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TOEFL Structure: Everything You Need to Know (Video)

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What is the secret to being well prepared for the TOEFL? Knowing the TOEFL structure! So what is the TOEFL exam structure? It involves the four TOEFL sections, the question types in each section, the number of questions on the exam, and so on.

In this guide, we’ll look at the TOEFL test format, both for the exam as a whole and for the individual TOEFL sections. Also, note that we will focus on the TOEFL iBT structure, as the majority of our readers are taking the iBT. (If you are taking the TOEFL PBT, we also offer a short summary of the structure for the TOEFL paper-based test.)

For a quick snapshot of the TOEFL test format, check out this video:

And now, without further ado, let’s start our full guide to TOEFL exam structure. You can navigate to different parts of this guide with the clickable table of contents below.

Table of Contents


TOEFL Exam Pattern: TOEFL Timing

The TOEFL exam structure has four basic characteristics: section, question type, number of questions, and time limit.

Let’s start with timing. The TOEFL iBT takes about three hours total. It is computer-based—hence the “iBT” (Internet-based-test) part of its name. The TOEFL test format has four sections: TOEFL Reading, TOEFL Listening, TOEFL Speaking, and TOEFL Writing.

Each of these sections in the TOEFL test format focuses primarily on one English skill. For example, Reading focuses on reading passages, and Listening primarily involves listening to audio tracks. However, there are secondary skills in the various sections as well. In the Listening section, you need to read questions onscreen after the audio tracks, and the TOEFL Speaking and Writing sections include “integrated” tasks that include listening or reading. So it’s fair to say that Listening and Reading dominate the exam; every section involves one or both of these skills.

Each section has a time limit:

  • 17 minutes for Speaking
  • 50 minutes for Writing
  • 54-72 minutes for Reading
  • 41-57 minutes for Listening

As you can see, there is a pattern to the time limits for TOEFL Speaking and TOEFL Writing. However, the TOEFL Reading section and TOEFL Listening section can vary in time limit and in length because each of these two sections can sometimes include additional sets of unscored experimental questions.

Now, here’s the most important thing you need to know about these variations: There is no way to know which questions are experimental and which aren’t. So no need to worry or overthink things when you see the extra-long section on the TOEFL—just try your best on every question!

And don’t forget that the timing of the TOEFL exam includes a ten-minute break, which takes place before the Speaking and Writing sections but after the Reading and Listening sections.

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TOEFL Exam Pattern: Overview of All Four Sections

Now, the reason I led with timing is that time limits can really make or break you on the TOEFL—or on any standardized test. At the same time, you can think of timing as the “skeleton” of the TOEFL exam structure. The “flesh and blood” of the TOEFL test structure includes its content (the four sections and their details) and its length (the number of questions in each section).

To see the full “body” of the TOEFL test pattern, look at the table below.

Overview of the TOEFL Test Format

SectionOrderTime limitNumber of questionsPaceOther details
READING154 minutes (standard)

72 minutes (experimental)
30 questions (standard)

40 questions (experimental)
1 min. 48 sec. per question3-4 passages (10 questions each)
LISTENING241 minutes (standard)

57 minutes (experimental)
28 questions (standard)

39 questions (experimental)
35 seconds per question3-4 lectures (6 questions each), 2-3 conversations (5 questions each)
SPEAKING417 minutes4 tasksSpeaking time: 45 seconds (Task 1), 60 seconds (Tasks 2-4)4 tasks: 1 Independent, 3 Integrated
WRITING550 minutes2 tasksTask 1: 20 minutes, Task 2: 30 minutes2 tasks: 1 Independent, 1 Integrated

We have now gone over a lot of details about the TOEFL structure: the time limits, the order of the sections, their basic pace, and a number of other details. But wait, there’s more! A deeper look into the TOEFL test pattern also includes the types of questions, the tasks you’ll see in each section, and the strategies for tackling all of these questions.

Needless to say, the various questions and tasks all require different strategies. Below, we’ll look at questions, tasks, and strategies for navigating the TOEFL exam, one section at a time.

