that they were comprehensive and well-polished within the given time frame.
That’s it. Thank you for reading and I hope my experiences and advice can help you score a 100+ on the TOEFL.