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Several years ago I had a student in Sao Paulo called Andre. He was a successful young lawyer and wanted to further his career by taking an LLM at a top US law school. Like many of his contemporaries, Andre had a hectic working life that saw him tied up with work most days until at least 9pm. It left him very little time to devote to studying for his TOEFL IBT.

Andre wrote in English on a regular basis, even preparing fairly complicated contracts and regularly writing emails to clients overseas. As for his speaking, Andre had an excellent level of fluency and a slight American accent when speaking English. Although lacking in formal English training, he had spent 18 months in South Dakota as an exchange student in his late teens. On paper, Andre was a shoo-in for a 100+ score on the TOEFL IBT. “Andre”, I warned. “Don’t take this for granted; the TOEFL isn’t as easy as it looks!”


At first, Andre decided it was enough to buy one of the many TOEFL IBT books from a local bookshop and work through its many hundreds of pages – plus the two-CD-roms – on his own in his spare time. By his own admission, he was not well-disciplined and self-study was hardly his forte. In spite of being wholly unprepared for his TOEFL test, Andre went online to choose a date at his local TOEFL test centre. Three weeks later, Andre rang me up, despondent and hurt. “I only got 83! I can’t believe it!” he moaned. To gain acceptance onto his master’s in law he needed at least 90 overall. (It must be said, 90 is at the low end of required TOEFL scores for US universities: some demand up to 110 with no less than 27/30 in the writing section.)

From my point of view, Andre had made the same mistake that many advanced speakers/users of English make when deciding to sit a high-stakes English test. He believed that his familiarity with the language and fluent speech would be enough to get him over the line. This was clearly not the case, and it is almost inevitable that any candidate who has not prepared sufficiently, regardless of their basic competence, will fall short. The TOEFL IBT algorithms do not care how long you spent in the US or how many contracts you have written in English.

The TOEFL grading system grants you 30 points in each area of competence, so the manner in which you tackle each section means the difference between an overall score of 105 and something more anemic. The most obvious first step is to get hold of old TOEFL papers. At the very least, this will enable you to get a feel for the structure and length of the TOEFL IBT. You can find these from any of the best websites for TOEFL preparation or, like Andre, buy one of the many books for the TOEFL IBT.

Nevertheless, mindlessly repeating TOEFL practice tests over and over again is not going to get the baby washed. This might well help your productive skills – reading and listening – but you should have extra support for the receptive skills: speaking and writing. The latter of these two can be approached in a number of ways by the autonomous learner, and there are numerous TOEFL writing practice tests free online. What is lacking, yet again, is the feedback.

So what should Andre have looked for?

First, he needed a solid feedback loop. Whether this is done in a classroom, with a private teacher or online, it is imperative that anyone who is seriously considering taking on this challenging test get this sorted out from the get go.

Next, in addition to having access to up-to-date TOEFL IBT material, Andre should have had someone break down the test into meaningful chunks for him. Knowledge of English and readiness for the test are not the same thing. If you are serious about acing the TOEFL IBT, you will need to know what the best way of tackling multiple-choice questions is, what an integrated task is and how long you ought to be spending on note-taking before answering these sections.

Finally, make sure you leave yourself with enough time to properly prepare for the TOEFL IBT. For a competent/advanced user of English, you should devote at least three weeks to prepare, and that means doing exercises, writing essays, practicing against the clock and – most importantly – sitting with an experienced teacher who really understands the TOEFL test. If you are starting at a lower level, obviously you should dedicate considerably more time to getting ready.

It is a tired old saying, but while not everyone plans to fail, many – like Andre – fail to plan. Set yourself up with a solid study plan, find an experienced teacher and boost your chances of not having to sit the TOEFL more than once.

Written by Colin David

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