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TOEFL Structure: Reading Section

TOEFL Reading comes first in the TOEFL test format. Assuming you get a standard-sized TOEFL Reading section, the section will have three passages, take 54 minutes, and contain 30 questions (10 questions per passage). Otherwise, you’ll get some additional experimental questions, with 40 questions and a 72 minute time limit (one extra Reading passage and question set, in other words).

Bear in mind that these are relatively long passages, about 700 words in length. Each passage is meant to give you an introduction to its topic; you won’t need prior knowledge in science, history, art, etc. to understand. Still, a familiarity with the most common TOEFL Reading topics will help you be more confident in this section.

Your TOEFL Reading score will be based on the number of raw points you earn. (Raw points are the point values of individual questions.) Your raw points are then converted to a scaled score for the TOEFL Reading section. The scaled score ranges from 0 to 30.

Next, let’s look at this section in even greater detail, by exploring TOEFL Reading question types and strategies.


TOEFL Exam Pattern: The TOEFL Reading Section Question Types

The question types in each section are a key part of the TOEFL exam structure. In the case of Reading, all TOEFL Reading section questions fall into three broad categories: multiple choice, sentence insertion, and “reading-to-learn.” I’ll explain each of those categories in greater detail below.

Multiple Choice in TOEFL Reading

There is a nice and predictable pattern to the TOEFL Reading question. Each TOEFL Reading passage comes with 10 questions, and the first eight will always be multiple choice. These multiple choice TOEFL Reading questions consist of a short question followed by four answer choices, one of which is correct. Within this simple and consistent pattern, however, you’ll find a variety of more specific TOEFL Reading question types. For examples and strategies related to the most common TOEFL Reading question types, check out the following Magoosh TOEFL Blog posts:

Insert Text Questions in TOEFL Reading

There is only one insert text question in each TOEFL Reading passage question set, and it will always be the ninth (second-to-last) question in the set. (Again, the TOEFL test format is quite predictable when it comes to Reading question sets!)

For text insertion questions, you’ll be shown an entirely new sentence, one that isn’t in the passage. In connection with that new sentence, you’ll see a number of squares in one of the passage’s paragraphs. Each square represents one place where you could place the sentence. If that seems a little difficult to picture, don’t worry—this image below gives you a sense of how the squares look in the passage:

Caravaggio definitively. The canvas underwent a number of treatments. [◙] It was X-rayed and scanned with an infrared light. The cracks on the surface of the painting (known in the industry as “craquelure”) were studied. [◙] Furthermore, The Taking of Christ underwent much analysis by art historians, who studied the form and color in the painting to determine its authenticity. [◙] For example, Caravaggio never used sketches to set up the composition of his paintings. [◙] Instead, he made marks with the end of his brush as he painted—marks that can still be visible today

To see the question associated with the image above, complete with an answer explanation, check out Rachel’s article “TOEFL Reading Question Type: Insert Text.”

Reading-to-Learn Questions in the TOEFL Reading Section

While the TOEFL Reading multiple choice and text insertion questions each have one correct answer and are each worth one raw point, reading-to-learn questions have 3 to 5 answers and are worth 2-3 points. To see a full description of how scoring works for these reading-to-learn questions, check out Magoosh’s “Let’s Tackle the TOEFL” guide.

There are two types of reading-to-learn questions: prose summary or categorization. In prose summary questions, you will be shown five sentences, and you’ll need to choose three sentences that describe the biggest ideas from the TOEFL Reading passage as a whole. In categorization questions, you will be given a list of statements, and you’ll need to match those statements to the thing they describe. Would you like to learn more, maybe even practice a few of these questions? Magoosh has you covered! For example, reading-to-learn questions, with detailed answer explanations and tips, click on the following two free guides:

Practice for your TOEFL exam with Magoosh.

See below for a quick snapshot of what these questions look like.

