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About the exam

TOEFL is unlike other exams. To begin with, it doesn’t have levels (such as e.g. Cambridge: FCE, CAE, CPE, etc.). Instead, you earn between 1 and 120 points. ETS, the organization behind the test, claims that if you score the top results, you are at the level equivalent to C1 of the CEFR. You need to wait up to fourteen days for the results, which you receive by e-mail. Next, the ETS sends the official score reports to the higher education institution of your choice (specified before or after the exam). The success rate is relative – it depends how the points you score compare to the thresholds defined by the university or college you chose. For instance, Princeton University expects its prospective students to score at least 110; for London School of Economics, on the other hand, 107 points are “enough,” although you need at least 25 points from each section. Therefore, all test-takers should research the enrolment criteria of the chosen universities in order to be able to start the preparations early enough. For more details, see the score comparison below:

CEFR TOEFL
  0-56
B1 57-86
B2 87-109
C1 110-1

Source: http://www.ets.org/toefl/institutions/scores/compare
In practical terms, TOEFL is again different than other exams. It is easy and difficult at the same time. The easy part consists in its predictability – after solid preparations you really know what to expect during the exam, what questions will be asked, and what kind of topics may be discussed.


On the other hand, the greatest challenge of taking the TOEFL test seems to be the need to change the way of thinking a bit. It is not your everyday “gap-fill this and paraphrase that” sort of exercise. Instead, the successful candidate must be able to read with comprehension and apply the laws of logic, grasp a hidden joke of the lecturer, understand a conversation and summarize the arguments used by the speakers or simply outline arguments for and against a certain solution or issue. Each of the four basic components of the exam has its own rules and pitfalls. They are all discussed in greater detail below. The table below presents an overview of the exam.


TOEFL iBT Test Sections

Section Time limit Questions Tasks
Reading 60 – 80 mins 36-56 questions Read 3 or 4 passages from academic Texas and answer questions
Listening 60 – 90 mins 34-51 questions Listen to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations, then answer questions
Break     10 minutes
Speaking 20 mins 6 tasks Express an opinion on a familiar topic; speak based on reading and listening tasks
Writing 50 mins 2 tasks Write essay responses based on Reading and listening tasks; support an opinion In writing.

Source: http://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/about/content/


The reading section consists of a number of different texts followed by multiple-choice questions (for instance on the meaning of particular words, “what the author meant,” or conclusions which may be drawn from a specific part of the text). The topics of those readings assignments is as varied as the majors offered by universities: one may be about the crime rate among the juveniles, another about symbiosis and parasites, and yet another about the Big Bang theory. One or two difficult words will be defined for test-takers’ convenience, but otherwise you have to be ready to tackle any specialist topic on your own. Important: there is a decent number of tricky questions, it is easy to misunderstand what you read so carefully.

The listening part will have you follow a series of different situations, e.g. a student talking to his/her MA thesis advisor, a student reporting a leaking pipe in the dorm or a professor giving a lecture on literature. The recordings are longish, but the questions (multiple choice) are usually not focused on details such as “the exact date when the author has written his first book” – you should rather expect to be asked about a more general understanding of the issue, e.g. “Does the professor admire the author?” or “What did the professor mean when he said …?”. Important: this part may be a bit tedious or even dull, but stay focused and keep taking notes.

Speaking, especially at the beginning, proves to be the most frustrating part. The idea behind this section of the test seems to be totally different than what you would expect of other exams. There is a total of six questions: the first two are independent questions, the next two are preceded by a short reading and listening, and the final two are preceded by a listening part only. While the independent questions require candidates to come up with an answer on their own (e.g. What would be a better investment in your area: a new shopping mall or a new theatre?), the integrated tasks want you to base your answers on the ideas and arguments presented in the reading/listening part (e.g.: read a short announcement and listen to a conversation about the announcement; then answer the question: Summarize the announcement and then say what the man thinks about it). In the speaking section time is scarce – none of your replies will be longer than 60 seconds and the preparation time isn’t any longer. Important: you don’t need to write down everything, focus on key words; preparation time is better spent thinking than writing.

Writing is the last part and definitely not the easiest one. When you get there, you will have been working for three hours and will still be required to prove creative and fresh. There are two compositions you must write: a “for and against” assignment based on an article and a lecture, and an essay. While the first one is usually very easy (if you know what to expect and how to handle it), the essay may sometimes be a bit too much. You have only 30 minutes and yet the essay needs to be well-planned and structured, written in an interesting way, and contain an array of sophisticated vocabulary and grammar. Luckily, proper preparations will help even the most science-inclined test-takers find the Hemingway style. Important: such essays may differ from typical compositions you learn to write at school.