TOEFL: What to Expect | Top Universities

TOEFL: What to Expect

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Sabrina Collier

Updated Mar 20, 2021



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Sitting the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam can be a nerve-wracking experience – but there’s no need to be anxious if you’re fully prepared. Follow our guide to preparing for the exam, so you know what to expect on test day.

What is the format?

The TOEFL exam can be taken in one of two formats – the paper-based test (PBT) or the internet-based test (IBT). The internet-based test is far more common, as the paper-based test is being phased out. Both versions are taken at test centers, with candidates evaluated in four areas:

Reading (60-80 minutes): You will be given three or four passages, around 700 words in length, taken from academic texts. You will then answer 12-14 questions per passage, testing your comprehension of what you have read.

Listening (60-90 minutes): You will listen to between four and six lectures (some of which will feature classroom discussions), each three-to-five minutes long, plus two or three classroom conversations lasting three minutes. You will answer five or six questions for each recording, testing your comprehension of what has been said.

Speaking (20 minutes): This section consists of six tasks. For the first two tasks, you will express an opinion on a familiar topic. For the other four tasks, you will respond to reading or listening material that you will be given during the test.

Writing (50 minutes): You will be given two tasks: an integrated task and an independent task. In the integrated task, you will read a passage on an academic topic and then listen to a speaker discuss the same topic. You will then write a summary of the spoken passage, relating it to the points made in the reading passage. In the independent task, you will write a short essay in response to a question on a general topic. You will be marked on your ability to articulate, explain and justify your opinion.

The internet-based TOEFL exam takes about four and a half hours to complete, with a 10 minute break at the mid-point. The paper-based version is an hour shorter.

How do I register?

You can register for the TOEFL exam online, by telephone, or by mail. Online registration is the quickest method. You can register from three to four months before the test date. Early booking is recommended, as there is often high demand for places. For full details visit the official website.


What is the difference between the internet-based test (IBT) and the paper-based test (PBT)?

Both versions of the TOEFL exam assess your reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The IBT lasts four and a half hours and is taken on a computer, whereas the PBT lasts three and a half hours and is taken using pen and paper. The IBT is offered on fixed dates 50 times per year at test centers throughout the world. The PBT is being discontinued and is currently offered in relatively few locations where testing via the internet is not available.

How is the test graded?

You will be given a score of between one and 30, and a rating of Low (0-14), Intermediate (15-21) or High (22-30), for each section. These scores will then be combined to give you an overall score out of 120.

You will receive a score report, giving more detailed feedback on your performance in the test, as well as up to four additional score reports that will be sent directly to the universities to which you are applying. If you took the internet-based test you will receive your scores approximately 10 days after you take the test, with these scores also posted to the universities to which you are applying. Printed score reports are mailed approximately 13 days after your test date.

There is no specific pass or fail grade, though you must answer at least one task in each section to be given a score. The grade you require to gain admittance to your course will be decided by the university in question. Contact the universities to which you are applying directly to check their specific entrance requirements, and to make sure they recognize the TOEFL test.

How can I prepare?

ETS, the organization which runs the TOEFL exam, sells a range of test practice materials on its website. These include an Official Guide to the TOEFL in book or e-book format, a TOEFL Online Prep Course, an Engaging English Reading Service and a range of free resources, including sample questions. You should start preparing for the TOEFL exam at least eight weeks before your test date.

What should I take with me on the day?

On test day you must bring your admission ticket with your registration number and the codes for the institutions you select as score recipients, along with valid identification (such as a passport or national security card) – this must include your name, signature and address. If in doubt, consult the website for a list of valid forms of identification. You should also bring your signed Photo File Record, with a recent recognizable photo, as well as three or four sharpened pencils and an eraser.

This article was originally published in February 2010. It was updated in September 2015.

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