TOEFL Reading Prose Summary Question:

Directions: An introductory sentence for a brief summary of the passage is provided below. Complete the summary by selecting the THREE answer choices that express the most important ideas in the passage. Some answer choices do not belong in the summary because they express ideas that are not presented in the passage or are minor details in the passage. This question is worth 2 points.

Research using animal medical testing has been conducted for thousands of years and has contributed to major medical achievements.

Dr. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine while testing infected rhesus monkeys.
Some opponents say that animal medical testing is cruel to the animals and should be regulated or banned.
The UK’s Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 was the first law to create controversy regarding animal testing.
In medical research, the effects of the treatments being tested should be isolated from other environmental factors.
The debate surrounding animal testing has persisted for many years and continues to this day.
The historical advantages of animal testing have been significant enough that the practice has continued in spite of criticism.

TOEFL Reading Categorization Question

Directions: Complete the table below by indicating which statements describe chickenpox and which describe shingles. Two answer choices will NOT be used. This question is worth FOUR points.

Chickenpox – 2 answers


Shingles – 2 answers


Answer Choices

Public vaccination campaigns against it began in the 1970s
It is a serious, lingering illness.
Infection primarily occurs as a result of close contact with infected rashes.
It negatively affects the nervous system.
If was considered an irksome but relatively harmless ailment.
There is confusion as to exactly what virus causes it.

Both of these above questions come from Magoosh’s TOEFL prep service. For hundreds of additional practice questions and over a hundred video lessons, sign up for a Magoosh TOEFL subscription or start your free trial today.

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Strategies for TOEFL Reading: 3 Winning Tips

There are a few big things you can do to get a good score in the Reading section. Below, I’m going to walk you through these 3 “big ideas” for TOEFL Reading success.

Choose the Passage Reading Strategy That’s Right for You.

Typically, the students I’ve worked with over the years have succeeded by using one of four approaches to TOEFL Reading passages:

  1. Read the whole passage first, then look at the questions and scan the passage to check the answers.
  2. Read the passage one paragraph at a time and answer the questions for one paragraph at a time.
  3. Fully read the topic sentence of each paragraph in the passage, then skim the rest of each paragraph for supporting details. After that, look at the questions and scan the passage for answers.
  4. Read the questions first, then scan the passage for the correct answers.

Of these four approaches, most students do the best with the first or second approach. Approaches 1 and 2 tend to work well because they involve reading the passage fully, without skimming and skipping over any ideas. With that said, approaches 3 and 4 do work quite well for some students. If you are particularly confident in your English language skills, especially when it comes to reading, you may be able to complete a TOEFL Reading question set both quickly and accurately while only scanning or skimming the passage. But don’t get overconfident and assume you can do this; even some native English speakers do better with approaches 1 and 2.

How can you know which TOEFL Reading approach is right for you? Practice! Experiment with each approach as you go through practice tests and question sets for TOEFL Reading. Note which approach allows you to answer the most questions correctly. Then work to build up your speed, making sure you can do your preferred approach in a timely fashion. That brings me to my next tip…

Manage Your Pacing Wisely.

In the table near the beginning of this post where I outlined the overall TOEFL exam pattern, I told you that you have an average of 1 minute and 48 seconds per question in TOEFL Reading. What you need to remember, however, is that in the TOEFL Reading section, there’s more to answering questions than just… answering questions. That may sound like a strange thing to say at first, but think about it: to answer questions in the Reading section, you also need to read the passage. And ideally, you should also give yourself a little time to go back and re-check your answers. Here is the time scheme I recommend for most test-takers:

  • Reading the passage: 9 minutes
  • Entering the 10 answers: 7 minutes
  • Checking answers: 2 minutes

If you can master the timing above, you can also try to adjust it or improve on it. For instance, if you’re an especially fast reader and you can read a passage in an average of—say—6 minutes, then you can shift an extra three minutes to entering answers or checking answers. Similarly, if you can enter answers especially quickly, it could give you more time to check your answers or read and re-read the passage. You get the idea!

Attack the Vocabulary from Different Angles.

