How to be successful on the TOEFL


The right TOEFL mindset (Tips & Insights to be successful)

Pretty much every non-US person who wants to study in the USA must face it: The TOEFL (Test Of English as Foreign Language). The test was developed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and is a standardized English test for non-native speakers. Usually, universities require the “Internet-Based Test” (iBT) version of the TOEFL, which you can do in one of the many test centers worldwide. So please keep in mind that all the following information only refer to the iBT version. My primary goal is to give you insights into how a testing day looks like so you know what to expect. Also, I want to provide you with some tips on preparing and explain how to be successful on the TOEFL. In the end, it is just one of the many things on your list!

In Short: What the TOEFL is like

What else to focus on?

Successful Preparation for the TOEFL

1. Right TOEFL mindset to be successful

First things, first! At some point, you might hear this sentence: “Don’t worry, you can’t fail the test!”. On the one hand, that might be true because there is no official passing or failing score. However, if your dream university requires a minimum of 90 points, scoring anything less is just as bad as failing any other test. In addition to that, some universities give you requirements for some of the four sections. For example, a certain number of points in the writing section if you have to write many essays later on. Or a specific score for speaking if you have to participate in discussions a lot. Commonly, universities ask for a minimum overall score or ask for a particular number at each of the four sections. So the first step is to figure out how many points you need in each area (see below) for the universities you want to apply to.

2. Your main objective for the test

Next, you must understand that your only goal should be to reach that score and pass that said requirement. There is no need to go above and beyond because the test results expire after two years anyway. And it is hard to squeeze two stays abroad, which both require a TOEFL score, into such a short period. It is just unlikely that you need a way better score within two years. If shit hits the fan, you can still retake the test to improve yourself later on. But let’s focus on the here and now. Whether or not you get accepted at your dream university depends on many other things, too. How about your overall GPA, letter of recommendation, statement of purpose (letter of motivation), and CV? Assuming you pass the requirement, the TOEFL is just a box to tick and not one of the deciding factors.

3. TOEFL iBT 101: The Basics

The TOEFL tests your writing, speaking, reading, and listening abilities. In each section, you can reach a maximum score of 30 points resulting in a total point count of 120. Remember, your only goal should be to pass the requirements for your dream university. People always wonder, “What is a good score?”. A good score fulfills the requirement. It’s just easy as that. Some top universities require scores around 110 / 120, whereas others only ask for 79 / 120. It is super easy to score 79 and above but pretty hard to reach 110 / 120 and higher. You can check out the official ETS website to compare the scores with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). This might give you a better idea of where you are at the moment and if you have to improve yourself at all.

4. It is fairly easy to prepare for the test

Unlike what you hear from many people, it is easy to prepare for the test. Remember, it is a standardized test, so the structure is the same every time. This is the first thing you have to understand and really soak in. There is always the same set number of questions or tasks in each section of the test. Understanding this is one of the most important things for success. That means you can prepare yourself in very much detail for every answer you have to give throughout the entire test. Check out the ETS website for the content and number of questions. These might have changed in 2020.

Many people on the internet want to give you tips and tricks on how to answer the question. However, after taking the test twice, I think the guys from notefull are just the best at it. Period. End of story. They break down the entire test, explain each question, and give you tips and tricks on how to answer them. They even give you advice on how to take notes effectively during the test and how to structure your answers (for all four sections, for each individual question!). Check out their website and youtube channel! Above, you see one of their videos as an example.

“Get done and over with it asap, move on,
and focus on the rest!!

On the TOEFL Test Day

1. Arriving well in advance

Even though you can take the test worldwide in many locations, likely, your city is not one of them. This means that you have to travel to a city you might don’t know yet. Make sure to be at least one hour early at the test center. If you have to travel far or have a time slot early in the morning, arrive a day in advance. Ideally, you actually go to the test center the day before and try to find the room. I can’t stress this enough: Arriving early and well-rested is more important than studying for the test. The test centers are often just rooms in large universities, so don’t expect anything fancy. It is one more reason to come early and find the room well in advance.

2. Tense and chaotic atmosphere

The overall atmosphere before and during the TOEFL is pretty tense. Especially in the hallway before they let you in the room: Sometimes, people would freak out and go over some last-minute tips. Other times there is dead silence in a hallway filled with about 15 young people, which is even more nerve-racking. Then, the big moment, they would let you in. Usually, there are two or three people (students) running the whole show. Depending on the year and current regulations, they might scan you with a detector, like at an airport. Also, they might ask you for your mobile phone. Just be prepared for a rather tense and chaotic atmosphere with strict rules. Next, they take a picture of you, provide you with paper for note-taking, and assign you one of the seats. I’ve been to test centers where they would only put a piece of cardboard between the computers in some old and dusty computer room. Don’t expect anything fancy.


Be prepared for quite some noise in the room! Some people get only three reading passages, while others get four. Also, some might be faster than others, don’t use the restroom, or don’t take the 10min break. This creates an overall shift in how fast people advance in the test. The result? You might be trying to read some scientific text about an unfamiliar topic. At the same time, the people around you explain if they are a dog or a cat person. This can be extremely annoying and definitely something you have to practice at home. When studying for the test, turn up the radio every now and then. This creates a similar environment with people just talking random stuff in the background and prepares you quite well for the test situation. You might be allowed to use earplugs, but clarify that before the test. Don’t reach into your pocket or jacket without permission during the test since that might look highly suspicious.

4. It is a high-stress situation

After all, take the test seriously. It is a high-stress situation and can last up to four hours. So it is also physically demanding. Bring enough drinks and small snacks for the break(s). Make sure to have some light breakfast or lunch before and avoid greasy foods that make you fall asleep. The TOEFL is one of the requirements you have to pass to study at your dream university. So cut down on Netflix and partying at least two to three weeks before and practice with notefull and ETS’s official software. Keep your goal in mind, and I promise you it will be worth it in the end.

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Personal Thoughts on the TOEFL


In the listening section, you always get to hear a conversation between a man and a woman. This way, you can differentiate between the two speakers easier. Usually, one person shares an opinion on some campus-related topic (student-student) or discusses some issues or problems with a professor (student-professor). Basically, you should be able to reflect on the conversation and stated opinions.


The questions might be weird sometimes. My tip: Say whatever comes to your mind first. Your pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary are way more important than the actual content. Try to avoid speaking in short and easy sentences. Instead, try to use more sophisticated words and connect your sentences in a way native speakers would. In the end, it doesn’t matter what your favorite food or dream travel destination really is as long as you sound good and don’t make too many mistakes.


Compared to the other sections, the writing tasks are, by far, the easiest ones. There is less stress involved, and you should have enough time to put your thoughts into words. Especially expressing your own opinion on a given topic is something you can practice really well with


I find reading to be the hardest part. The primary reason is that you might be highly unfamiliar with the (strange) research topics you are faced with within the different reading sections. Your best bet is to understand the key message and then answer the questions one by one as they come. Usually, you get to see the text paragraph each question is referring to again (after your time is up).

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