How to prepare for the TOEFL test

The TOEFL  is a relatively simple exam, but it can be confusing at times. It’s not enough to know English well; familiarizing yourself with the exam structure is also important. That means you must prepare thoroughly. Read on to find out the best way to prepare for the exam.

What is TOEFL? 🤔

TOEFL is the Test of English as a foreign language. This test was developed by Princeton University’s test service, ETS, and launched in 1964. As of 2016, more than 20 million individuals have taken it. 


To be accepted to a foreign university, college, or graduate school, you must demonstrate a good command of English during the entrance tests. Students take the TOEFL test to prove how well they are able to communicate with others in English. 

The test uses modern English, which is the language used in lectures and seminar sessions. Teachers use the same language when discussing practical and theoretical ideas with students.

The test is recognized in one hundred and thirty countries, including prestigious universities in the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. You can find the complete list of schools on the exam website.

There are three versions of the test:

  • Paper version aka Paper-based Test (PBT)
  • Computer-based Test (CBT)
  • Online version aka Internet-based Test (iBT)

Currently, the TOEFL iBT has completely replaced CBT, and it is the most common type of test. However, Russian students still take a paper version of this exam which continues to be published by many universities as part of the entrance requirements.

TOEFL Preparation ✨

1. Know what’s on the TOEFL Test

If you are considering taking the TOEFL test, you must be able to answer the question, “What is tested in the TOEFL exam?” It’s the first step before you get to crafting a study plan. The TOEFL internet-based test includes Reading, listening, speaking, and writing tasks. The examination will last approximately 4.5 hours.

The Reading Section

The Reading Section will require you to read passages and respond appropriately to questions concerning the contents of the passages.  You will get a total of 30 to 40 questions to complete in 54 -72 minutes. The texts are written at a college level. The questions will challenge you to:

  • Understand and keep in mind factual information.
  • Infer information.
  • Discern vocabulary.
  • Find out what the author intended with the passage.

The Listening Section

The Listening Section entails listening to lectures or classroom discussions and then answering questions about the topic of the discussion. The questions range from 28 to 39, and the time restriction is 41 – 57 minutes. The questions will test your ability to:

  • The main points.
  • The specifics.
  • The connections between concepts.
  • The narrator’s role or attitude, for example.

The Speaking Section

In this section, the examiner speaks into a microphone, and the student is asked to discuss the concepts the examiner is speaking about. There are four jobs to do, and you will be allowed 17 minutes. Three jobs are linked together, whereas one is unrelated to the others.

  • As part of the independent task, the test-taker must reference their own opinions and perspectives.
  • The integrated speaking tasks are –
  • Pay attention to a passage from a lecture that explains a concept, and then speak your perspective regarding the topic.
  • Read a piece that provides a general definition, then listen to a presentation that includes instances. Next, you will be asked to speak your answers regarding the topic selection and audio recording.
  • Read a chapter on a common campus or academic situation, then listen to a discussion about the college problem. You will then be required to react verbally to the situation by answering exam questions.

The Writing Section

The writing portion assesses a person’s ability to communicate effectively in writing in an academic setting. Two assignments are included in the writing section:

  • The Integrated Writing Task requires you to read a piece about an academic topic. Then they hear a portion of a lecture that evaluates and critiques the information in the passage. Finally, test takers must write a summary of the lecturer’s main points and how they connect to the information of the passage.
  • The Independent Writing Task — test-takers must draw on their own experiences and opinions to express their thoughts on a certain topic.

Have a Target Score

What is a good TOEFL score? It is not uncommon for candidates to wonder what a good TOEFL score is. Every university will have its own TOEFL requirement, aka the TOEFL cut-off.  To increase your chances of getting into their chosen university, aim for scores above the required mark.

You will therefore qualify instantly if your TOEFL score is above the cut-off. TOEFL scores average around 90.  Most students score between 85 and 95. A TOEFL score above 100 is regarded as good. The highest mark you can get is 120. Each of the four sections carries 30 marks.

Have a Study Plan

Preparation for the TOEFL takes two to three months on average. However, with intermediate English skills and a well-defined plan, you might scrape up a 110 out of 120 with two weeks of prep.

However, you must have at least mid-level English skills; otherwise, it will take you much longer, even years, to achieve a decent score. Use the following tips to prepare for the exam in much less time:

  • Know the types of questions/tasks you will encounter in the TOEFL exam reading, speaking, listening, and writing sections.
  • Watch TOEFL videos every day, also read passages, and practice speaking and writing. It would help if you devoted some time to listening and paraphrasing TOEFL audios.
  • Use TOEFL Diagnostic Tests to figure out your strengths and weaknesses
  • Study with the Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT from ETS. This top-selling guide has four full-length practice tests plus valuable tips, scoring criteria, and hundreds of sample questions for all 4 test sections to help you do your best on test day. Available in eBook and paperback format.
  • Use professionally selected TOEFL study guides to prepare for your areas of weakness.
  • Study strategies and techniques for different TOEFL question
  • Continue studying and practicing exams until you feel ready for the test day!

Study the TOEFL, not English

Before taking the TOEFL, you may wish to review tricky grammar points, complex vocabulary, pronunciation tips, and writing strategies. That’s totally okay.

However, a few months well before the test, your primary goal should be preparing your brain to function in TOEFL-specific ways, as the exam presumes you already have advanced English.

As already said, it’s important to know what’s in the exam.   To do well on the TOEFL, you need to train your brain to almost automatically respond to different types of questions. Before entering the exam hall, you should know the kind of question you will be asked, what is required of you, and how to get right to the point.

