Exams Know-how

That's How I Tackled TOEFL

Sumeet Jain

I am a final year B.Tech Biomedical Engineering student from VIT Vellore. My current CGPA is 8.77. I am planning to apply for PhD and I am interested in neuroimaging in psychiatric and neurological disorders and medical optics.

People asked me if they need to take both GRE and TOEFL for applying to the US of A. So, before mentioning anything about TOEFL, I thought it’s better to clear the former doubt. Yes, you need to take both. TOEFL is useful for VISA and a good TOEFL score enhances your chances of getting on-campus jobs like Teaching Assistantship and Research Assistantship (TAs and RAs). Check out some of the Universities, especially their graduate admissions page on the official website. There they have mentioned the cut-off for each section of TOEFL. GRE scores are used by the universities for the preliminary selection and filtering process. You need to send both these scores to the universities in the US, at the time of Applications. That being said, I can now lecture on TOEFL a bit.

In the first week of June, a friend told me that TOEFL seats for 2013 are getting over and if I don’t register that day itself, I might not be able to write TOEFL this year at all. I started panicking but luckily I was able to book a date in Kolkata - July 13, 2013. Some of you might have a doubt about when exactly to confirm the 4 universities to which ETS will send your scores. It’s not necessary that you need to confirm the universities at the time of registering for TOEFL or before the payment. For TOEFL iBT, ETS allows you to modify your university choices till 10pm of the night prior to the day of your TOEFL. After the confirmation, take a print out of the order. Take this print out and your original passport to your exam center.

When I had booked that date, I had exactly 1month time to prepare. I had ordered Barron’s TOEFL iBT from Flipkart. Thanks to their top notch service, I received the book next day itself but then there’s this devil called procrastination. In fact, as soon as the book came and I saw that TOEFL consists of the 4 sections - Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing - I took a pledge to finish off all of the latest episodes of Criminal Minds Season 7 and The Big Bang Theory’s Season 6, which I had in my laptop. My excuse to my conscience for watching them like a maniac, instead of preparing was, “I’m trying to perfect my listening skills and rectify my pronunciation.”

So, anyway, my actual preparation started another week later and during this time, I was juggling GRE and TOEFL preparations. For TOEFL, you don’t need to worry at all, if you are aware of the exam pattern and if you have a good command over English. As I have said before, there are 4 sections and in this article I have elaborated on each section separately.

You’ll be given a long passage. Unlike in GRE, you won’t have to answer indirect questions, nor will you have to hunt for answers. The questions themselves mention the line numbers you should look into. The passage doesn’t disappear. So, don’t waste your time going through the whole passage all at once. Read the questions and look for answers. It’s almost like the comprehensions that we used to have in the English Language papers in ICSE. So chill! There’ll be long and short passages. Total 3 passages as far as I can remember. The marking scheme is explained in details in Barron’s TOEFL iBT, which I consider now, as Bible for TOEFL (but this book cannot miraculously improve your English if you feel that your English isn’t upto the mark; this book teaches you the exam techniques). So, please go through the book and practice the comprehensions and most importantly time yourself. There’s mark and skip option in TOEFL also. Btw, the tricky part in the reading comprehension is, according to me, the last question of every passage, where you will be asked to choose 3 sentences that’ll give you the summary of the passage you just read. There’s a review button too, in case you have accidentally skipped a question, then it’ll show when you click ‘review’. I got 29 out of 30 in this section.

