Help! How Can I Improve on the TOEFL?

“How can I improve on the TOEFL?” This is a common question Magoosh gets from its students. When your question is this general, the real question is “Where should I start?”

When you need to improve in all four TOEFL sections, it can be hard to know just where to start. Figuring out exactly what you should do next is a matter of asking yourself the right questions. You need to carefully assess your own strength and weaknesses on the TOEFL.

Once you look at your own abilities, you can identify and prioritize your areas of weakness. You can focus your studies on the parts of the test that are hardest for you. And you can set aside time for specific English skills that you need more practice in.

You should also be aware of your TOEFL strengths. If you’re very good at certain aspects of the TOEFL, you’ll want to practice those strengths regularly, so that you don’t lose any abilities. You also want to find ways to connect your strengths to your weaknesses. Suppose, for example, that you’re pretty good at TOEFL Listening and Reading, but that you are less confident in TOEFL Speaking. You can use your listening and reading skills to boost your score in TOEFL Integrated Speaking.

“How can I improve on the TOEFL?” Questions to ask yourself about your TOEFL skills

Part of TOEFL improvement depends on you test-specific skills. For this reason, it’s best to take a TOEFL practice test to assess your current standing. These are skills that are unique to the test, not broader language skills. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your TOEFL testing skills:

  • Which TOEFL sections are hardest for me, and which are the easiest?
  • Which TOEFL Reading question types are the most challenging for me, and which ones am I the strongest in?
  • Which TOEFL Listening question types are harder for me, and which are easier?
  • What types of TOEFL listening recordings are the easiest or hardest for me? (TOEFL Listening conversations vs. TOEFL Listening lectures vs. TOEFL Listening Class discussions.)
  • What is easier for me, TOEFL Independent Speaking or TOEFL Integrated Speaking?
  • Which individual TOEFL Speaking tasks are harder or easier for me?
  • Which of the two tasks in the TOEFL Writing section are easier or harder for me?

“How can I improve on the TOEFL?” Connecting your general English ability to your TOEFL performance

Once you’ve identified both your TOEFL “trouble spots” and your TOEFL strengths, you need to ask yourself why certain aspects of the TOEFL are easier or harder for you.

As you carefully look at your TOEFL abilities, you’ll be able to see a pattern behind your TOEFL performance. You may notice, for instance,  you’re confident with vocabulary questions in TOEFL Reading. But at the same time, you may realize you’re doing poorly in TOEFL reading inference questions. This shows that you have a strength in knowing English words, but a weakness in understanding broader meaning in context. You can use your vocabulary strengths to pay more attention to context-based inferences in the readings.

Or you may notice that you are good at summarizing the lecturer’s words in TOEFL Integrated Writing, but not-so-good at paraphrasing the Integrated Writing passage. This indicates strong listening skills, but possible problems with reading or writing in English. So again, you can make a plan of action to work on your weaknesses while using your strengths to improve.

I could give a lot of other examples of possible strengths and weaknesses. But the real question is this: What will you discover about yourself as a TOEFL test-taker and English learner, and what will you do with this knowledge?

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About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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