Forget about being creative

Most English students wonder what to write about. They worry that they aren’t creative enough and won’t be able to write anything unique. But the TOEFL tests good English skills, not creativity.

So instead of trying to become the next Shakespeare, teach yourself to respond to TOEFL questions. This means unless you are explicitly asked to state your opinion, you must give very specific answers based on very specific models.

You may find yourself reusing expressions that have been used many times before, and your responses might be dull, but as long as the English is correct, you are good.

Learning to think like a robot in the TOEFL will make things much easier for you and reduce your preparation time.

Try not to memorize answers

Instead of trying to memorize TOEFL answers, learn systematic TOEFL vocabulary. TOEFL answers cannot be memorized because getting the exact same questions year after year is low. However, you can spend your time wisely learning common TOEFL vocabulary and expressions.

For example, in the writing section of the exam, regardless of the topic, you will almost assuredly use phrases such as:

  • “However,”
  • “In contrast,” or “On the other hand.”
  • ” Furthermore,”
  • “According to…”
  • “Conclusively,”

And when asked to state your opinion, some useful expressions to remember are:

  • ” In my opinion…,”
  • “As I see it…,”
  • “ I firmly believe that…,”
  • “The way I see it…,”

Most online TOEFL courses come with these common TOEFL vocabulary flashcards. Take advantage of this feature and other apps to learn TOEFL vocabulary and even practice questions on the go.

Recreate real test conditions

The TOEFL iBT is a digital exam. It will be administered online on a computer. To avoid surprises on test day, practice on a real testing platform. The last thing you want is being caught off guard on exam day, wondering how the platform works.

If you plan on sitting for the paper-and-pencil exam, recreate test day conditions too. Practice with real tests, know how to put your answers on paper, time yourself, and allow yourself as many breaks as in the real exam. This will help you build confidence and stamina for D-day.

Do a lot of reading

woman reading a book while sitting on black leather 3-seat couch

Reading a great deal in the English language is a great way to prepare for the TOEFL exam. By doing this, your mind will continue to form connections with the English language.

Make sure you regularly read university textbooks and other materials written in an academic style and covering various subject areas. You can also read magazines, newspapers, and journals.

Instead of reading each word and sentence in a passage, skim the passage to get an overall impression of the main idea. Then after getting what the passage is all about, read it again carefully and note down the major points and crucial information.

Keep practicing to increase fluency and speed. Choose to Look up unfamiliar words in the texts and guess their meaning from the context and context. Check out their definitions after.

Developing listening abilities

This is yet another major element that must be centered on the student. Students frequently struggle to listen for long amounts of time due to their inability to absorb information beyond a certain point.

As a result, you must cultivate the habit of listening, extracting useful information from the lengthy audios, and applying it to questions.

Look for words that indicate how ideas are connected and related. Identify the connections between ideas, such as to cause and effect, similarity and contrast, and procedure.


Stay focused by anticipating what someone is going to say. Listen to the recorded material and pause it at different places to internalize information and try to predict what will come next.

Determine the intention of the conversation or speech. It may be an apology, a complaint, or a recommendation. Take note of whether the language is official or informal, as well as the presenter’s tone of voice. Is the tone of the speaker cool or sentimental? What level of certainty does the speaker have regarding the facts they are presenting? Make a mental note of any shifts in perspective.

Prepare for TOEFL writing

To prepare for TOEFL writing, listen to readings or short passages and then write a summary to comprehend them fully. By doing so, you will be able to give your opinion of the recording.

As you listen to recordings, determine the writer’s viewpoint(s) and interpret it. Scrutinize it further and put it in writing. It is also common to find conflicting opinions within a single paragraph. If there are conflicting opinions, you should note how the writer addresses them and note them down.

Learning vocabulary, grammar structures, punctuation rules, and the creation of paragraphs can be accomplished using a good English book.

Practice speaking English

women and man talking outside the building

To prepare for the TOEFL speaking tests, you need to learn and grow your vocabulary, idiomatic expressions and know grammatical structures so you can use them naturally like a native.

Teach yourself pronunciation, intonation, word stress, and pauses, and always think before speaking to say the right thing. You can find help for your pronunciation skills on YouTube and various websites.

It’s also a good idea to learn how to employ signal expressions and words. Using phrases and words like “as well as….,” “on the other hand…”, and “to summarize…” establishes a link between ideas and encourages the listener to pay attention to the next section.

Go to class or tutoring session

Taking TOEFL prep classes can prove helpful if you have a hard time learning on your own. Many schools offer online, in-person, or group classes for TOEFL.  Find out what programs are available near you. If you are unsure of a concept, having direct contact with an instructor will make things easier. It also helps prep faster because teachers know the best way to work through the syllabus.


If you feel that you need to prepare at your own pace and that one-on-one instruction will benefit you more, a tutor may be the best option.

Your TOEFL tutor can design lessons according to your learning style, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. You’ll focus more on topics you’re struggling with. However, hiring a private tutor is not cheap; most charge $100-$200 per hour.

Some of the best TOEFL classes and tutoring programs are offered by Magoosh, Kaplan, Prep Scholar, and BestMyTest. Feel free to read our review of these programs.

Wrap-up 🎁

TOEFL preparation can be intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With proper planning, you can cruise through the syllabus in just four months or even two weeks, depending on your skill levels, and crush the test.

If you’re looking to take a TOEFL prep course, checkout out our in-depth guide on the 10 best courses on the market here. Good luck!