What Is The TOEFL Test?
Updated: December 8, 2020
The TOEFL (or Test of english as a Foreign Language) is a standardized test that English-speaking universities and other organizations require English as a Second Language (ESL) applicants to take. TOEFL scores help these organizations to determine if non-native English speaking students will be able to understand lectures and business communications in their classrooms or workplaces. It measures your ability to use and understand English at the university level.
The test 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 sections, it determines your ability to perform the tasks that will be required of you in college or at work. It is the most popular and most widely-accepted standardized English-language test available – accepted at more than 10,000 universities and institutions worldwide.
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.
Note that the TOEFL exam is not a replacement for either the SAT, ACT, GRE, or GMAT, which are other standardized tests required by American colleges. Prior to taking any of these exams, it’s crucial that you study for them well in advance. If you know which test you need to take but don’t know how to prepare, check out our list of the top resources for each exam below—these prep courses have helped thousands of students maximize their scores.
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:
54 – 72 minutes, with 30 – 40 questions*. The Reading section has between 3 – 4 academic passages that are 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.
41 – 57 minutes, with 28 – 39 questions*. The Listening section consists of up to 7 listening items which are each between 3 – 5 minutes long. These recordings include student conversations and academic lectures and discussions, and all of the items are played only once. For each recording you listen to, there are 5 – 6 corresponding questions that measure your ability to understand the main point of the recording as well as details about it, the implications of the ideas it includes, and the speaker’s purpose.
17 minutes, with 4 tasks. In 1 of the tasks, you are asked for your opinion on familiar topics. On the remaining 3 tasks, you will either listen to or read a short passage and answer questions based on the topics. The prompts for these tasks are either academic lectures or campus situations, and you will get 15 – 30 seconds to prepare your response. Then, you will have 45 – 60 seconds to speak. You will be evaluated on your ability to understand the information in the prompts and then communicate your thoughts spontaneously, coherently, and clearly.
50 minutes, with 2 tasks. This section is designed to determine your ability to write in an academic setting. In the Integrated Writing task, you will have 20 minutes to write a summary of a discussion. In the Independent Writing task, you will have 30 minutes to write an essay stating your opinion or expressing your experience in response to a prompt.
*The Reading and Listening sections might include extra questions that will not influence your score. These questions are being tested for future tests.
How Is The TOEFL Scored?
The TOEFL score range is between 0 and 120 points, but each section also has its own reported score between 0 and 30:
|Section||Scaled Score Range|
|Speaking Section Score||0 – 30 points|
|Reading Section Score||0 – 30 points|
|Listening Section Score||0 – 30 points|
|Writing Section Score||0 – 30 points|
|Total TOEFL Score||0 – 120 points|
What Are Raw and Scaled TOEFL Scores?
When a test like the TOEFL is scored, it involves a conversion from raw scores to scaled scores. A raw score is simply the number of questions you got right on a test, but raw scores aren’t the best way to determine whether a student did well, because each student may receive a different number of questions for each section of the TOEFL—having different questions makes sure no student can cheat off another’s exam.
To determine how students compare to each other, even if they took different versions of the same test, raw scores are converted to the 0 – 30 point scores, which are the TOEFL’s scaled scores. So, for example, if you answer 30 of the potential 35 Reading questions correct, you will receive a raw score of 30, but your scaled score may be something like 27. Universities will only look at your scaled scores when evaluating whether you are a good candidate for admission.
Reading and Listening Section Scores
The Reading and Listening sections have one right answer, so the answers are automatically scored by the ETS. This is different from the Speaking and Writing sections, which have complicated answers and must be reviewed by people.
There are two types of questions in the Reading and Listening sections of the TOEFL: single answer questions and multiple answer questions (he test will let you know if it is a multiple answer question, so read each question carefully to make sure you aren’t marking too few or too many answers). Each single choice answer is worth one point, and 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 Section Scores
The Speaking section is digitally recorded and then evaluated by multiple raters, as well as an automated AI scoring system. 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
Both individual tasks in the Writing section (the Integrated task and the Independent task) are scored on a scale of 0 – 5 by multiple raters and an automated AI scoring system. 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.
What Is A Good TOEFL Score?
This average of 74 changes each year, and each individual school will have a different TOEFL requirement, so don’t assume that a 75 will get you into the school or workplace of your dreams. Top-ranked MBA programs, for example, have a minimum of at least 100 on the TOEFL and the average score for successful applicants to these schools is around 110. (from US News & World Report).
