Learn about my TOEFL prep strategy that got me (a non-native speaker!) a perfect 120 score, and how it can benefit YOU.
What does it take to be an TOEFL winner?
If you think that you need to be a native English speaker to get that perfect score, think again!
In a recent experiment, native English speaking graduates in the UK were given the TOEFL test and guess what the average score was?
Only 90!! Taking my own example. I am an Engineer by education and have lived and worked in the UK for the past 15 years. However, I still managed to get only a 95 at my first attempt!!
The point is that knowledge by itself is not sufficient to ace the TOEFL.
You need the other ‘intangible’ qualities & smart Studying Strategies to make the thing work.
In this Website, I have attempted to share my TOEFL experience for your benefit.
Here are the details of how I went from 95 to 120
My preparation Strategy that helped me go from 95 to 120
When I decided to take the TOEFL exam, I went to the bookstore and spent an afternoon looking at different books, check their content, features, and the number of exercises they offered.
I bought the fourth edition of the Cambridge Preparation for the TOEFL Test, and the next day I did the diagnostic test. I asked one of my friends, who was American, to correct my essays. At this point, I didn’t really care about the speaking section because I realized it required skills I needed to practice. I highlighted those areas I needed to work on the most and started to work on them.
For me, reading and listening went pretty well, while writing and speaking were areas that needed a lot more work. I had two months until the exam; I worked full time, so I made a plan. Every weekend I did one or two full practice tests, this way I was able to monitor my development.
First, I decided to work on my speaking skills. I didn’t have any difficulty speaking everyday English and to be understood. Giving proper enough responses in the short allotted time on the TOEFL tests, however, seemed to be a challenge for me.
I started to do the exercises in the book. I skipped those exercises I didn’t feel they helped much, but strictly followed those that focused on my weakest areas. I was surprised that in a month I significantly improved my speaking skills.
One of the most helpful things I did was to listen to my own recordings. It is remarkable how much one can learn from his/her own mistake.
When taking the actual test, my strategies for the different speaking tasks were the following:
1. Integrated speaking task – Here you need to give a short speech on a familiar topic; I realized that I didn’t have to tell the truth. That helps when you are asked to talk about a letter that meant a lot to you but you have never got such a letter. I relaxed and got creative.
2. Integrated reading/listening/speaking task and integrated listening/speaking task I took notes, but only key words; this needed practice. When I had to plan my responses in the very short allotted time, I quickly formed a nice introduction and arranged my notes by numbering them.
In parallel, I needed significantly improve my writing skills. Again, I followed the guidelines of the Cambridge book and wrote 2-3 essays every week.
As I didn’t ask too much help from others, I found Baron’s How to Prepare for the TOEFL Essay (2nd Edition) to be a great help. It contains 185 sample essays and a wonderful introduction into essay writing.
Every week, I chose one essay from this book, I copied it 2-3 times, and finally I wrote my own version of it. This greatly helped me to get a feel for the use of transition phrases and other cohesive devices. The integrated writing task requires your analytical mind.
I didn’t have a trouble with that, but a good way to prepare for this task is to do all the exercises in your book and to watch debates on TV where you can learn arguing methods. It is important, however, to choose your TV show wisely. My strategy for writing the essays on the test is shown as follows:
1. Independent writing – I didn’t hesitate and decided very quickly if I agreed or disagreed with the statement; if a comparison was needed, I quickly started to put down my ideas onto the paper. The key is not to waste time.
2. Integrated writing – I didn’t take many notes when reading the passage, I only noted the main points more like as a reference, so I was able to connect my notes I took during the listening part.
I planned to finish my essays 3-5 minutes before the allotted time so I could revise them properly.
Although I didn’t have trouble with reading and listening, I continuously read English news on the net. My favorite way of building my vocabulary has been reading National Geographic. It covers a wide range of topics and provides you with a pretty wide academic vocabulary.
Also, I watched tons of documentaries from arts to geography, this way I not only built my academic vocabulary but practiced my listening skills as well. I didn’t do much of the exercises from the book for the reading and listening sections because I didn’t have much trouble with them, but I did check them and they seemed very helpful, so I would suggest doing them if you have difficulty with these topics.
TOEFL READING PRACTICE TESTS
Doing a time limited exam puts a lot of pressure on test takers like us and if one of your main problems in reading is being a slow reader I would suggest that you start practicing how to skim and scan on some reading materials like magazines and newspapers.
This will improve your skills in this area and are helpful when you do your practice tests until the real test comes.
One general skill that is needed in doing the TOEFL READING TEST is your ability to skim and scan the reading passages. Reading passages on the TOEFL covers diverse topics.
You may be familiar with some but most of the time the topics are new to you. Familiarity with one topic is not an advantage. This is one thing I learned when taking one of the practice tests. I actually lost my concentration on analysing the questions and answered too quickly because I thought I was right in choosing the correct answers based on my knowledge. After checking my answers on the ANSWER KEY I got lower scores on topics I am most familiar with.
It is better to read, skim and scan over each passage whether you are familiar with the topic or not. This will allow you to analyse the questions before answering them. You will have better chances of answering the questions correctly based on what you have read and not because you are familiar with the topic.
The first thing I learned about TOEFL READING TESTS is that the answers come in a chronological order as presented on each passages. Every time a new set of questions are asked it is best to start from which part of the reading passage you last got your answer.
If the last question falls on the last paragraph or sentence of the reading passage and there are more questions to answer then I start going over the reading passage again from the beginning. It was a simple strategy which I found very effective in getting higher scores on my reading practice tests.
Most of the time, I go over the questions first before reading the passages and having an idea about the questions once I start reading and remember one of the questions I have read I can easily write down my answer. This technique helped me in saving time.
