I imagine you’re not surprised that there’s no simple answer to this question. After all, some people need to improve more than other people. But hopefully this video can give a bit of context.
So here’s what to do:
What score do you need?
Most university programs have minimum or recommended scores for applicants, often for individual sections of the TOEFL. This greatly affects your goal—you should aim for a score above the minimums of the programs you’re applying to.
That information is usually on the admissions offices’ websites, so start your research there. Our infographic of TOEFL score requirements will also help.
What do you need to improve?
If you’ve taken the TOEFL before, that helps a lot, because you know exactly how many points you need to improve by. If you only need to improve your score by a few points (5 or fewer), one month is enough for many students. If you need closer to 10 points, it may take a few months of regular training and English usage. If you need 20 points, then simply studying the TOEFL and the skills that it rewards may not be enough. You may need to improve your general English abilities a lot, which can take time—sometimes years. Do not expect to see a 20 point improvement in just a couple months.
Having taken the test before also gives you a clear idea of what skills you should practice more. Think carefully about that experience. What parts of the test caused you trouble? Some skills are faster to improve than others. If you had trouble with the timer in the reading section, for example, you might learn better test-taking strategy in just a few weeks to improve that. If you had trouble with listening and taking notes at the same time, that may take longer. And if you had trouble speaking smoothly because you forgot the words and grammar you needed, that may take months of regular speaking practice to improve.
If you haven’t taken the TOEFL before, use some official practice to get a better idea of what you need to improve:
- If the material seems straightforward and you’re already comfortable, you can probably study in under a month.
- If you understand the majority of the language, but have trouble with the format of the test, it may be 1-3 months of preparation
- If the general language level is very difficult for you, getting to a high TOEFL score (>90) could take years
How much time do you have?
If you only need to take the TOEFL, and you know how much time you have until the test, start preparing now! Use all the time you can to be absolutely sure that you know the test well and will score as high as you can.
But if you also need to taking another test, then you may have to divide your time. For example, if you’re taking both the TOEFL and the GRE in three months, you will have to choose how much time to spend on the TOEFL and how much time to spend on the GRE.
In general, I recommend spending more time on the other test (GRE, GMAT, SAT) because they have more advanced English than the TOEFL and require math skills as well—they are bigger tests. So if you have three months for both the TOEFL and the GRE, you may choose to spend two months preparing for the GRE and one for the TOEFL, for example.