TOEFL Reading has tougher vocabulary than any other section of the exam. Students often try to conquer TOEFL Reading vocabulary through flashcards, which can certainly be helpful.

But it’s a bad idea to attack TOEFL Reading vocabulary through flashcards alone. You should also study vocabulary in context. Do some TOEFL practice reading, and make note of the new vocabulary that you see and learn. Also, practice strategies that can help you deal with—and in some cases ignore—unfamiliar vocabulary. When you see a new word, try to guess its meaning, but also try skipping or ignoring hard words. You’ll find that sometimes you can guess the meaning of a sentence as a whole, even though you don’t understand one of the words in the sentence.

In short, you should certainly memorize words, using apps such as the free Magoosh TOEFL vocabulary flashcard app. But you should also use other strategies to ensure that you understand a passage even when it contains unfamiliar words. I’ve outlined some of those strategies in this post about TOEFL vocabulary roadblocks.

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TOEFL Test Format in the Listening Section

There is not much of a predictable pattern to TOEFL Listening. A standard TOEFL Listening section will have 28 questions and be 41 minutes long (3 lectures, 2 conversations), while a longer section that includes experimental questions will contain 39 questions and run for 57 minutes (4 lectures, 3 conversations). Conversation audio clips are typically 2 to 2.5 minutes long, while lecture audio clips are between 5 and 5.5 minutes long.

There is also a strange aspect of TOEFL Listening timing—perhaps the most confusing thing you’ll see in timing within the TOEFL exam. The timing for these sections is divided between “clock time”—the time that the onscreen clock is actually running, and overall time, which includes the time that the audio clips are playing but the clock itself is not running. Want to know more? I took the TOEFL myself and wrote a detailed description of what you can expect from the TOEFL timer.

Although some questions replay several seconds from the audio clip you listened to, you can only listen to each audio clip once, and you cannot pause, rewind, replay, or change the speed. There are no transcripts or captions, but certain important key terms will appear on the screen during the lectures.

TOEFL Listening is scored based on raw points (points awarded per individual section), which are converted to scaled official scores that range from 0-30 for the section. Nearly all TOEFL Listening questions are worth one raw point. However, one of the less common question types is worth 2 raw points. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the kinds of questions you’ll see in the TOEFL Listening section.

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TOEFL Exam Pattern: Listening Section Question Types

There are two broad formats for TOEFL Listening questions: multiple choice and categorization. Below, I’ll give you a closer look at both of these test formats. (And once you’re done reviewing those formats, consider signing up with Magoosh TOEFL for access to hundreds of additional TOEFL Listening practice questions and lessons.)

Multiple Choice Questions in TOEFL Listening

TOEFL Listening multiple-choice questions always offer four answer choices and in most cases, you’ll select just one correct answer from the four choices. There will always be a few multiple choice answers with two correct answers on the test as well. It is uncommon for there to be three correct answers, but it’s not unheard of. In any case, if you should select two answers or need to select three, the instructions for the question will clearly tell you that.

Some of the multiple-choice questions are playback questions. In playback questions, the instructions will say something like “Why does the speaker say this?” And then the TOEFL will replay something the speaker said in the original audio clip.

For tips on the most common types of TOEFL Listening multiple choice questions found in the TOEFL test format, read the following articles:

All TOEFL Listening multiple-choice questions are worth exactly one raw point, even if they have more than one correct answer. In contrast, TOEFL Listening categorization questions are all worth more than one point. Let’s take a closer look at the categorization questions below.

TOEFL Listening Categorization Questions

Categorization questions are relatively uncommon in the TOEFL Listening section format. Still, you’ll probably see at least one of these questions on test day, and you could see as many as two or three. TOEFL Listening categorization questions are formatted as tables of information and categories. Using checkmarks, you’ll indicate which information belongs in which category. Here is what a typical TOEFL Listening categorization question looks like:

TOEFL Structure: TOEFL Listening Categorization Question

For the audio track that goes with this example question, along with an answer explanation and some strategy advice, see Kate’s article “TOEFL Listening Question Type: Categorization.”

