TOEFL Exam Overview

The transition from high school to university is an all-around taxing experience. The workloads increase dramatically and academic demands are vastly higher. This is only amplified if you are a second or third-language English speaker trying to study abroad.

There are a couple of tests that non-native speakers need to complete before undertaking such a mammoth task, one of which is the TOEFL test. Taking such a test not only proves your language aptitude but also ensures that you have the kind of skills needed to carry you through the coming years of tertiary study.

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What Is TOEFL?

TOEFL stands for Test Of English as a Foreign Language. This test was developed in the 60s by the American language company, ETS. The test is one of only a couple of standardized tests that can ensure college acceptance for students who speak English as a second language.

Why is TOEFL Important?

The benefits of studying abroad are quite evident. You gain valuable life experience, build a broader foundation for entering a global workforce, and have the opportunity to gain knowledge and experience that might not be available in your home country. But all of these benefits can only be accessed once you prove your proficiency in English. TOEFL offers the opportunity to prove your proficiency and more specifically; a functioning knowledge of American English.

What is the format of the TOEFL?

The TOEFL test can be taken either in paper form (TOEFL PBT) or online (TOEFL IBT). The latter is the more popular option amongst test-takers. TOEFL PBT is only offered in areas where internet is not available.

The test takes a total of 4 hours to complete and is divided into the 4 main sections of language: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. Many of the questions take on a multiple-choice format, unlike other tests that require longer answers. After the first two sections, there is a 10-minute break before you commence with the speaking portion.

Each section focuses on one skill but in certain places, you are required to apply more than one skill at a time. An additional curveball is that either the reading or listening portions of the test will include experimental questions. This means there will be a set of questions that will not be scored but are used as research to compile future tests. This makes a difference in the timekeeping of the test. You will always have 50 minutes to complete the writing section and 20 minutes for the speaking section. Both reading and listening will range from 60-80mins, and 60-90 mins respectively (depending on where the unscored questions are added).

1. Reading

The reading section includes 3 or 4 academic reading passages. All the passages are approximately 700 words long and academic. There are 3 ways you will answer questions.

  • Multiple choice
  • Insert Text Questions
  • Reading-to-Learn Questions

Multiple-choice questions give you four possible answers to the first 8 questions. There are various strategies you could learn to derive the correct answer from the choices.

Insert text questions are always second to last in each set of questions (1 set per passage). Here you will be shown a sentence that is not in the passage but could be slotted in somewhere. You will need to identify the place where that new sentence would fit in. You are shown 4 squares to indicate possible placements for the sentence.

The 10th question for each passage is the most unique and is also scored differently. The single question is worth 2-3 raw marks and will require you to do one of two things. Either to summarize the text by putting a list of statements in the correct order, or categorize a list of statements to the parts that are described.


The listening portion is set up with 3-4 listening passages that are academic lectures. The last 2-3 are informal conversations. The lectures are quite long, clocking in at 5-5.5 minutes each, whereas the conversations are shorter at only 2-2.5 minutes each.

Scoring is quite simple and each multiple-choice question is worth 1 raw mark. In very rare cases you will be prompted to select more than one correct answer per question. Lastly, there is one more uncommon question type that will pop up at least once during the listening section. This question will require you to categorize information. You will simply tick a box to indicate the category that a piece of information belongs in.

You will only be able to listen to the audio track once and cannot pause or replay the audio. For some of the questions, there will be an automatic replay of one or two sentences as a reference for the question.

3. Speaking

TOEFL IBT’s speaking section is a bit different as you are given 4 speaking tasks which you then answer into your headset’s microphone. There is no examiner present who you can speak with. Each task is timed independently but adds up to around 20 minutes for the whole section.

Task 1:

In task 1 you will be required to think independently and produce your own opinion on a social issue. You are only given 15 seconds to prepare and then need to speak for 45 seconds uninterrupted.

Task 2:

This is the first question that integrates more than one skill. You will be shown a written notice for 50 seconds (reading). Next, a speaker will give an opinion about the announcement which lasts around 1 minute (listening). Thereafter you are allowed 30 seconds to prepare to speak for 1 minute. Your speaking will be a summary of the opinion you heard in the audio track.

Task 3:

Another integrated task where you read an academic excerpt for 45 seconds. You will then hear supporting statements from a lecturer for around 1 minute. Then after another 30 seconds of preparation time, you will need to speak for 1 minute and relate the lecture to the written passage.

Task 4:

The final section will also require you to speak for 1 minute. You will hear a 2 min lecture and will then be prompted to summarize the lecture.


The last section, writing, consists of two essays you will type into the computer.

The first task requires you to compare a passage and a lecture. You will read an academic passage and after that, hear a lecturer disagree with the claims from the passage. You need to relate the lecture and the passage with a summary of 150-225 words.

The second task prompts you to raise your opinion about the given subject. The subject is usually a social issue but the test is constantly evolving, especially in this task. Newer tests are sometimes requiring you to solve a problem or plan a strategy for a given scenario. This task has a minimum word-count of 300 words.

How is the TOEFL scored?

The TOEFL test has a maximum score of 120. Each section weighs 30 marks and the scores are converted from a raw mark to a scaled score. Each section’s score can be further divided into 4 or 5 levels of aptitude.

The tests are assessed by both humans and computers. The speaking and writing sections are evaluated by examiners as these sections need to be scored on a rubric rather than simply be marked as correct or incorrect. Thus, listening and reading sections are computerized as there is a definitive answer for each question. All the tests are sent to a centralized scoring network to eliminate any bias that might occur during in-person test-taking.

How do I prepare for TOEFL?

As with all college-level standardized tests, it is vital to understand the format of the test. Having a clear idea of the structure will allow you to easily stay within the time frame and efficiently answer the questions.

It is also a good idea to take practice tests beforehand to establish a base score on which you can build. Each institution requires a different score for enrollment and you need to understand how to achieve that score.

Lastly, there are many test prep courses of various lengths that can polish your test skills and ensure a seamless test experience with positive outcomes.


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