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A Beginner's Guide to the TOEFL for College Admission

Are you considering taking the TOEFL for US admission but know little about it? Here's an easy walkthrough of what to expect from this language exam.

Each year, colleges and universities are faced with the same question: What differentiates a student who will be admitted and a student who won’t? To accurately identify the “best” applicants, admission offices have to rely on hard data. The most important data is usually academic history and admission exams. GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, IELTS, TOEFL: These names look like somebody spilled Scrabble tiles, but the tests they represent can be both challenges and opportunities. Admission exams for international students, specifically, add an extra layer of vulnerability in the face of English-language proficiency. Which is why we’re talk about that last exam today: The TOEFL.

What is the TOEFL?

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is the most commonly required English-language test to apply to US universities. Anybody who doesn’t speak English as a native language and wants to apply to an American school will probably need to take the TOEFL, but some universities make exemptions for countries that use English as an official language. It is offered regularly at special testing centers around the world and administered on a computer.

The TOEFL is made up of four sections—reading, listening, speaking, and writing,—and each is scored from 0 to 30 points. Admission offices usually state score requirements on their universities’ websites, but most programs require somewhere in the range from over 70 to over 90. If you have to take the TOEFL, your first step is to find out your target scores required by your schools of interest. And the next step in familiarizing yourself with the expectations of the test sections.

Related: University Admission Exams for International Students: The Ultimate Guide


The TOEFL reading section requires test takers to read three or four academic passages, each about 700 words long, and answer 12–14 questions after each one. The passages are similar to material you’ll read in college classes, but they’re about a wide variety of topics that may be new to you. You might read about the skeletons of swimming dinosaurs, the uses of iron in second-century China, or any other random academic topic. Meanwhile, the questions don’t require much analytical thought the way something like SAT questions do—those other tests are created to measure the logical abilities of native speakers, but the TOEFL is made to measure English communication alone. Timing is extremely important for the TOEFL reading section. You only have 20 minutes for each passage and question set, so practice time management when studying.


The TOEFL listening is similar to reading in that you’ll list to either a conversation or an academic lecture about a topic similar what was presented in the reading section. The recordings are short at just a few minutes each, but there’s a lot of information—and you can only listen once before answering five or six multiple choice questions. That means you must rely on your notes and memory. If you don’t remember a detail and you don’t write enough down, you may get a wrong answer. Practice focused listening and efficient note taking to overcome the most common difficulties with the listening section.


The TOEFL speaking section is one of the most unique parts of the test and is unlike anything in other English tests. You don’t actually speak to a person. Instead, you have six tasks that you must complete by speaking into a microphone. The first two are simple questions about your life and opinions, but the next two are each about a text and a recording, and the final two are about recordings alone. So although the section is called “speaking,” it also tests reading and listening skills. And since there is no specific grammar evaluation on the TOEFL, your spoken grammar is quite important.


Finally, the TOEFL Writing section is made up of two essays written using standard American keyboard typing. The first part requires you to read and listen to passages before writing a summary of the content. The second essay asks you to express your own opinions through a prompt. Again, grammar is important for both essays. But in general, this section is somewhat similar to the writing assignments on other tests, such as the GRE or SAT. As mentioned previously, the TOEFL isn’t focused on logic—the most important aspect of the TOEFL essays is communication.

Related: 2 Easy Study Tips for Both Admission and Language Tests

Arming yourself with knowledge about all the major elements of an international admission will help you present your best application. To attend college in the US, you must have proof of English-language proficiency and getting to know the TOEFL now will help you in the long run. Get studying and stay confident! You’re on your way to a bright future.

Learn more about US university admission requirements in our International Students section before you get further in the process. 

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About Lucas Verney-Fink

Lucas Verney-Fink is a resident TOEFL and SAT expert at Magoosh. Standardized tests and English grammar are two of Lucas’s favorite things, and he’s been teaching both since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and his time spent teaching abroad, he’s tried to learn a total of three other languages. He speaks none of them well.

You can follow Lucas on Google+.


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