What is TOEFL?

Many international students are stressed out because of a dreaded test called TOEFL, the Test Of English as a Foreign Language. It is a test designed to evaluate an individual’s English skills based on four components: reading, listening, speaking and writing.

Often, the international students are required to submit their TOEFL test results when applying to universities. Depending on the universities, the students need to meet certain scores. The test is out of 120 marks, 30 marks for each section, and takes about 3.5 to 4 hours. 


Q. How do they grade the English skills?

The test measures one’s capability of understanding academic English. Through this test, the test takers are able to demonstrate their English proficiency. For reading and listening, all of the questions are multiple choice and it is graded by a computer.

In the reading sector, the students should have skills to interpret academic texts. The number of questions range from 36-56 depending on the test and the types of questions vary from summarizing the text to finding meanings of selected words.

However, not all materials are graded. In fact, if there are 4 passages on the reading, there are 3 sets of listening materials and vice versa, and only 3 materials are graded for each section. This means that if there are four reading texts, one is not graded. Unfortunately, the test takers are not informed which academic material is a “dummy” (a term that describes uncounted passages / lectures) or an experimental question.

For the listening section, the student should be able to take down notes and understand university level lectures, classroom discussions and conversations. There are 2 to 3 sets of audio recordings, depending on the exam, and each set has three recordings with a limited time of 10 minutes. The number of questions range from 34–51. Unlike the reading section, listening doesn’t enable students to go back to their previous questions once they have moved on.

For the speaking section, the students are graded on their ability to speak in a limited time. There are three parts, each with different scenarios which require different answering skills. For example, the first section gives a general question that requires personal opinions. The question might be “If you had a chance to visit space, would you go? Why or why not?”  Then, the student is given 15 seconds to think and 45 seconds to response. During the 45 seconds, the test taker is asked to answer completely with fluency.

For the writing section, there are two writing components. The test takers should have the capability to compare and contrast the given article and lecture. Usually the lectures elaborate upon the ideas of reading passages or contradict the notions of articles. However, sometimes the relationship between the listening and reading might be vague. Unfortunately, it is the students’ job to overcome difficulties and write the compare and contrast essay. The next written component is an independent essay. The students are given a general topic and are expected to write a 5 paragraph essay. The first essay must be completed in 20 minutes; the independent essay must be completed in 30 minutes.

TOEFL® Score Scales

Skill Score Range Level
Reading 0–30 High (22–30)
Intermediate (15–21)
Low (0–14)
Listening 0–30 High (22–30)
Intermediate (15–21)
Low (0–14)
Speaking 0–30 score scale Good (26–30)
Fair (18–25)
Limited (10–17)
Weak (0–9)
Writing 0–30 score scale Good (24–30)
Fair (17–23)
Limited (1–16)
Total Score 0–120

Copied from: http://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/scores/understand

<Interviews with international students:  What do you think of TOEFL?>

Anna Choi: To be frank, TOEFL was very stressful and annoying. In my opinion, it wasn’t really helpful, and time-management with my school work was overwhelming and difficult. To the future students, I recommend that they study vocabulary. I believe vocab is the most crucial factor in this test.

Hong An: Honestly, TOEFL is my life obstacle that hinders me from going into my preferable university. Personally, I love art, and I believe I have no difficulties in producing and creating art. However, because of TOEFL, I am afraid that I won’t be able to get into my ideal university. But, since international students have to take TOEFL no matter what, I advise the future students to start early and simply study hard.

Stephanie Leem: I believe that TOEFL doesn’t grade on language skills but technical skills. In fact, the test is more about technique than actual English ability. So, it is hard to see it as a proper test for a university application. Unfortunately, some universities still require it, so I recommend others to practice and memorize a lot of vocabulary.

Yoon Sun Min: Actually, TOEFL is not educational; it is a technique based test. I believe that paying approximately $250 to take TOEFL is an unreasonable price. Not only that, the test is not beneficial for post secondary. Did you know that the cost for taking the test is increasing every year? Two years ago, it used to be around $100. I feel like TOEFL is meant for business and money rather than students’ language improvement. It is a method for the company to earn money. For the future students, all I can say is study hard and good luck.

Jane Lee: TOEFL is all about training. The more practice you do, the better marks you get. It is very time and energy consuming, but I believe it improves people’s ability to focus. However, the test doesn’t necessarily represent to the true English skill of the test taker. To be honest, the tip for getting a better mark is to just get used to the test environment. In my opinion, people shouldn’t rely on academies and study independently.

by Se Hee Eom

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