GradApps: Tips for the TOEFL

This is the 2nd post of our Graduate Applications series. If you have missed the previous one on GRE, we encourage you to go thruogh it here.

What is TOEFL ?

The full form of TOEFL is "Test of English as a Foreign Language". It is a standardised test that you will need to give if you want to get accepted to most of Graduate School curriculums offered in English. There is also another exam called IELTS for the same which you can take instead of TOEFL. We shall go into a discussion about which one is better on a different post. Just like GRE many universities across different countries set a threshold TOEFL score criterian to determine proficiency in English of a candidate. Unlike the verbal component of GRE, TOEFL focuses more on how well you can use and understand everyday English rather than how fancy your vocabulary is. So, let us discuss more about the exam.

However, If you are still undecided about whether to apply for grad school or not, read this article on Job or Higher studies. It may help.

When Should I Give TOEFL ? 

Generally the application deadlines for most good grad schools in the US are in mid-December. So, you should be starting to prepare your applications at least from mid-November. This means, at the latest October is the time to give TOEFL/IELTS, and for that matter GRE too. However, many people find it more convenient to get it done in the preceeding summer or in the preceeding winter if you are interning during the summer.

Exam Structure

The TOEFL exam has 4 sections with separate timing. There will be a short 10-15 minutes break. Each section carries 30 marks making a total of 120. Grad schools generally keep cut offs above 90or 100. Some schools also give section-wise cut off. Let's discuss the four sections.

1. Reading

The reading section consists of  3 or 4 reading comprehension tasks. Keep in mind the questions asked are in order of the passage itself i.e. if question 2 is from paragraph 2 then question 3 won't be from paragraph 1, it can be from either 2 or later paragraphs. What this means is that you do not need to read the whole passage before starting to answer the question. This makes it a lot easier. In general the passages and questions are much easier than the GRE passages. So,if you have a descent background in English or you are preparing for GRE passages then this section should be a piece of cake.  Otherwise you need serious work to improve your English. The questions are not super tricky. So, do not overthink them, read the passage and keep answering the questions along sequencially.

2. Listening 

This section can appear either easy or difficult to you . If you are a regular english listener then you should have no problem. This section mostly consists of 4 listening tasks. Each task will make you listen a  part of a lecture or academic speech on some random topics. You should need to worry about the topic because the lectures are generally of introductory level. After you have listened to the audio you will have to answer some MCQ type questions based on it. These questions can be direct content questions (taking short notes may help, however, rememvber, you have to keep listening while taking notes, some people need some practice to do it). They may also ask about imterpretation of metaphorical or coloquial constructs that the lecturer may have used. E.g. if the lecturer says "ahh! you are slightly off the mark", they can ask you in an mcq what does the lecturer mean by saying the same and you have to mark the option saying "the student is slightly wrong." This will be repeated for the 4 listening tasks. Overall, this section should be very easy if you are used to listening to lectures in classes. Otherwise, you will definitely need practice.

3. Speaking

This section will have 6 questions which will test your english speaking skills in various contexts. The question format is the following: 1. You will listen to the question which may have some reading or listening componen. 2. Then you will be given 15-20 seconds of prep time depending ont he question. 3. You will be given 45-60 seconds of speaking time to answer the question. The questions are of of fixed formats. Some asks you simplt to describe some place / event of your choice, some asks you toi comment on some topic you read a short passage on, some asks you to summarise and comment on the lecturer's position depending on a lecture you hear, some asks you to summarise and given opinion on a conversation you here between a pair of people. We would encourage you to visit this Youtube channel. The lady does a beautiful job in explaining the questions and giving strategies for practice. Please, remember, however comfortable you think you are with spoken english this sections demands some format specific practice if you want to score high.

4. Writing

The writing section is similar to GRE but the questions will ask you to do different things the GRE writing. We would advise not to start writing right away. Instead take some time to structure the write up. An introductory and conclusive passage with 2 or 3intermediate passage is often a good structure. In the introduction always start directly to the point addressing what it is you are going to write about. This makes the reviewere comfortable as he gets that you haveunderstood the question. Don't get repetitive, both with with topics and words. With some practice with the typical question types you should be good to go in this section.

Points to Keep in Mind During the Exam

  1. Be very careful and check that your audio and microphone is working perfectly at the very beginning as audio instructions in the listening, speaking and writing sections are given only once for each question. So, if you miss it you are screwed for that question. This becomes even more important  because of the next point.
  2. You won't be alone in the room. That means when people aroung you will start speaking section it will become very disturbing since you have very little time to think and structure your answer. No, the headphones may not be noise cancelling. The best way to beat this situation is to be among the first guys to reach the speaking section. do the first two sections as fast as possible, do not take the full break,go to the nathroom if you need and start the speaking section right away. Then you may be towards the end of the speaking section while the majority of the crowd starts it. 
  3. Concentration is the key factor in most of these cases, if you are well aware of what the question is asking most likely you will get things right. So, take some mock tests to ramp up your strength of mind :-p 
  4. Practice taking fast and abridged notes containing the key points of an audio. This will help superbly.

Registration Process and Prep Materials

Registration process for TOEFL is pretty simple. You need to go to create your account. Please be careful with your name. Enter it exactly  as it appears on your passport otherwise everything will be in vain. After logging in you can now order new TOEFL test, book your schedule and venue. The exam fee as far as I remember was $180. Yes, it's pricey, but don't get shocked. It's after all a business of somebody. But, this also tells you that in most cases you really don't have more than one shot at this. You may  buy the official preparation material by ets from the same portal. 

However, if you are a subscriber of Roky'sSciTech, you can email or message our page on facebook for a google drive link containing preparation materials for free. Please refer the email you subscribed with in the message.

For the exam stick to the guidelines of what you have to bring and what not strictly. Give the exam coolly, our best wishes for you. After the exam is over the software will show you your verbal and analytical section score. It is safe to aim for a total of 110 with no less than 23 in either section. It takes about 2 to 3 weeks for ETS to update your score on the toefl portal. After that you can start sending your TOEFL score to universities you want to apply to through the ets portal itself for some amount of fees. You will also be given this option for free for 4 grad schools. But, you have to do this by 10 pm the day before the exam through the portal. Please note that grad schools only accept TOEFL score sent via ets.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments. If you want to support the good work, subscribe and like the page on facebook.  Bye bye! Until the next post.