Have you ever wondered what’s on the TOEFL? Or wondered how closely the official ETS TOEFL prep matches the real exam? I’ve certainly wondered these things! To find out, I took the TOEFL twice in the last few months. The first of those two times, I took the TOEFL in a test center. Then, my second TOEFL was the TOEFL Home Edition. I have already written a post about what happened when I took the TOEFL Home Edition. This post will focus on the experiences when I took the TOEFL in a regular test center.
Click on a heading in the table of contents below to jump directly to that section.
What the TOEFL’s Content and Format Looked Like
For the most part, there were no surprises when it came to the content and format of the TOEFL on test day. The timing, number of questions, and so on, were all the same as what you’ll see outlined on the TOEFL Format page that Magoosh shows its students. However, I did see some things in each section that don’t match the official ETS prep materials for the TOEFL.
When I took the TOEFL for the first time, I didn’t see any TOEFL Reading categorization questions at all, and I only saw one on the TOEFL Home Edition. So this question format may be less common that it used to be. In the TOEFL Reading section, I also saw a question that required me to summarize the main purpose/idea of two consecutive paragraphs, rather than summarizing a single paragraph or a whole passage. This appears to be a new question type.
Next, let’s talk about the experimental TOEFL Reading question set—the extra, unscored passage that ETS sometimes adds into the Reading section. I got one of these on the TOEFL Home Edition. Now, generally, my colleagues and I like to remind you that you can’t know for sure which set of questions is experimental, so you should always try as hard as you can on all questions. (See Kate’s article “The Extra Long Section of the TOEFL.”) However, in this case, I was able to tell which TOEFL Reading set was experimental… but only immediately after I finished the set. You see, one of the sets consisted of 9 questions. A “real” scored TOEFL Reading question set will always have 10 questions!
There seems to be a new format of TOEFL Listening question: a “choose three correct answers out of four” format. It looks very similar to the “choose two correct answers” format that you’ll often see in other TOEFL prep materials. I saw only one instance of “three out of four” on this test, and none when I took the TOEFL Home Edition. So this new format is probably farily rare. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly how such a question would be scored, since ETS has not yet released any info about this new question type.
For TOEFL Listening, I got an extra long, experimental section, with three “listening pods” instead of the usual two (pods are subsets of TOEFL Listening tasks). The first listening pod consisted of a conversation and one lecture. The second pod consisted of a conversation and two lectures. The third pod had one conversation and one classroom discussion. So if you get an experimental TOEFL Listening section on test day, there’s some good news: your TOEFL Listening section will only increase by two audio tracks, not three.
For TOEFL Speaking Task 2, there is a passage that makes an announcement about a change to campus followed by two students having a conversation about it. Normally, the student will either disagree or agree with the campus announcement. But when I took the test in the test center, I saw something new: the main speaker actually partly agreed with the change proposed in the announcement, and partly disagreed with it. You won’t see this anywhere in the official ETS practice materials. So be aware that this can happen!
For the last year or so, I’ve been seeing emails from students asking if the rumors are true: has the TOEFL Writing section really changed its second task? The rumor has been that TOEFL Independent Writing prompts have gotten a lot more wordy and detailed. When I took the TOEFL the first time, I was was able to confirm that this is sometimes true. My first TOEFL included a TOEFL Writing Task 2 that was indeed a bit more “involved.” But the basic nature of the task is still unchanged: you still are asked an opinion, and you still need to take a side. (See a typical Task 2 response here.)
ETS does not allow test-takers to reproduce any of the questions they saw on test day, so I can’t describe the specific “new Writing Task 2” question I saw. However, I can tell you that I’ve been creating some sample questions in this new format. Here is one such original sample:
You are in a study group with five other classmates. To prepare for a exam, how would you prefer to meet?
1) Gathering in one large group and sharing your study materials in person at the same time.
2) Meeting in pairs, with partners sharing their study materials with the rest of the group via email.
Now, while you might see a more detailed question like that on the test, you also might not. When I took the TOEFL Home Edition, the TOEFL Writing Task 2 question was more like the “traditional” questions in Lucas’s article on TOEFL Writing Task 2 topics.
The TOEFL Clock and Time Limits
ETS is notoriously bad at showing you the TOEFL clock and time limits. Most of their paid official tests have timers that don’t quite work like the real one. And the official free full-length online practice TOEFL doesn’t even have a timer! Fortunately, you can experience fairly realistic TOEFL timing by taking a TOEFL practice test with Magoosh TOEFL Premium. I’ve also outlined some important aspects of the real TOEFL timer below.
The Fabled TOEFL Listening Timer
The TOEFL Listening timer is a bit mysterious. ETS’s own official software does not accurately show the way the Listening timer works on the real exam. Before taking the test, I called and emailed TOEFL customer service about this, but they said they couldn’t tell me exactly what the Listening timer looks like, and that I’d need to take the real test to find out. And so I did. 🙂
So here’s the news: on the real test, the TOEFL Listening timer runs only when you’re answering questions. The timer stops any time instructions are given or audio is playing. These pauses in the timer include the times that the TOEFL computer reads the Listening questions out loud or replays a portion of the lecture or conversation.
There are separate timer countdowns for each TOEFL Listening pod. A pod of three audio tracks has a timer that counts down from 10:00. A pod of two audio tracks has a timer that counts down from 6:30.