TOEFL Listening categorization questions are worth 2 raw points. If you miscategorize one of the answers, you’ll earn 1 point. If you miscategorize two or more of the answers, you’ll get 0 points.

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Getting the Best Score in TOEFL Listening: 3 Winning Tips

I’ve been tutoring TOEFL students for nearly a decade now, and I’ve taken the real exam for myself twice now. I’ve become quite familiar with the TOEFL exam pattern and I’ve learned a few special tips and tricks for really excelling in TOEFL Listening. Today, I’ll share my top 3 tips with you.

Don’t Obsess Over Things You Didn’t Hear Clearly in TOEFL Listening

Of course, you want to do your best to keep up with the pace of the speech in the TOEFL Listening audio clips, and obviously, you should listen as attentively as possible. In a perfect world, you’d never miss a single important word during TOEFL Listening. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and even the best TOEFL student can slip up and miss something. (This has even happened to me during TOEFL Listening, and I’m a native English speaker!)

Can missing something that was said hurt you in TOEFL Listening? Sometimes, but not necessarily. I’m going to let you in on an important secret: what you need to worry about most isn’t missing a word or two. You need to worry about getting distracted because you missed a word or two. And realizing you didn’t fully hear what was just said can be very distracting! But as you practice, learn to not let it get to you. Teach yourself to rise above the distraction. Focus clearly and calmly on whatever is said next, so you don’t miss out on any additional important stuff.

In short, when you miss something you just heard in TOEFL Listening, follow the advice in a short English-language rhyme I like to say to my students: “Move on. It’s gone!” With any luck at all, the next things you focus on will provide enough context clues for you to understand the audio track even though you didn’t quite hear part of it. And with a little more luck, whatever you missed just might be replayed at the beginning of one of the questions.

Take Notes, but Don’t Take TOO MANY Notes.

Efficient note-taking is an essential TOEFL Listening skill. Stick with simple phrases and a very basic outline of what you’re hearing. Avoid writing complete sentences in your notes, and minimize direct quotes of what was said. If you scramble to try to write everything you hear, you won’t succeed anyway. And you’ll be so distracted by the act of simply copying what you hear that you won’t have a truly deep understanding of it.

On the other hand, if you work to keep your notes short, you’ll have more time to focus on the meaning of the speech you hear. And you’ll have a deeper understanding of the meaning because you’re thinking about the best way to simplify and paraphrase what’s being said. In short, learn how to balance notes and listening in the TOEFL Listening section.

Learn to Identify the Most Important Information That You Hear.

In TOEFL Listening, some of what you hear is essential, but some of it is not. Know the difference! This tutorial on hearing the important information in TOEFL Listening can help you. In addition, it’s especially crucial to distinguish each speaker’s important contributions in the conversation audio clips. So I also recommend an additional tutorial: Magoosh’s note-taking tips for TOEFL Listening conversations.

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TOEFL Exam Structure: Your 10-Minute Break

At this point in the article, we’ll take a break from talking about the sections and questions. And on this break, we’ll talk about, well, the break that you get to take in the middle of the TOEFL test format. Here are a few tips on making the most of your 10-minute break, which comes after the Reading and Listening sections in the TOEFL exam pattern.

  • Move around. You’d be surprised at just how much sitting still for a couple of hours leave you feeling achy and tired. And you may be surprised at how much you can reawaken and feel better just by walking around for several minutes.
  • Have a (small) drink and snack. Eating and drinking can also refresh you. But don’t overdo it! Too much food or drink can actually leave you feeling more tired in the short run, as your body works to digest and absorb things. And of course, you don’t want to eat or drink so much that you need to go to the bathroom in the second half of the test. Speaking of which…
  • Use the bathroom. Make a trip to the bathroom, since this is the one time in the test that you can do that. If you are still feeling a little groggy, go to the bathroom sink and splash a little water on your face. This certainly helped me wake myself up the first time I took the TOEFL.
  • Remember: you have a security check on the way back in. At the end of your break, you’ll need to go through a second security check to resume your test. This will be similar to the security check you went through before you began your TOEFL.

