The Difficulty of the Actual TOEFL Exam, Compared to Practice

In the old format of the TOEFL (not the new 2019 TOEFL), there was a Speaking task that would sometimes ask students to describe a great difficulty they’d overcome. I loved that question, because for so many of my students, the TOEFL itself is a great difficulty that they overcame. But how difficult is the TOEFL really?

Over in the Magoosh Student Help email queue, I get a lot of student questions about the difficulty of the TOEFL itself, compared to Magoosh practice. Sometimes students say Magoosh practice seems harder than the last TOEFL exam they took. Other students say that Magoosh practice seems easier than the exam they took.

So which is it? The truth is that Magoosh practice—and any other practice—can be easier or more difficult than whatever set of questions you get on test day. While ETS does its best to make every test equally difficult, a single exam is a very limited set of TOEFL questions. And there’s always a chance one exam could be easier or harder than another. This is why ETS’s TOEFL scoring system includes adjustments based on the difficulty level of the particular set of questions on your exam.

So it’s best not to try to guess whether the TOEFL will be harder or easier than the practice materials you’ve used—it could be either. Instead, you should try to prepare for a certain range of difficulty on test day. To know how hard or how easy the TOEFL might be, go through as many official ETS prep materials as you can. A list of available official TOEFL prep resources can be found here.

If you haven’t gone through any of ETS’s offerings yet, their free TOEFL prep is a good place to start. ETS offers a free full-length practice test, and offers some free TOEFL practice sets as well.

If at all possible, you should purchase some of the affordable materials ETS has for sale alongside their free stuff. The Official Guide is a very important resource, as is Official TOEFL iBT Tests. (You can check out our blog’s reviews of these two books for an in-depth description.)

Although these books are not full up-to-date and reflect the older, pre-2019 version of the TOEFL, they are still quite useful if you want to experience the real difficulty of the TOEFL exam. See Magoosh’s guide to using older TOEFL prep.

So the official materials are your absolute best measure of how hard or easy things might be on test day. But what about third party materials, prep resources from companies other than ETS? Well, the best TOEFL prep companies and websites carefully study the TOEFL and make practice materials that closely match the standards of ETS itself. I’ve created some of Magoosh’s Premium TOEFL practice materials and I can tell you from experience that we take this kind of cautious, accurate approach. So do a number of other top companies and websites.

Still, sometimes third party materials can miss the mark. ETS is constantly improving its product, and they can be secretive about their methods; sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Because of this, you should always use unofficial TOEFL materials alongside the official ones. Carefully compare the difficulty level of ETS TOEFL prep materials with outside materials. If any outside materials seem a lot easier than the official ones, stop using those unofficial practice resources. They won’t sufficiently prepare you for the test.

If the non-ETS practice materials seem just a little bit harder than the ETS stuff, that could be a good thing. Aiming a just little bit higher than you need to can ensure success on test day, especially if you get one of the harder TOEFL exams. But don’t spend time on materials that are much harder than the real deal. Aiming for a level of English skill you don’t actually need for the exam can wear you out and keep you from focusing on the skills you’ll truly need for your target score.


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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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