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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.

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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.


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34 Responses to The Extra-Long Section of the TOEFL

  1. Kristen April 15, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    Hi Kate,

    I had a question: I know students who took the exam two weeks ago, and some had an extra (a fourth) Reading section. However, they still only received 60 minutes. I called ETS and a rep stated that a fourth passage doesn’t necessarily mean 20 more minutes: it all depends on the total number of questions, which varies by the exam. Do you know if this is true? I ask because it is also a new testing center, and wanted to make sure that the exam was proctored correctly.

    Thanks Kate!


    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas April 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Hi Kristen,

      I hope you don’t mind if I answer on Kate’s behalf. 🙂 This definitely shouldn’t happen—there’s no precedent for it, and there is a relatively set number of questions on each reading passage (12-14), certainly not enough to allow for an entire passage extra with only the 60 minutes. But, at the same time, the individual testing center doesn’t really have control over this, unless they somehow stepped in and stopped a student’s test while the clock was still running, because the clock is embedded in the testing software. So there are a couple of things I’m a bit skeptical of, here:

      1) How well informed the representative you spoke with was. I myself just called ETS to double check, to see if I would get the same response, and the representative didn’t know how many passages were on the test (he repeatedly said 2, which has never been the case on iBT), why some sections are unscored (or what they’re called—”you’re not necessarily graded on every question you answer, I don’t know why”), or how much time is standard. When he “checked,” he came back to me basically reading from the official guide. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the phone staff is necessarily all that knowledgable as to the particulars of the test.

      2) The accuracy of the test-takers’ memories. How many students said this, and did the students who took these 4-passage sections know the test very well before going? Is it possible that they didn’t notice the clock at the start of the section, and later assumed it had only been 60 minutes, as a practice test or their friend’s test had? The test experience is a whirlwind of timers, structure, rules, and stress, and it’s easy to get confused when trying to remember the exact order or timing of the test after the fact.

      The only alternative I can think of is that these students really did somehow get a faulty test via some technical bug, in which case I think it’s worth them contacting ETS personally to try to get scores nixed and a free retake. This is extremely unlikely, but I suppose it’s possible.

      The bright side is that I’m almost 100% certain there’s no need to start telling students they might get four reading sections with only 60 minutes. But really, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what happened, here. :-/


    • Ananda November 18, 2016 at 8:13 am #

      I had an extra passage in the reading section that was… well, extra hard. Other test takers had to struggle with an extra question in the reading section too, but they each got different extra reading passages from mine. I had a passage about astronomy (the hard one) that other test takers did’t. Does it mean this is my extra question? I made the mistake of not checking out whether the other passages were the same or not. Thanks!

  2. chanchal Jain November 21, 2014 at 4:02 am #

    I want to ask that is the marking of experimental section is done in a way in which the poorest performance section is counted as the experimental section and score of best performance section is counted?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas November 24, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

      I’d be happy to answer that. The experimental passage decided before you take the test; it is not decided by your performance. It’s possible that the experimental passage will be the easiest or the hardest. You can’t know which question set is experimental, so you must try equally hard on all question sets.

  3. Nass May 10, 2015 at 1:15 am #

    Hi, I recently gave my TOEF exam on 8th may 2015 and I was very socked by my test because my listening section ended in 30 minutes!!! That too long version, that means I had 9 listenings and 51 questions!! I’m still in sock because I was not at all prepared for this kind of timing.

    So basically I had long version of the test, the listening section was divided into three parts, each for 10 minutes and 17 questions. Each section has 1 lecture 1 discussion and 1 conversation. I was not at all prepared for this kind of pattern! I thought there will be 60 minutes for 6 listenings and 90 minutes for 9 listenings. I gave my two months of serious study to this exam but all I got in return is frustration and disappointment. At least they should inform or update such kind of information on their website. I couldn’t even heard all of the listenings, because I was thinking I have 10 minutes to answer each listenings questions!!!

    I still have to clear this thing from them.

    Please share any information about it or if anybody have encountered such issues! Thanks!

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Verney-Fink May 15, 2015 at 11:13 am #

      It sounds like there’s some confusion about the timing—I’m sorry about this! When we say that 6 tasks takes 60 minutes and 9 tasks takes 90 minutes, we are including the time spent listening. The time given to answer the questions alone is less. Nothing has changed on the test. You get 10 minutes to answer every set of 17 questions (meaning the questions for three listening tasks). When the lectures and conversations are playing, that clock stops. To answer the questions, you get 20 minutes in a short section and 30 minutes in a long section. But the total time, including time spent listening, is close to 60 minutes for a short section and 90 minutes for a long section. Both ETS and Magoosh talk about the total time when we discuss how long the section is, not just the timer for answering questions. So nothing has actually changed on the test. Thanks for asking so we could clarify this!

