How to Start Studying for the TOEFL

Studying for the TOEFL is a big deal. Really mastering those test skills and language skills takes time and work. There are of course many challenges to passing the TOEFL. One of the biggest reasons students don’t pass the TOEFL is that they never start studying, or they take too long to get started. Many new TOEFL students simply aren’t sure where or how to start.

The good news is that starting to study for the TOEFL doesn’t have to be hard. There are a few simple steps you can take to start your TOEFL studies. And once you get started, it should be easy to continue.

Step 1: Look at actual test materials

This step is so important, but it’s one a lot of students skip. I’ve worked with so many students who come to me for their first TOEFL tutoring session, only to tell me they haven’t looked at the actual exam. A lot of students make the mistake of thinking they can’t see any real exam materials until test day. Luckily, this isn’t true. You’ll have lots of chances to look at real TOEFL questions before you actually take the test.

The official TOEFL website has tons of practice test materials, taken from past exams. Some of the materials on the site, such as the official books, cost a little bit of money. Other materials are completely free and can be viewed and used instantly. The best materials to look at for a quick start to your studies are the well-named TOEFL Quick Prep materials. These include PDFs and audio tracks that are viewable on the site and also downloadable to your computer.

Once you decide to prepare for the TOEFL, look at these materials and practice them right away. Knowing what the test questions look like is the first step as you start your TOEFL study.

Step 2: Make note of your strengths and weaknesses

As you start studying the official TOEFL materials, pay attention to how you’re doing. Notice which kinds of questions are hard, and also which practice tasks are easy. Work to improve in areas where you’re weak. And build on the strengths you have. For instance, you may notice that you have trouble with pronunciation in TOEFL Integrated Speaking, but are really good at note-taking.

Once you make that observation, you’ll know that you should work on your pronunciation. But you can also build on your note-taking strength, using it to plan out your answers really carefully, so that when you do speak, your ideas are fairly clear, even with some pronunciation problems.

Step 3: Find some non-TOEFL materials for extra practice

The TOEFL is designed to test your overall understanding of academic-like English. So you’ll want to find some academic style English practice outside of the usual test prep materials. If you just focus on the test itself, your English skills will be too narrow, and you may not be ready for unexpected content on test day. Websites like TED Talks and Khan Academy can help you practice academic listening. They’re also a good model for academic speech. And reading undergraduate level educational articles on websites like Smithsonian or National Geographic is helpful too.

Once you go through TOEFL specific materials, self-assess your skills, and put together a few good outside materials, you’ll be off to a good start! And you’ll be ready to keep going strong.

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