How do you get a good TOEFL® score?

The TOEFL test can be quite daunting. It is a long exam, and it tests your ability to communicate in all areas of English communication: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. The TOEFL tests some of these individually or independently. At the same time, it also includes portions of the test that test two or more simultaneously. These are called integrated tasks and aim to mimic the university environment.

While preparing for the TOEFL can seem overwhelming, I would like to reassure you that anybody can get a good score if they are smart about the way that they study. I hope these 10 tips help you get the score that you want!

Here we go!

1. Adopt a learning attitude and be patient with yourself

If you adopt the attitude of being a constant learner, you will open your eyes to the marvels of learning something new all the time. This is an abundance mindset, and you don’t feel constricted by what you don’t know, but feel energized by all the things you can learn!

This also means that you need to take it easy on yourself and not get frustrated when you feel like you are making mistakes or “not learning enough.” Learning a language is a tricky thing, especially if you are not immersed in it 24 hours a day. It is a new paradigm, so it is normal for things to be difficult.

Enjoy the process and focus on enjoying learning new things!

2. Practice! Practice! Practice!

When I was in school, my teachers would always say that you do not learn by osmosis. You can’t just lie down on your book with your eyes closed and learn the subject. It takes hard work! While I am sure you are not slacking off, it is helpful to remember that learning is a process, and you get better at something by practicing.

The more you immerse yourself in the English language, the better! Do grammar exercises. Learn new vocab. Read and listen to anything you can get your hands on. Sit at your computer and write. Speak in English as much as you can!

You should be aware of one thing. Make sure that you are keeping track of what you need to improve. If you just practice without paying attention to what you are doing, you may develop bad habits. 

An effective way to do this is to keep a journal. Write down the things you are struggling with, and review them often to see what you are mastering. This will help you make sure you are doing things right while at the same time boosting your motivation.

Also, pay attention to how native speakers say things, and compare them with how you do things. What are your assumptions? If you assume that a word in English means the same thing as a very similar word in your own language, make sure you keep in mind that it is an assumption. It may be a “false friend” without you realizing it!

3. Know thyself

In the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the phrase “know thyself” (in Greek, obviously) was engraved in the stone. This is very sage advice about your life in general, but it applies to studying for the TOEFL as well.

The best way you can go about starting the process of knowing thyself concerning the TOEFL is by taking a practice test. Try to take the practice test under test-day conditions (i.e., no distractions, no outside help, a timer, and maybe a cold room, too); you will be able to get a pretty good idea of where you are at.

Once you know your “starting point” for your TOEFL journey, you can start making a plan to focus on the areas where you need the most help.

Whether or not you use the free complete practice test ETS® (the makers of TOEFL) offers on their website or any other test, you will get a pretty good idea of where you stand regarding your reading and listening scores. If someone unbiased can help you score your speaking and writing (ideally a native speaker) according to the ETS rubrics, you will be able to get a rough idea of your scores on those sections as well.

Once you know your “starting point” for your TOEFL journey, you can start making a plan to focus on the areas where you need the most help.

4. Know thy adversary

While this phrase is not engraved in Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, it probably would also be some good advice to follow. On the one hand, the TOEFL is definitely your friend because it will allow you to get into university. On the other hand, it is also your enemy: if you don’t get the score you want, you will need to repeat the test or choose another university to apply to.

Studying grammar and vocabulary and practicing speaking, listening, reading, and writing is excellent. Still, if you don’t know how the test works, it can hurt your score, at least indirectly. It is like honing your soccer skills but not taking into account the rules of the game. You may be good at certain things, but you may end up getting thrown out of the game because you didn’t realize you can’t tackle players of the opposite team.

The first thing you will need to do is understand the test structure and how the TOEFL is administered. We know, for example, that there are four sections: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. In the TOEFL iBT (internet-based test), all of these sections are done on a computer. Even the speaking is done at the computer. You speak into a microphone, and your responses are scored when they listen to your recordings.

This is not the case with the TOEFL PBT/PDT (paper-based test/paper-delivered test), which you can usually only take if the iBT is not available. The PBT/PDT is currently only about 2% of all tests administered, so you will likely be taking the iBT.

Another critical thing to know is that you are not penalized for incorrect answers in the listening and reading sections. This means that you can guess and not lose points! A complete guess may not be the best way to pick an answer when you don’t know it, but we will get to that in a bit.

The test lasts for about 2½ to 3 hours, depending on the number of questions you need to answer. Each section is structured in the following way:


  • Listen to 3 or 4 lectures (3-5 mins long each) with 6 questions per lecture
  • Listen to 2 or 3 conversations (3 mins long each) with 5 questions per conversation
  • Total: 41-57 mins


  • Read 3 or 4 passages, with 10 questions each
  • Total: 54-72 mins


  • 1 Independent writing task (30 mins)
  • 1 Integrated writing task (20 mins)
  • Total: 50 mins


  • 1 Independent speaking task (15-30 sec prep time and 60 sec response time)
  • 3 Integrated speaking tasks to combine speaking, listening, and/or reading (15-30 sec prep time and 60 sec response time)
  • Total: 17 mins

Total time to take the TOEFL: 2 hrs 40 mins – 3 hrs

The test is typically not longer than three hours because if listening or reading have the maximum amount of questions, the other will usually have the minimum.

5. The role of motivation

Motivation is everything when it comes down to learning English. Simon Sinek speaks about finding your “why.” If you find a “why” that is deep enough, you will ensure that you have enough motivation to carry you through the long hours of study to get the score you want (or need) on the TOEFL.