One thing I kept in mind is to remember the keywords. Keywords guide you through on the reading passages as well as on the questions. Questions about the main topic rarely come or usually come at the last. By this time you have already become very familiar with the reading passage that you can get this one correct easily.
The most common types of questions you find in an TOEFL Reading Tests are summary completion, matching headings to paragraphs, identifying the writer’s views (true or false), multiple choice, selecting factors, table completion, matching causes and effects, sentence completion and short answer questions.
You need to develop the following abilities to be able to answer the questions as accurately and correctly as possible.
- skim the text for information
- paraphrase the original text
- identify the main idea of the paragraph
- identify opinions and attitudes
- make inferences
- understand main points, particular points and specific points
- skim and scan the text for details
- understand paraphrase
- understand inferences
- understand cause and effect relationships
- read for details
- understand paraphrase in incomplete sentences
- understand the focus of the question
- understand paraphrase in the question
These are the kinds of abilities that challenge your skills in the reading exam and if you learn how to develop these abilities you are right on track in getting a high band score in TOEFL.
For the reading section, my exam strategies were as followes:
1. I read the first paragraph thoroughly because the main topic is usually stated here, and then I quickly read the whole passage. I didn’t spend energy trying to understand everything at first.
2. I tried to answer the questions in order, however, if one of them seemed too difficult I skipped it. This way I didn’t waste precious moments; often, the answer becomes evident a bit later.
3. I tried not to guess but to use the information given in the text. If I wasn’t able to find the information in the passage, I relied on my previous knowledge. If this was not much of a help either, I guessed. I never left a question unanswered.
4. In the question types when a sentence needs to be inserted into the passage, I inserted it into each of the four possible places. This is the safest way to find the best fit.
5. For the Summary and Category chart question types, I didn’t rely on my memory, I always went back to the passage and made sure I dragged the right answer choices, only, of course, if time allowed it.
TOEFL LISTENING SECTION
I think most TOEFL books available in the market nowadays offer a variety of Listening Tests that are either too hard or too easy to understand.
Listening to some of the Listening Tests in 4 different TOEFL books ‘Longman’s Preparation for TOEFL’ and ‘ETS Official Guide’ are a lot easier to understand while ‘Barron’s How to Prepare for TOEFL’ and ‘KAPLAN’s TOEFL’ are the exact opposite. On the first two books I got better scores compared to the latter. Overall the 4 books were helpful in increasing my listening skills. I was able to try both hard and easy Listening Tests that have been very helpful during my TOEFL exam.
Basically, most TOEFL books do not vary that much but when it comes to answering techniques and the strategies some are more detailed and easy to understand compared to other books. Some books do not offer any techniques or strategies on how to go about in answering the questions and I choose not to buy them.
For the listening section I did the following:
1. For the short conversations, I didn’t take notes because I would have missed important information. It is not a big deal to remember a short conversation between students if you understand it. For the lectures, however, it was important to note the most important points and words that, for example, were written on a blackboard during a lecture.
2. Similarly to the reading section, I tried to rely on the information given in the lecture and only used my previous knowledge or guessed the right answer if nothing else worked.
A week before the exam day, I didn’t do anything else but taking practice tests including writing the essays, reading news and magazines, and watching movies or documentaries.
On the day of the test, I had a good breakfast and tried to relax. It is important to properly set your microphone and headset before starting the test. My strategy was that I tried to enjoy the exam. I told myself that I am going to read and hear very interesting information about many different topics, so no matter what happens, I learn something; the worth case scenario: I gain some experience. I gained more than that; I got that elusive 120 score!
MY TOEFL EXAM EXPERIENCE
The day before the exam I did not do any more practice tests. I didn’t want to overdo it. Early the following morning before I went off for my exams I went over my notes on the strategies and techniques I have learned during my review and did one writing tests as I want to make sure I am doing well.
At the test centre I started getting the pressure and I was almost knocked out with my nervousness. I needed to score high in this exam. Everyone around me was as edgy as I am. At the time I was seated my nerves started to calm after a few deep breathing exercises.
After starting the test and going over the questions I forgot everything around me and my attention was all focused on the questions until the test started.
When the listening test was through we were in for a short break I felt I didn’t get much of it but I didn’t mind as I have other tests to attend to. Then for the next two hours I sat for the reading and writing exams and everything went on smoothly.
My speaking exam was scheduled in the afternoon and I was glad to do it. I just wanted to finish my TOEFL test on that day. Then I have nothing more to worry about except the results.
There was no way of telling how you did as there is no real gauge in knowing compared to other English tests.
Overall I know I did fairly well but until I get the results I will be speculating if I made it or not. A 110 overall score is what I need and that is all I was expecting. Getting a 120 score was a REAL BONUS!
Is it worth spending for?
You can get all the necessary information about TOEFL on the internet including TOEFL tips and practice tests. This served as my introductory course on the TOEFL exam.
I have been self – studying most of the time and getting into an introductory course is not needed. The four components of the TOEFL exam are basic skills which everyone have learned from childhood and studied in school for most part of our education.
Getting into a serious preparation on your own after knowing all the information about TOEFL exam is what you need to do to meet the required score for your application.
Is it helpful?
I think private tutoring will help more for checking on your writing and speaking skills. Listening and Reading explanations are all found in the book. You can meet a tutor from time to time to assess your speaking skills especially your grammar and if you are talking clearly with your ideas.
You can ask your tutor as well to assess your written works if it is meeting the TOEFL standard. Your tutor can help in correcting your grammar and your sentence structures, too.
Private tutoring will help and you can take it as an exemption. It does not cost you that much as you meet your tutor on a scheduled basis.
Interested in more tips?
Read how the TOEFL winners do it, in Winners’ Guide to Cracking TOEFL