There’s an old English proverb, “Experience is the best teacher." Your native language might have a similar saying, because the truth is universal: the best way to learn something is to do it.
You can read hundreds of books about swimming, but until you jump in the water, you won’t learn to swim. Similarly, you can learn all about the TOEFL and all about English, but you need to take the test to increase your score, and you need to use English to improve.
That means you’ll have to practice some strange, new things. You can’t just review your English class notes, learn a few new words, and listen to English podcasts (even though those are all good ideas). You have to do more. You need to get experience with the types of tasks that are on the TOEFL.
Many students take the test with minimal TOEFL-specific practice. They look at the free material on ETS’s website and then take the test with only a basic understanding. Afterward, they realize they would have scored better if they had known the test format better, and they have to ask themselves that tough question: “Should I retake the TOEFL?" Nobody wants to take the test twice.
So how can you avoid that? In short, become familiar with the test. Buy a book. There are two official ETS books, which give a total of eight practice tests. Those are fantastic resources. Take full practice tests. Write essays with real TOEFL writing topics. Complete three reading tasks in 60 minutes or under. Then do it again. Listen to lectures only once and try to answer questions on them. Use a timer. Pretend you’re taking the real test, and do it as many times as you can.
It’s an especially good idea to learn about TOEFL speaking topics and the timing. That is the section I most recommend learning about — you don’t want to be unfamiliar with it when the test starts. TOEFL speaking is nothing like having a conversation, and it’s not similar to any other test you’ve taken. The other sections (reading, listening, and writing) will probably feel more familiar, because they’re more similar to other tests, but the speaking section is very distinct.
There are many other details you’ll notice when you actually try taking the test for the first time. There are always problems you don’t expect. Maybe you have trouble choosing an opinion before writing your essay. Maybe you can’t take notes fast enough during the listening. Or maybe you have trouble staying focused while reading. Until you try it, you won’t know.
So jump in the water and take a practice test. If you sink the first time, that’s okay. The good thing about practice is that you can always try again.
This post was written by Lucas Verney-Fink, resident TOEFL expert at Magoosh. For more advice on TOEFL prep, check out Magoosh’s TOEFL blog.