Everything College Applicants Need to Know About the TOEFL Exam

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Group of students taking an exam in a classroom.

Everything College Applicants Need to Know About the TOEFL Exam

Non-native English speakers have an additional hurdle on the path to college admission that most other students don’t even give a thought about. Conducting four years of collegiate courses in a foreign language is a respectable feat that most people simply couldn’t achieve. Read on to learn more about TOEFL exam!

For that reason alone, you should be proud of your accomplishments and abilities. Unfortunately, colleges and universities aren’t simply going to assume that non-native English-speaking applicants have the proficiency needed to attend their institution. That’s where English-speaking exams, such as TOEFL, come into play. These tests gauge an individual’s ability to speak, write, read, and understand the English language.

Answer sheets for TOEFL and pens placed on the table.

If you’re a bit confused about what TOEFL is, why it matters, and how it takes it, you’re in the right place! We’re going to cover everything about this exam so you can apply to college with all the documents and exams you need to succeed.

Spelling it out.

When you’re applying to college, it’s tough to keep track of all the documents, transcripts, papers, and other information you need to send. On top of that, all of these requirements come with equally confusing acronyms which only make these even more complicated.

You’ve got the SAT and ACT, the FASFA form, a CSS profile, a GPA, IB and AP classes, and so much more. If you’re not a native English speaker, we’re sorry to report that there’s one more acronym you need to know about: TOEFL.

What is TOEFL?

TOEFL, which stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, is a standardized exam designed to measure a non-native speaker’s proficiency in the English language. It’s specifically geared towards non-native speakers who want to attend an English-speaking university or college.

The exam is designed and hosted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS)  which is a non-profit organization. Everything from the administration to the scoring of the exams is completed by this organization.

TOEFL is just one of seven different English-language tests that English-speaking institutions of higher learning rely on to determine the language skills of potential admits.

Why college applicants should take the TOEFL?

Which applicants should take the TOEFL? There’s no national standard for determining who should and shouldn’t take the TOEFL exam. The specifics differ between colleges and universities across the country.

Generally, it’s required from international students from a non-English speaking country. Some international applicants who have studied for extended periods of time in the United States already might be able to skip this requirement due to their presumed proficiency.

Two women in an interview talking.

However, the majority of international students who admissions officers can’t be sure have a sufficient grasp of the English language would be required to take the TOEFL.

Keep in mind that this is a generalized overview and that specifics vary. That’s why it’s critical to contact the university to which you’re applying to understand their specific requirements.

When can students take the TOEFL exam?

Just like the SAT and ACT, the TOEFL exam is administered on predetermined dates. However, this standardized test is provided much more frequently than other exams. Applicants have over 50 opportunities to take the exam each year.

Answering a multiple-choice exam using a pencil.

The specific dates of administration depend on where the test is being offered. You can easily check the dates of the most convenient location for you to take the exam by visiting the ETS site. Finding a test date and time that works for you shouldn’t be too difficult because of the sheer number of locations and dates of administration.

What does the TOEFL test?

In short, the TOEFL exam is designed to test an individual’s proficiency in the English language. However, it’s a bit more specific than that. Along with other college-focused English language tests, the TOEFL exam gauges an applicant’s ability to conduct collegiate-level work in English.

Writing a college letter on a table.

As a result, it covers much more than just speaking. In all, the TOEFL exam tests speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. On top of that, it assesses a student’s ability to combine these abilities together for more complex tasks. For example, the TOEFL exam would test if an individual could listen to a conversation and respond to a question.

Currently, ETS is in the process of transitioning the TOEFL to an online test known as the TOEFL iBT. On the other hand, the version offered in physical testing centers is called the TOEFL Paper Based Test (PBT). Other than the place of administration – physical vs virtual – there is no discernible difference between the contents or format of these exams.

The standard format of the TOEFL exam is four individual test sections that represent the four proficiency skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these sections so you can get a better idea of what’s required.

1. Reading

The reading portion of the TOEFL exam is comprised of anywhere between 35 and 56 questions. Depending on the number of questions, this section lasts around 60 to 80 minutes. Participants will have to read through three or four passages from randomized academic texts to respond to the following questions to demonstrate what they’ve acquired from the source text.

It’s important to note that these texts are direct excerpts from high-level academic textbooks that replicate what a student might encounter at college. Generally, these texts are introductions to a specific topic. The specific content can vary greatly from biology or philosophy to math or economics.

The good news is that the text remains introductory. You don’t need to have any pre-existing knowledge of the subject material. All you need to know is included in the text. The real test is to determine if you understand what you’ve read.

2. Listening

The listening portion of the TOEFL exam includes between 34 and 51 different questions and takes 60 to 90 minutes to complete. This section requires participants to listen to conversations, discussions, lectures, and other speaking practices before answering related questions to determine if test-takers have understood properly.

You might hear a wide range of accents during the listening portion of the TOEFL exam as colleges and universities want to make sure applicants can understand the wide variety of ways English is spoken. The pronunciation is always crips and clear, however, so you don’t have to worry about being required to understand gibberish or slurred speech.

Similar to the reading portion of the TOEFL exam, the listening section will include conversations or lectures on academic topics. Some also include natural, day-to-day speaking.


Phew! At this point, you’ve already done at least two hours of English proficiency tests. You’ve earned a break, and the test administrators agree. Following the listening section, you’ll have a ten-minute break. We know, we know. It’s not a lot of time, so you need to make the most out of it.

Take care of the basics before doing anything else. Use the restroom, get a drink of water, eat a quick snack (make sure it’s nutritious), grab some coffee if you need a boost of energy, stretch out those arms and move around a little bit. The goal is to return to the exam freshened up and ready to go.