    • Ammar Ahmed Khan March 11, 2017 at 2:27 am #

      This happened to me as well. I too was in shock. There was just very less time.

  4. Harpreet September 26, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    Same kind of thing happened with me as stated by Naas. But I was shocked as I got 4 sections in reading and the person sitting adjaced to me got 3. So after the test finished, I got some Idea which was the experimental one after contacting the person. And I must clarify that do not look for number of passages as it might morally decline you sometime. So, just go with the clock. And if your luck supports you, the experimental section sometimes appear at last. And if got your section unfinished you will still get decent scores. But undoubtly this is serendipitous.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink September 28, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      When you look at the clock, you will know how many texts there are. 🙂 It’s 80 minutes for four texts and 60 minutes for three. It’s important to know how many texts so you can use your time wisely. But remember that if you get a long reading section, you will also get short listening section! Everybody gets one long section, so it’s nothing to be scared about. 🙂

  5. may September 26, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

    everybody that is the same room will get a the same extra passages or is it like random ?

  6. David Recine
    David Recine September 29, 2015 at 11:35 pm #

    It really can be quite random, May. One test taker may have an extra-long Reading section, while another may get the extra experimental material in the Listening section. And even when two students both get extra experimental questions in Reading, one student could get a different set of experimental questions than another student.

    In short, ETS really keeps test-takers— and exam prep companies like Magoosh—- guessing!! 🙂

  7. subi September 30, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    i wanted to ask whether the break time is separate for each person or the whole room ‘ll have to leave?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink October 12, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

      The breaks are separate, but most people will have breaks near the same time. When your listening section is finished, the computer will tell you it’s time for the break, and you can leave the room.

  8. Ishaan Nayyar February 16, 2016 at 2:26 am #

    Hello Lucas,
    I missed a few questions in my listening section because of less time or may be I was slow. But later got an 17 questions extra in my listening section. I guess that was the experimental section.I am just wondering which one will be scored? the experimental one or the one in which I missed the questions?

    I also fumbled a little in the speaking section, I come from a very strong English background but I just got a little nervous taking the test. The test centre was not so friendly. Do you think fumbling will affect my score badly?

    Ishaan Nayyar

    • David Recine
      David Recine February 16, 2016 at 7:10 pm #


      Sorry to hear you had time issues and couldn’t answer all of the Listening questions— this happens sometimes. 🙁 As for which section will be scored… Whenever there’s an extra section in listening, beyond the six sections you’d expect in the normal format, *one* of the sections is experimental. But it’s pretty much impossible to tell *which* section is the experimental one. It could be the seventh one, but the experimental section can also be anywhere else in the sequence. So you *might* have run short on the experimental section, or you might not have. Either way, it’s the experimental section that won’t be scored. Hopefully you got lucky and failed to answer all the questions on the experimental portion of the Listening section!

      Whether fumbling affects your speaking score depends on exactly *how* you fumbled. But generally, mistakes or misspeech have little or no effect on your score unless they make your response harder to understand. In fact, minor misspeaking that doesn’t impact understandability can even be seen as natural by TOEFL Speaking scorers.

  9. Shama April 4, 2016 at 8:42 pm #

    Hi team,

    I’m sitting for TOEFL iBT in another couple of days time so just wanted to check if there is a tendency of same reading passage or listening recording repeating as in speaking section where there is a given set of topics we would be asked to speak about. Thanks.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 5, 2016 at 10:42 am #

      Speaking tracks and passages are shorter than the audio and writing in the Listening and Reading sections, so you’ll never get a repeat track or reading. Even getting the same topic in two different parts of the TOEFL is pretty rare, actually. ETS tries to give you the widest possible range of academic topics within a single exam.

  10. Zara May 30, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

    I have a question about the extended test. Do you know in Montreal, Canada, the reading section is extended or the listening section?

    And my another question is that 4 months ago a took toefl exam in our country, Iran, I got score 77. I need at least 85. I registered for test again for July. Could you please help me How can I Get better score? My reading was 17, my listening was 19, my speaking was 20 and my writing was 21 in the last test.

    Finally, my last question is that does the test in Canada vary from Iran?


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 6, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

      TOEFL iBT tests are all administered centrally from the ETS home office in the USA. So there shouldn’t be any variation between the TOEFL in Iran and Canada. And the TOEFL iBT in Montreal has the same chances of a longer Reading or Listening section as any other TOEFL iBT taken elsewhere.

      As for how you improve your TOEFL score, that depends a lot on your own strengths and weaknesses. So really look at exactly why you missed questions or lost points, and address those trouble areas. And of course, really focus on Reading and Listening skills, since those were your lowest-scoring sections.

