A Quick Guide to Preparing for TOEFL

If you plan to apply to a U.S. college or university and are from a non-English speaking country, then you must take the TOEFL, which is an acronym for ‘Test of English as a Foreign Language’. A few U.S. universities will accept the IETLS exam, as will many schools Great Britain, but in the U.S, TOEFL is the language test to take.

TOEFL is designed to assess how well a person can read, speak, compose, and comprehend American English. The TOEFL score, as a proof of English language capability of international students, is recognized in more than 9000 colleges and educational establishments in over 130 nations. ETS, or the Educational Testing Service, the organization that conducts the TOEFL, estimates that:

  • 90% of TOEFL test takers get into their first or second choice university, and
  • Four out of five admissions officers in U.S. Universities prefer the TOEFL test over any other English-language proficiency test.


TOEFL Format

TOEFL can be given as an internet-based test (TOEFL iBT) or a paper-based test (TOEFL PBT), although the TOEFL iBT is the more popular format. Note that the TOEFL PBT is undergoing a major revision for tests administered after May, 2017. Very little information on the new format has been published but ETS has announced that information will start flowing this summer. One expected change is that the paper based exam will only be offered where internet-based testing is not available.

Before you begin preparing for TOEFL, it’s important to understand the exam structure.  TOEFL iBT has the following four assessment sections:

  1. Reading: This segment is for 60 to 80 minutes and has 35 to 56 questions. You will read an academic text, and answer questions based on the provided passages.
  2. Listening: This section is for 60 to 90 minutes and has 35 to 51 questions. In this section, you will hear recorded conversations (of classroom lectures, or conversations between students on campus) and answer questions based on the recordings.

The listening section is followed by a 10-minute break.

  1. Speaking: This section is for 20 minutes and has two types of questions. In the first part, you are asked questions on general topics. In the second part, the questions are based on the text that you read, or the recorded conversations played in the previous two sections. You will speak your answers into a microphone. The recorded answers are evaluated by three to six examiners to ensure fairness in assessment.
  2. Writing: This segment is for 50 minutes. You will read passages and hear recordings, before writing answers to questions based on the information provided. In this section, the examiner is looking for your ability to clearly express a point of view or opinion (in American English).

The recorded conversations that you will hear during the different segments of the TOEFL exam, include a variety of North American, British, Australian, and New Zealander voices. The diverse accents are incorporated to reflect the real-life interactions you will have with North Americans and other international students once you start studying in the U.S.

Target TOEFL Score

Each of the four TOEFL iBT segments is scored out of 30, which means an aggregate maximum score of 120 for the whole test. Most U.S. Universities look at your TOEFL iBT score (out of 120). Your  score can also be scaled to a TOEFL score between 310 to 677 for comparison to the TOEFL PBT.

The minimum TOEFL score for admission eligibility varies from university to university and some universities don’t publish a minimum requirement. Many top U.S. universities require a minimum TOEFL iBT score of 80, while others will accept a lower TOEFL score if the applicant has a strong language score on the SAT exam. However, for general planning purposes, you should plan to have a TOEFL iBT score above 100 or a PBT score above 600 if you want to be fully competitive with top candidates. Eagle Pathways recommends applicants have score 110 or above if they want to go to the very best universities. In general, the minimum TOEFL score requirement for graduate and MBA programs in the U.S. are higher than for undergraduate programs.

The TOEFL score is valid for two years. If you are unhappy with the score on your last TOEFL attempt, you can repeat the exam after a gap of at least twelve days. Although you can retake the exam as many times as you like, it’s advisable to do your best in the first attempt so you can submit your application to U.S. universities well ahead of the deadlines.

Having a marginally lower TOEFL score than the recommended score set by your target U.S. university may not automatically disqualify your application. Most U.S. universities are looking for students who are “the complete package”. Apart from the TOEFL score, your SAT or ACT scores, overall academic performance, extracurricular activities, references from teachers and past employers, and essays submitted as part of your U.S. university application package will have a huge bearing on your admission prospects.

Here is a list of the TOEFL test locations in China. You must register for the TOEFL exam at least 7 days in advance, but you should consider registering at least three to four months before the exam date to ensure that you get the most convenient location.

TOEFL Preparation Tips

It can be nerve wracking to be judged on your ability to speak and write a language that is not your native language. Even if you are confident of your American English skills, you must start preparing for TOEFL at least two months before your TOEFL exam date. If you are less confident of your skills, you should start preparing even earlier. Apart from reading the TOEFL course material and taking several TOEFL mock tests, follow these tips to improve your ability to speak and comprehend American English.

  • Subscribe to respected U.S. news magazines and websites such as Time, the New York Times, Washington Post, Daily News or the Wall Street Journal
  • Watch American TV programs, films, and news channels
  • View YouTube videos of celebrated American comics to acquaint yourself with American slang words and cultural references.
  • Join TOEFL preparation classes.
  • Communicate as much as possible in English with people in your social network who understand the language.
  • Write a personal journal in English to improve your writing skills.
  • It can also be extremely useful to work with a U.S. based professional writing coach to improve your writing skills and to receive personal feedback. Eagle Pathways can help you connect with a U.S. writing coach.

If you can, travel to the Unites States for a short stay. Visiting the U.S. will give you the chance to interact with Americans and test your English skills. It can also give you the opportunity to meet admission staff of the universities on your target list, and impress upon them your keenness to enroll with the university.

Eagle Pathways helps international students achieve their dream of studying at a U.S. university of their choice. Our unique services ApplyWrite, LEAD, and preVIEW, are designed to guide and coach international students for the challenging admission process. Contact us for more information on our educational counseling services.


Eagle Pathways® creates life changing experiences for families and their students, and is opening opportunities at schools across America to youth in emerging economies. We deliver our innovative tech-enabled program to help our international students adjust academically and culturally. With our enriching, empowering and inclusive support, our clients thrive and go onto do great things as students and as globally-minded citizens.


“We guide students to Top American universities and boarding schools through our unique services.”  – John Jackson, Eagle Pathways US Operations.


The Eagle Pathways team of U.S. university lecturers, teachers, former admissions representatives, and industry experts advise our client families on trends and what matters in U.S. education, and offer insights that make a difference.  We specialize in strategy, personal development and writing coaching.


You can learn more about Eagle Pathways at www.eaglepathways.com