Now you know how the test is designed and scored, plus what you’ll have to do on test day. But how do you prepare for the exam between now and then, and what TOEFL score should you hope for? 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, which can range from as low as 45 to a challenging 110.
In general, most schools require TOEFL scores between 60 and 90, and the average minimum TOEFL score requirement for undergraduate applicants was 74.4 in 2018.
This means shooting for a score of 90 will not only be above most college’s minimum score requirements, and will make you a competitive applicant at some schools. However, a 90 may not be good enough for more selective institutions or graduate programs, while it could also be much higher than the average TOEFL score of the organization you want to be part of.
To give you an idea of the minimum TOEFL scores required at some popular universities, we’ve put together a table of U.S. schools with their minimum TOEFL score requirements. For most of the schools listed, the score on the right is a strict requirement, but the Harvard and NYU scores are the suggested numbers for applicants to be competitive.
Some schools also have section minimums as well; this means that if you score very poorly on one section but very well on others, giving you a high overall score, you could still not get into a certain school. Look for information on average and minimum TOEFL requirements on your school or workplace’s website. If you can’t find it there, do a little online research on previous applicants, or make a call to the admissions/applications office of the institution
TOEFL Score Percentiles
To see how your scores compare with other students’ average scores, you can look at TOEFL score percentiles. A percentile refers to the percentage of test-takers who did worse on the TOEFL than you did. This means higher is better: if you are in the 90th percentile, you got a better score than 90% of test-takers, making you a member of the top 10% of scorers! Take a look at the TOEFL percentile chart below to see which scores correspond to which percentile rankings:
These score percentiles are the latest available from ETS, which designs and scores the TOEFL.
In 2019, a total score between 84 – 88 was an average TOEFL score. If you scored an 88 overall in that year, you did better than 53% of test-takers, but if you wanted to reach the 25th percentile of scores, however, you needed at least a 100.
Remember, though, that score averages will change every year, and even some competitive schools don’t require that you have 25th percentile scores. For many institutions, something around a 90 may be perfectly fine, or even competitive—it all depends on each institution’s specific TOEFL standards.
ETS TOEFL Performance Levels
ETS offers TOEFL performance levels that go into more detail than their percentile reports. 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.” Check out the chart below to see what you’d have to score to reach ETS’s different performance levels for each TOEFL section:
5 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 steps that many successful students will take as they prepare for the TOEFL, from beginning to end:
- Do your research. Before you jump into taking a practice TOEFL test, it’s important that you know your way around the TOEFL and know the requirements and standards of the schools or organizations you’ll send your TOEFL scores to. By reading this article, you’re already halfway there! However, setting target TOEFL scores requires a bit more research—there’s more on this below.
- Take a practice TOEFL test. This is the best way to determine where you are in your English ability, and where you need to be. Once you’ve taken a practice test and decided on the schools you’d like to attend, you’ll know how much work you have to do to reach your goals.
- Prepare yourself. Most students need between 6 months and a year to adequately prepare. Make sure you understand the test requirements, make a study schedule, and stick to it. For most students, the best way to do this is to seek out some expert advice. A prep course can offer a study plan that works with your schedule, as well as effective vocab and grammar material and test-taking strategies. Take a look at an overview of the best TOEFL prep courses to see which course might fit your budget, learning habits, and calendar.
- Build your vocabulary. Part of your TOEFL test prep needs to be about consistently building your English vocabulary skills, especially within academic subjects. Students often overlook the academic nature of the test, and think that their good conversational English will get them the TOEFL score they need. Even if you are an excellent conversational speaker, you may be surprised that the vocabulary on the TOEFL is different from what you are used to. Prepare yourself by becoming proficient in different subject matter vocabulary. Again, a good TOEFL prep course will have systems that can help you discover and master the exact vocabulary you need.
- Evaluate/Report/Retake. An important step in reaching your goals is evaluating your progress and not letting yourself quit if you don’t succeed early on. Once you’ve taken the TOEFL, take time to read your score report and assess where you could do better. If you didn’t meet your scoring goals, don’t worry! By examining your strengths and weaknesses from the first test, you can put together a better study plan for another attempt—and consider using a TOEFL prep course this time around if you didn’t on your first try. If another attempt isn’t possible for you, the next option you have is to set new goals and apply for institutions that you can get into with your current scores. You can even opt for a different language test called the IELTS—there’s more info on this option at the end of this article.