  11. Daniel June 28, 2016 at 8:22 am #


    I just gave the exam last satruday. I had 4 passage in the reading passage and 80 minutes for that part. It really schocked me, because even I read about this extra question and its purpose of testing. I wonder how they will grade my score. Because it was like 56 question, and it has out of 30.
    However, I answered all the question. But, I had less time to check it, only 4 minutes to review almost 60 question, I think it is not fair.
    I hope your answer soon.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 28, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

      Hi Daniel,

      If you check out this TOEFL structure page on the ETS website you’ll see that they explain these potential extra questions as “questions that enable ETS to make test scores comparable across administrations or new questions that help ETS determine how such questions function under actual testing conditions.” These extra questions, then, are not part of your score–only the non-experimental ones will contribute to your reading score.

      It sounds like it was a difficult section, but I hope you did well! 🙂

  12. Tohid September 17, 2016 at 11:25 am #

    Hello dear Magoosh
    I have a question about how we can determine which reading was the experimental after test? I mean if the non experimental question of readings are same for all, so if we ask other friends who had 3 readings and compare our 4 with their one to determine it?
    thanks you

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 23, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

      Unfortunately, there’s no guaranteed way for you to figure this out. The non-experimental readings and the experimental readings aren’t the same for everyone. It’s possible that your friends who take the test at the same time as you could get no experimental material, or could get completely different experimental material than you did. It’s not impossible that you and your friends would get the same experimental content. But it is highly unlikely.

      In other words, comparing notes with your friends can’t hurt, but probably won’t help. It’s frustrating, I know… 🙁

  13. hamza October 10, 2016 at 10:06 pm #

    I just want to ask , I did the toefl last week and had an extra reading passage , 56 questions in total. The last passage had only 9 questions or 8 , could it be the experimental section? Because I did not have time to answer all the questions and left 7 at the end. so what do you think?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 11, 2016 at 4:11 am #

      It sounds like you had some experimental questions, but there is no guarantee that the last part was the experimental part. 56 questions is a tiring reading section, so good job making it through that! Just wait for the score to come out and try to maintain confidence in yourself. 🙂

  14. Hasti December 18, 2016 at 1:54 am #

    I wanted to ask how much is the chance that the experimental reading be the last one? Is it arbitrary or the ETS decides were to incorporate the experimental part?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert December 18, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

      Hi Hasti,

      Yes, it’s hard to determine which section is the experimental, and I wouldn’t even bother worrying about it. Just focus on doing your best for the whole exam and believe that everything counts. That’s how you’ll get the best result! 😀

  15. jane January 19, 2017 at 4:53 am #

    Hi, I am Jane, here I just new student in my univ and I want to take the first toefl iBt..Is there any possibilities to go back to see the related passage?For example we are in the reading part 1 which total number questions 13, and when we are in question number 10, is it possible to see back to the related passage?Thx before

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 19, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

      Hi Jane,

      Yes! When you are given a reading passage on the TOEFL, the passage will be shown for each of the related question. The screen will be split: the question will be on one side and the passage on the other. This means that you can always refer back to the passage as necessary, and you don’t need to memorize all of the details! Hope this helps 🙂

  16. fatma February 15, 2018 at 8:43 am #

    hi.. I need an advice please.. I took the toefl ibt three times in the same test center.. and for each time, I got FOUR readings and one of them was extremely hard.. I need to know if I register the next test in another test center, is there any chance for me to get three reading passages instead of FOUR? I rather have an extra listening because it is much easier than reading.
    thank you

    • David Recine
      David Recine February 15, 2018 at 12:30 pm #

      Sorry to hear this has been happening to you, Fatma! 🙁

      In theory, additional experimental TOEFL tasks are assigned to test-takers completely randomly. So in theory changing the test center won’t make a difference. Still, it does sound like the test center you’ve been going to might be getting an unusual amount of experimental reading question sets for some reason. If there is another test center nearby, it couldn’t hurt to change test centers and see if your luck improves.

  17. Natasha K December 17, 2018 at 10:19 am #

    Hello. I took the exam and had 4 texts, it’s seems there was an experimental one. But I answered questions only about first two texts. And is it true that the experimental text may be not the last? I’m so worried about that. I think it’s unfair, because if the 1st or the 2nd text is experimental, I will not get scores for this part at all. I don’t understand why the exam is made this way. It’s obvious that people will make the first text firstly and may not have time for the last.

    • David Recine
      David Recine December 18, 2018 at 9:12 am #

      Sorry you didn’t have time to get to all 4 texts. That does sound frustrating. Unfortunately, the experimental passage really does appear in random order. It could be the first, second, third, or fourth. Hopefully it wasn’t the first or second on your test. Sorry to give you the bad news, and best of luck!

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