The TOEFL and University Application

By Jonathan Charles Ault

(Admissions Consultant)

What is the TOEFL?

The TOEFL is the “Test of English as a Foreign Language,” administered by the ETS (Educational Testing Service), based in the U.S. It is the most commonly used English examination used by schools in the U.S. and Canada, as well as some universities in Australia. The TOEFL is designed to test whether or not a student is capable of success in an English-language university environment. Note that the TOEFL is not the same as the IELTS; some schools will accept either score, but many schools (especially in the U.S.) will only accept a TOEFL score. You can take the TOEFL online, at home, and its scheduling is very flexible; once you’ve taken and submitted it, you will get a score back in (usually) 8-10 days.

There are four sections on the TOEFL: Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking. Each section is worth 30 points. Therefore, the maximum score you can receive is 120. Anything above 100 is considered a very good score, and will meet the requirements of all but the most stringent universities (e.g., some Ivy League schools, which prefer to see 110+).

Do I need to take the TOEFL?

That depends! If English is your first language, you should be safe – but note that, even if you grew up speaking English at home, there are a few universities that will still, unfortunately, require a TOEFL score if you grew up in a place where English is not the dominant language used. (This includes Hong Kong and Singapore.) If English is not your first language, if you have spent at least three years studying at an international school where English is the primary language of instruction, most – not all! – schools will allow you to waive the TOEFL. It all depends on the specific school and your specific situation in regards to the English language. Make sure to look into each school’s policies for international students; every school is different.

Please note that this applies to boarding schools as well as universities. If it seems odd and a little unfair to you that 12- or 13-year-olds should need to take a test of academic English ability that was written for 17- or 18-year olds . . . well, you’re absolutely right! Unfortunately, that’s just how it is, and there’s nothing to be done about it. The ETS does have another test written specifically for younger, boarding school applicants, called the TOEFL Junior, but so far very few schools have adopted this test, preferring the old-fashioned TOEFL.

How can I succeed on the TOEFL?

If you are about to graduate from an English language high school, and have been academically successful in your high school years, you will almost certainly do just fine with minimal studying. You should still take a practice test or two, just to familiarize yourself with the structure and the types of questions asked on the test, but it’s nothing to stress out about. The TOEFL is not like the SAT, SSAT, or AP Exams; it requires no special knowledge or even critical thinking abilities. It solely tests your aptitude in English.

If you did not attend an English language high school, are not so confident in your English abilities, or are a middle school student taking the TOEFL in preparation for application to boarding school, you’ll want to do significantly more practice. As with anything else, practice makes perfect, so invest in a TOEFL prep book. The ETS itself publishes what is probably the best one, with new editions each year; other options include the TOEFL guides by Cambridge, Macmillan, and Princeton Review.

If you’re starting to prepare for the TOEFL well in advance of taking it, first of all, good for you! Secondly, probably the best thing you can do for yourself is to read, read, read. Read fiction, non-fiction, articles, textbooks – everything you can get your hands on. This will not only improve your vocabulary and (of course) your reading ability, it will also make you a better writer. There are a lot of great resources for improving your English listening ability; TED talks are a good choice, as is the publicly-funded American radio station National Public Radio. Make sure to take notes as you read and listen, to improve the speed and accuracy of your notetaking. This will come very much in handy on the real test. The hardest skills to improve are probably writing and (especially) speaking. For these, you might want to seek out a tutor. The Edge has some of the best!

Hopefully this helps – good luck on the TOEFL, and let us know if there’s any way we can help!


About The Edge

The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off another successful period in which students gained acceptance to schools such as Columbia, Yale, UChicago, and more! Check out our latest Admissions Results!

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