Setting a Target TOEFL Score
If you want to get a good TOEFL score, it isn’t a good idea to tell yourself that a perfect 120 is the only option for you. In most cases, it may not even be a good idea to aim for certain ranges on the ETS performance level chart. This is because even though those standards are ‘good’ in general, they may not be ‘good’ for the schools or institutions that you want to get into.
Instead, the best way to set a target TOEFL score is to do your research. If you are taking the TOEFL iBT to get into an American graduate school, you’re in luck! They often post the average TOEFL scores of their students. This will show you what scores most successful students get at those institutions, but if you want to be a more competitive applicant, you should shoot for a couple points above that average. Still, getting below the average TOEFL score for a school’s students isn’t the end of the world; that’s because an average score isn’t necessarily the same as an expected score. Instead, many students that are still successful at the school you hope to attend will score below that average—this could be you, especially if the rest of your application is strong!
Graduate schools and other professional institutions may choose not to publish average TOEFL scores for the applicants that they accept. Instead, they may post minimum requirements. If you find that an organization has a minimum TOEFL score of 75, for example, applicants that make anything below that number will probably not be considered at all, even if the rest of their application is great. Making a 76 on the exam, however, doesn’t guarantee that an applicant will get in either, so aiming for a higher score than the minimum is always a good choice.
Remember that your TOEFL score also won’t be the only thing that makes you competitive as an applicant. So, if you have experience working in English-speaking places, or a great academic record, things like this can make a low TOEFL score less of a problem for your application.
Reading Your TOEFL Score Report
About ten days after you take the TOEFL, you will receive an email from ETS letting you know that your scores are available. You can then log in to your account and find your scores. Your TOEFL Score will be valid for 2 years from the date you took the exam.
Here is an image of a sample TOEFL Score Report, so you can know what to expect when you receive your scores online:
What Is a MyBest TOEFL Score?
If you’ve taken the TOEFL more than one time in the past 2 years, your report will show MyBest scores that may be different from what you scored on your most recent attempt. Your MyBest score is also known as a ‘superscore.’ These superscores show your best scores on each section of the test, and many institutions accept them as a score submission. Some institutions will accept them, but some won’t, so be sure to research the TOEFL scoring requirements they have before you put your MyBest scores on an application.
Reporting Your TOEFL Scores
When you take the TOEFL, ETS will send your scores to 4 different schools for free. Additional score reports can be requested and sent, but these reports will cost an additional fee. The TOEFL score reports will be sent about 2 weeks after your test date, but it could be anywhere from 1 to 6 weeks until your schools receive your scores in the mail. . This is why it’s imperative to take the test well before your application deadlines.
What Do I Do If I Get a Low TOEFL Score?
The TOEFL is not supposed to be an easy test. It is long, the vocabulary is often more difficult than most students are used to, and you cannot repeat the auditory passages you’ll be listening to. If you find that the test was more difficult than you expected, or if you just did worse than you hoped, there are a few things that you can do:
- Leave your TOEFL scores out. 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 or the hiring team about potential TOEFL substitutions. In some cases, schools will allow students with high enough ACT, SAT, GRE, or GMAT scores to waive the TOEFL as well.
- Research “conditional acceptance.” If you’re applying to a school, research whether it allows 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—this often means you’ll have 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 in addition to ESL courses on campus. After taking the courses or demonstrating an improvement in your English language skills, you will then be fully accepted into the college.
- Set new application goals. 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. However, 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 current TOEFL score.
- Try the IELTS. Instead of taking the TOEFL again, you may be able to take the IELTS.. The IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is another standardized test designed to determine your ability to read, write, speak, and understand English. While it is not as commonly accepted as the TOEFL and has a different test structure, it is still accepted at institutions across the globe, and it could be an option at your school of choice. If you are considering both tests, check out all the differences between the IELTS and TOEFL to determine which test is right for you.
- Replan, and retake the TOEFL. If you have enough time before your 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 plan to study and prepare in the meantime, you most likely won’t have much success.
The TOEFL is a rigorous exam designed to determine your success in an English language environment. Because it is the most popular standardized test for non-native English speakers, it is an important part of most academic or professional applications. If you don’t feel prepared for the exam yet, consider taking a TOEFL test prep course. We’ve put together a list that compares all the best TOEFL courses using info about their price, course length, and quality—this can help you get started!