How to pass the TOEFL-iBT® Test

How to pass the TOEFL-iBT® Test
How to pass the TOEFL-iBT® Test

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

To be clear from the start: the TOEFL-iBT is not a test that you can pass or not, rather it gives you a score and places it in a scale so in reality what you would need to look for is what score you want to get, and mark that as your target score.

This can be the score required by a university or a college to be able to enter into their program or just an overall score that you want as a personal objective. Now, a lot of people wonder what the best way to get a high score in this test is.

To be honest it may be more difficult than what most people think. Yet, there are a few short steps that you can take in order to pass this test with the score that you are looking for. The best way to do it is by following these simple steps (you can click on one and skip straight to it):

Understand your level of English.

Find out the score that you need for your application.

Correlate your current level of English with your dream score.

Make sure you have plenty of time to prepare.

Organize your schedule to study.

Understand your weaknesses and your strengths.

Track your progress make modifications if necessary.

Do I need a tutor?

Here I will go deeper into each one of these 8 steps In more detail though keep in mind that I can’t go to specific into what to do as every situation will be a little more different than the other. Still, you will be able to adapt the steps into your own specific case.

Understand your level of English.

The main reason why a person would want to take the TOEFL-iBT test is to live in an English-speaking country like the US or Canada. This means that the persons who are most likely to take this test do not have English as their native language nor is the official language of their country. The largest challenge that you can face in time for you to take this test, is understanding if you have an adequate level of English.

The most straightforward method to define your current level of English is to go to a language Institution and get a diagnosis. In addition to this, you can also hire a tutor for a single session to help you determine your level, potential weaknesses, and strengths. It goes without saying that these two options will not be free however, the cost of a single session to determine your level will not be very expensive.

The price will range depending on your current country and city. There are some free options online that have short versions of some tests, however, I do not recommend them very often as it is hard to determine the validity of most websites.

Find out the score that you need for your application.

This will be one of the most important pieces of information that you can find. Without this, you will be studying without knowing your target. It is always important to study and prepare with a goal in mind, a minimal score, the optimal score, and trying to reach for the maximum score.

To give you some help, most colleges and universities in the US and Canada will allow participants to enroll in their pre-graduate programs with a score of at least 70 points, ideally 80. This, because with this score you are statistically proven to be able to comprehend English at a university level of difficulty.

This is why in the TOEFL most of the topics included within the test are academic-related. It is possible for a student to enter college or university with a score lower than 70 points. I have had cases of students who have been accepted with a score of 60 points 50 points and even 45 points.

This, of course, must be compensated with other attributions that the university will receive. For example, the student can be very proficient in the Arts, Athleticism, or Academic, which makes them appealing for the University as they are more likely to become a spotlight in a few years.

But for most students, the best way to enter a college or university is by surpassing that threshold of 70 points needed for entering an average university or college. This threshold is pushed higher if you are looking to enroll in an Ivy League school. To give you an example, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and others, will require a minimum score of 100 points in the TOEFL.

If you know the score you are looking for beforehand along with your English level, you can make a better projection of how likely it is for you to get the score and how long you will have to study. Let me explain that in the next point.

Correlate your current level of English with your dream score.

In another post, I explain the correlation between the CEFR and the potential TOEFL-iBT score, you can check it out by clicking here. The folks from ETS, have collected statistics from thousands of TOEFL-iBT test takers and measured it according to the guidelines of the CEFR and concluded that both of them are well aligned. Meaning that your TOEFL score can determine accurately your current English level under the guidelines of the CEFR. Here’s a small chart from the folks of ETS that shows the correlation between the two systems.

From here you can see a pretty good comparison from the level of the CEFR and that of what you could obtain in every section of the TOEFL-iBT. Bear in mind that this does not determine specifically the score that you will obtain, but it’s rather a statistical reference of the potential score you will most likely get.