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TOEFL Structure: The Speaking Section

Once you’re back from break, it’s time for the section within the TOEFL test format that’s the shortest: the 17-minute Speaking section. Within these 17 minutes, each of the four TOEFL Speaking tasks has its own separate time limit. Actually, each TOEFL Speaking task has multiple time limits, one for each step in the task.

In terms of points and scoring, TOEFL Speaking, like the other sections of the TOEFL, is based on raw points that are converted to the scaled score of 0-30 that you’ll see on your official score report. Each TOEFL Speaking task is worth four raw points and 7.5 scaled points. Of course, unlike Reading and Listening questions, TOEFL Speaking questions are not simply wrong or right. Instead, ETS hires professional scorers who rank each response on a scale of 1-4, based on the official TOEFL Speaking rubrics.

The first task is the TOEFL Speaking Independent task. This means that the task only requires you to plan a response and speak. You don’t need to read anything or listen to an audio clip. The remaining three tasks are Integrated Speaking tasks. These tasks integrate other skills with speaking, requiring you to read, listen, or do both. Below, I’ll give you a quick rundown on each Speaking task. (And for video lessons and practice questions for these four tasks, consider signing up for Magoosh TOEFL.)

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TOEFL Speaking Task 1: Independent

In this task, you will give your personal opinion on a social issue. Speaking Task 1 questions cover a wide variety of broad, common social issues that are applicable to many different cultures. For some example questions, you can read Lucas’s TOEFL Speaking Topics post.

  • Preparation time: 15 seconds
  • Response time: 45 seconds

TOEFL Speaking Task 2: Integrated (Reading and Listening, Student Life)

At the beginning of Task 2, you’ll read a short written announcement (about 80-100 words) about a change that’s coming to campus, such as a new bus service for students, a shift in class schedules, and so on.

After you read the Task 2 passage, you’ll listen to a short conversation about the announcement. In that conversation, one of the two speakers will have an opinion about the proposed change. Usually, the opinionated speaker will either agree or disagree with the change. However, sometimes this speaker will partly agree and partly disagree. Your task is to give a short speech summarizing the speaker’s opinion. For more detail on how this task is set up, read my article on the structure of TOEFL Speaking Task 2.

Here is how the timing works on this task:

  • Reading time: 50 seconds
  • Audio clip: About 1 minute
  • Preparation time: 30 seconds
  • Response time: 60 seconds

TOEFL Speaking Task 3: Integrated (Reading and Listening, Academics)

Like so many questions and tasks in other parts of the TOEFL exam pattern, Speaking Task 3 deals with academics. You’ll read a short passage that is roughly 80 to 100 words in length, and briefly covers an academic topic. After that, a lecturer will give examples that support the ideas in the passage. From there, you’ll give a short talk that summarizes the lecture as it relates to the passage. For more information, examples, and tips, see my article “Reviewing the Structure of TOEFL Speaking Task 3.” And for the timing on this task, see below:

  • Reading time: 45 seconds
  • Audio clip: About 1 minute
  • Preparation time: 30 seconds
  • Response time: 60 seconds

TOEFL Speaking Task 4: Integrated (Listening)

For this final task in the TOEFL Speaking section, you’ll hear a lecture. After you hear the lecture, you’ll give a short speech summarizing the main ideas in the lecture. For an example TOEFL Speaking Task 4, complete with a model answer and some additional tips and tricks, see my TOEFL Speaking Task 4 tutorial. And the timing for this task appears immediately below:

  • Audio clip: About 2 minutes
  • Preparation time: 20 seconds
  • Response time: 60 seconds

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3 Tips for Navigating the TOEFL Speaking Section

Let’s look at a few quick tips that can help you really excel in all of the TOEFL Speaking tasks.

