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TOEFL Format

Understanding the TOEFL format will give you a boost on test day. Read on to learn more about how the test is put together. There are two forms of the TOEFL today: the paper-based test (PBT) and the internet-based test (iBT). In most countries, the iBT is by far the most common test form, so that’s the form we focus on.

The TOEFL iBT is formatted in four sections, each of which tests one language skill. The test isn’t adaptive, which means the questions don’t get harder if you do really well or easier if you get a few questions wrong. Multiple forms of the test exist and they change often, which helps to prevent cheating, but all of the tests are close to equally difficult (for more detailed information about how this works, check out how the TOEFL is scored). You can learn about each of the four sections individually below. For more in-depth information and practice, check out our free TOEFL iBT eBook and our premium video lessons and practice questions. 🙂


The Reading Section

This first section tests your ability to understand academic written English. The material in this section may be different from the English you’ve read before, especially if you read fiction or popular literature, because it is based on material that English-speaking college students are expected to read and understand.  So it’s a good idea to get familiar with this style of writing—here is some great advice for finding TOEFL reading practice. The reading passages can cover a wide variety of topics including art, history, science, and social sciences.

You will have one hour to read the three reading passages and answer the accompanying questions. After the full text is printed, questions will be grouped by paragraph, which saves you some time and makes it easier to find the information you need. You will see some unfamiliar words in this section, but that’s OK–if the word is necessary, can’t be figured out from context, and is specific to the topic of the text (not used in normal English), the test may allow you to click on the word and get a definition. Each question is worth the same amount, so don’t get stuck for too long on one question. You will have 20 minutes per passage, including the questions.

The Listening Section

Now that your language skills are warmed up, you’ll move on to listening, which will test your ability to understand both academic lectures and conversations related to university life. Like the reading section, the listening section will last about an hour. Throughout the entire test, you will have the option of taking notes; in the listening section, this will be essential. Practice listening and writing at the same time, because the lectures are 3-5 minutes long, and you will not be able to remember all the necessary information. The conversations will be shorter, but note-taking will still be very helpful. In all you will listen to 4 or 6 lectures and 2 or 3 conversations.

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The Speaking Section

The speaking section is the shortest, lasting about 20 minutes.  It will involve some independent tasks, which require you to express an opinion briefly (you will have up to a minute to speak), and some integrated tasks, in which you will need to use information from reading and listening in your spoken answers. There are two questions that require you to read, listen and speak, and two that require you only to listen then speak. In all you will answer 6 questions in the speaking section.


The Writing Section

As in the speaking section, you will complete an integrated task (20 minutes) and an independent task (30 minutes). The independent task is a persuasive essay, meaning you should express and support an opinion. The integrated task will give you an excerpt from a lecture, an excerpt from a written article, and a question. Your task will be to combine the information from the lecture with that from the written article in order to answer the question. Manage your time well! On the TOEFL you will use a standard QWERTY keyboard. If you need to, now is a good time to practice typing in English, as you will not want to waste time searching for the right letter on the keyboard.


Bonus: You can listen to all of this information in this video:

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30 Responses to TOEFL Format

  1. Lumy October 24, 2013 at 1:13 am #

    Sorry if this is a silly question, but do we take notes on scratch paper or on the computer with the keyboard?

    • Kate November 4, 2013 at 11:28 am #

      Hi, Lumy– It’s not a silly question at all! You will be given paper to take notes on at the test site. You can’t bring your own, but if you run out, you can ask for more. Thanks for the question!

  2. Gokulnath May 20, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Can you please suggest me the best material that can be used for TOEFL preparation? I am confused. First time when I took TOEFL I scored only 85, because I didn’t prepare anything. But this time, I have a GESP probation at UT Arlington. So I have to score at least 95. Please help me.

    Thanks in Advance

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin May 20, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

      Hi there– I’d recommend the Official Guide, since it gives you lots of information about the test itself. If you want more practice than the 3 tests in that book, go for . Official sources are the most reliable, since they’re made of real past test questions. Thanks for the question!

  3. Chirag August 7, 2014 at 12:39 am #


    I will be giving the GRE and 5 days after that i will be gving the TOEFL exam. I have joined the magoosh premium account for GRE. Do I require a lot of practice to answer the TOEFL exam as I thought that GRE practice would take care of it?


    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas August 11, 2014 at 11:43 am #

      Hi Chirag,

      Unfortunately, the tests are very different, so we do recommend studying for the TOEFL separately from the GRE. First, here’s a blog post about the similarities and differences on the TOEFL and GRE that we wrote for, a friend of ours.

      Simply put, the two tests don’t really have that much in common. The vocabulary that the GRE focuses on only overlaps partly with the vocabulary of the TOEFL (the high-level “GRE words” are too rare for the TOEFL, in most cases). Reading comprehension can help, but the TOEFL is more about understanding and less about logic.

      One of the two TOEFL essays is very similar one of the GRE essays, which is helpful, and the structure/timing is the same. The other essays are quite different, but simply knowing the basic English grammar and vocabulary rules will really help.

      So the reading and writing sections have some parts in common, but not that much. Meanwhile, the TOEFL also includes listening and speaking—half of the test has nothing in common with the GRE. And those are worth preparing for.

  4. Ponn vairavi November 1, 2014 at 2:29 am #

    I’m planning to join during the fall of 2015, so when should I take TOEFL?
    Plz help

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas November 3, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

      That depends on application deadlines at the schools you’re applying to! It’s best to take the TOEFL a few months before the application deadline so you will have time to focus on other parts of your application after finishing the TOEFL (also so you have time to study again and retake the test, if needed). So first, find out when the applications are due, then plan your test from there!

