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Why the TOEFL is More Important Than Just One Test, and How That Can Help You Succeed

Editor's note: Shree is currently in the process of applying to study in the U.S. for the fall of 2013. He's agreed to take us with him on that process, recapping each step as he accomplishes it, and filling us in on what he did right and wrong so we can learn from his mistakes. First up, the TOEFL.

I have always feared standardized tests. In fact, I fear all tests, from college exams to oral exams at the dentist. A fear of something-might-just-go-wrong always makes me nervous. So I was not looking forward to the standardized tests I was told by U.S. Education Foundation advisors would be crucial to my college applications. But, the TOEFL turned out to be different.

Alongside the SAT/ACT, the TOEFL is the standardized test required by most U.S. colleges. Unlike the SAT, however, which sort of measures the intellectual ability of students, the TOEFL is a check of basic skills – Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing (the four sections of the test) - the same things students do during their school years. In other words, you don’t need to be smart to score high on the TOEFL.

[What is the minimum required TOEFL score?]

But you do need to know the test format in advance.

The TOEFL is strictly formatted in each and every section. For example, the writing section always contains an integrated task (writing an essay based on a given report and a lecture) and an independent task (a topic is given in which we are free to write).

Knowing the format and instructions beforehand helped me a lot during the test. Although they give you time to read the instructions for every section, I found that reading the instructions broke my focus, so I learned them ahead of time and skipped them during the test. Sometimes I would take deep breaths during that time to ease the pressure, because once the sections start they don’t pause.

[How nerves impacted Anna's TOEFL performance]

Photo by Nick Hoang
Photo by Nick Hoang

Knowing the format isn’t everything though. I practiced. A lot. Over and over again. I found the Delta’s Key to the TOEFL Test book to be very useful, as it contained drills on individual question types, and I used the Cambridge Preparation for the TOEFL Test book to work on basic skills like note-taking, summarizing and paraphrasing. The fun part about TOEFL, though, was that I didn’t need to actually *practice* to get practice. There were a lot of ways to fit TOEFL preparations into my normal, everyday life.

Four ways I used normal activities to practice for the TOEFL:

1. Chatting with friends

For the speaking section, I used to simply chat with my friend in English, asking random questions and taking turns answering. We would listen closely to each other and then give each other possible improvements. We made it like a game; the first one to fail to answer would be the loser.

[Using Skype to chat with native English speakers]

2. Listening to the radio

Listening to BBC News also helped me sharpen my listening skills. Often I didn’t just listen; I used to take notes as well, since note-taking is a crucial skill for the TOEFL.

3. Thinking about my day

To practice the writing section, at the end of each day I forced myself to write an essay summarizing all that day’s events. Sometimes I would write about the person I hated the most, just for fun.

4. Going to sleep

I also listened to the radio as I was going to bed as further practice for my listening skills, and used to listen to something that would bore me literally to sleep.

[More ways to fit English learning into your daily routine]

What I realized while preparing for the TOEFL is that it’s not just a test you have to get through. It’s actually a measure of whether you will be able to survive in a college where English is the priority language. Each of the four sections corresponds to something you’ll actually have to do; like reading through a textbook for an assignment, listening to a teacher to take notes for a project, speaking with your friends, or writing homework in a rush.

[How to succeed academically in a foreign language]

My point is, don’t think of the TOEFL as a test. Rather, regard it as a day in college. You’re not just studying to get a high score on this one exam – you’re preparing to take on the challenge of going to school full-time in English. The preparation will be worth it when you get through your first day of classes easily.

Of course, you do still need to pass the test. And all my work paid off when I got my score: 114.