TOEFL Hell…Some Students Are Stuck

Today I typed in “TOEFL Hell” into Google, and I got 88 matches.  In America, Christians describe hell as a place where unrepentant people go. Christians also believe that Lucifer (Devil) resides there. Hell contains the worst of the worst who have died. The air is hot and muggy. There are many fires and molten lava from erupting  volcanoes. Hell is not a place where you would want your worst enemy to live.  Whether this is a real or metaphorical place, the very thought of hell derives negative images in many people’s minds.


TOEFL Hell: What is TOEFL hell?


In a general sense, TOEFL hell refers to those students who have to retake the TOEFL exam over and over without reaching their desired overall TOEFL score.  For example, a student posted at FaceBook that he had to take the TOEFL exam 25 times over a period of two years.  In this case, this student suffered through TOEFL hell for two years and spent more than $5,000 just on taking the TOEFL iBT.  In addition, he used several TOEFL books and enrolled in multiple online TOEFL courses. He even hired several online tutors to help him.  Finally, he enrolled in an English language program for more than a year.

All of this study and preparation cost him an additional $7,300. As a result, he spent more than $12,300 for all materials related to the TOEFL iBT exam.  He also spent countless hours preparing for the exam.  He also had to drive to the test center 25 separate times. This is called TOEFL hell.  You can read more about TOEFL hell by learning about Dina’s story:

TOEFL Hell: What is TOEFL writing hell?

TOEFL writing practice
TOEFL writing practice

In a majority of the cases, TOEFL writing hell refers to students who need to get 24 on the writing section. However, no matter how many times they take the test, they cannot get that magical subtotal score.  Statistically speaking, about 20% of all test-takers are able to reach this desired subtotal score. Nonetheless, many students are not able to reach this target subtotal score. Students in these cases are suffering from TOEFL writing hell.

TOEFL Hell: What is TOEFL speaking hell?

TOEFL speaking practice
TOEFL speaking practice

According to ETS statistics, 10-12% of students score 26+ points on the speaking section. Therefore, since reaching this score is more competitive than reaching a writing score of 24, many students get stuck in TOEFL speaking hell. Don’t believe there is a TOEFL speaking hell? Read Cris’s story about taking the TOEFL eight times before he scored 26 on speaking:

TOEFL Hell: What is reading and listening TOEFL hell?


TOEFL reading and listening hell refers to students who cannot score 21-22 points on the reading and listening section.  Approximately 30-35% of all test-takers can reach these subtotal requirements.  However, for whatever reason many students still cannot reach these two subtotal requirements. Until they reach these requirements, these students will be in TOEFL reading and listening hell.

TOEFL Hell: What are some causes of TOEFL Hell?

You know now the major types of TOEFL hell that 1000’s of students experience.  However, why do they experience this TOEFL hell? Understanding the causes will be important if you want to lift yourself above this terrible feeling of despair and frustration.

No plan to guide their studies:

Many students have no plan to help them prepare for the TOEFL iBT. They might watch some You Tube videos about speaking and writing tips. Another day they will read some articles on the Internet about reading and listening improvements.  From time to time, they may complete some TOEFL Practice Online (TPO) practice tests. However, despite all this practice, these student do not have a comprehensive, unified, and consistent TOEFL preparation plan to help them make the language improvements they need to make.

Pride prevents them from seeking help:

Some students are too proud to ask help from a qualified TOEFL speaking or writing specialist. These students think they are too good for that. Possessing this irrational feeling of pride, these students believe that they are more than talented enough to reach their desired score on their own.  They have a corrupt sense of their own abilities, so there is no reason to have to consult someone for help when preparing for the TOEFL exam. Prideful students believe it is a sign of weakness if they sign up for TOEFL tutoring or if they join an online TOEFL course. They will throw away 1000’s of dollars re-taking the TOEFL exam over and over.  Some of these prideful students never each their target score. Their TOEFL hell may be eternal.

Too much hearing and seeing without doing:

Similar to the prideful students, these TOEFL hell students spend a lot of time watching television and listening to lectures and so on.  They focus a lot on TOEFL strategies, even at the expense of never improving their basic English skills. They will spend a lot of time completing TPO practice. However, they usually do not record any speaking practice tests. Nor do they complete any writing practice tests.  Since they are trying to go it alone, they do not get feedback from qualified TOEFL speaking and writing specialists. Thus, it is impossible for them to know what speaking and writing problems they are having, so there is no way that these students can monitor their progress.  Hearing is good. Seeing is better. Doing is best. If you do not “do” a lot during your TOEFL preparation, you will be stuck in hell.

