Firstly, the only time I took the TOEFL or ‘Test Of English as a Foreign Language’ was on 7th of November, 2015. That is more than 3.5 years ago from now. I had to take it to apply for my MSc in Europe. For various reasons, I had only a couple of weeks to prepare for it. However, I managed to do well with a score of 119 on a scale of 120 (Reading – 30, Listening – 30, Speaking – 30, Writing – 29). I made a short write-up about my preparation right after getting the scores, and I still get questions from people who are preparing for it from Bangladesh (where I am from). So, I decided to write about it here to keep it available for a longer time in case it can still help someone.
Now, I am no trainer for TOEFL, and my strategies are based on only one attempt. So, I am not saying that this will definitely work for any level of background. But if you are short on time, and have a decent background in English already, this might help you to tackle TOEFL as a test. Also, I do not work with any of the organizations that are involved with test test taking or preparation. This is entirely from my personal experience. Now that the disclaimer is done away with, I will go on with my suggestions.
The first step will definitely be to familiarise yourself with the four sections of the test and the types of questions that come in each section. TOEFL is maintained by ETS from USA, and they have very handy short guides in the ETS-TOEFL website. The test pattern is pretty standard and repetitive. It may take maximum a couple hours to go through the question types and how you are expected to answer each section. But it will save you a lot of time to prepare for things out of context and also save you from any element of surprise during the exam.
For TOEFL, you do not really need to memorise a lot of vocabulary if you have a decent vocabulary grown over your high school and undergraduate study in Bangladesh (and I am pretty sure about from most other countries). Mostly, there are only a few questions from this part, and the word meaning is asked in terms of the context of the paragraph. So, it is not too difficult, and definitely not worth it to spend your short time at hand to spend on preparing for this part.
If you are too insecure about your vocabulary level, there are a large number of apps available. I downloaded the ‘Magoosh’ app for TOEFL vocabulary list, and went through the lists very quickly. They were almost all known words, which is the correct level for TOEFL.
I took notes while reading or preparing to categorise the question patterns and later on how to answer those questions. It was more like a chart and was very helpful to go through while I was stuck during the mock tests.
I went through the materials from “Notefull” to get an idea about how to answer different types of questions after going through ETS materials. They were very helpful. Especially for the reading and speaking part. I went through the other two parts anyway as I had no clue about what comes and what not. And that was about all the ‘Tips’ materials that I used.
There is a dedicated mock test taker for TOEFL from ETS called TOEFL Practice Online aka TPO. After going through the aforementioned materials, I practiced a few tests in TPO. It resembles the original test very closely. The writing and speaking sections were completely similar. The reading and listening parts seemed a little easier than the original one. However, I found that TPO reduces marks more than the original test for wrong answers because my scores were better in the final one. That might be changed in the updated versions as I have no idea about the recent updates.
In TPO, I gave 2 complete tests, 6~7 reading, 2~3 listening, 2 writing and 5 speaking altogether. I was not happy with my reading test scores in the beginning, and I did not like how I was answering my speaking section. So, I focused on those 2 more.
TOEFL is a simple test as it is about our capacity to communicate and not our capacity to deliver academically usable or literature worthy pieces. So, it is OKAY to use simple word and structure as long as it is within the context and is correct in grammar and spelling. I think, they are pretty liberal with the pronunciation as it is normal to have accent for different native language speakers.
In reading part, the most important is reading comprehension and paying attention to the question as they can be a bit tricky. Pay attention to the negative terms in the question and in the answer options. Also, it is important to answer from the given paragraph or essay and NOT from your knowledge. The test is not about being right or wrong in a topic, it is about understanding the questions the ask and answering them in accordance with the materials they provide. So, read and answer carefully. It will be tricky, but not difficult.
In listening part, the most important part is to take quick notes that you can understand. As nothing will be repeated, and there can be too many things to remember, even a word that reminds you o the context will be helpful. The same goes for the writing part. Clear and fast notes will definitely improve your score in listening, and writing. And again, answer from the materials (audio or script) they provide, and not from knowledge.
For speaking and writing part, tips from Notefull are enough I think. They also provide good format for speaking and writing part. I would suggest looking at those and coming up with a version that you are most comfortable with while you do the mock tests.
Last but not the least, during speaking, use deep breaths to calm down and collect your thoughts if necessary instead of saying random fillers like umm, err etc. Also, do not try to speak from memory. Try to speak like you are talking to a person. You do not have to explain everything, and it is better to finish a few seconds earlier than the given time than being midway when the recorder stops.
I had my TOEFL on November 7th and started preparing from about two weeks ago. But I had my job and spent 1~2 hours per day only. So, I’d say if you are going for intensive preparation, 1 week will be enough. But, it is more about practicing than studying; so the more time you spend, the better. Also, it depends on your level where you started.
Overall, I will stress again that TOEFL is not a complicated test. It does not need extreme preparation and knowledge. But, like any other tests, some strategies can make it much less intimidating and can increase the chance of a higher score. I hope this post helps you if you are just starting the preparation and are lost about where to start and what to do. Good luck! You are welcome to leave any questions or comments.