What Is The TOEFL Test?
The TOEFL (or Test of english as a Foreign Language) is a standardized test that is often required by English speaking universities and colleges to determine if non-native English speaking students will be able to understand lectures and course materials in their classrooms. It measures your ability to use and understand English at the university level.
It is designed and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a non-profit organization that also scores and sends out the score reports. Through a combination of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, it determines your ability to perform the academic tasks that will be required of you in college. It is the most popular and most university-approved standardized English-language test available. It is accepted at more than 10,000 universities and institutions worldwide.
Note that the TOEFL exam is not a replacement for either the SAT or the ACT. Prior to taking any of these exams, it’s crucial that you study for them well in advance. I’ve listed the top resources for each exam below to help you maximize your scores.
The TOEFL is usually an Internet-based test (TOEFL iBT), although paper testing is still used in certain areas that do not have access to high speed Internet. It is a four-hour long test designed to test your English communication skills. Because the paper test is rare, this post only discusses scoring of the iBT version.
What Does the TOEFL Test?
The TOEFL is divided into four sections that are each designed to determine your ability to communicate in English. These sections are:
60 – 80 minutes, with 35-56 questions. The Reading section has three to four academic passages, similar to what you might find in a college-level textbook. You are asked to read each passage, and then answer questions designed to test your ability to comprehend the passage and interpret its meaning.
60 – 90 minutes, with 34 – 51 questions. The Listening section consists of 6 – 9 passages, about 3 – 5 minutes long. The passages include student conversations and academic lectures and discussions, played only once. There are 5 – 6 corresponding questions that measure your ability to understand the main point as well as details, implications of ideas, and the speaker’s purpose.
20 minutes, with six tasks. In two of the tasks, you are asked for your opinion on familiar topics. On the remaining four tasks, you will either listen to, or read a short passage, and answer questions based on the topics. The topics are either academic lectures or campus situations. You will be evaluated on your ability to understand the information and then communicate your thoughts spontaneously, coherently, and clearly.
50 minutes, with two tasks. This section is designed to determine your ability to write in an academic setting. You will be asked to write a summary of a discussion (the Integrated Writing section) and an essay stating your opinion (the Independent Writing section).
The Reading and Listening sections might include extra questions that don’t count toward your score. These questions are being tested for future tests. This is the reason that the time and number of questions varies.
Getting and Reporting Your TOEFL Scores
About ten days after you take the TOEFL, you will receive an email from ESL letting you know that your scores are available. You can then log in to your account and find your scores.
Your TOEFL Score is valid for two years from the date you took the exam.
When you take the TOEFL, ESL will send your scores to four different schools for free. Additional score reports can be requested and sent with an additional fee. The TOEFL score reports will be sent about two weeks after your test date, with mail taking anywhere from one to six weeks. This is why it is imperative to take the test well before your application deadlines.
How Is The TOEFL Scored?
The TOEFL score range is between 0 and 120 points.
|Total TOEFL Score||0 – 120 points|
|Reading Section Score||0 – 30 points|
|Listening Section Score||0 – 30 points|
|Writing Section Score||0 – 30 points|
|Speaking Section Score||0 – 30 points|
The TOEFL is divided into four sections, Reading, Listening, Writing, and Speaking. Each section is scored between 0 and 30 points. The sum of these scores gives you your total TOEFL score.
In order to ensure accuracy, consistency, and fairness, ESL uses a centralized scoring network.
The scores are derived from raw scores and converted to the 0 – 30 point scaled scores. The raw scores are based on raw points, or the points earned as a result of each correct answer. For example, if you answer 30 of the potential 35 Reading questions correct, you will receive a raw score of 30. There is no penalty for incorrect answers, so do your best to answer every single question, even if you have to guess.
How the raw score is converted to the scaled score varies based on the test given. Because there are so many different versions of the test, the scaled scores are used to standardize the TOEFL scores across the variations. Universities will only look at your scaled scores.
Reading and Listening Section Scores
The Reading and Listening sections have one right answer, so use automated scoring. There are two types of questions, single answer questions and multiple answer questions. The test will let you know if it is a multiple answer question. Each single choice answer is worth one point. Each multiple answer question is worth two or three points, depending on how many answer choices you have. You can earn partial credit on multiple answer questions. These point totals add up to your raw score.
Your maximum TOEFL raw score on Reading is 45. For Listening, it is 34.
Speaking and Writing Section Scores
The Writing and Speaking sections are much more nuanced, so have to be scored by a person.
Speaking Section Scores
The Speaking section is digitally recorded and then evaluated by three to six raters. Each of the six tasks is rated from 0 – 4, giving you a potential raw score of 24 points for each grader. You will be awarded one point just for completing the task and speaking in English. The average of each grader’s section scores is taken together to give you a final raw score. This is then converted to the total scaled TOEFL Speaking score from 0 to 30.
Writing Section Scores
Each individual task in the Writing section (the Integrated task and the Independent task) is scored on a scale of 0 – 5, for potentially total ten raw points. You will receive one point just for completing each task in English. The sum of these scores is converted to a scaled score of 0 to 30. The Writing is scored by evaluating your grammar, organization, and vocabulary, as well as the overall Writing quality.
The section is rated by multiple human scorers as well as an automated scorer.
