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How the TOEFL Scoring System Works

For many non-native English speakers who want to earn a degree from a university in an English-speaking country, the TOEFL is a must. But unfortunately, the TOEFL score scale isn’t the most straightforward. So hopefully I can make it a little bit clearer for you.

How are TOEFL scores derived?

Like any standardized test (e.g. the GRE, GMAT, SAT…) the TOEFL has its own unique scoring system. It is not a percent-correct score, so getting 100 on the TOEFL doesn’t mean you’re a native speaker!

Instead, the maximum score on the TOEFL is 120. The test is broken into four parts, and the scores reflect that. Each of the four sections—reading, listening, speaking, and writing—is worth 30 points. Generally speaking, graduate school or college programs do not look seriously at the individual scores, though: the combined score out of 120 is the most important number.

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How Is the Percent Correct Related to the Final TOEFL Score?

Since the TOEFL is standardized, the scores are “equated”. This means that the number of correct answers you have does not correspond perfectly with the final mark.

This is because one version of the exam might be harder than another version. One test might have a reading passage which average students have a lot of trouble on, but another test might have slightly easier reading passages. Equating the tests means that TOEFL scores are comparable even though test-takers read different passages, hear different lectures, and answer different questions on different days.

ETS does not share their system for equating scores, so it’s not easy to calculate your TOEFL score using just a percentage correct. Each test must be scored differently from other versions of the test.

 

What’s a Good TOEFL Score?

This depends completely on what programs you are interested in. The short answer is that you should check with the college or university you are going to apply to and ask if they have minimum TOEFL scores (or take a look at our infographic to see the required scores of top universities). It’s very important to know your personal goal when you start studying.

Some test-takers only need a combined score of 60 or 70—this would usually be for associate’s degree programs, but it’s possible to find other programs that accept scores at that level. Meanwhile, the top master’s or PhD programs in the country usually require much higher scores, many at over 100—this is a very advanced, completely conversational level of English. And at that level, many schools don’t even require TOEFL scores if you have high enough GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT scores. Other tests already check English skills, so the TOEFL isn’t always necessary.

But the most important thing is that you find out what your programs want.

 

And don’t forget to check out more from me on TOEFL:

TOEFL Reading Practice
TOEFL Listening Practice
TOEFL Speaking Topics
TOEFL Writing Topics

For even more information about the TOEFL exam, check out the Magoosh TOEFL Blog!

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10 Responses to How the TOEFL Scoring System Works

  1. Celmi May 23, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    Is the TOEFL IBT score will be shown right away once the exam have finished?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas May 23, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

      Unlike the GRE and GMAT, you do not get unofficial score right after finishing the TOEFL, no. You have to wait about ten days to receive official scores. That’s mostly because half of the test (speaking and writing) must be graded by a person, not by a computer.

  2. vinit March 18, 2015 at 2:03 am #

    Why doesn’t TOEFL also publishes percentile data as like GMAT does??

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas March 19, 2015 at 11:22 am #

      That’s a good question! Basically, the purpose of the TOEFL is quite different from that of the GMAT. Whereas GMAT scores are used to compare you against other candidates, TOEFL scores are used as a measurement of English ability. If your English ability is enough for you to communicate well, it doesn’t matter what other people scored. GMAT scores, meanwhile, differentiate students by their logical abilities. Those are purely relative. There is no clear line of what “enough” logic is. The more, the better! So the best way to show a student’s logical strength is to compare him or her to other students.

  3. Avinash August 7, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

    Is toefl adaptive? Whether the level/toughness of questions increases after every correct answer you give?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 7, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

      Hi Avinash,

      Good question! 🙂 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. I hope that helps!

  4. Ashish August 28, 2016 at 9:09 am #

    I had appeared my test on Aug 27 .I think i did my best on all of the sections except listening as it was long and voice of the speaker was unclear.Also i got experimental question on listening .half of the question gone well bt rest of other i did without understanding the speaker/conversation.i think there was about 8 lecture and conversation.So,i am bit worried that if i got good marks in all section and bad in listening i cannot score good marks as university requires .So i need to know that what is the probability of getting right answer if i answered without understanding.What may be the average score ???

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 5, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

      Sorry to hear you had such a stressful test day. The whole situation definitely sounds frustrating. Now, if you answered questions without any understanding and were just guessing, then your chances of getting the right answer would obviously be 25% on any individual question. But if you had some idea and were making at least a slightly educated guess, your chances could be better.

      What complicates things a little bit is that you got that extra-long experimental Listening section with more than 6 listening tracks. If the questions you missed were mostly experimental ones, your chances of getting a passing score are good. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure until you see your actual score.

  5. Joel February 26, 2017 at 5:20 pm #

    Hi. I’m a…uh…half-native? speaker. I spent a few years in an English-speaking country at a young age, which allowed me to naturally acquire English. However, then I went back to a non-English-speaking country and wasn’t able to become a “fully native” speaker, meaning English is not my “most comfortable” language. Now, because of the college admission requirements, I’m obligated to take the TOEFL. I’m just having a hard time getting a basic sense of what this test would look like for me. One of the biggest questions that I have right now would be if TOEFL is actually testing your English proficiency or if it’s just another test with particular criteria one needs to meet. I would like some advice please.

    • David Recine
      David Recine February 27, 2017 at 7:38 am #

      That really does sound like an uncertain situation, Joel. But a common one. (As I’ve said before, it can be hard to define “native English speaker.”)

      The TOEFL certainly does measure English proficiency. But there really are a LOT of test-specific criteria for the TOEFL too. You need to master certain question types, task types, and pacing skills that only exist on the TOEFL. And the vocabulary, grammar, and style of the English on the TOEFL are very specific to academic contexts.

      If your level of English is sufficiently high (and yours might be), then preparing for a TOEFL will only require you to master test criteria. However, many TOEFL test-takers also need to build their general English language skills as they prepare.

      So how can you know for sure whether the TOEFL will be a language test for you, or just an academic criteria-based exam? The best way to figure this out is to take a practice TOEFL test. Once you can see how the test feels for you and how you score, you’ll know what the TOEFL will look like for you personally.

      But don’t take just any TOEFL test. Take one of the official exams offered by ETS. You can take a full, real ETS practice test for free through TOEFL Quick Prep. And you can get almost a full free test through the official TOEFL edX course. Then there are ETS’s paid options, including the Official Guide to the TOEFL, Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 1, Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 2, and TOEFL Practice Online. An exam from one of these sources should help you know what you need to do to pass this test.


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