More than 1 million international students are enrolled in American colleges and universities, but before arriving, nonnative English speakers are typically required to pass an assessment of their language skills.
Many aspiring students take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, now known as the TOEFL test. A high score can help them land at their preferred colleges; a low score can require students to take additional language classes or limit their options by reducing the number of schools that will admit them.
Accepted at more than 10,000 institutions around the globe, a variation of the TOEFL test has been administered since 1965 through Educational Testing Service, a private nonprofit organization that conducts educational research with an emphasis on testing. It was initially developed through a collaborative effort among more than 30 public and private institutions as an assessment of English language proficiency for incoming students.
Since 1965, ETS says more than 35 million people have taken the TOEFL. The test has evolved as technology and education overall have continued to change. Created as a paper-based test, it shifted to computer-based in 1998 and then to an internet-based test in 2005, known as the TOEFL iBT. Though the exam is internet-based, the TOEFL iBT must be taken in person at an ETS-authorized testing center.
The TOEFL has four parts: reading, listening, speaking and writing. See below for a guide on how to prepare for the exam, TOEFL scores accepted by U.S. universities and test resources.
How Is the TOEFL Administered?
Two versions of the TOEFL are offered at ETS-authorized testing centers. The most common is the TOEFL internet-based test, or iBT.
The paper-based test is offered in some countries with limited internet access. Additionally, a few countries offer both versions of the test.
How Is the TOEFL Test Scored?
Each of the four sections of the TOEFL is worth 30 points. ETS uses both automated scoring methods and human graders to assess English language skills.
The reading and listening sections are scored by automated methods because each question has a single correct answer, while the speaking and writing portions are reviewed by human raters.
“The four sections that students are tested on are very important. Reading, listening, speaking, writing — these get directly at what classroom experiences will be at universities,” says Scott Allen, senior associate dean of admission and director of international recruitment at Emory University in Atlanta.
What Is a Good TOEFL Score?
While 120 is the highest score a TOEFL test-taker can earn on the iBT, individual schools decide what minimum score to accept. Elite institutions demand high scores, often setting the bar at 100. According to U.S. News data, the average minimum TOEFL test score accepted by ranked U.S. schools was 75 in the last academic year, though some ranked colleges and universities will admit students with a score as low as 45.
Emory is one such institution where the TOEFL score minimum is 100, Allen notes. Emory is in the minority of ranked institutions with such high TOEFL score requirements, according to U.S. News data.
Florida Institute of Technology, which had the largest percentage of international students in 2017-2018, requires a minimum score of 79 for regular admission. According to U.S. News data, 32 percent of Florida Tech’s student body in 2017-2018 was comprised of international students, which Florida Tech associate director of international and graduate admission Stacey Reeder credits to thriving programs focused on STEM, the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
The University of Oregon, in contrast, requires a minimum TOEFL score of 61 for entry into the school’s Academic English for International Students program, which offer a mix of language and regular academic courses. Students scoring below 61 on the TOEFL may be offered conditional admission, beginning regular courses after completing UO’s Intensive English Program.
“The standard reflects our commitment to internationalization. We know that many students who are interested in studying in the U.S. need a little help with English,” says Dennis Galvan, vice provost for international affairs, noting that Oregon has a first-year program designed to acclimate international students to the English language as they begin their course of studies.
Conditional admission is a common feature at many universities, which accept international students scoring below published minimum TOEFL requirements on the condition they take English courses.
However, TOEFL scores give institutions a good sense of a student’s English competency, which is still important to admissions officers. “A student cannot be successful in the classroom without a certain level of (English) proficiency,” Reeder says.
How Do I Prepare for the TOEFL Test?
ETS offers both free and paid TOEFL practice materials on its website.
Other options include test preparation services such as Magoosh and Kaplan, and a MOOC, or massive open online course, offered through the edX platform. Magoosh provides some free resources on its website as well as paid programs ranging from one week to six months in length. Kaplan offers free online test preparation and paid programs both online and in person. And edX offers its MOOC, in partnership with ETS, through free or paid options.
Lucas Fink, senior product manager at Magoosh, says his company focuses on teaching test strategies.
“Our goal is not to teach the English basics that the students need as the foundation for the test — it’s to teach how to take the test so we can remove that aspect of it entirely,” Fink says.
Galvan describes “the culture of taking a standardized test” as Americanized, adding: “There are many societies around the world where that standardized test model is just unfamiliar.”
For that reason, experts suggest TOEFL preparation strategies like using free or paid resources through ETS and other providers, seeking out English immersion experiences, interacting with native speakers as often as possible and consuming pop culture in English.
“Do as much as you can in the language you’re trying to learn,” Reeder says.
Taking practice tests can also give students a good indication of where they stand and help improve their chances of achieving a higher score. “Practice tests are really important, with enough time (scheduled) in advance to make adjustments,” Galvan says.
Roy Ricaldi, a student from Lima, Peru, now studying at the University of Kansas, scored a 96 on the TOEFL. He says the exam is nerve-wracking for those not used to standardized testing.
“A lot about taking the TOEFL is mental readiness. Spanish speakers normally get nervous taking English tests. All of my friends dreaded it. What you have to keep in mind is that you do not have to earn a perfect score, like in the SAT,” Ricaldi wrote in an email.
How Do I Register for the TOEFL?
How Much Does the TOEFL Test Cost?
The cost of the TOEFL exam varies by country. ETS lists costs as low as $180 to a high of $300 in Australia.
When Is the TOEFL Offered?
The TOEFL is offered more than 50 times a year at test centers around the world. ETS recommends registered users log in to their accounts for the most up-to-date information.
How Long Is the TOEFL Test Session?
According to the ETS website, students are given four hours to complete the exam as well as a short break.
The reading section is 60 to 80 minutes long with three to four reading passages, which come from textbooks taught at the university level, and 12 to 14 questions for each passage.
The listening section is 60 to 90 minutes long, with four to six lectures and two to three conversations. Lectures range from three to five minutes and conversations are three minutes each.
Fink notes that students will receive either a long reading or listening section but will not have extended sessions for both.
The speaking section is 20 minutes long and students must answer six questions for the iBT by speaking into a microphone on a headset. Recorded responses are then sent to ETS to be scored by human raters. It’s the speaking section that experts flag as one of the more difficult sections on the TOEFL.
“One of the most common (stumbling blocks) is the speaking section. It’s a pretty artificial experience,” Fink says. “It’s not a lot of time to get across a point, and when you’re looking at a timer and talking into a microphone on a screen, that can be a big challenge for a lot of people. It’s performance pressure.”
Ricaldi agrees, saying it was the speaking component of the test he found most difficult. “I would have felt a lot better if the speaking portion was evaluated by an actual human,” he says, adding that he felt the technology provided at his testing center was outdated.
Test-takers are given 50 minutes on the writing section to complete two assignments. Students have 20 minutes to write a response to a short reading passage and lecture for the first task, and they are then given 30 minutes to complete an essay on a selected writing topic.
How Long Does it Take to Receive TOEFL Results?
It typically takes up to two weeks to receive TOEFL test results following the exam. Users can log in to their account around 10 days after they complete the iBT to check their scores, while printed reports are expected to arrive around 13 days after the test date.
“Because some fundamental parts of the test require nonautomated grading, human graders — the speaking section and the writing section — it takes longer for them to return that,” Fink says.
How Long Are TOEFL Scores Good For?
According to the ETS website, TOEFL scores are valid for two years. The test can be taken an unlimited number of times in an effort to improve the outcome, but only once per 12-day period.
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