If you just want to know the basic information about what the TOEFL is about, you can find that information in the brief paragraph that follows. Instead, if you want to find out a little more and see how the test works and how it compares to other tests, read on!
The TOEFL, which stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, is the most widely-used and accepted test of English in the world. It is primarily used for entering into an English-speaking university. University admissions departments will typically ask applicants for a minimum score on the TOEFL to ensure that they will understand and communicate effectively while studying for their degree.
The history of TOEFL
The TOEFL, a child of ETS® (Educational Testing Service, was born in the early 1960s in the United States. Many governmental and private entities came together to discuss the best way to assess students’ English language proficiency before they arrive in the United States for university.
Thus the TOEFL was born, and in 1964 the first TOEFL tests were administered. In 1965, ETS and the College Board assumed joint responsibility for continuing with the TOEFL exams. Now, many years later, over 2 million TOEFL tests are administered each year in more than 4500 testing centers across 150+ countries. This makes it the most popular choice for universities and university students alike.
The TOEFL is accepted by most English-speaking universities worldwide. However, not all governments accept the TOEFL as a valid means of proving your English level. I will go into this in more detail in the “pros and cons of TOEFL” section below.
The structure of the TOEFL
The TOEFL is a test l lasting between 2 hrs and 40 mins and 3 hours, depending on how many questions the test contains. ETS periodically puts extra questions in tests to help make scores comparable across administrations in various centers and see how those questions work under actual testing conditions. ETS is constantly researching how to improve the test, so they do lots of research. Test takers try out these types of questions so that the test makers can keep improving the exam for future generations of test-takers.
The TOEFL is made up of four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Here is the breakdown of each of the areas:
- 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
The TOEFL is typically done on a computer. This version of the test is called the TOEFL iBT (internet-based test). There is a paper-based or paper-delivered version as well. Still, this option is only administered when it is impossible to do the TOEFL iBT, such as where the necessary technology is not available.
These reading and listening sections are made up of multiple-choice questions, some of which are single-select questions, others of which are multi-select questions. Single-select questions require you to select one response. In contrast, the multi-select questions will ask you to select multiple responses, the combination of which form your answer. For instance, the listening section will ask you to choose two answers for some questions, and the reading section will ask you to select three answers for some questions.
The writing section is also done on a computer. You will be required to type your answer into the answer section directly. Your answer will be graded by AI and human examiners. This combination allows ETS to grade each assessment fairly and objectively. Also, an examiner will always capture more nuance than AI will, even though AI has become very accurate these days.
Lastly, the speaking section will also be done at the computer. You will be given time to prepare each answer, and then you will speak your answer into the microphone. The computer will record your answer for grading. As in the writing section, the speaking section will be assessed using AI and human examiners.
The TOEFL is scored out of 120 points, 30 points for each of the four sections. While some universities simply ask you for a minimum comprehensive score for admissions purposes, others ask for a specific score in each of the four sections.
Reading & Listening
The reading and listening sections’ scoring is relatively straightforward: the correct answers are totaled and then scaled according to the number of questions. Let’s say that hypothetically each section has 30 questions. That would mean that each question would be worth roughly 1 point. If there were 60 questions, each would be worth half a point.
This is obviously a simplification because some questions may be worth more than others. Also, some questions may not count towards the final score (i.e., the additional questions referred to above), but this gives the general idea.
The nice thing about these two sections is that you do not lose any points for incorrect answers. An excellent strategy to deal with these questions is to try to eliminate choices you think are wrong if you get stuck. From there, you have a greater chance of guessing the correct answer.
As we said above, there are four speaking tasks: one is independent (just speaking), while the other three are integrated (a combination of speaking and other communication skills). While they are graded differently, graders generally look at delivery, use of language, and how you develop your answer.
Before I get into what it takes to get a perfect score, there are three crucial things to take into consideration:
- Make sure you answer the question. You can have flawless English, but if you answer the wrong question, you will get a 0.
- You can make some mistakes and still get a very high score.
- The main goal of speaking is being able to effectively communicate something to the person listening to you. Pronunciation, therefore, plays an important role, however not as much as one might think. As long as someone can understand you, you should be fine!
Independent Speaking Task
The scoring scale goes from 0 to 4 points for the independent speaking task. This is what you need to do to get a high score:
- Your speech is fluid and clear. While you may make some errors in pronunciation or intonation, one is still able to understand what you are trying to communicate
- You speak without having to overthink, and you employ a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures
- Your response answers the question, and you develop your answer cohesively. You show connections between ideas and/or show clear progression in developing them.
Integrated Speaking Task
- Your speech is clear and fluid, although you may pause at times as you try to remember important information. While you may make some errors in pronunciation or intonation, one is still able to understand what you are trying to communicate.
- You speak without overthinking, as you have good control of basic and complex grammatical structures. You may make some systematic errors, but the listener doesn’t need to make too much effort to understand you, as these errors do not obscure what you are trying to communicate.
- You transmit the relevant information in your response, and there is a clear and coherent progression of ideas. You might omit minor details without it affecting your score.
Just as in the speaking section, the writing section has a combination of independent and integrated tasks. The difference in this section is that you will have only two tasks, one independent and one integrated.
This is what you will be graded on:
- How well you answer the question and if you stay on task
- How well-organized and well-developed your answer is
- How coherent your answer is and how well the writing flows. Ideas progress clearly.
