Book Review: 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL

Let’s start with a short list of words that are in this book that you probably won’t see on the TOEFL:

  • animism
  • deify
  • ecclesiastical
  • pious (almost the whole chapter on religion is useless)
  • forensics
  • prognosis
  • divination
  • phantom

So this book is less than perfect. In spite of this, I will recommend this book as a possile secondary resource for your TOEFL prep. Is McGraw Hill’s 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL Test the right vocabulary resource for you? Read on and judge for yourself.

What’s in the book?

400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL Test (McGraw-Hill Education)This book consists of 41 vocabulary lessons. Each lesson focuses on 10 or nearly 10 vocabulary words, for a total of 400 words (hence the title of the book). The individual lessons highlight vocabulary related to specific academic topics. In turn, these individual topic lessons are divided into eight modules, focused on different broader themes. For example, one module is entitled “Society,” and contains lessons on anthropology, social inequality, expertise, military operations, war and conquest, and history.

Will you see all of these topics on test day?

As you saw from the list at the beginning of this review, the answer is “no.” There is no way any one individual TOEFL exam can cover all 41 topics in this book, and your real exam almost certainly won’t include all eight of the broader themes covered in the modules (Nature, Science, Mind and Body, Society, Money, Government and Justice, Relationships, and Culture).

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In addition, some individual lesson topics, such as “Ghosts,” “Sprituality,” and “Risky Fashions” are not very TOEFL-like. Ultimately, the “Must Have” part of this book’s title is not accurate; you absolutely do not need all of these words to pass the TOEFL.

Is 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL a good book?

With that said, I still think this is a pretty good TOEFL prep book. For one thing, around 80% of the vocabulary and subject material is TOEFL-like, and could come up in at least one of the sections, either in Reading/Listening or in the Speaking and Writing responses you might give.

For another, the only way to be ready for the limited range of topics on an individual TOEFL exam is to study a broad range of topics. You need to be ready for anything, since you don’t know exactly what mix of topics and vocabulary words you’ll see on test day.

And even the non-TOEFL like vocabulary can be useful to TOEFL preppers. After all, if you’re taking the TOEFL, you have long term plans for your English use. The not-so-TOEFL-like vocabulary in this book will still help you in your future English-language endeavors.

Who should buy this book?

This book is best for students who find certain TOEFL topics more difficult to understand than others. If you find science vocabulary especially challenging, if sociology isn’t normally your subject, if you want to be able to speak more fluently about entertainment… these kinds of concerns are covered by the book.

On the other hand, if you are more concerned with general TOEFL vocabulary, you’ll want to turn to broader, less topically specific word lists. Magoosh’s TOEFL flashcards are a good free resource. Barron’s Essential Words for the TOEFL is also a better resource of truly “must have” words.

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2 Responses to Book Review: 400 Must-Have Words for the TOEFL

  1. Morteza June 3, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    Hi Lucas
    I am preparing myself for toefl test. I know the importance of vocabulary in TOEFL but I don’t know how to study it. I bought ”400 must have words for the TOEFL”. Although I know the meaning of many of words, I am trying to memorize the definitions and examples of words and when I can not to say the exact definition and example, I review it more and more.
    Is it a good approach? It seems tiring.

    thanks for your good website.

    • David Recine June 7, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

      That’s a great question, Morteza. Memorizing words is an important part of learning vocabulary. But it’s not the *only* aspect of learning new words. And it’s not necessarily the most important one either. Studying root words and different grammatical forms of words (as seen in posts like this one: https://magoosh.com/toefl/2020/magoosh-comics-hard-toefl-words-part-1/ ) will help you get a general understanding of large groups of words, without actually having to memorize exact dictionary definitions.

      It’s also important to remember that dictionary definitions don’t always capture every single meaning, use, or connotation of a word. You can still encounter a use of a word that doesn’t match the dictionary definition in obvious ways. To learn new words as you read them, you need be strategic. Some strategies for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary and language can be seen on our blog, here: https://magoosh.com/toefl/2014/getting-around-vocabulary-road-blocks/
      and here: https://magoosh.com/toefl/2014/working-with-new-vocabulary-and-difficult-sentences/ .

      In addition to some memorization, you also should “learn by doing” when it comes to vocabulary, practicing vocabulary by using it in real language situations. Some good ways to do that can be found here: https://magoosh.com/toefl/2015/how-to-improve-english-vocabulary/

      In short, read definitions and examples. But don’t memorize definitions and examples. Instead, make the definition and example sentences your own. Experience vocabulary in context, and use new words in your own speech and writing.


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