So how do you find your deepest motivation? Ask yourself why you want to take the TOEFL. If the answer is that you want to get into the university of your choice, then ask yourself why you want that. Ask yourself “why” five times, and you will find a nice deep motivation for doing the TOEFL. 

If your “why” is strong enough to move you, then that “why” will sustain you in difficult moments or when all of your friends are having fun instead of studying. The best motivation is “because I love English.” If that is the case, those long hours of learning will be more manageable for you. You may be rolling your eyes as you read this because you may think it is hard to love learning English. 

If you don’t love it as you are reading this, give yourself a chance to learn to love it. If you like journaling, write down what you are learning, and you will see the progress you are making. You will soon get excited about learning English!

6. Give yourself aggressive deadlines

The university may have a specific deadline for your TOEFL scores to be submitted. That will be your absolute deadline. That is good, but it will help establish a few more interim deadlines because they will give you some healthy pressure to make sure you are doing your best. If you know that you have a deadline, your brain will react to that, and you will be able to focus more easily.

First of all, if possible, I would choose a test date that gives you time to retake the test if you were to not get the score you need for the university you are applying to. This way, you have some breathing room. If you get the score you want the first time around, even better! You will have some nice time off. If not, you will have time to retake it without being under too much pressure.

A few weeks before your test date, set yourself another date to take another practice test. This will help you gauge your progress and help you see where you need to keep working before test day comes around. 

7. Tips for the Reading section

When reading, whether it be in English or your own language, before you start reading, it is always helpful to gather information before you actually read. What is this about? What is the subject matter?

Skim the text to look for clues and see if you can identify the main ideas. This way, when you read, you will be able to understand the passage more fully, and you will be in a better position to answer the questions the TOEFL throws at you.

I would strongly suggest using a “pointer” of sorts which your eyes can follow as you read. A pointer can be your finger, a pen, a pencil (or any other legal pointing device you can take to the test). This practice helps us be more attentive to what we are reading.

As I mentioned above, you are not penalized for incorrect answers in the reading section. If you can eliminate some of the answers, you will have a better chance of getting the correct response to a question you are having difficulty with.

If you want to focus on improving your reading score specifically, I have written a dedicated post for you! I elaborate on the tips given here and provide a few more helpful guidance for test day.

8. Tips for the Listening section

One of the most important things you can do when listening on test day is to take notes. Try to find the main ideas as you listen to the passages and conversations, and try to follow the speaker(s) train of thought. This practice will prime your brain to look for the key ideas, and you will be well-positioned to get the correct answer.

As in the reading section, you are not penalized for incorrect answers in the listening section.

As in the reading section, you are not penalized for incorrect answers in the listening section. If you are having trouble with a particular question, try to see which answers you think are incorrect. Eliminate those, and that will give you a better shot at guessing the right one.

If you are interested in more tips for this section, I have also written a post that focuses on giving you tools to help you improve your listening score

9. Tips for the Speaking section

There are three fundamental things to remember for the speaking section:

  • Answer the question
  • Make sure that you are understandable
  • You can make mistakes

The first one is the most important thing. If you give an answer to a question that wasn’t asked, you will not get credit for that task. So make sure you understand the question before answering.

Secondly, you can have the right answer, but if you are not understandable, the grader will penalize you for your response. While you are preparing to answer the question, make sure that you have gathered your thoughts that you can express yourself clearly. Your pronunciation also plays a role here, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. If you can, practice with native speakers and ask them if they understand you. That will be a great help!

Finally, know that you can make some mistakes. So don’t worry about perfection. If you want to go for the C2 certificate at some point, then we can talk about getting closer to perfection, but don’t worry about it for the TOEFL.

Once again, I have written a post that deals with the speaking portion of the TOEFL, so if you feel like you could use some help in this area, be sure to check it out!

10. Tips for the Writing section

If you observe the average TOEFL scores by country, you will notice that of the scores for the four sections on the TOEFL, the writing section scores tend to be the lowest. For this reason I would suggest the following strategy.

First, make sure that you answer the question. There is nothing worse than writing an essay, answering a different question from the one they asked!

Of the scores for the four sections on the TOEFL, the writing section scores tend to be the lowest.

Second, plan your answer carefully. You can structure your answer in the following way, if it is helpful:

Independent task

I think that ….. for several reasons. Reason 1. Reason 2. Reason 3. Etc.

  • Main idea 1
  • Supporting details explaining main idea 1
  • Main idea 2
  • Supporting details explaining main idea 2
  • Main idea 3
  • Supporting details explaining main idea 3


Integrated task

You can do the same for the integrated task; however, you are not expressing an opinion this time. You can just give the main ideas and the supporting details in the same way.

Finally, make sure that you use a broad range of vocabulary and sentence structures to show your mastery of the grammar and syntax you have learned. If you read a lot, you will be able to see the many ways in which you can express yourself.

As with the other sections, I have also posted some tips on how to improve your writing score. Be sure to have a look at them, especially if writing is not your forte!  

Best of luck for getting the score you want!

I hope this post has helped you. If you have any feedback, please send it on to [email protected]!


Hey English Learners! I'm Ryan and I have over 4000 hours of English teaching experience. Even though I am now a management consultant in Ireland by day, I have created this blog because I am a teacher at heart and am passionate about the English language! Look forward to help you get your English Exam Passport. Cheers!

Recent Posts