Write Down Your Responses Word-for-Word… at First

Obviously, on the real TOEFL iBT test, you should not (and cannot) write down exactly what you’ll say, word-for-word. However, during TOEFL Speaking prep, writing down a response, and reading it out loud gives you a deeper understanding of the best way to structure your response. This is especially important in the three Integrated Speaking tasks, where you need to carefully, fully summarize your sources. For more information, see my tutorial “TOEFL Speaking Strategy: Aim for 100 Words.”

For Independent Speaking, Think Fast and Make Sure You Have Enough to Say

OK, this tip only applies to one of the four Speaking tasks. But that’s 25% of your grade! It makes sense that you need to learn to think fast for Task 1 since you only get 15 seconds of prep time. During this short time, with practice, you can learn to quickly come up with enough ideas to fill your 45 seconds of speaking time. Want to learn more? I’ve written an entire article for you: “Independent Speaking: Thinking Fast and Having Enough to Say.”

Don’t Forget to Work on Your Intonation

Pronunciation is important, but don’t overlook intonation, the rhythm and pitch of your speech. The funny thing about intonation is that it’s different for every language. A common mistake is to speak English—even well-pronounced English—while using the intonation patterns of your native language. This can make your English very difficult to understand. (Similarly, if you’ve ever heard an inexperienced native English speaker talk in your language, they are probably applying English intonation to your native words!) Luckily, right here on the blog, you can take a quick crash course in English intonation.

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TOEFL Exam Structure: The TOEFL Writing Section

TOEFL Writing is the simplest section, in terms of structure. There are just two tasks! Each of these tasks is scored by a human reviewer, who uses the official TOEFL Writing rubrics. These rubrics score each essay on a scale of 0 to 5. From there, the two scores are added together and converted to the 0-30 scaled section score you’ll see on your official TOEFL score report. Both essays are equally weighted, with each one comprising 50% of the overall final score.

In terms of timing, the TOEFL Writing section has a 50-minute time limit overall. But just like TOEFL Speaking, each task has its own unique timing and structure. With that in mind, let’s examine the two tasks in full detail. Read on!

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TOEFL Writing Task 1 (Integrated)

In this first TOEFL Writing task, you’ll read an academic passage that is 250-300 words long. The academic passage will make three main claims. Then you’ll listen to a lecture in which a professor disagrees with each of the three claims from the passage. Your job is to write an essay that describes the claims in the passage and the way that the speaker challenges those claims. For more details, see Magoosh’s free TOEFL Writing Task 1 prompt, with model answer. And below, let’s take a closer look at the timing and structure for this task.

  • Reading time: 3 minutes
  • Lecture length: About 2 minutes
  • Response time: 20 minutes
  • Recommended length (per ETS): 150-225 words

TOEFL Writing Task 2 (Independent)

In many cases, this task features questions that are remarkably similar to the questions you answer in TOEFL Speaking Task 1. Often, you’ll be asked to take a position on an important social issue. To see what this looks like in the TOEFL Writing section, see Lucas’s examples of TOEFL Writing Task 2 topics. These simple “take a position” questions seem to be the most common TOEFL test format for Writing Task 2 prompts. And indeed, this is the only type of Task 2 prompt you’ll see in official TOEFL Writing practice.

However, there are rumors that a more complicated form of Writing Task 2 prompt is emerging in some of the newer TOEFL exams. And I know for a fact that these rumors are true. I saw one of these more complicated prompts with my own eyes when I recently took the real TOEFL exam. In the more complex version of Task 2, you’re given a very detailed scenario, such as a situation where you need to design or plan an activity, and you’re asked to make a decision in that scenario. Not a lot of practice materials are available for this kind of prompt yet. But you can see an example of this style of Task 2 prompt in the TOEFL Writing portion of my report on my personal TOEFL experience.

With all that in mind, here are the basic facts on the structure of TOEFL Writing Task 2:

  • Response time: 30 minutes
  • Recommended length (per ETS): 300 words or more

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Tips and Tricks for a Top Score in TOEFL Writing

So, what can you do to really excel in this final section of the exam? I have a few tips to help you get the best score you can in TOEFL Writing.

Prewrite! PREWRITE!!

