Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to Pass TOEFL

I have recently passed iBT TOEFL and got a score of 114 out of 120. I took it for the first time, with little preparation.
So, I decided to share my experience with those, who are seeking advice on how to pass TOEFL with high score without long hours with think volumes or additional tutoring or panic.

The exam itself

I have taken the exam in Moscow, Russian Federation, 22 December in Lingva.ru testing center. Exam does not begin exactly on time. Registration takes time, but once you are registered, you are immediately seated and start your exam. So remember, that everybody starts their exam on different time. You cannot ask to be seated where you would like to sit - computer is selected automatically for you. I came with a friend, but she sat at a different table, I could only see her back.

There are going to be a lot of distractions. I have been working in the open space office for a few years, so it did not really bother me. If you do not have similar experience, I suggest you try to go and study or read at the library or a cafe to get accustomed to people talking around and shattering your table. Looking up and practicing some concentration techniques might be a good idea. At the exam I suggest you have headphones on your head at all times. Some directions to the test are being said through headphones and you might miss it if they are not on. Also, headphones lower down sound of other people speaking (although you might want to listen to them and get ideas for speaking session).

There will be a break. You should leave the room and do some exercises, breath fresh air etc. I must confess I wanted to pee through the last half of reading section and all listening section (that's why I probably got lower results for the latter - only 26 for listening, while I did not find it very challenging). So, please, pee before you register. Pee twice if you need to. And pee during the break, too. Also you might want to wear some layers of clothes which are easily removed. It became hot in the room just before the break and unbearably hot during writing section. I had to take off my university hoodie and headphones :-)

I would recommend you to take spare pencils from home. I wrote during the listening section (my memory skills are mostly visual, so I prefer to write everything down) and my pencil stopped writing somewhere near the end of Listening. They won't complain about your pencils. You will be given 3 sheet of paper and they will change them while you are at the break.

Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing

Every section has three parts with similar tasks.

Reading was tough. I was really surprised to get the highest score for this part, because I panicked and could not concentrate for a while. I thought of this exam as a really big deal and I did not prepare thoroughly, so I started doing questions pretty stressed out. It got better later. And there is really, really little time for Reading. I did not read any text from beginning to end.

I used the following approach to this section:
1. Look through the text and understand what it is about (e.g. turtles in the ocean).
2. Click next to see questions.
3. Read the question, find answer in the text, pick A, B, C or D.
4. Go to the next question. Find answer just below the part where you found the answer for the last question (really!) and go on.
Do not skip questions. I don't know about others, but I did not have time to even push the revise button and check whether I answered all the questions.
Do not try to read the whole text or get some inner meaning if that is not required by the question. I savored sample texts from ets.org site during preparation and my panic and new situation of the examination room got me to spend more than 20 minutes on the first text (out of three).

Listening is the next section. I have already mentioned that I decided I should write down everything they say be it lecture or conversation. That's what I did during the preparation (on samples they had on ets.org) and that's what I did during exam. It might be uncomfortable to write on the computer table, so you should decide where to move the keyboard and put your papers when you are seated. No pressure, you might use another technique. I saw other students taking few or no notes. I don't know their results, though. I did not have to look at my notes answering the questions, because I remember things if I write them, but only after I wrote them.

Anyway, you have to think better on answers, because you have enough time (10 minutes per part of the section, listening time does not count). I found that questions like "What did she mean by that" were sometimes tricky for me. Like how the hell am I supposed to know what she implied.

Speaking. Egh. This is the section that scared me the most during preparation. I am a mature person. Thus questions like 'Who is your best friend and why?' got me into a 5 minutes philosophical insight over my personal life. At the exam it's 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to speak. I used songs on CD in my car while going to and from work to track time. Also, to speak louder and ignore distractions and temptations to sing along. I printed out 100 topics for the first question from here and new topics from the same site and put some more from somewhere else. I was kind of taken aback when I looked up the other two tasks for Speaking. I did all of the samples from official site with timer in hands.

Writing was the last and most relaxing of all sections. Lots of time, familiar topic, and for a blogger like me it was rather simple. I got 28 for that, though. I tried to put a complex sentence at the last moment and I think I might have made mistakes there. Actually, I have looked through the book called 'How to ace your essay on TOEFL' (and SAT, as it turned out). The guy sets some standard approaches to essays, writes on how to structure your ideas.

How to prepare

Alright. Now the most interesting part.
Your preparation will depend on how much time you have. I have registered for the test in November and thought I would have to pass it right away - how disappointed I was that the nearest available date was at the end of December! So, I urge you to plan ahead your examination.

If you have a month, you are ok. You can really improve your language then. If you have a week - you only have time to get accustomed to the tasks, which is fine.

I started early. I knew I was going to take this exam sometime, so I got a few books like the aforementioned 'Ace your essay'. And looked through them. I got some old practice books which were encouraging me with strange tasks which were not on TOEFL any more. So be aware that might happen. I suggest you go to the official site and read what they have on preparation pages. But don't do all the sample tests, leave at least two of them to simulate a real exam during the last week before Day X.

For Reading section I did lots of sample tests, which helped to get a better understanding on question types and how to find answers fast. I always read the text and I suggest you try to answer questions both way - reading the text and without doing so. Also, write down all new words and collocations from the text and look them up in the learner's dictionary (English definition). Most of 'new' unknown words can be found in every 10th text. Learn synonyms of those words! Also, if you like mindless browsing here is a good site for you: http://thesaurus.com/.

For Listening part I watched movies and tv shows :-) Seriously. Sometimes I had to watch a scene twice to catch what they were saying. I also went to the site of some campus newspaper to read about 'college issues' they might talk. We don't really have similar problems in this country. And I have never lived in the dormitory, too. I would also suggest you read/watch/listen to a lot of science and technical materials. I got two lectures on top-notch astronomy stuff and one on neurobiology! Read science news just so you won't be shocked by the concepts they speak about in lectures.

For the break you can make sandwiches ;-) I did not take any food/drink with me. I don't regret that much, but you might need something especially if you tend to skip breakfast. Imagine spending 4 hours without food doing task after task!

I have already mentioned how I prepared for Speaking. At first I just spoke. I do not have lots of practice of spoken English, but I have picked up some 'erms' and 'what do you call that' and 'well...' so that my language would sound more natural. Then I spoke on all of the 100 topics. Tip: be aware of the time! You should know how much you can say in 45 sec or 60 sec. I learned how to use preparation time only on the last day of preparation. You should try to make the best of these 15 (30) seconds before you start speaking. Don't write down anything for your first question, though - not enough time. But other tasks might require some written words to lead your speaking.

Finally, Writing. I blogged. But that was not what I should have done to prepare for TOEFL. I should have written more essays and try to make them look like those with highest scores on sample answers at the official site. They are not scored high for nothing. So you should imitate these sample answers from ets.org and read their commentaries carefully to understand what the examenators expect to see in a good essay.

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