- You show you can write well, employing a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical and syntactical structures; you may make minor grammar mistakes or occasionally make an error in word choice
I just want to call your attention to the first three points. Can you see that the first three points have very little to do with your level of English? This is crucial to understand because you can still get a very high score if you do the first three parts well and the fourth one not so well!
You might ask yourself why this is the case. If you think about it, It’s all about how well the person can grasp what you are trying to say. If it is difficult to follow or superficial and full of digressions, you can show off all the grammar and vocabulary that you want, but your writing will be ineffective.
The first point is also crucial. If the test asks you for your opinion on whether more elective classes are a good idea, and you explain why macroeconomics is just the best thing since sliced bread with perfect syntax and grammar, you are not answering the question. That could very well get you a zero!
The rubrics for this section are fundamentally quite similar to the rubrics on the independent task, although you will note some differences.
Here’s what you will need to do to get a decent score:
- You take the most relevant information from the lecture and successfully associate it with the relevant information in the reading
- Your response is well-organized
- Some errors may be present; however, the way you communicate connections between the lecture and the reading is clear
The above will get you a perfect (or near-perfect) score. Still, as you can see, it is a little more demanding than the independent task since it requires listening and reading skills also.
Again, you will see that the clear organization of your response is key to helping the grader understand what you are trying to say.
Just to reiterate: you can make some mistakes in the TOEFL writing section and still get an excellent score. In fact, ETS says on its website, “raters recognize that each essay is a first draft, and you can receive a high score with an essay that contains some errors.”
The cost of the TOEFL test varies from country to country. This is mainly because the costs of administering the test and supply and demand will affect prices. You can typically expect to pay the equivalent of USD$185 to USD$270.
|South Africa||USD 230|
|Other countries||Check TOEFL website|
Usually, your TOEFL results will expire after 2 years. This time period helps strike a balance between giving applicants some flexibility in applying and making sure that applicants to universities still have the level they had at the time of testing. This also helps protect the applicant from arriving at the university and being overwhelmed because they haven’t had contact with the language for a while.
Can you imagine if there was no expiry date? You would get people applying who perhaps haven’t had contact with English for 4-5 years. If they get accepted, their first few months on campus may be very unpleasant, and their grades would suffer as a result.
If you are in the category of people who have an expired TOEFL but have been in contact with the English language enough to be proficient, you may have an out. Let’s say that you did your undergrad in a US university, and then you want to go back and study a master’s degree a few years later. Some universities will waive the TOEFL requirement because you already have a university degree where you were speaking English all the time.
If you do find yourself in a situation in which you are proficient in English, but your TOEFL has expired, and you face having to do the test again, try reaching out to the admissions department and see if there is a way for them to waive the requirement. If they clearly see that you are proficient, they might be able to make a plan for you.
If you are proficient but can’t find a way to have the requirement waived, yes, it will cost you the money to take the test, which is not ideal. But at least you won’t have to spend the amount of time you spent preparing the first time.
The pros and cons of TOEFL
The TOEFL has several things in its favor as pros:
- Since it is offered in over 150 countries in more than 4500 testing centers, it is more likely you will have a testing center nearby than for other tests such as IELTS or PTE
- It is the most widely-accepted test in the world
- The test is out of 120, so there is greater precision in grading than for other tests
However, the TOEFL also has a few cons:
- If you are not a fan of internet-based tests, then you may be better off looking into other tests your university accepts. TOEFL only offers the paper-based version of their test where the internet-based test is not available.
- It can be longer than other tests, especially if there are additional questions. This said, the test is offered all at the same time. While the IELTS is theoretically shorter, sometimes you have to do the speaking portion on another day. If this happens, the IELTS may end up taking more time than the TOEFL unless you live close to an IELTS test center.
- While it is accepted by most universities worldwide, some governments, such as the UK government, don’t accept it for visa purposes.
TOEFL vs. other tests
So how does the TOEFL compare to other tests as a whole? Hopefully, this table can give you the info you need to make the most well-informed decision.
|Purpose||Academic, Work, Immigration||Academic, Work, Immigration||Academic or Immigration|
|Recognition||Most-recognized||Second-most recognized||Slowly gaining recognition|
|Location||Test center, home*||Test center, home*||Test center, home*|
|Test format||All at once||Speaking scheduled in another moment||All at once|
|Computer||Computer, or written||Computer|
|Amount of time you have to wait before retesting||3 days||No minimum||5 days|
|Number of testing centers||4500||1600||250|
|Number of countries test offered||150||140||50|
|Length||2 hrs 40 mins to 3 hrs||2 hrs 40 mins||3 hrs|
|Costs||TOEFL iBT||IELTS||PTE Academic|
|Italy||USD 270||€241 (from Jan 2021)||USD 255|
|Spain||USD 250||€223||USD 245|
|South Africa||USD 230||ZAR 3560||ZAR 2850|
|India||USD 185||INR 14000||INR 13300|
|Germany||USD 260||€243 (from Jan 2021)||USD 240|
|Austria||USD 270||€243 (from Jan 2021)||USD 215|
|France||USD 265||€239||USD 255|
|Mexico||USD 185||USD 215||USD 190|
|China||Check TOEFL website||RMB 2170||USD 275|
|Other countries||TOEFL cost||IELTS cost||PTE Cost|
Best of luck!