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The Extra-Long Section of the TOEFL

Generally speaking, we consider the TOEFL to have an hour of reading, an hour of listening, twenty minutes of speaking, and fifty minutes of writing. But you may have noticed that there’s some flexibility in the schedule: the reading section, officially, can be sixty or eighty minutes, and the listening section may be an hour and a half. This is because there are extra questions in one section of the test—the “experimental section.”

All tests include an additional set of listening or reading questions that aren’t graded. This gives ETS a chance to find any flaws in new material before it really matters. It’s a trial for new exam questions.

The experimental section will be either an extra reading passage (20 minutes) or an extra set of listening prompts (up to 30 minutes)–not both.

The experimental section will be randomly placed. If it’s a reading passage, of course, all the experimental questions will be together, as they will deal with the same reading; if it’s in the listening section, however, the experimental listening samples will be interspersed with the graded ones. Don’t waste your time trying to guess which section is the experimental one. “Experimental” questions do not look different from graded questions. If you think you’ve identified the experimental section and you don’t try as hard on it, your score will suffer if you are mistaken.

In spite of the additional time and energy the experimental section will cost you, you may find that knowing what to expect in it helps calm your nerves. It means that if a reading passage is very difficult for you, it won’t necessarily hurt your scores; it is possible that reading is experimental. So if there is a text or lecture that baffles you, answer the questions to the best of your ability, but use the knowledge that it may be experimental to keep yourself on track.

In 2011, ETS shortened the experimental section for reading: before then, you might have had two additional reading passages for a total of 40 extra minutes on the test! If you have that in mind, 20 extra minutes starts to sound pretty good, but even so the test is very long. To make sure you can maintain your focus throughout the test, do lots of extended practice sessions and timed practice tests, and check out my post on pacing.