If you find out that your current level of English is at B1, you will see that you will most likely get around 40 points in the TOEFL. Imagining your dream score is 70 points, then you understand that you have to improve your general level of English first before attempting to prepare for the test.

If you apply this method you will be able to save a lot of time and money, in addition to being better prepared with more realistic plans.

Make sure you have plenty of time to prepare.

This will probably be the most important factor when it comes to obtaining the score you need. As I have said before, this is not an easy test. Even native speakers and find themselves in a pickle when trying to get 100 points.

If you have the right level for the score you are looking for, then the minimum time I would recommend for preparing for the test is 2 months, ideally 3. In this time you will be able to familiarize yourself with what is included in the test. The first few weeks for you to understand the test and know what to expect from it. Then, you identify your weaknesses and strengths a lot better improving upon them. Finally, you can practice and perfect those little things that continue to give you problems.

When I say two or three months of preparation, I mean intense months. During this time you have to eliminate some day-to-day distractions and focus on your goal.

Many times students have decided that a few hours one or two weeks before the test is more than enough time to prepare. What happens is that these students usually fall short from their expectations and very negative consequences can lead to a dramatic shift in a person’s life.

Organize your schedule  to study

Time will be the biggest challenge for most people as nowadays we tend to be working for a longer period and commuting longer hours as well, which leads us into finding the time much more valuable than we did before. This is why I strongly recommend that you organize a weekly routine in case you don’t have one already.

This will be one of the strongest tools that you can have for organizing not just your study time but your life. When studying for this test you will want to input about 8 or 12 hours of practice every week. This can be done, either by yourself or with a qualified tutor to help guide you.

This may sound like a lot of hours because if you do the math you’ll be studying anywhere from 80 to 120 hours before you take the test. This is not an exaggerated amount of time, it is quite standard at the minimum.

I recently uploaded a post where I explained the top 5 tips to help you improve your study habits. You can check it out by clicking here. Let me help you understand a little you better.

Understand your weaknesses and your strengths.

Once you have started studying and you have developed the rhythm we’re going to be receiving a lot of information and you are going to be overwhelmed with that information. It is possible that times to figure out what we are doing right and wrong. But this is not always the case.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say we are working in The Reading Section, where all questions are multiple-choice, and every time we complete a reading passage and the question we find out that when checking your answers, normally the vocabulary type questions are wrong and when they are right you feel that it is a lucky guess.

From here we can gather that one of your weaknesses is the vocabulary type question, but how can we transform that weakness into a strength? There are a few strategies that you can use for every type of question, and the official guide tackles them in a simple way for most students to understand.

However, this does not apply to all persons, furthermore, if you don’t understand their strategy, it can be very complicated to get better. Doing more of those questions without understanding why you’re getting them wrong won’t help. Quite the contrary, it can help deter your motivation and distract you from your other strong points.

Don’t be afraid to ask a friend who has already done the test, or to solicit the aid of a qualified tutor. With those questions that you’re having more problems, you can work with a tutor specifically on them for a few sessions that way it won’t hurt your budget.

The hardest part to study for this test is for The Speaking Section and The Writing Section since both sections do not consider multiple-choice questions, hence, it is almost impossible for a guide or books the correct them.

Yes, there are some guidelines, but considering the variety of questions that you can get, they are rendered useless pretty quickly. In addition, you don’t know if you’re making grammar or spelling mistakes, because if you have them, how will you know if they are right or wrong?

The best way to identify your weaknesses and strengths in these areas will be by soliciting the help of an experienced friend to check your spelling, cohesion, pronunciation, organization, and more, or to get aid from a qualified tutor.

Track your progress make modifications if necessary.

Following from the previous point, it is important for you to keep track of your score during your practice tests. For the first two sections, The Reading Section, and The Listening Section, it can be relatively easy to follow some simple statistics.

When you finish a test and check your results, just make a small chart with the raw score that you obtained like the one below.

