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Preparing For the TOEFL: Tips For TOEFL Takers

written by: J Sarah Metzker Erdemir•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 12/7/2011

Are you ready for the TOEFL? Getting the score you want requires planning and preparation. What should you do to prepare for this challenging high-stakes examination? Here are some tips to help you get ready.

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    Why Should You Prepare For the TOEFL?

    Most US universities and many US employers require non-native speakers of English to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) as part of the application process. Like any high-stakes exam, the TOEFL requires extensive preparation to achieve a successful score. Students must familiarize themselves with the exam format and the types of tasks they will have to complete, even if they have near-native English abilities. Additionally, students should be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in English and plan their preparation accordingly.

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    Learn the TOEFL Format Available in Your Area

    The TOEFL IBT (Internet-Based Test) is increasingly the only format offered at testing centers, although the CBT (Computer-Based Test) and PBT (Paper-Based Test) are still available in regions where computer and Internet access are inconsistent. While the questions and tasks are similar for the three formats, the interfaces for each exam type are quite different and may take some getting used to.

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    Take a TOEFL Preparation Course From a Reputable Institution

    The best way to prepare for the TOEFL is to take a course. A good TOEFL preparation course will offer extensive practice in the types of English that are necessary for the exam, and will provide you with strategies for preparation and test-taking. You will have a chance to practice the types of questions you will see in the exam, and you will be able to familiarize yourself with the TOEFL format you will be using. If you can’t take a course, you will need to find a TOEFL mentor. Ideally, this is a native speaker of English who has experience with the TOEFL exam. Even a colleague or classmate who has taken the TOEFL can help you prepare and give you hints about test-taking strategies that will be helpful.

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    Get a TOEFL Preparation Textbook and Practice at Home

    TOEFL textbooks prepared by testing experts like ETS (Educational Testing Services) or Kaplan will give you a realistic idea of what to expect on the exam and tips about preparing for each section. These books will help you assess your own abilities in English and identify your weaknesses so you can spend your time on the areas of English that are most challenging for you. There will also be practice tests so you can get an idea of the score you will receive on each section. By doing practice tests, you can monitor your progress over time and see how you’re improving.

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    Practice Academic English

    Because the TOEFL exam is designed for students entering US universities, you will have to be familiar with academic English in different contexts. If possible, attend English-medium university lectures and practice taking notes. Read college textbooks in different areas of study, including science, social science, and business. Socialize with English-speaking university students to learn about college life and issues relating to college campuses and university curricula.This will help you strengthen your vocabulary and get used to the kinds of language and sentence structures used in academic contexts.

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    Expose Yourself to Different Kinds of English

    Watch English films and TV programs, read magazines, and surf English language websites. This type of study will be more interesting for you because you can focus on topics you’re interested in, and it will familiarize you with real-life English and its various registers, like formal and informal use. You will also learn about body language and gestures, which will help you with the listening and speaking prompts in the TOEFL and you will hear how people actually speak, with natural stops and starts, sudden topic changes, and other differences from the kind of English usually found in textbooks.

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    Practice Writing TOEFL-Type Essays

    You will only have 30 minutes to write your essay during the exam, with ten of those minutes devoted to planning the essay and checking your work, so it’s best to have some practice with writing the essay quickly. Familiarize yourself with a few essay formats and find the one that works best for you to use in the exam, then practice writing in that format as often as you can. Read sample TOEFL essays and learn about transition words (however, on the other hand, etc.) and how to use them. If possible, have a native speaker or another student read over your essays and check your work for organization and grammar.

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    Practice Speaking

    If you don’t live in an English-speaking country, it’s not always easy to find opportunities to practice speaking. Create your own opportunities by orally answering prompts in your TOEFL study guide, or by orally answering the questions at the ends of chapters in English textbooks. Assess yourself by recording yourself and listening to the recordings. Pay attention to clarity, organization, pauses, and intonation. The speaking sections on the TOEFL involve speaking into a microphone, and the speech you will need to use isn’t always very natural, so it’s a good idea to get used to the kind of speaking that will be needed for the exam.

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    Prepare Yourself for the Test Day

    You will be nervous enough the day of the test, so you want to eliminate as many worries as possible. Make sure you know where the test center is and where you can park. Find out what materials you will need and pack them the night before. If you have any special needs, make arrangements ahead of time so any extra equipment can be provided for you. If possible, meet with the TOEFL examiner to see if he or she has any extra advice for you.

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    The Day of the Exam

    The TOEFL is a grueling exam to take because you will be sitting there for 4 hours or more. Make sure you’ve had enough to eat and drink before you go into the exam, since you will not be allowed to bring food or drinks with you. Most importantly, try to get a good night’s sleep before the exam. If you have to choose between sleep and cramming, choose sleep. People perform much better on exams when they’re well-rested, and are less likely to remember information they stayed up late memorizing.