Reading Your TOEFL Score Report
The following is a sample TOEFL Score Report:
Below your picture is your total TOEFL scaled score, along with the individual section scores that add up to the total.
Below that section, you will see the breakdown of your scores, your section performance level, and an overview of your performance in each section. The Reading and Listening sections have one evaluation and rank, but the Writing and Speaking section have levels based on the different tasks. Each task in the Writing section has its own level and evaluation. The Speaking section has levels based on the three different types of tasks.
ETS TOEFL Performance Levels
ETS offers TOEFL performance levels. You will notice these levels on your score report. The Reading and Listening sections levels are “low,” “intermediate,” and “high.” The Speaking section levels are “weak,” “fair,” “limited,” and “good.” The Writing sections levels are “limited,” “fair,” and “good.”
ETS offers the following chart to determine your score level in each section:
What Is A Good TOEFL Score?
A good TOEFL score depends entirely on what school you are trying to get into. Colleges and Universities often set a required minimum TOEFL score for entrance. The minimum TOEFL scores vary between about 60 and 110.
The average minimum TOEFL score for ranked national US Universities is 78.1 for undergraduates. Ranked national liberal arts colleges have an average minimum TOEFL score of 82.5 (from US News & World Report). If you are applying to a highly selective university, you should shoot for a TOEFL score of at least 100.
For graduate school programs, the range varies between schools and individual programs as well. Most top-ranked MBA programs require a minimum TOEFL score of about 100 to 105.
Some schools also have section minimums as well. Most of this information can be found on a school’s admissions page. If not, a little online research or a call to the admissions office will often get you the information you are looking for. Use the school’s average and minimum to determine what a good TOEFL score is for you.
TOEFL Score Percentiles
To see how your scores compare with other students’ scores, take a look at TOEFL score percentiles. The following table represents TOEFL percentile scores, based on the 2017 calendar year:
As you can see, 82 is the average TOEFL score. Anything above an 82, and you have scored better than half of the test takers. The average varies by education level, with high school students averaging 73, and graduate level business students averaging 86. Students from different countries also have different averages. More detailed information can be found here.
Steps to Getting A Good TOEFL Score
For most students, the key to getting a good score is practice, practice and more practice. However, here are a few tips:
- Take a practice TOEFL test. This is the best way to determine where you are, and where you need to be. Once you’ve taken a practice test and decided on the schools you’d like to attend, you can determine what a good TOEFL score is for you.
- Prepare yourself. Most students need between six months and a year to adequately prepare. Make sure you understand what the TOEFL is testing and the format, make a study schedule, and stick to it. Make sure nothing on the test is a surprise.
- Build your vocabulary. Part of your TOEFL test prep needs to be about consistently building your usable English vocabulary, especially in academic subjects. Often students overlook the academic nature of the test. Even if you are an excellent conversational speaker, you may be surprised that the vocabulary on the TOEFL is different than what you are used to. Prepare yourself by becoming proficient in different subject matter vocabulary.
- Take a TOEFL prep course. If your scores aren’t what you want them to be, you may need guidance and expert advice. A prep course can offer that, as well as focused practice. Take a look at an overview of the best TOEFL prep courses.
What Do I Do If I Get a Low TOEFL Score?
The TOEFL is made to be rigorous. It is long, the vocabulary is often more difficult than most students are used to, and you cannot repeat the audible passages. If you find that the test was more difficult than expected or you just did worse than expected there are a few things that you can do:
- Determine if you can eliminate the TOEFL from your application package. Some schools offer TOEFL waivers to students who have substantial English experience, such as attending school where English is the primary language. Talk to the admissions officers about potential TOEFL substitutions. And a few schools will allow students with high ACT, SAT, or other standardized test scores to waive the TOEFL as well.
- Determine if your school offers “conditional acceptance.” Some schools offer conditional admission to students with low TOEFL scores. If you have an otherwise strong admissions package, ask the admissions officer if your school will allow you to be admitted conditionally. Most often a conditional admission will require you to take more English as a Second Language classes, or somehow demonstrate your English skills in another way (retaking the TOEFL, perhaps). Sometimes, when offered conditional admission, you are still able to take classes in your major and often, the school offers ESL courses on campus. After taking the courses or demonstrating an improvement in your English language skills, you are offered full acceptance.
- Find schools where your low school meets the cutoff. Maybe your TOEFL score isn’t good enough to get into some of the more selective colleges. This doesn’t mean that an English language school is out of the question. Do a little research and find a school that has a lower TOEFL cutoff than your TOEFL score.
- Take the IELTS. The IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is another test designed to determine your ability to read, write, speak, and understand English. While it is not as commonly accepted as the TOEFL, it is could be an option at your school of choice. If your school is one of these schools, and you are struggling with the TOEFL, you might want to consider the IELTS. Do a little research to determine if this test is right for you.
- Retake the TOEFL. If you have enough time before you admissions deadline, retake the exam. You can retake the exam every 12 days, with no limit to how many times you take it. However, if you don’t plant to study and prepare in the meantime, you most likely won’t have much success on the retake.
The TOEFL is a rigorous exam designed to determine your success in an English language class. Because it is the most commonly accepted standardized test for non-native English speakers, it is an important part of most academic packages. Being prepared is the best thing you can do to do well on the test. If you don’t feel prepared for the exam yet, consider taking a TOEFL test prep course. Compare a few courses here.