An Overview of TOEFL

Written By Trent Lorcher

Those whose first language is not English take the TOEFL a for admittance to a university in an English-speaking country or environment. The TOEFL, or Test Of English as a Foreign Language is an internationally recognized exam that demonstrates one's English language proficiency. The test is long and students often spend months studying for it.

TOEFL Sections

Because the TOEFL is used to determine if a student's English proficiency is high enough to attend a university in an English-speaking country, the test taker need focus on only one subject, English. The English test is separated into four main sections.

  • Reading. There's nothing mysterious here (or in any of the TOEFL sections). The reading section is simply a reading comprehension test. You read a passage. You answer questions. The more you answer correctly, the better you do. 
  • Speaking. During the speaking section, the test taker is given 6 tasks that involve speaking into a microphone. This section measures how well you express yourself in English.
  • Writing. More assignments at the university level require reading than those that require speaking. For this reason, you need to demonstrate an ability to express yourself in writing.
  • Listening. Attending a university means listening to professors speak, a lot. To succeed, therefore, students must be able to understand spoken English. This section of the test contains 4-6 lectures followed by corresponding questions.


Students taking the TOEFL will take the entire exam in one day. The test takes about 4.5 hours and includes a small break halfway through.

Here are some other things you'll want to know about taking the TOEFL:

  • The maximum score for each section of the test is 30. Some quick math, therefore, indicates that a perfect score is 120.
  • Electronic devices are not allowed during the test or during the break. Either leave your smartphone in the car or make absolutely sure it's turned off. You'll find no leniency on this rule.
  • Bathroom breaks are allowed, but they count against the time for taking the test. You are not allowed to access electronic devices in the bathroom, on the way to the bathroom, or on the way back from the bathroom.
  • You can bring a snack and a drink to consume during the 10-minute break.
  • There is no "minimum" or "passing" score. A good score depends on what school you're trying to enter.

The TOEFL Reading Section


When learning a foreign language, students often read simple books and passages to learn language basics. These simple books and passages will not appear on the TOEFL. Prepare to read and understand complex passages, the types of passages you'd see in a university class.

Prepare for the TOEFL reading section by reading long, complicated paragraphs. The answers aren't always stated explicitly, which means you'll need to interpret passages and use context to define words.

Here's a rough breakdown of the questions you'll see:


  • Finding the main idea of a passage
  • Identifying false statements.


The reading section takes 60-100 minutes.

TOEFL Listening Section

The most important thing to remember for the listening section is you'll hear the lecture or conversation one time. There is no rewinding the audio. Certain questions may include a brief repeat that applies to that question, but don't expect to hear any part of the selection more than once.

You are allowed to take notes as you listen. 

Prepare for the listening section by listening to American, British, Australian and other accents of English. The test uses different accents. Find English language programs, movies, TV shows, YouTube videos and get used to taking notes as you listen.

The TOEFL Speaking Section

The test added a speaking section a few years ago. The speaking section requires students to speak into a microphone. Your voice is recorded and your answers are judged later.

For the speaking section, you'll be given six tasks. Two questions require the student to express an opinion on a topic. The remaining questions require discussing or commenting on something you read or hear. You'll have 30 seconds to prepare an answer for each of the four questions and a minute to record it.

Tips for scoring well on the speaking section include taking notes and speaking clearly. 

The TOEFL Writing Section

The writing section contains two tasks: (1) an independent writing assignment; (2) An integrated writing assignment. For the independent writing task, students express an opinion in writing on a casual topic. The integrated writing assignment involves responding to spoken and written material. You'll get 30 minutes for the independent task and 20 minutes for the integrated writing task. Your opinion on the independent task has no relevance on the grade you receive. Those administering the test look for how well you support your opinion and how clearly you express yourself. 

Prepare for the writing section by writing essays with a proper introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Don't try to impress readers with long words, especially if you don't understand them.

This gives you a basic overview of the TOEFL! We hope this will be useful when you take your exams good luck!

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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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