5 Great Techniques for Studying for the TOEFL

Written By Trent Lorcher

Nerves and anxiety often accompany test takers when it comes to high stakes tests like the TOEFL. Preparation is the key to success as it reduces anxiety and leads to better scores.


You already knew this, that practice tests lead to less anxiety and higher scores. Are you doing it? Of all the techniques for studying for the TOEFL, taking practice tests is the most effective. Make the most of your practice time with these suggestions.

  • Set a goal and make a plan. Remember that time you had all sorts of fun things planned for the afternoon with friends and you decided to study for a test, instead? It doesn't happen, does it? That's why you need to make a study plan and stick to it. Pick a consistent time of day or week. Figure out what you need to do. And do it.
  • Create a real test atmosphere. When you take practice tests, make them as real as possible. Wake up at the time you would need to wake up. Get ready as if you were getting ready to go to the test center. Recreate exam conditions by turning off your cell phone, getting rid of your dictionary, and cutting off all access to help. Set a timer and work within the allotted time. When test day comes, you'll have already gotten used--emotionally, mentally, and physically--to test-day conditions.
  • Find a good friend or teacher. Because the TOEFL has a speaking and listening part, you may need someone to read your writing samples and listen to your speaking samples. This feedback becomes critical when improving your English skills.

A major advantage that comes from taking practice tests is that you get used to the format and know the test directions. The same test directions appear on every test. That means once you've taken practice tests, you'll know what to do without reading directions. This will save you time on the actual test and help you feel less anxious when taking the real test.

Improve Grammar and Vocabulary 

Not all your study time consists of taking practice tests. You'll want to improve your English speaking, reading, and writing during the day and during study time. 

When doing these techniques, focus on improving grammar and vocabulary. The TOEFL, after all, is a test of English. The more words you know and the better you communicate lead to higher scores.

  • Learn new words daily. How many words is up to you. Set a goal. Write words with their meaning. Use new words until they become a part of your vocabulary. During the test, you'll want to prove you know words, so make sure you know them beyond the definition. On the test, only use words you know.
  • Write. Write as much English as you can. Write emails, notes, journals, practice essays. Ask friends for feedback. If you're taking the test on a computer, practice using the standard English-language keyboard--often called a QWERTY keyboard.
  • Speak. To become fluent in a foreign language, you need to speak it, a lot. To score well on the TOEFL, you need to speak English. When speaking a foreign language in the real world, you'll make mistakes. You might say the wrong thing. But you'll learn. The more you speak, the more comfortable you'll feel while taking the test. Concentrate on speaking loudly and clearly.
  • Listen. There are enough English-speaking TV shows, radio shows, and podcasts to help you listen to English whenever you wish. A lot of the English you'll hear on the TOEFL is academic English, so include recordings of lectures and other academic passages.
  • Read. Because the TOEFL is a test used to gain admission to universities and colleges, you need to read academic texts. Practice reading complex passages. If you're taking practice tests, you'll gain experience with academic texts.

Find a Partner

You can practice speaking and writing on your own, but you'll improve your speaking and writing faster if you have a partner. Some partners are better than others. A teacher or friend who speaks English well is your ideal TOEFL test prep partner. Your buddy who does not speak English better than you is not a good partner. 

Your partner does not have to always be there when you practice, but a good partner will help you make corrections and practice English-speaking skills. 

Focus on the Main Idea

When speaking, reading, listening or writing (with or without a partner), focus on the following to prepare for the test.

  • Focus on the main idea. Whether a native English speaker or not, the most common error when it comes to writing is losing focus. Prove you can write or speak English to communicate ideas and make your arguments clear.
  • Make connections clear. Academic writing and speaking require clarity. When you practice writing and speaking, show the recipient that you understand how what you say and write relates to the topic. Use transition words.
  • Take notes. The best way to organize your thoughts for all sections of the TOEFL is to become a master of note-taking. It will be much easier to focus on the main idea when you write it down. Once the main idea is written, you can take notes on supporting details. 

Get Your Mind Right

“Success begins with a positive attitude” is more than a cliche. Those who prepare well have no reason to fear. So what are you waiting for? It's time to study!

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About the author

Trent Lorcher has taught high school English for 19 years. In addition to hosting a foreign exchange student from China, he's traveled extensively, including 18 months in Central America, 2 years in Italy, and additional time in Mexico, France, Morocco, and Spain. He dreams of one day retiring to Spain with his beautiful bride in a place big enough for their 5 kids to visit.

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