TOEFL iBT: Tips, Tricks & Test-day Debrief (From a Lucky 117/120 Girl)

A little note for my native English-speaking readers - this might be a little boring, unless you want to learn what kind of trial do the ESL speakers have to go through to prove they can survive in an English-speaking country for a longer period of time.

For you, fellow sufferers, here are my impressions about the “journey to the test day”, the test day debrief, and some other info.

Jelikož se jedná o článek pojednávající o zkoušce z angličtiny, dovolím si nepřiložit český překlad, protože jsem líná a také proto, že pokud článek nedokážete přečíst (tedy alespoň z jiného důvodu než že vám moje angličtina “trhá uši”), nemusíte se nejspíš s TOEFLem zatím obtěžovat. :)

OK, I’ll presume you already know what the TOEFL is - an ugly invention for harnessing money by ETS and torturing students - a test required by 90% colleges out there if you want to study in English.

When can I take the TOEFL without preparing too much?

1) If you can read in English on pretty much the same level as in your mother tongue. Newspapers, mags, college textbooks.
2) If you can follow a college lecture in English, write down notes and use them effectively. And if you have no problem with different native speakers’ accents.
3) If you can talk fluently about pretty much any topic and can react quickly.
4) If you have no trouble writing essays and making up arguments to support pretty much any point of view.

When I have to prepare for the TOEFL?

If you do not meet the above mentioned criteria and still want to go to college that requires 100 or more points in the TOEFL iBT.

If you’re group one, you’re not likely to have trouble with reading and listening. I suggest you learn the templates provided at notefull.com, or something similar to them, and practice speaking for a limited amount of time (45 and 60 seconds, to be precise). There are some resources online, and tons of them in the prep books as well. For writing, just look at some essay templates and learn by heart some synonyms for “state”, “be in contrast with”, “support” etc. Add a bunch of transition words.



What I guess is kind of important, TOEFL doesn’t test solely your knowledge of English as a foreign language. It tests your ability to study college in English and also your general test-taking abilities. I guarantee that the speaking section format is something that never ever happens IRL (because you always speak about a more or less familiar topic from your field and you’re not limited to half a minute to prepare and one minute to talk). Something you need to be able to do for both the speaking and writing is decide within a second what you’re gonna say. Then the second you decide, you need to find 2 - 3 supporting arguments for whatever you picked. You can’t guess in advance what topic you’ll get, so you need to be prepared to convincingly support absolutely anything. Sometimes it means choosing the point of view that is easier to support, not the one you actually believe in.  
There are no questions about grammar only - something you might experience on the CAE. Instead, the knowledge of grammar is tested in an integrated way - knowing which word is related to a pronoun, speaking without flaws (I recommend you to stay away from “me likes this” XD) and writing like a cultured person. 


Preparing for the test

I think I can safely spill out this much information - TOEFL is all about college. So all the texts/listening exercises you’ll deal with are about either college level lectures or campus life. It certainly helps to have a broader knowledge than just your major, because if you’re a law student and you get some intense geology, or a chemist and you have to deal with PR, it might be slightly overwhelming. However, the exam certainly doesn’t expect you to be a specialist in the field and they won’t ask anything that hasn’t been said. I have to say though that some of the questions in the geology part in my Barron’s book were awful. Anyway, if you’ve ever followed a lecture taught in English and managed to write down readable notes you should be OK. I suggest you watch BBC documentaries and university lectures, MIT has a bunch on their website and Yale is even on youtube. If you wanna be serious, you can make notes while watching and then create a list of TOEFL-ish questions to answer. Or you can just watch them while working out as I did.     

What I considered pretty helpful with understanding how the TOEFL works, was actually my college English. For the first semester, I picked two real-life teachers (one for general and one for scientific English). However, our uni’s classes were typically held either at times colliding with the most important subjects of our major, or at times when no sane being would want to come to school. So for my second semester, I picked an online course instead of the real life general English teacher. First of all, the general English OC was much more scientific than the actual scientific English course. Don’t worry, now I’m finally getting to the main point. The OC worked like this: You watched a short documentary (think BBC’s infotainments) and then you had to fill in a bunch of annoying helpful quizzes and write summaries. Sometimes, to make our life even more miserable to make us even smarter, we had to read scientific articles and fill in another bunch of said exercises. At the final exam, we watched two short videos, filled in a questionnaire about them and expressed our opinion.