Sample test 1ReadingPercent
Good24/3666%
Wrong6/3617%
Omitted6/3617%

In this chart, I can keep track of the scores of every single test and can see the percentage of correct, incorrect, and omitted questions for a particular test. The omitted questions in the chart can represent the question that you intentionally omitted because you just didn’t know/understand, and those for which you did not have enough time to finish.

It is very important to continue following these statistics in order to make better estimations of the score on the test. These makeshift charts do not represent the exact score that you will get in the test, but rather give us an approximate accuracy level as some questions may be worth more points than others.

After two or three sample tests, you will be able to make a projection of the overall improvement between those tests. However, the worst thing that you can do after finishing a test or a specific section is following it with another test or section as you will have little to no time to understand and digest the questions were you made mistakes.

It is very important to go through the questions you got wrong and understand what you did wrong. Without this stuff, there will be no improvement whatsoever and you will be wasting time doing test after test after test without learning anything, consuming valuable material and time.

To track your progress for the speaking section and the writing section you will need to have external help. Whether it’s a friend who has already done the TOEFL test or a qualified tutor. But regardless of either of these options, you will need to have a record of the activities that you have done when you started studying and the activities that you have done from a more recent moment.

For example for The Speaking Section, my recommendation is to always record your answers and to have a record of them with which test and which question it was, that way you can go back to the prompt. After some time you listen to the responses that you give to similar types of questions at a more recent point and listen to the responses you gave when you started.

There should be an improvement in the relaxation of your tone of voice as well as a better structure along with some more advanced vocabulary. The same thing will apply for the writing section with which you will keep a record of all your essays and compare similar types of essays as you go on.

It is important for you to have someone listen to your responses and read your essays to give you an outside opinion as other people will be able to see things that you can’t.

Do I need a tutor?

The short answer is: not necessarily… but if you can, do it.

The short answer is: not necessarily… but if you can, do it.

As I’ve stated before it is possible for you to prepare for this test by yourself, but you’re going to find a good number of instances where you will need the opinions of an outsider. The two best recommendations that I can make for searching for this outsider, is to look for either a friend or acquaintance who has already taken the test and has the experience of it, or a qualified tutor.

A person who has already done the TOEFL-iBT test will understand the pressure of the moment as well as the preparation beforehand. They will have already gone through the process and will have collected some very good insights and tricks that they can pass along to you and help make corrections.

Aside from this, a friend can be very inexpensive as it is possible that he or she will not charge you a fee but rather a favor, so it will help if you are working on a tight budget.

The reason I mention a qualified tutor and not an English teacher is because they are two different things.

An English teacher can help you improve your level of General English understanding idiomatic restraints that you may have and working on them to help you improve. A TOEFL-iBT tutor will do this in addition to knowing what the people of the TOEFL-iBT test are looking for. They will know the types of questions, the types of texts and audios, the content within the test. But more importantly, they will have a wide repertoire of strategy for every type of student.

Not everybody learns the same way so a qualified TOEFL tutor will understand that working with a single guide or a single book will not make it for all which is why they use a variety of angles to make sure that the student understands the given topic.

Furthermore, the tutor will be able to track the progress of the student effectively and understand which weaknesses must be tackled first and which can be omitted depending on the score that the student is seeking. If you are living in a non-English speaking country, and are looking for help for the TOEFL, avoid a tourist teacher, as these are freelance teachers that don’t have a lot of experience and don’t understand the grammatical aspects or etymological aspects of the language at the same level as an English teacher.

You can ask an English teacher to check your writing and listened to your recorded responses. But this teacher will not understand how to appropriately organize the answer or essay according to the guidelines that the TOEFL-iBT will look for.

I really hope that this has helped shed some light and clarity on how to get the score you want in this test, the most important thing to keep in mind again is that this is not a test that you can pass or not, this is a test that gives you a score on a scale and that you are the one who chooses which score will be your objective. Let’s get the score you want is to study, study, study.

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