Pauses/Breaks Between Each Section
When you get to the end of a section, or the end of the instructions that introduce a new section, the test will autoplay to the next screen/section within 60 seconds. The test will always autoplay from one part to the next within 60 seconds of completion. While Magoosh has been advising students of this already, you won’t find these autoplay rules in any official ETS materials. So it was good for me to confirm this for myself. (You can also click to move forward more quickly if you don’t want to wait for autoplay.)
Test Center Rules and Logistics
NOTE: These rules apply only to the TOEFL as it’s taken in a test center. For the rules, logistics, and security for the TOEFL Home Edition, see my article “How to Take the TOEFL Home Edition.”
Before Test Day
I received a courtesy call from test center staff the day before the test, where I could ask some questions about what to bring and what to expect on test day.
The Morning Right Before the Test
My test began at 8am, officially. However, the test center opened at 7:15, and I was allowed to come when they opened, check in immediately, and start the test as soon as I was checked in, even if that was before 8am.
If you show up less than 30 minutes before the official test start time, ETS reserves the right to bar you from taking the test, so showing up even earlier seemed like a good idea. I recommend you do the same if you can!
Security Procedures to Start the Test
At the initial security check in, I had to do the following:
- I went to the check-in desk.
- I gave my ID to the test center officials.
- I emptied my pockets.
- I received a locker key, and put all personal effects—pocket contents, phone, overcoat, food and drink, anything else—into my locker.
- I left the check-in area and go into the secure testing area. While test center staff held my ID and locker key, I had to again turn my pockets inside out. Finally, I had to submit to a metal detector.
- I entered the testing room, and let the test center staff place my locker key with key rasp (a rasp is a large plastic keychain card) that was on the corner of my desk. I then placed my ID face up on the corner of the desk as well. My key and ID had to remain in this position during test time.
- I received a 4 page “blue book” for note-taking, printed on a folded-over piece of paper roughly the size of two standard pieces of office printer paper, and I received two sharpened pencils. (Additional pencils and additional test booklet could be given during the test as needed.)
- I sat down and let the test center staff enter a password on your keyboard so that the test can start.
Security During the Test
I was only allowed to take notes during the time that “active questions” were on the screen needing to be answered. If I took notes during the audio instructions or during the 10-minute break, the test center staff would immediately come in and take away all notes that I had written thus far. I learned this the hard way when I absentmindedly started writing my observations during the break, so that it would be easier for me to remember them later.
I was sick with a runny nose, and I was allowed tissue. My tissue was provided by a receptionist sitting in the secured testing area just outside the test room. I was only allowed two pieces of tissue at a time and could put the tissue in my pocket. The tissue had to remain on my desk and visible to test proctors.
Security During the 10-Minute Break, Mid-Test
My 10-minute break started automatically, temporarily logging me out of the test computer. When my minute break ended, a test center agent came to my computer and entered a password to log back in. From there, the test resumed.
I was allowed to go to my locker to get food or drink during your 10-minute break, and I took advantage of this. However, because my locker was just outside of the secure testing area, I needed to show my ID and sign out on the guest sheet as I left the secure area. And then when I came back, I needed to submit to the full security check again. I once more had to show my ID, turn my pockets inside out, submit to a metal detector, and sign back into the secured area. So getting food and drink on my 10-minute break required me to spend 3-4 minutes of that break dealing with security requirements.
Tips for the Best TOEFL Performance
Here are a few things I learned from taking the TOEFL. You too can learn from my experiences, and from my mistakes! 🙂
Compensating When you Feel Sick or Tired
I was a little bit sick the morning of the test and not feeling 100% alert or focused. I learned to discipline myself and double-check instructions to make sure I didn’t absentmindedly miss anything. I also disciplined myself to consciously, carefully check the clock so I wouldn’t lose track of time.
Note-Taking: You Should Definitely Take Notes!
For TOEFL Listening, I took a few different approaches to note-taking, as an experiment. For some audio tracks, I listened intently and did no actual note-taking. On other audio tracks, I took notes. Notes definitely made for better accuracy, even for me as a native English speaker.
After I Took the TOEFL
Viewing my TOEFL Results
My test results became available online six days after the test.
Logging in to see my scores was very problematic. I could not get ETS.org to let me in. I finally called them for live assistance. It turns out that if you have both a GRE login and a TOEFL login through ETS, you must make sure you are not logged into both accounts at the same time on the same browser. In that case, you may also need to delete web history and cookies when alternating between accounts for two different ETS exams. So for those of you taking both exams, a word to the wise!
My TOEFL Scores
My final score was 118: a 30 in all sections, except for my 28 in TOEFL Listening.
For the Listening section, I experimented with different note-taking techniques, which impacted my score, as I mentioned earlier in this post.
For TOEFL Writing, I decided to go well over the word count and use sentence structures far more complex than one would normally expect to see in a TOEFL essay. This was an experiment to see if otherwise good writing could still be deemed too long and recieve poor marks. Apparently going over the usual length for a TOEFL essay does not automatically hurt your score; I received a full 30 in TOEFL Writing. Still, unless you are both a native English speaker and professional writer (that’s me!), I would advise keeping your essay length manageable. You don’t want to overextend yourself and run out of time.