3. Speaking

The speaking portion of the TOEFL exam is broken down into six different tasks each lasting for 20 minutes for a total of 180 minutes. Participants are asked about their opinion on a topic that’s familiar and to talk about listening and reading pieces.

The two questions at the beginning of the speaking portion are called independent speaking tasks as they require individuals to speak about their personal experiences, opinions, and ideas.

Keep in mind that there’s no single correct answer to these questions. Instead, the examiner is determining how you answer. Try to keep your answers as succinct and articulate as possible while answering the question directly.

The final four speaking questions are called integrated speaking tasks. As you might be able to guess, they’re a little more involved than the previous two questions. These tasks require individuals to combine their listening, reading, and speaking skills. To mimic the classroom environment, the TOEFL exam might require you to summarize a sample lecture or verbally respond to an academic text.

When taking the online version of the TOEFL exam, you’ll be speaking directly into a microphone while the response is being recorded. Your answer is then sent to ETS where professionals will score it.

4. Writing

Don’t worry! You’re almost there. Just one more section. The writing portion of the TOEFL exam is the shortest, you’ll be happy to know. It takes just 50 minutes and consists of two tasks. You’ll need to write essays in response to listening and reading tasks and provide a written opinion on a particular subject.

The integrated writing task is the first part. Participants read a short text and listen to a brief lecture before responding to what they read and heard. This part lasts for 20 minutes. The final 30 minutes is committed to the second part which requires individuals to respond to a writing topic.

Check out ETS resources

One of the best strategies for passing the TOEFL exam is to make use of official ETS study resources. That’s right! The non-profit organization responsible for designing and administering the TOEFL exam has a wealth of tips, tools, and resources you can use to prep for the test. There are plenty of other helpful resources online, but there’s something invaluable about getting instructions and tips from the organization behind the actual exam. Here are some examples of great ETS resources you should use:

TOEFL Interactive Sampler – Here, you can get unrestricted access to seemingly countless questions from previous TOEFL exams from all four parts of the test.

TOEFL iBT Test Questions  – This resource offers a completely free set of questions that were used in prior TOEFL exams.

TOEFL Test Prep Planner – As one of the best tools to use when preparing for the TOEFL exam, this planner outlines an eight-week protocol designed to help you pass the test with flying colors.

TOEFL iBT Quick Prep – This practice tool comes with real questions from previous sections and is designed as a rapid-fire section so you can practice answering questions under a time limit.


Everyone loves YouTube! In fact, it’s the second most commonly used search engine just behind Google. There’s a good chance you already have a favorite genre of videos to watch. Maybe you enjoy watching how-to videos to improve your skills, funny comedy bits, interesting historical documentaries, or anything else.

No matter what you like to watch, YouTube is the perfect opportunity to improve your listening skills for the TOEFL exam. Finding any genre of videos you enjoy watching in English can improve your understanding of the language in a variety of contexts.

If you really want to prepare yourself, you can listen to academic-focused content such as lectures or speeches. This will prepare you for the academic angle of some of the listening portions of the TOEFL exam.

If you’re having trouble understanding some of the tougher English words, you can switch on the subtitles so you can read along with the listening. This way, you can get better at listening comprehension while improving reading comprehension at the same time!

Just a few YouTube videos a week can make a noticeable difference over time. Plus, it’s much more enjoyable than listening to something random. Finding something you actually like listening to can make a huge difference.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

A fantastic resource to improve your writing skills is the Purdue OWL which stands for the Online Writing Lab. This excellent site is designed to help students learn the grammatical, mechanical, and written specifics of the English language.

Better yet, it has an academic tilt just like the TOEFL exam will have. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, the OWL has a dedicated section for the ESL which comes with even more resources such as:

In order to make the most of the OWL’s resources, it’s a good idea to write regularly even in addition to the writing you’re doing in school. Keeping a diary, answering sample questions online, writing about what you learned in class, and any other form of writing is a great way to prepare for the questions you’ll need to respond to on the TOEFL exam. When you’re doing writing, go back through to check for grammar, spelling, agreement, and overall fluency using the OWL site as a resource.


Course EdX is an e-learning platform that provides a wide range of valuable, insightful, and helpful content. These materials are especially helpful when preparing for college, even when it comes to prepping for the TOEFL exam.

In fact, EdX has a specific course called the TOEFL Test Preparation: Insider’s Guide. It’s actually produced by ETS themselves so you can rest assured that the content is accurate and relevant. The course covers all aspects of the exam from various angles so you can become well-versed in what the exam will require.

You’ll even get some special discount offers on ETS resources that cost money which you won’t be able to find elsewhere. It’s not essential to purchase these additional resources since you can find a wealth of tips, tricks, and tools online already for free. However, you might want to push your studying and preparation even further and these deals are a great way to save money in the process.

Speak, Write, & Listen

Another great way to prepare for the TOEFL exam is simply to engage with the English language. If it’s not something you already use on a daily basis, make the effort to use it every single day. Switch your phone into English, text with friends in English, and listen to your favorite TV shows, movies, or songs in English.

Students studying in a table with books and notebooks.

The whole point is to completely immerse yourself in the English language before the test. Make sure you focus on writing, speaking, and listening since these are all the components of the TOEFL exam.

Get into your dream school.

Looking to attend an Ivy League school? We can help you navigate through the various steps of getting into the best possible school. For over 10 years, we’ve been helping students excel on their applications. In addition to helping them with their standardized tests, we’ve also helped them with other academic matters.

We help students develop their ideal Ivy League application by taking into account their personal interests and professional goals. We also work with them to help them excel in their academic and professional endeavors. If you’re interested in learning more about how we can help you prepare for the top colleges, please contact us.



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