  5. Sudeshna November 14, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    Is there any break in TOEFL as there is in the GRE? Please let me know. Thanks in advance.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas November 18, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

      Yes, there is, thankfully! There’s a mandatory 10-minute break between the listening and speaking sections (about 2.5 hours after the start of the test).

  6. lalit December 25, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    Dear Sir / Madam,

    I am taking TOEFL in the month of February 1st. How much time required to deliver my score to University from ETS.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas December 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

      You can find that information on ETS’s website (they make the TOEFL). But the answer is two weeks, give or take a few days. But that is only to send the score. The mail can take time, so you want to take the test 3+ weeks before the application deadline, ideally.

  7. Raymond January 29, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    Hi Kate, i would like to ask about the reading section. As you said the questions are grouped
    according to paragraphs wich is true for the practice software that im using (ets guide), will
    the actual test be the same ?
    Thank you for your help!

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas January 29, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

      Yes, it will be! The software that comes with the Official guide is very similar to what you will see on test day (but not exactly the same). When reading, you will first see the passage, then after scrolling down you can move on to question number one. Next to question one is the paragraph from the passage that’s relevant. Then, at question two, you will also see the relevant paragraph next to the question. That continues through all 12-14 questions.

      • Raymond January 30, 2015 at 12:07 am #

        Thank you Lucas for your reply! 🙂

  8. Ludmila February 5, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    I m new one in this site
    Will u plz kindly let me knw the syllabus of TOFEL along with sections…
    Also how to prepare for it
    Itz a humble request

    Thanks alot

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas February 10, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

      The format of the TOEFL is described in the blog post above. 🙂 How to prepare for the test is a big topic, though! If you have specific questions, email us at

  9. Abhay June 3, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    I was planning to take the toefl this month, and i had a query regarding the listening section.

    Are we allowed to listen to the audio clips more than once.

  10. Siephanh May 6, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    I want to test the exam of the TOEFL, But I don’t know how to prepare for it, Can you give me some advice ?, But I have tried to test the Testden four sections like Reading, Listening, Speaking and also Writing the Score I got is 43 It was firt time to me , I want to try more

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm #


      For the best possible TOEFL practice, Magoosh always recommends going to the source— materials form ETS, the company that actually makes the TOEFL. ETS lists all of their official exam prep materials here: . The most readily available official ETS practice questions are the Quick Prep question sets, which are free on the official TOEFL website. I also highly recommend Official TOEFL iBT Tests and the Official Guide to the TOEFL.

      Cambridge TOEFL books, while unofficial and not without their flaws, provide pretty good prep material too. And of course, Magoosh subscribers get access to hundreds of well researched and carefully designed TOEFL questions that are much like the ones in official ETS materials. You can see Lucas’ overview of both Cambridge and the official TOEFL books in his post about the best currently available books for the exam.

      And of course, you can get access to hundreds of carefully designed TOEFL questions and tasks similar to ETS in quality with a Magoosh TOEFL subscription.

  11. Shivani August 23, 2016 at 4:49 am #

    Hey there!

    From what I read above, there is one thing that is confusing to me and there is a quite silly question of mine. In the listening section, some parts have to be Read, to be listened to, and then you speak. So the part where have to read, it has to be reading out loud, right?
    I would be really happy to receive a reply.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 25, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

      Not a silly question at all… and actually a pretty common question. 🙂 You don’t need to do any reading out loud yourself in Listening. But the questions will be read out loud to you by audio, and appear in written form on the screen. After you both read and hear the TOEFL Listening questions, the answer choices are ONLY read– there’s no audio track for them.

  12. sahithi October 26, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    Hi iam sahithi my question might be silly but plz answer me where I have to speak in front of people or in front of screen in tofel

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 27, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

      You just speak to the screen, into the microphone. That’s not too silly of a question, given that the OTHER major university English test (the IELTS) requires you to talk to actual people. 😉

  13. Marina May 26, 2017 at 5:34 am #

    Hi, I would like to know if the clock in the writing section will start as soon as I open the section, meaning that the faster I dismiss the instructions, the more time I will have to write, or the clock starts the moment you read the question? I appreciate the help.

    • David Recine
      David Recine May 27, 2017 at 5:17 am #

      Hi Marina,

      That’s a good question with a complicated answer. 🙂

      For both TOEFL Writing Task 1 and TOEFL Writing Task 2, there is no timer during the initial instructions.

      In TOEFL Writing Task 1, you see a reading passage after the initial instructions. You have 3 minutes to read that passage. When the three minutes are up, the timer stops running entirely, until you click “next.” Then you’ll hear a lecture. Once that lecture is done, the time again does not run until you click next. From there, you’ll finally be in the actual writing task. The timer will start to run immediately, as you read the actual question.

      In TOEFL Independent Writing, on the other hand, the clock starts immediately after you get through the instructions, the moment you read the question.

      Does this make sense? Let me know if you still have any doubts.

  14. Bhavya July 6, 2017 at 10:37 pm #

    Hi, I wanted to ask whether the expenditure of our registration for the test includes any offer to send our score reports to colleges for free, similar to the kind College Board does regarding SAT registration where the registrant gets an offer to send his scores to 4 colleges for free. So, if anything related to it exists here too then plz share. thanks in advance.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 7, 2017 at 4:19 am #

      Hi Bhavya,

      If you check out the TOEFL website, you’ll see the information you’re asking about! ( They say, “Your test fee includes 4 free official TOEFL® score reports to be sent to the TOEFL Destinations that you select before the test.” Additional reports will cost money, but check out that page for the complete details. 🙂

  15. Anvita August 14, 2017 at 12:00 am #

    Do the sections appear in the same sequence?

    I mean, reading section first , next listening section, 10 minutes break , next speaking section and last writing section? Do they appear in the same order in real exam?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 23, 2017 at 5:27 pm #

      Hi Anvita! Yes, they do. 🙂

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