I swear I’m not paid by textbook publishing companies, but people, you seriously need to get a TOEFL book OR do a lot of googling. You don’t have to feed the ETS center - I got all three of my books much cheaper on eBay. Libraries might be also an option, but the demand is likely to be much higher than the number of books available.

The first chapter 

is gonna explain the TOEFL, which is awesome, because knowing what the heck is this thing made me a lot less scared. In Czech Republic, no one’s ever heard of the test! I was asking my uni teachers, high school teachers, expats; you name them, I asked them. I could clearly see ? ? ? swirling around their heads. So especially if you spent your entire life preparing for the FCE/CAE/CPE system, you better do a lot of research on how the exam looks like.
Then it contains a totally crazy part. You’ll get a half a year syllabus suggestion. I’m not sure whom are they making it for because I think that an average student can study a lot more than 5 hours a week without passing out (and therefore finish the syllabus in a month), but it might be just that Czech semesters are pretty work-free and you only have to study really seriously at the end of the semester, so you have plenty of time to prepare for the TOEFL. But if you need tips on how to eat, exercise, sleep, get rid of stress, breath and walk... you probably shouldn’t take TOEFL. Actually, you probably shouldn’t even think about applying for a college. The point is you’ll get tips on how to live your life during the weeks before the exam, maybe in case you just left Matrix and saw the real world for the first time. It’s super weird! It’s like, a cliché American thing - handbooks on how to do the most basic activities. Anyway, fortunately these horribly plain tips don’t take too long. 

The second chapter 

is gonna be a “what’s your level now test”.
I totally understand if you furiously toss your TOEFL preparatory book in the darkest corner and consider burning it page by page after finishing the pretests/mock tests. But it is really important to check the answers ASAP. First, you still pretty much remember what the exercises were about, and therefore you don’t have to go back and forth all the time between the test and the answer sheet (the answer sheet explains why is the correct answer correct and why is your answer wrong). Second, you might still remember that you were deciding between two answers, or marked one answer as the correct one, and changed your mind later. Of course, you can’t add half points to your score because you almost got the right answer, but it’s good to know that your instinct works.

Obviously, you can only grade objectively your reading and listening parts. I suggest you get a teacher to check your essays and listen to your speaking (consider the option to give him/her recordings instead of live sessions, because it will be a recording at the TOEFL anyway). Explain he/she should attempt to grade you in a TOEFL way (you can download a grading guideline from the TOEFL website and send it to him/her). If you can’t get a teacher to do it for you, anyone speaking English on a good level will do - I asked my brother. Go for siblings instead of parents, because brothers and sisters will give you merciless critique - something parents can’t always do since they love you too much. My brother made a funny chart, where he’d asses my level of nervousness while speaking, if I met the time limit, my pronunciation and my use of words and grammar. Then he’d give me a TOEFL mark. He was a lot more strict before I made him listen to some sample answers from the ETS, since then he’d only give me 4’s and sometimes 3’s. XD

After you do the pretest, you’ll get a fairly good understanding not only of how hard you gotta study for the actual test, but also of what kinds of questions are asked. It follows a pretty simple pattern - you’ll always get a question about the overall meaning of the information given, about synonyms, about implications, about summaries etc. 

You might be surprised about the pretest results. My first guess was that I’d do really well on the reading, OK on the listening, really well on the speaking (unless the microphone crashes or someone coughs so much next to me that the evaluator won’t hear a thing), and pretty bad on writing. But actually, my estimated results were pretty different:
Reading: 27/30
Listening: 28/30
Speaking: 19/30
Writing: 28/30

It turned out that my speaking was the worst! I didn’t have anyone to bother with it at that time, but that was my estimate - if you wonder, I gave myself a “3” for 3 of the topics and a “2” for the other 3. My main issue was that the time to prepare for the speaking was too short (less than half a minute) and the time for speaking itself was either too short or too long, depending on the topic and provided background information (one minute or less). It turns out that it’s super important to really prepare several points to talk about during the prep time and take notes during the reading/listening, because you’ll be required to interpret fairly specialized scientific texts and lectures. Definitely don’t go into complicated sentences unless you’re sure you’ll be able to finish them smoothly, time is little and it’s precious.