I am emphasizing this tip very emphatically because prewriting is the most important thing you can do to create a good TOEFL Writing essay, and yet so many students forget to do it! In fact, a lot of students I’ve worked with aren’t very familiar with the prewriting process when I start to tutor them. This is a shame, as prewriting is also a very valuable skill for academic writing in your own native language. So what is prewriting? I’m glad you asked!

Prewriting is the creation of notes and a short outline that maps the ideas and structure of your essay before you actually write it. The first step of prewriting is brainstorming: writing down the basic ideas you think you might use. After brainstorming, choose the ideas you actually will use, and organize your ideas into an outline. After that, you can finally create your TOEFL Writing essay, following the outline, and making additional small changes as needed. To help you master TOEFL prewriting, I’ve created three tutorials:

Don’t Worry About Time Limits When You First Start Practicing

Writing up to 225 words in 20 minutes or 300+ words in just a half-hour can be a real challenge for native English speakers and English learners alike. Don’t expect to be able to do this at first. Instead, when you first start writing practice TOEFL essays, don’t worry about timing. Just try to write the best essay you can. Once you’re comfortable writing well-constructed essays with adequate word count, then start to work on writing speed. In short, for TOEFL Writing prep, first learn to write well, then learn to write quickly.

To build your writing skills in this way, you’ll need plenty of TOEFL Writing practice. And here, Magoosh has you covered! For a full TOEFL Writing Course, complete with several tests’ worth of practice essays, consider a subscription to Magoosh TOEFL, or simply sign up for a free trial.

Look at Model Essays and Official Scoring Rubrics

The best way to write a good essay yourself is to look at examples of good essays and read ETS’s own official descriptions of what constitutes a good TOEFL Writing essay. There are many good sources for this, both from Magoosh and from ETS. In the Writing Scores section of Magoosh’s “Let’s Tackle the TOEFL,” you’ll find links to many model essays and to the official TOEFL Writing score guides.

TOEFL back to top button - Magoosh


What to Study Next

So what other knowledge can help you make the most of these learnings about the TOEFL test format? Here are a few follow up resources I’d recommend:

  • What is a Good TOEFL Score?
    In our discussion of the TOEFL structure, I’ve already discussed the scoring system a little bit. But in this tutorial, you can really look into the scoring aspect of the TOEFL test format in great depth: how scoring works, what scores to aim for, how to receive and send your score report, and so on.
  • Magoosh’s Guide to the TOEFL iBT
    This free 160-page eBook gives an overview of every major aspect of the TOEFL exam structure and includes a generous amount of practice material.
  • Official TOEFL Practice Through ETS
    ETS offers a lot of official TOEFL practice questions. This is the highest quality TOEFL practice you can find anywhere, as the questions all come from real TOEFL exams. So it’s the most authentic look at the TOEFL exam structure that you can find. A lot of this practice is available free-of-charge, and even the practice you pay for tends to be reasonably priced.
  • Magoosh’s TOEFL Practice Test
    This free, full-length TOEFL practice test comes with answer explanations, a score report, and personalized study recommendations. All questions come from Magoosh’s TOEFL preparation service. Speaking of which…
  • TOEFL Prep with Magoosh
    Magoosh’s TOEFL prep includes nearly 150 video lessons and over 400 practice questions. The practice questions also come with extensive text and video answer explanations. In addition, paid subscribers receive email-based tutoring from Magoosh’s Student Help Team at no additional charge.
  • Magoosh’s TOEFL Study Plans
    Magoosh offers TOEFL study schedules that can help you organize all of the material above. Review these plans and modify them as needed. Decide when and how you’ll study! A good study plan is your road map to a great score on test day.

Psst...Need more TOEFL practice? Start your FREE TRIAL today.

Most Popular Resources

30 Responses to TOEFL Structure: Everything You Need to Know (Video)

  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. 🙂

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will only approve comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! 😄 Due to the high volume of comments across all of our blogs, we cannot promise that all comments will receive responses from our instructors.

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