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The Best Tips for Note-Taking on the TOEFL

Taking good notes is one of the most important skills for success on the TOEFL (and for college) that won’t be directly tested. It’s not a bad idea to take notes on the reading section, but it will be absolutely critical in the listening section and integrated tasks, since many of these contain far more information than anyone could possibly remember in one sitting—unless you’re a genius. If you’re a genius, then congratulations! Maybe you don’t need to read this post. If you’re not, then read on.

Tip #1: Express ideas in few words

One huge error that people make when taking notes is being too careful. They write every word out completely, include small words like “the,” or even include full sentences. There is a clear problem with this approach: you simply don’t have enough time. But also, this can make it hard to find information later. Shorter notes are easier to search through. When you refer to them later, you’ll have no problem finding the information you need.

Tip #2: Use your own words (even in your own language)

It’s a bad idea in class, but when you’re in the middle of a test, no one cares whether you’re using exclusively English or not. If you can rephrase what you heard in fewer words in your own language, then do it! I’m not saying you should write entirely in your native language, but if you can express a thought faster, then that’s a good thing.
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Tip #3: Keep moving

The speaker is going to be moving faster than you can write. If you think you are falling behind as you rush to write the last point that was made, it’s usually best to stop that thought in the middle and move on. It’s much easier to remember that partial thought later than to miss a portion of the lecture and have to figure out what the speaker’s talking about now and why.

Tip #4: Use symbols

Never write the word “circle” if you can simply draw a circle. Cause and effect can be shown with arrows. “Decrease,” “fall,” “short,” “cheap,” or even “worse” can all be shown with a down arrow. There are many, many other symbols, of course—use whatever you can think of that’s shorter than writing words!

Tip #5: Only note big ideas and key relationships

Your notes should be structural. In other words, you don’t want to include every detail that’s spoken. You want to hear every detail, of course, but you only have to write the big ideas that help you to remember the small ones. If you try to write everything, you will have trouble keeping pace, and you will not hear some information because you’re still writing the previous details. Make note of relationships between ideas like examples, comparisons, contrasts, and cause and effect. Note when the topic changes. But don’t write every name, date, and location you hear.

Tip #6: Practice, practice, practice!

Note-taking is a skill, and it needs to be practiced. Don’t limit yourself to TOEFL practice questions! Take notes from whatever media you have: a TV show, a TED talk, the book you’re reading, or even a conversation with a friend. Pay particular attention to listening and writing at the same time without getting behind in either.
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10 Responses to The Best Tips for Note-Taking on the TOEFL

  1. Makan August 7, 2015 at 12:21 am #

    Hello dear, i really like your article , especially the tips for note-taking.
    Thank you very much

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink August 7, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      You’re welcome!

  2. momo December 5, 2015 at 8:24 am #

    Hi. I’ll be taking the IBT. Will I be given the option to type the notes out on the computer, instead of writing it on paper?

    Thanks for this useful article. Appreciate it 🙂

  3. yaser hasin December 22, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    I really appreciate your knowledge
    thanks, it was an amazing information

  4. emad May 30, 2016 at 10:04 pm #

    Keep moving was very useful.

  5. Maria November 21, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

    You mean we can take notes by hand? or on computer?
    thank you for ur useful information,

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 22, 2016 at 2:52 am #

      Hi Maria,

      You can take the notes on the scratch paper that is given to you. 🙂

  6. Teong Kim Hao July 3, 2017 at 8:24 am #

    How can I practice listening using NPR?

    • David Recine
      David Recine July 5, 2017 at 10:42 am #

      Good question. NPR definitely does have a lot of TOEFL-like listening practice. But it also has a lot of practice that’s not so similar to TOEFL audio. News programs or audio-book broadcasts like “Chapter a Day” are not-so-useful, as real TOEFL audio isn’t meant to sound like writing that’s been read aloud. And entertainment oriented shows like Car Talk or What do You Know are too informal.

      But many interviews with academic experts are quite good for TOEFL practice. They take the academic tone of TOEFL lecture audio, while still having some of the back and forth exchanges that are typical of TOEFL conversations. So you can listen to that kind of NPR broadcast and take notes, much like you would in TOEFL Listening. This will give you practice that is comparable to– but not identical to– the real exam.


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