What is the TOEFL® and How Do I Prepare For It?

These are the most common questions asked by students who start to think about studying in the U.S. Sometimes students ask, “How can I apply for the TOEFL system?” or “How do I obtain the TOEFL certificate?” Before we go any farther, let’s clarify: TOEFL® isn’t a system; TOEFL isn’t a certificate. TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

A quick look at the website of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the developer of the TOEFL (http://www.ets.org), shows that the TOEFL is an important academic English test used by more than 6,000 universities in more than 130 countries to determine whether an applicant has the required level of English to enroll. It is also used to qualify for scholarships, and for graduation requirements.

CC License, Photo by SonnyandSandy

CC License, Photo by SonnyandSandy

So how do students get a TOEFL certificate? Oops, remember, there isn’t a TOEFL certificate. The TOEFL is currently offered in two formats –Internet based (iBT) and paper-based (PBT) in some locales. The iBT is now the most common format in most countries and in North America. Both formats have similar questions in listening, reading and writing. The iBT also has a speaking section which the paper-based format does not offer except as a separate exam called the Test of Spoken English (TSE). Both formats offer a TOEFL score report, and the examinee copy usually arrives a few weeks after the exam.

There is no established passing or failing score. The TOEFL result simply indicates how proficient an individual is vis-à-vis other non-native speakers of English. Further, anyone at any level of English language learning can take the TOEFL; in fact, the more times you take it the more likely you are to improve. However, considering the cost, it makes sense to take the exam after you have completed several courses of English, and particularly when you are able to read and write at the university level in English with little difficulty (the TOEFL reading sections are passages are developed to reflect university-level readings in any field of study, for example).

“Okay . . . but isn’t there some kind of passing score?” Actually, there is no one, magical, passing number. Each institution that requires the TOEFL has its own admission requirements. Often the standard for a full admission into an American university is the iBT TOEFL score of 80 (paper-based test score of 550). However, a number of institutions have raised that score to 100 on the iBT (or 600 PBT), to qualify for programs that require a lot of writing or to qualify for financial assistance. You need to contact each institution that you are interested in to obtain information on its TOEFL requirements.

To meet most institutions’ TOEFL requirements, you need a lot of preparation. It is generally recommended that you get a strong base in academic English before you take the TOEFL and to do that you will probably need to invest both a significant amount of time and money. As you begin work on your academic English level, you should also look into test preparation materials to learn testing strategies. There are a number of reasonably cost resources available (books, CDs, DVDs, and cassettes) on preparing for TOEFL at most EducationUSA centers around the world. Some resources are created by ETS directly and others by companies which have a long experience in test preparation. There are also some free resources from ETS, test prep companies and others available on the Internet. Google the words “TOEFL Prep”, in under a second you will find thousands of links and resources to search from and use.

Of special interest, YouTube has made steps to provide relevant educational content at http://www.youtube.com/edu. Visit ETS’s new TOEFL channel at http://www.youtube.com/TOEFLtv for TOEFL preparation tips from students and instructors. Keep in mind that while TOEFL Preparation courses often help, it’s counterproductive to enroll in a prep course if your English is not yet at an advanced level.

Finally, if you don’t do well on your first go around, don’t despair. Go back get more English language training. Invest in your future with a solid base in English. Once you have taken one international exam, you will have a better understanding of the test strategies, so now you need to concentrate on perfecting your language skills. Good luck on your journey!

Ms. Sabrina Faber is an international education, development and training professional with a special interest in the Middle East and in particular Yemen. For nearly fifteen years, she has managed international exchange programs, including the prestigious U.S. Department of State Fulbright Foreign Student program for students from Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.  Ms. Faber has extensive experience working in Yemen and on consultancies in the Arabian Gulf states. She is the author of numerous articles on international education and training and maintains a blog, http://planetecole.blogspot.com. She is currently preparing research on Yemeni human resource in the 21st century.

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