Four Misconceptions about the TOEFL

As international students prepare their applications and supporting materials for consideration by American universities, a great deal of attention is focused on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The TOEFL is a standardized exam that focuses solely on the test-taker’s ability to listen to, read, speak, and write English in an academic environment.

Although the TOEFL is an important part of any international student’s application, it is only one of the pieces that admissions committees will examine before making their decision about which students to accept. Thus, it is important that applicants focus an adequate amount of attention on studying for the TOEFL, but no so much that other pieces of the application are ultimately ignored.

How much you will need to study for the TOEFL will depend entirely on your strengths and weaknesses with the English language. Nevertheless, in order to make an informed decision, it is helpful to first do away with some of the TOEFL’s misconceptions:

1. Your English must be perfect

As previously noted, the TOEFL measures your ability to comprehend and employ English in an academic context. In light of this fact, you might believe that a high score is dependent on your ability to perform each of these tasks perfectly—but context is key.

The TOEFL measures very specific skills, including the synthesis of concepts presented within the text. In many cases, the abilities that you must display have more to do with comprehension than they do with full mastery of the language. Instead of worrying about how well you speak, read, and write in a general setting, focus more on how well you understand and can explain complex academic ideas.

2. An average score ruins your chances of college admission

As with any standardized test that you take for college admission, you should do as well as possible on the TOEFL. In fact, you may even be worried that if you do not do as well as you had hoped, you will not be accepted to the programs to which you are applying. It is important to remember, however, that the TOEFL is just one piece of a larger application package.

For American admissions committees, a strong applicant is able to speak and understand English, but it is equally important that he or she meet the other requirements and expectations that the school has identified as important.

3. A high score equals expert skills

As a test of one’s English skills, you might assume that a high TOEFL score means that the test-taker is an expert in the language. You might also assume that a lower score means the test-taker has inadequate skills.

Remember that the TOEFL is measuring the comprehension and use of English in a specific realm. If a person has exceptional conversational skills, that does not mean that he or she will naturally do well on the TOEFL (nor is the opposite true). Most admissions committees recognize that the TOEFL is only one predictor of English ability. Items like your personal statement matter too.

4. Just reviewing TOEFL content is an adequate prep method

Like other standardized exams, the TOEFL is administered in a particular format with multiple sections. As such, you might think that devoting many hours to studying from a book or other review materials will be sufficient. While you should certainly spend as much time as possible studying, that is not all you will need to earn a great score. For instance, when asked to provide a spoken response, you might know the answer in your head, but a lack of confidence or nervousness could have a very negative influence on your ability to articulate your response.

If you would like to increase your chances of a high score while also building confidence, try practicing with friends who can offer feedback on your skills.

David White is a contributing writer for, the world's largest global marketplace for finding independent tutors.

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