This blog is a continuation of my initial GRE / TOEFL blog and focusses on TOEFL.
TOEFL - Test of English as a Foreign Language
TOEFL (specifically iBT - Internet Based Test) is scored out of 120 marks, 30 marks for each section (Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening). For nearly all programs under the sun, a total score of 110 is considered “safe”. For most programs, the minimum requirements hover between 90-100. However, this “minimum requirement” has a catch, since most programs ask for minimum scores in each section. A few programs with extensive Teach Assistant requirements have high Speaking score requirements (26-28). However, like the GRE, TOEFL scores are used more like a “threshold”. Your actual score is of little importance as long as your cross the threshold.
TOEFL, unlike GRE, is evaluated quite leniently. You DO NOT need all correct answers to score full marks in any section. The evaluators of the Writing and Speaking section are quite generous, and you don’t need perfect essays or speech for perfect marks.
Choosing a Date
I gave my TOEFL exam on 24th September, 2017 (for reference, my graduate applications were due in December 2017), and registered for it on 25th July, 2017. Similar to GRE, June to October are rush-hours, and it’s often hard to get weekend slots. Try to book 3-4 months in advanced. Payment require credit card (keep one handy, it is needed for graduate applications too), and the cost is a whopping 180$!
I studied about one week for TOEFL. This should be sufficient if you are from an English-medium school or college. Since I had given GRE a few weeks before TOEFL, I didn’t particularly prepare for the Reading and Writing sections. The reading and writing sections are similar to GRE’s reading comprehensions and AWA section, just a LOT simpler. If you were having trouble finishing the verbal or AWA sections for GRE (or haven’t given GRE yet), I suggest practising each of these sections (with a time limit) atleast 2-3 times. In my opinion, the stipulated time is just-enough to complete these sections. I will focus more on the Listening and Speaking section in this guide.
I primarily used Magoosh’s YouTube videos. This video is a good starting point. MagooshTOEFL’s YouTube channel has a plethora of good videos, and post a “TOEFL Tuesday” video each week. I personally went through several videos on Listening and Speaking skills on this channel. Additionally, lingunamaria has a good TOEFL playlist, along with her personal TOEFL experience.
For practice, I used the Official TOEFL iBT Volume 1 & 2. More specifically, I used the computer-delivered versions of the tests using the provided DVD. This package contains ten real iBT TOEFL practice tests.
For Linux users, I could not succeed in installing this software using WineHQ. I eventually used a virtual machine installation of Windows 7 (using VirtualBox). This installation worked quite well for me, without any audio issue.
Doing a diagnostic test is harder for TOEFL, since your essay writing and speaking sections will not be evaluated. I did the Listening and Speaking sections of one practice test (among the ten linked above) as diagnostic. I recorded my Speaking section’s answers, and evaluated them subjectively against some official metrics.
Listening sections are hard since you have to pick out the most important information from 5 minutes of dense audio clips. The audio is played just once, so note-making skills are critical here. It is quite hard to note down everything and difficult to understand what is going to become essential information while answering the questions.
Luckily, the questions are quite straightforward. A couple of questions replay small segments of the audio clip. After a few practice tests, I noticed that a similar pattern of questions are asked test after test. The audio clips are scripted, and the most important information is repeated 2-3 times in the clip.
Generally, student conversations are easier to retain and shorter in length. The classroom lectures are longer, and difficult to follow if you misunderstand the first few concepts. This section requires the most concentration, leave no stone unturned while preparing for this section. I personally solved most of the listening sections in the ten TOEFL practice tests (linked above).
I was particularly nervous about the Speaking Section, since I needed a score of 26 for one of my graduate programs. I started off with this Magoosh guide, and watched a few videos on MagooshTOEFL’s YouTube channel.
I was particularly nervous about the preparation time given for each question in the Speaking section. However, you should add 10-15 seconds to the mentioned preparation time, since the question is printed on the screen while it is being read out slowly. I found it useful to write down the key ideas I intend to talk about. Occasional stammering is all right, but make sure you keep talking till the very end. It’s also important to speak slowly and clearly.
Most importantly, get over the fear / awkwardness of talking into the microphone. Most of us are not seasoned YouTubers or radio jockeys. This will only come with practice. I personally did all ten speaking practice tests (linked above) before my final TOEFL exam.
Exam Day Preparation
IMPORTANT - Make sure you have decided a list of 4 colleges to send your scores to. Do check whether the program require TOEFL scores. Some programs waiver TOEFL for Indian students, since English is one of India’s two native languages. The list of colleges need to be updated on the TOEFL portal in the night before the exam at the very latest.
Make sure you carry your passport and snacks for the 10 minute break. Be sure you completely understand the exam pattern. Water is NOT ALLOWED in the exam room. The 10 minute break is the only time you will get to use the restroom, eat, or drink something. Carrying a jacket is ALLOWED, and a good idea since the exam hall is cold. The actual TOEFL exam has an extra experimental section, and takes about four and a half hours in total.
It might get quite awkward during the exam to speak out loudly in the microphone with so many other people in the room. It’s even more awkward when you are the ONLY person in the hall currently on the Speaking section. I tried my best to return from the ten minute break at a point where a few people had begun their Speaking section, while a few people were yet to return from their break. Unfortunately, the headphones in Mumbai’s centre do not cancel background noise well and you can clearly hear other people deliver their voice essays.
My TOEFL marks were a little unexpected, but quite satisfactory. I scored 115/120, with 29 in Listening, 29 in Writing, 30 in Reading and 27 in Speaking. Most people I know did quite well in TOEFL, without significant preparation.
GRE - Graduate Record Examination
Please check the previous guide.