In some books, you might have a chapter meant to improve your academic skills. I suggest you read it and maaaaybeee try the exercises if you have time, but don’t take it too seriously. It’s an utter nonsense to change your note taking strategy because someone suggests another way to do it. Of course, unless you find out the new method works for you better.

A very useful chapter is the one talking about the 4 sections of TOEFL with exercises and strategies. You can find some online, too. Judging by my textbooks and the real TOEFL I went through, the reading and listening questions in the books are pretty similar in topic range. The exercises online were a bit easier than the books. On the other hand, the speaking and writing questions are quite different. I mean, they basically keep the structure, but I suggest you look at the official ETS channel and also on notefull.com. If what they say there differs from your prep materials, trust youtube and notefull. They’re right.

Well, obviously, the most important part are the final practice tests. So, I recommend getting a book that has as many of them as possible. I had the three ones you can see in the picture below and I guess they’re pretty much equal, I didn’t really think there were major differences between them. 

Barron’s Pass Key To The TOEFL iBT

 3 tests in the book

Learning Express’s TOEFL iBT - The English Scores You Need!
2 tests in the book + 1 test online

The Princeton Review - Cracking The TOEFL iBT
1 test, but many drills and the visuals are the most similar to the real TOEFL 

Also, the test you’re supposed to get for free with your registration is not an actual full-length test! It’s just something like a trial version. It’s only useful for getting familiar with the test screen and raising your self-esteem after hearing the hideous sample responses still receiving 3 or 4 points.

Online resources

These are the ones I found useful and recommend you to check out.

- don’t waste your time on the other vids, I found most of the tips pretty silly)

- don’t waste your time on the vids unless you wanna take a look at the cute Korean guy or laugh at the jokes

- they don’t resonate with my style tough, so I didn’t use them, but I think these can be super useful for a lot of people

If you’re curious, I raised my average score to 110 - 115 during the final practice tests.

Test-day debrief

For test-takers from the Czech Republic - Prague, I recommend the Wall Street Institute. Well, I mean, I only took the test once, so I haven’t been to the other ones, but I was absolutely happy with Wall Street Institute. The location is very convenient - near subway lines A and B and all the major tram lines. Near the train and long-distance bus station as well. It is pretty safe - there are two receptions, so no one’s gonna steal your stuff while you sweat writing the test. If you request so, they’ll put your stuff in a cabinet and keep an eye on it for you. The staff is really friendly and chats with you (of course not about the content of the test), they give you pencils and papers and help with any inconvenience you might encounter. There are toilets like 30 m from the computers, so you can go five times during your break if you need to. Now, the most important thing - I checked one of the other center’s pictures and they had all the PCs in one line with no space between the computers (and test takers). At the Wall Street Institute, there are small dividers between the seats, so you’re not disturbed by your neighbors too much and you have a lot of space around you. Also, you sit with your back towards the room and you look out the window, which is pretty nice, unless it’s really sunny and you have trouble seeing the screen. The headphones work really well, when I put the volume to the max, I couldn’t hear almost any outside noise. In general, the center is pretty calm. There’s some talking both by your co-sufferers and the regular students in different rooms, but it’s really just a background noise you should be used to from school. And the center is pretty - modern, colorful, optimistic. Exactly what you need on the test day. Taking the test on Nov 3rd, we even got some Halloween deco! Really, 5 stars! I certainly can’t complain about my results being jeopardized by the facility. 

