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    The TOEFL Test: Everything You Need to Know

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: April 9th, 2024
    The TOEFL Test: Everything You Need to Know

    If you’re an international student hoping to attend college in an English-speaking country, you may have to complete TOEFL testing. TOEFL is the acronym for “Test of English as a Foreign Language.” This test assesses the English-language skills of nonnative English speakers. Keep reading to learn more about the TOEFL test and what you can expect from this exam. 

    Also see: Scholarships for international students

    TOEFL vs. IELTS

    The TOEFL and IELTS (International English Language Testing System) both test non-native English speakers’ reading, listening, speaking, and writing proficiency. Both of these tests are taken by students vying to be accepted by universities all around the world. One of the main differences between the exams is that the TOEFL is mainly for  academic purposes. The IELTS, meanwhile, is a more general exam. In this article, we focus on all things TOEFL. Let’s get started!

    What is the TOEFL test? 

    Nonnative English speakers who want to attend college in an English-speaking country take the TOEFL. Its purpose is to ensure that students can handle the coursework of an English-based program. Colleges generally require students to take the test if English is not their primary language, or if their primary language of instruction hasn’t been English for at least five years. 

    Many schools accept scores from other tests as well, but the TOEFL is the most popular English-language assessment. More than 11,500 universities in over 160 countries throughout the world accept the exam. Most schools that accept the TOEFL require students to earn a minimum score on the test for acceptance. 

    See also: What is a good TOEFL score? 

    What does the TOEFL test cover? 

    The test covers all four English-language skills — reading, listening, speaking, and writing. We’ve outlined each section below: 

    Reading 

    This section assesses how well students can read and understand the type of content used in an academic environment. It includes 3 or 4 reading passages, each about 700 words long. Passages are excerpts from university-level textbooks from introductory courses. For each passage, students answer 10 questions. 54 – 72 minutes are allotted for the entire reading section. 

    Listening 

    The listening section measures how well students can understand the spoken word. Students are tested on two types of listening items — lectures and conversations. There are 3 – 4 lectures, each 3 -5 minutes long, with 6 questions per lecture. There are also 2 – 3 conversations, each 3 minutes long, with 5 questions per conversation. Students may take notes on any audio item to help answer questions. 41 – 57 minutes are allotted for the entire listening section. 

    Speaking 

    This section assesses the ability of students to speak English in academic settings. This part includes 4 questions resembling real-life situations that could occur both in and outside of the classroom. The first question is an “independent speaking task” that requires students to draw entirely upon their own ideas and opinions. Questions 2 – 4 are called “integrated speaking tasks” because they require students to combine various English language skills (listening, speaking, and reading). Students are allotted 15 – 30 seconds of preparation time before each response, 45 – 60 seconds for the actual response. 

    Writing 

    This section tests the ability of students to write in English in an academic setting. There are 2 types of writing tasks — independent and integrated. The independent writing task requires students to write an essay based on personal experience or opinion. The integrated writing task requires students to read a short passage, listen to a short lecture, then write in response to what they read and listened. Testers have 50 minutes for the entire writing section. 

    Related: FAFSA guide for international students

    How is the TOEFL test scored? 

    Each section of the TOEFL test is worth 30 points, with the highest possible score being 120. A computer scores the reading and listening sections, while human raters score the speaking and writing sections. Students typically receive their official scores within 6 – 10 days after taking the exam. 

    Don’t miss: How to reduce test anxiety

    How do I prepare for the TOEFL? 

    The Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers the TOEFL.  The ETS offers a variety of resources to help students prepare for the exam. Many of these resources are free, which we’ve listed below: 

    • Full-length practice tests: These tests include all 4 sections and feature real questions from previous TOEFL exams, making them a great way to prepare for the actual test. 
    • Individual practice sets: If you’d like to hone your skills in a specific area, you can complete practice sets for reading, listening, speaking, or writing. 
    • TOEFL test preparation course: This online course features videos, short quizzes, and tips from instructors to help students achieve the best score possible.

    How do I take the TOEFL? 

    It costs between $180 – $300 USD to register for the TOEFL test, depending on where you live. Learn more about how to register for the exam here. There are currently three different ways to take the TOEFL test: 

    TOEFL iBT Test (at a Test Center)

    ETS-authorized test centers offer in-person TOEFL testing. These centers are available in 190 countries around the world. This version of the test is taken on a computer. Use this search tool to find an available test center near you. 

    TOEFL iBT Home Edition

    The pandemic prompted the addition of the TOEFL Home Edition, which allows students to take the test from the safety and comfort of their homes.  A human proctor monitors the online at-home test. Check these requirements to ensure you’re eligible to take the test at home. 

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    Frequently asked questions about the TOEFL test

    Does the TOEFL test have speaking?

    The TOEFL test does have a speaking portion. They also cover listening, reading, and writing. The speaking and writing portions are graded partially by humans and partially by computers.

    How many times can you listen on the TOEFL?

    You can only listen to the audio prompts in the listening section of the TOEFL once. So, you’ll want to make sure you’re ready for them and that you understand the questions before clicking play.

    Should I take the TOEFL or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)?

     

    The TOEFL and IELTS have a few key differences that might make them a better or worse fit for some students. Let’s take a quick look:

    Multiple choice or not

    If you prefer multiple choice questions, the TOEFL might be a better bet, whereas students who prefer short-answer may prefer the IELTS. For the most part, the TOEFL relies more heavily on multiple-choice, especially for the reading and listening sections.

    Computer or paper?

    Another key difference is that the TOEFL is online whereas the IELTS can also be taken on paper. If you are more comfortable on a computer, go for the TOEFL, but if you like reading and writing on paper, you may prefer the IELTS.

    Academic or everyday readings?

    The reading sections of the two tests also has a key difference. Whereas the TOEFL only uses academic texts for analysis, the IELS also uses newspaper clippings and magazine articles. So, if you are more comfortable with colloquial language, the IELS may be easier, but if you are more used to academic writing, you may want to go for the TOEFL.

    Listening sections

    One final difference, and perhaps the biggest, is in the listening section. The TOEFL listening prompts are pre-recorded audio files on the computer. You’ll listen to them and write your responses. However, on the IELS, your listening section will be comprised of a conversation with an actual human. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages; it’s just a matter of finding out what your strengths and weaknesses are. 

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