Plan your TOEFL Strategy

Plan your TOEFL strategy now before you invest too much time and money.  “How do I reach 100/120 in 3.5 months?” asked a student who had never taken the TOEFL iBT.  Another student wanted to know how she could improve her TOEFL score from 87 to 110 in five days.  Last year, I saw a Face Book post of a student who had taken the TOEFL 25 times, and he had still not reached his target score.  Whether you want to improve your TOEFL score or whether you have taken the TOEFL exam and failed, if you plan your TOEFL strategy, you will more likely to reach your result.

Plan your TOEFL strategy
Plan your TOEFL strategy

Plan your TOEFL Strategy: Change your mindset.

First, re-think how you are preparing for the TOEFL. Here are some misconceptions that you may have.

  • TOEFL improvement occurs rapidly. (In fact, it can take you 30 days to improve 5 points in your overall score if you are diligently studying 2-3 hours a day and if you are living in an all-English environment.)
  • Memorizing speaking and writing templates helps students improve their speaking and writing subtotal scores. (No, iBT human raters will recognize when you are using templates and will score you lower consequently.  The fact that you need to rely templates shows that you have speaking and writing limitations.)
  • The best way to prepare for the TOEFL exam is to use TOEFL Practice Online. (The purpose of taking practice tests is to check your progress or improvement; however, you will still need authentic reading, listening, speaking, and writing practice over an extended period of time to prepare for the exam.)
  • Re-taking the TOEFL increases students’ chances of reaching their target scores. (Re-taking the TOEFL will not help you to score higher if you have not been regularly reading, listening, speaking, and writing English in authentic situations.)
  • I can improve my speaking and writing skills on my own without any help from TOEFL mentors. (Most students cannot diagnose their speaking and writing issues on their own. A TOEFL speaking and writing mentor can help these students to see their weak points and can help them to improve.)

Plan your TOEFL Strategy:  Rome was not built in a day.

“Rome was not built in a day,” someone said to illustrate the importance of patience.   Learning a new language does not happen quickly as you already know. If you are reading this article right now, you probably have spent many years already learning English.  Even if you have mastered English to some degree, that will not guarantee a score over 100/120 on the TOEFL iBT. In order to score over 100, you will need to be able to do the following competencies:

  • Read conceptually-dense passages with a speed of 300 words per minute with 60-80% comprehension.
  • Speak 150-200 words per minute clearly with all of the appropriate skills: natural pronunciation of vowel and consonant sounds; appropriate syllable division, especially with grammatical word endings; accurate word stress, sentence rhythm, and intonation; and effective use of thought groups and blending.
  • With about 15 seconds preparation, you will need to speak coherently and precisely on personal experience topics; you should be able to speak about reading and listening passages completely and accurately
  • Need a basic and college-level base of about 1,700 words.
  • Be comfortable listening to academic lectures.
  • Develop an effective abbreviated system of note-taking for reading and listening passages.
  • Be able to write 450-550 words about on a personal experience task in 30 minutes.
  • Be able to read, listen, and then write a  250-350 word response in 20 minutes.

Think about what I just said. Do you honestly think you can master these competencies in a week? Of course not, right?  However, if you have been using English for 10-15 years, you will have automatically learned many of these competencies. For instance, Teresa was one of my students who scored 109/120 on the TOEFL iBT.  Before taking the TOEFL, she used to read English newspapers when she traveled around Europe. In addition, she enjoyed listening to pop and classic rock music in English. Sometimes, she would write down the words to the songs and study the vocabulary, including cultural expressions, similes, metaphors, and slang. She had already had about 8 years of English practice and study in Germany before she began her TOEFL preparation.

Plan your TOEFL Strategy: Use your TOEFL score report or practice score report to identify weak points.

Whether you have or have not been using English for a very long time, you need to plan your TOEFL strategy based on either having taken the TOEFL exam or having taken a full-length four hour iBT practice test.

If you have taken the TOEFL exam before:  The TOEFL exam will give you a score report after you take the exam. This score report will help you to see what reading, listening, speaking, and writing weaknesses you have.  For example, watch the following video in which I analyze a TOEFL score report sent to me by an international student who had taken the TOEFL iBT:

If you take a full-length four hour TOEFL practice test:  Similarly, taking a full-length practice test will give you an overall score and subtotal scores in the reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections.

In any case, you can look at your score report to figure out which areas of improvement you need. You can then match your weak points with specific lessons in my Online TOEFL Course. My course has more than 700 vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, listening, reading, writing, and speaking lessons.

If you email me ( your TOEFL score  and if you tell me what your target score is, I can recommend a personalized learning path to help you. By studying with me, you will be able to send me speaking and writing practice daily or as often as you like. Then I will provide audio and written speaking and writing feedback so that you can monitor your progress.

Plan your TOEFL Strategy: Balance your study among the 7 skill areas

When I designed my TOEFL course, I made sure that my students would get vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, listening, reading, writing, and speaking practice.  For example, in the below course outlines, you will notice that I schedule these seven skills areas each week as my students study:

1. 1 Month TOEFL Courses: 

2. 3 Month TOEFL Course: 

3. 6 Month TOEFL Course: 

4. 12 Month TOEFL Course: 

5. TOEFL Speaking Boot Camp Course: 

6. TOEFL Writing Boot Camp Course:

I have a student right now who thinks that he will score 26/30 on the speaking section by simply completing 5-10 speaking practice tests daily for a couple of months. His TOEFL score right now is 20/30 points. Unfortunately, he has failed the TOEFL exam 4 times, and he is neglecting to improve his grammar and vocabulary, both of which, according to his multiple score reports, are why he is scoring so low. Eventually, this student will see the casual connection between using the vocabulary and grammar parts of my course as a supplement to improve his speaking.

However, if you follow one of the above course outlines and get regular practice in all 7 skills areas, you will make slow but steady improvement in your overall and subtotal scores. Listen to the following student in the below video. She scored 27 on the speaking section of the exam. She regularly used many parts of my TOEFL Speaking Boot Camp course to help her reach her goal.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff,

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