As for test-site unrelated stuff: Bring a lip balm and a bottle of water to drink while waiting for registration. Dress in layers, I felt pretty hot by the end of the test and was happy I wore a thin tee, cardigan and a scarf and therefore could easily drop the scarf when I was too warm. Do arrive early, if everyone arrives early, you might start earlier! Just as promised in the books and online, you either get a long reading section (5 passages) or a long listening section (6 lectures, 3 conversations). I think that a long listening is better, because it’s not as boring as the readings, but you can’t choose anyway, so you just have to deal with what you get.


Many people say you should skip the text and go directly to the questions and read the text part by part while answering them. I totally disagree. I’m a fast reader and I think that by not reading the passage properly, you might not be able to answer the Qs dealing with the overall message. I could read the passage twice and answer all the questions within 10 - 15 minutes out of 20 minutes you get per passage, so I can’t see how not reading the passage would help answer in time. What works for me is reading the title and the first and last sentence of each paragraph (takes like 30 seconds) and then reading it properly (takes 2 minutes). This way, I’m sure I understand it perfectly. And I got a full score in this section. In any case, the actual test is easier than the prep books.


Make the notes the same way you’re used to. In general, the questions during the listening part seem to be a lot easier than those from the reading. However, for every 2 + 1 (2 lectures and 1 conversation), you only get 10 minutes for answering the questions. That means roughly 30 second per question. So, if you’re pretty sure about an answer, answer straight away, don’t muse on if there isn’t a trap - there most likely is no trap. You might need more than 30 sec for some difficult Q that might pop up later, so try to save time! Again, the actual test is pretty easy, compared to some practice questions. 


Drink some water (tap water form the washbasin if you must) before the speaking section begins, you really shouldn’t have a dry throat. Some people advise to stay in the room and listen to the answers of people who already speak during your break. Frankly, I happened to hear part of my co-test-taker’s first reply and I had no idea what the question was gonna be like. So, I’d say - don’t scheme, progress at a pace that is comfortable and don’t worry about it. If you’re a good speaker and you prepared for the crazy conditions of the TOEFL speaking section, you don’t need to know the questions in advance. I’m pretty good at concentrating in noisy environments, so I had no trouble speaking while hearing other people talk as well. If you’re used to school/lab/workplace background noise, you don’t have to bite your fingernails before the section. 


Do check for typos and too many repeating words. Divide the text into paragraphs (I prefer to leave an empty line between paragraphs, it looks better). Leave your headphones on to minimize the noise from other people’s keyboards. I asked several teachers and they recommended not to use don’t, can’t, won’t etc - write does not, cannot, will not, since it’s more academic (or so I was told). I wrote a bit over 400 words for the integrated question and a bit over 500 words for the independent task. So clearly, going over the suggested range of the integrated question’s word count doesn’t hurt. The independent task should be over 300 words, so you can’t go overboard, as no max number of words is mentioned. On notefull, they say you actually need to get to around 500 words to get a full score, since shorter answers aren’t developed enough. I agree - I didn’t write nonsense to get to 500 words, it’s what I reached naturally by explaining my point of view clearly, with 3 supporting arguments.

I got my scores about a week after the test day - I mean, online only, still waiting for the certificate.
Reading: 30/30
Listening: 30/30
Speaking: 27/30 :(
Writing: 30/30

Again, I’m very disappointed by the feedback (and my low speaking section score). I mean, I expected personal feedback - I’d love to know what they didn’t like about my responses. Instead, I got a standardized reply “your ability to read is high blah blah blah”. Totally useless.

As for my score, I’m slightly disappointed (since I tend to be satisfied only with scoring 100% or higher XD), but I have nothing to complain about, since I don’t think there’s any university requiring more points than I got. Doesn’t mean I won’t get eliminated because of other things though, so wish me luck, please. :)

Good luck kids. XD 

Yours truly



  1. oh, i have been through all these tooo. I took TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC and GMAT as well. I ended up study in France and all material was in French ^_^

    Good job Vita!

    1. Haha, that's pretty ironic! But wow, I'd die if I had to take so many tests.

  2. Nice post about TOEFL Speaking it is very useful for students

    1. Too bad I didn't know about this page before I took the exam :(

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