Relying on unqualified mentors:

The Internet is a double-edged sword: It contains useful and useless information. It can be hard to sort of what is most or least accurate. Some students stuck in TOEFL hell become desperate.  They will post a TOEFL reading question at  They will take the same query to a closed Face Book group.  Both responses can be very different in content and accuracy.  For example, I read an answer at Quora, in which a student claimed that most students score 100/120 on the TOEFL on their first try. Then he went to suggest a 3 day plan, which he claimed, would help this student score higher than 100.  Guess what?  The student who tried to follow the Quoran’s advice is still stuck in hell because she spends too much time getting advice from unqualified mentors. Will she ever be able to redeem herself?

Focusing in the wrong areas:

TOEFL strategies
TOEFL strategies

Some students agonize in TOEFL hell because they are focusing in the wrong areas.  I have a student right now.  His name is Raka. Raka needs to score 26 on the speaking section. Therefore, he joined STEALTH about two months ago. In the first week, he started sending me speaking practice tests every day.  I noticed right away that he had grammar and vocabulary issues, so I recommended specific vocabulary and grammar lessons in my course to help him improve.  He ignored my advice and concentrated only in the speaking section of my course.  A month later, he re-took the TOEFL exam, and he got exactly the same speaking score as he got previously: 24/30 points.  He was upset and asked me why he didn’t improve.  I asked him whether or not he was studying lessons in the vocabulary and grammar sections of my course. He told me that he was too busy to study those lessons, and he only wanted to focus on speaking. Together, we looked at his score report, which explicitly stated that he had vocabulary and grammar limitations.  His score report also stated that he had pronunciation problems with intonation and pacing. I convinced him and reluctantly he agreed to refocus his efforts by spending more time practicing vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. He re-took the TOEFL exam 8 weeks after that and scored 28/30 points on the speaking section.  Simply put, many students, like Raka, remain in TOEFL hell because they are focusing in the wrong areas in their reading, listening, speaking, and writing practice.

Taking the TOEFL exam too many times:

This last group of students really are missing everything about second language acquisition. They sincerely believe that they can improve their TOEFL score simply by re-taking the TOEFL repeatedly until they pass.   Even if this strategy works, it requires that they spend enormous amounts of money re-taking the TOEFL iBT over and over and over and over. What they are missing is practice improving their vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing, and speaking.  Without meaningful and targeted practice, these students will remain in TOEFL hell for a very long time.

TOEFL Hell: How do I get out of TOEFL hell?

Get out of TOEFL hell
Get out of TOEFL hell

Once ounce of prevention is worth one pound of cure. In other words, your goal is to prevent yourself from getting into TOEFL hell by studying smarter not harder.  It can be difficult once you are in TOEFL hell. The only way out of this endless cycle of failure and frustration is to change your mindset. In addition, throwing thousands of dollars at your TOEFL studies will most likely not solve the problem either.  If you are still reading this boring article, you are serious about finishing the TOEFL and moving on with your life. Here is what you need to do. Send me the following e-mail. Make sure you change the scores to reflect your specific situation:



I am in TOEFL hell right now. Here is my most recent TOEFL score: (83) R=20, L=19, S=23, and W=21.

Can you recommend a TOEFL study plan that can help me to score higher? Here is the target score and subtotal scores that I need: (93)  R=22, L=21, S=26, and W=24.


First and Last Name


Once I read your e-mail, I will look at your current TOEFL score/subtotals. Then I will look at what target score/subtotals you need. I will recommend a specific study plan for a specific timeframe to help you reach your goal. Every course I recommend will

  • Allow you to complete pronunciation pre-tests and post-tests, after which you will get audio feedback from an accent reduction specialist to see your weak points and to monitor your progress.
  • Allow you to complete independent and integrated speaking practice tests DAILY, followed by 3-6 minutes of audio feedback from an experienced TOEFL speaking specialist after every practice test that you send.
  • Allow you to complete independent and integrated writing practice daily, following by written feedback by a qualified TOEFL writing specialist.
  • Give you unlimited access to all 700 STEALTH vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing, and speaking lessons.
  • Allow you to get e-mail support 24 hours a day.

If you know anyone else who is stuck in TOEFL hell, send them the link to this article.  This one article has rescued more than 100 students from TOEFL hell and has helped them get on the right path to reach their target score/subtotals.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff,

Who is Michael Buckhoff?





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