I scored the least here - 26 out of 30. In order to ace this section, one should:

  1. Understanding the American Accent: Since most of us are already addicted to American TV series like Suits, Big Bang Theory, Criminal Minds, White Collar, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Dexter, etc. hence deciphering the speech contents will seldom be a problem.
  2. Good Memory and Jotting Speed: You should practice note taking and note making while hearing out the listening passage. You can’t afford to miss out any point or detail from the listening passage because of poor writing speed. So practice, practice, practice!
  3. Concentration: Barron’s book gave me a fair idea about what to look for in a listening passage. Since listening passage will be played only once, hence it is beneficial for you if you have an idea of the questions you’ll be asked. There’ll be about 9 listening passages,- a few will be based on a conversation between two students, regarding some problem about the university facility or hostel; the rest will be classroom lectures.
    Usually, questions are like, ‘What is the professor talking about?’, ‘Why is the student in the professor’s office?’, ’What is the professor’s belief regarding ________?’, ‘Why did the girl say _____ ?’ Then they might play a part of the listening passage again and ask you, ‘What did the student mean, when she said *audio clip* this?’ You have to jot down everything, while the audio is being played.
  4. Patience: After listening to the passages continuously, one after the other, fatigue creeps in. For me, it did - leading to my relative low score in listening section. Also try not to get distracted when people around you, who have completed their listening section, are taking their respective ten minute break, while you’re still doing the listening section. Distraction is a part of TOEFL. However, you have to fight the fatigue and distraction and complete the exam. Tell yourself, “Just after this section, I have a 10 minute break” :)

After this section, you’ll have 10 minutes break. Get out of the exam room, drink water, refresh yourself and return to your seat in time.


This is the section where I thought I had messed up and yet ummm… things turned out quite differently. You need to be a bit creative, attentive, analytical and eloquent for this section. You might be given quite a pedestrian topic to speak on. However, use your innovative ideas and analytical skills and your gift of Gab to turn the most banal topic into something exciting, new and innovative. In short, give a new angle to the seemingly boring topic. You’ll be given 15 to 20 seconds to jot down your ideas and then given 45 seconds to speak on the topic.

Make good use of the 15 seconds of preparation time. Just jot down key points and while speaking, maintain your speed such that you are able to fit all the points you had jotted down. DO NOT USE ANY FAKE ACCENTS unless, of course, you’re a master of mimicry. Your response shouldn’t sound contrived. I did speak in an American accent but I am almost flawless at it; it doesn’t sound fake, else I wouldn’t have got 30 out of 30 in this.

So yes, back to the speaking section. Even in speaking, you have two different types of questions - Independent Speaking and Integrated Speaking. As far as I remember, there are two questions in the independent speaking section. For integrated speaking, you’ll be given a passage to read (jot down notes as you read the passage) and then you’ll hear a conversation or a lecture which generally challenges the information in the passage. You have to take down important points from this conversation/lecture too. Then you’ll be asked a question whose answer would require you to combine your notes from both the reading and the listening passages. You’ll be given 20 seconds to prepare your answer. Use this time, to organize your answer - mark the required points on your scratch paper.

Speak fluently, clearly and coherently. The ETS evaluator should be able comprehend you. You might falter once or twice, or maybe thrice, but speak confidently, as if you’re the one lecturing the evaluator.


This is the best part, according to me. Firstly, because this requires less concentration. Secondly, because I love to write and thirdly because this is the last part. This section also has 2 parts - Independent and Integrated writing.

In independent writing passage, you’ll be given a topic and asked to write about 300-350 words on that topic. In Barron’s TOEFL iBT, you’ll have loads of examples to practice from. The integrated writing is again, a combination of reading passage and listening passage. However, DO NOT use exact words from the reading or listening passages. ETS doesn’t approve of plagiarism. You don’t need to use flowery language nor the ‘GRE words’. You should have good command over grammar and keen analytical skills. I had got 29 out of 30 in this section.

Due to so many days having passed and GRE preparation and tension having dominated my mind and GRE words my memory for the last 3 weeks, I have forgotten the exact number of questions in each section. So, please forgive me. I know I might sound as if I’m advertising on Barron’s behalf, but without Barron’s TOEFL iBT, I would’ve been lost. But I repeat myself, this book cannot improve your English if you feel that your English is not upto the mark.

Reach your exam center well ahead of time. During the exam, raise your hand if you need extra scratch papers. Don’t talk to any other examinee during the examination - why unnecessarily get yourself into trouble! All the best! :)

Image Source - Educational Testing Services (ETS)

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