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The TOEFL® Test Explained

10 min read
6 January 2021
students in a classroom


We asked two TAE Instructors, Beth Kushner from our Kaplan Washington, DC school, and Kevin Rodden from Kaplan Philadelphia, to shed light on the TOEFL® test. If you’re thinking of taking the TOEFL® test, here’s your need-to-know guide. You can also find out more about the exam prep courses we offer.


Compared to other tests, what is TOEFL® good for?

The TOEFL iBT® test is for use primarily in the US to evaluate the English proficiency of applicants from abroad, so, if a student plans to go to a school, college, or university in the US, this test would be for them. In addition, the score is only good for two years, making it beneficial for a student with a goal in the near future. If you are looking to study in the UK, taking the IELTS test may be a better option for you. (Read more about the IELTS test decoded.)

students in a classroom


What is TOEFL® not good for?

This test benefits someone who has plans to study rather than work immediately, as it’s academic based. Honestly, it does not measure how “good” students are at English; even native speakers might perform poorly on the test without preparation. As a timed test, there is a lot of strategy involved, so a student that wants to focus on perfecting their language skills should look more to a General English course.


Why should students take the TOEFL® test?

  • To enter colleges and universities, mainly in the US
  • To measure one’s academic progress
  • Some businesses accept the TOEFL® as proof of English abilities


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What is the breakdown of the TOEFL® test and how is it scored?

Currently there are two types of TOEFL® tests, the iBT version, which is purely based online, and the PBT, which is a paper test. Although the PBT (Paper Based Test) is being phased out, you will notice it is still accepted by a number of universities. At Kaplan we only prepare students for the iBT version of the test, which the below information corresponds to.

The TOEFL iBT® is completely Internet based, so you will be working on a computer for the entire test time.

There are four sections, which are scored out of 30, making the highest possible score 120. Top universities require at least a total score of 80 or 90 for full acceptance:

  1. Reading (60-90 minutes to complete): The reading section will have 3-4 passages, each with 12-14 questions. This section will evaluate your understanding of details, inference, and rhetorical function. You should plan to spend 20 minutes on each passage, so be sure to watch the clock!
  2. Listening (60-90 minutes to complete): There are two kinds of listening passages: conversations about campus life and academic lectures. You will have 2-3 conversations with five questions each and 4-6 lectures with six questions each. Following the listening section, there is a ten-minute mandatory break.
  3. Speaking (20 minutes to complete): There are 6 speaking tasks, the first two are independent, in which you speak about a familiar experience and give an opinion (speaking for 45 seconds each). The last four are integrated with listening and reading. With the integrated tasks, you must summarize and synthesize what you read/heard (speaking for 60 seconds each).
  4. Writing (50 minutes to complete): You will have two essays to write, the first is an integrated essay based on a reading and listening passage, summarizing and synthesizing what you heard. The second essay is independent, where you must write a persuasive or descriptive essay based on the prompt.


How do you prepare your students for the test with Kaplan TOEFL® preparation course?

We expect students to come to the TOEFL® class with a strong level of English. A student from General English must be at the Higher Intermediate level (B2) or above to enter the TOEFL® preparation course.

One goal of the TOEFL® preparation course is to take away the mystery of the test; the students will know the test and its strategies like the backs of their hands by test day. This allows them to feel more comfortable and know exactly what is expected. Test strategies are combined with general academic skills to create a well-rounded student and strong test taker.

During this course, students will work from three books: Academic English Skills, TOEFL® Strategies, and Practice Drills.

The Academic English Skills book: focuses on mastering general rules and skills for success in an academic setting, and includes paraphrasing, drawing inferences, identifying vocabulary from context, skimming, and scanning, among others.

The TOEFL® Strategies book: looks at specific question types from the test and discusses the best strategies to answer the question as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and apply the appropriate method of eliminating incorrect answers.

The Practice Drills book: offers students the opportunity to apply the lessons from class at home. Students can work on all four sections of the test, and check their answers instantly.

Another way that we prepare our students is with the biweekly (every two weeks) TOEFL® simulation. This is a full-length test that simulates the experience of the official TOEFL iBT®. The reading and listening sections are scored automatically, and the teacher grades the speaking and writing sections according to the official rubrics. The teacher gives detailed feedback for each question so the students can be better prepared for test day.



What can students expect on the test?

TOEFL® tests are taken at an ETS-approved center, which can be booked through the ETS website.

Since the test is Internet-based, students will use headphones and a microphone for the speaking section. A good way to practice for this is to record yourself using the Voice Recorder app on your smartphone. The essays in the writing section will be typed, so be sure to feel comfortable with the English keyboard. Throughout the studying process, familiarize yourself with the time limits on each section, as timing is very strict on the test.

Without preparation, a student might get tired or frustrated, and the test does not take such concerns into consideration. That’s why it is so important to take the TOEFL® preparation class: you need every advantage you can get!


What can you do with your TOEFL® score?

Although requirements can vary from program to program, it’s best to check the program / course you wish to attend so you know what score you will need. In addition, some programs are concerned about a composite score, while others focus on one individual section (e.g. writing score of 27 required).

As a general guide:

  • Community colleges: usually require a total score of 60
  • Universities: require 70-90
  • Graduate programs and above: require 95+.

We have put together a list of the most popular universities with our Kaplan students, and their required scores for course entry. These are a guide and may differ depending on exact courses and programs.




Graduate and above

Eastern Illinois University60 iBT / 500 PBT79 iBT / 550 PBT
Illinois Institute of Technology80 iBT / 550 PBT70 iBT / 523 PBT for considered admission with the requirement of an English language assessment test or 90 iBT / 577 PBT without the need of an English test
McNeese State University61 iBT / 500 PBT71 iBT / 530 PBT (75 iBT / 537 PBT for environmental science or chemistry and 83 iBT / 560 PBT for engineering)
San Francisco University61 iBT / 500 PBT80 iBT / 550 PBT
Santa Monica College45 iBT / 450 PBTGraduate programs aren't offered at this college
SUNY Plattsburgh76 iBT / 540 PBT83 iBT (no individual score below 20) / 560 PBT
Tiffin University61 iBT / 500 PBT80 iBT / 550 PBT
University of Montana70 iBT / 525 PBT92 iBT / 580 PBT
Widener University75 iBT / 540 PBT83 iBT (no individual score below 23) / 560 PBT


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