If you want to study in the United States, you almost certainly have to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The TOEFL is an English language proficiency test, and is taken by around 900,000 people around the world each year.

If you are not a native speaker of English, but have studied in an English-speaking country for at least three years, US colleges will probably waive the TOEFL requirement. However, you must check this with each institution rather than assume that you do not have to take the test.


Information The first thing you need to do is get hold of the TOEFL information bulletin. This free booklet provides information on how to register for the TOEFL, fees and payment methods, registration forms, a list of test centres, what happens on the test day, scoring information and some samples questions. A thorough review of the bulletin will pay off in terms of following the correct registration procedures and a clear understanding of the test. The bulletin is available on the TOEFL Website at by mail from the test administrators (or from their local representatives) or from US educational information centres worldwide. Contact any US Embassy or consulate for details of your nearest US educational information centre.

Test Format The TOEFL is currently offered in most countries as a computer-based test. This means that the test is offered at secure testing centres in cities around the world, where there are a number of people taking the test at the same time on computer workstations. The TOEFL is a computer adaptive test, which means that the software will adapt the questions offered to the ability of the test taker – so if you are doing well it will feed you harder questions, but if you are not doing so well it will feed you easier questions! You get more points for getting the harder questions right.

The computer-based test has an introductory tutorial session and four mandatory sections, which assess: Listening (30-50 questions), Structure (20-25 questions) Reading (44-60 questions) and Writing skills (you will be required to write an essay) In total, the test is around four hours long.

There are some countries where the TOEFL is still offered as a paper-based test only, and occasionally as a paper-based test in addition to the computer-based test. For further information, consult the TOEFL Website and the TOEFL bulletin.

Registration You can register for the TOEFL by mail, fax or telephone and currently the test costs approx. US$110. To register by fax or by telephone you need a credit card: payments by mail can be made by several methods, all detailed in the TOEFL bulletin. The fee includes sending official score results to you and four educational institutions of your choice.

In theory, you can register as little as two days before you wish to take the test. However, test centres are often full, so make sure you register as far ahead as possible. At a minimum, you need to take the TOEFL four weeks before the application deadlines for your colleges in order for the scores to reach the school on time. There are no set dates for the computer-based test – at the time of registration you can indicate your first five preferences for a test date. Once you registration has been processed, you will be told your actual test date and the full test centre address. For the paper-based test, there are set dates and strict registration deadlines. In many countries there are detailed security procedures on the day of the test, so make sure you know what identification you will have to take with you to the test centre.

Preparation At the very least, you should familiarize yourself with the test format, and practice some questions beforehand. The amount of practise you need will depend on your English language ability, the time you have available before you take the test, and how familiar you feel with the test format. The TOEFL information bulletin provides some sample questions, but there are also various TOEFL preparation materials available. Materials are available for purchase on the Educational Testing Service (ETS) Website, and may also be available in bookstores or from you nearest US educational information centre. Before buying practise materials, check what is included and whether the materials proved preparation for the computer-based or paper-based TOEFL.

In addition, a number of organisations offer test training courses or private tuition for the TOEFL for a fee. US educational information centres can usually provide you with a list of test trainers, and many trainers advertise in educational publications. Some things to consider before signing up for a course include how many hours of tuition are provided, whether the tuition is provided on videotape or by a ‘live’ teacher, what training and experience the teachers have, and how they measure your improvement throughout the course. If the course is offered at an English language school, check what accreditation the school holds. If you are not sure about a course, ask if you can sit in on a class as an observer and/or ask to speak to past participants.

Test Scores For the computer-based TOEFL you will receive three scores, each from 0 to 30, for the listening, structure/writing and readable sections of the test. An essay score from 0 to 6 is incorporated into the structure/writing score. You will also receive a total score for the TOEFL from 40 to 300 (Equivalent to a range of 310-to 677 on the paper-based test) On the day of the test, you will be given the choice of viewing your scores or cancelling them. Unfortunately you cannot view the score and then cancel them! Around two weeks after you take the test (five weeks if you hand-write your essay), your official scores will be mailed to you and any educational institutions you have designated. For those candidates who can’t wait for the scores to arrive by post, scores are also available by telephone the day they are mailed, on payment of an extra fee.

What score do you need for entry into a US degree program? This will vary, with each college setting its own minimum score, usually somewhere between 133 and 250 (equivalent to between 450 and 600 on the paper-based test.) Check each college catalogue or the university website for specific requirements. English language test scores are just one part of the admission process for colleges, but an important part. Plan ahead, read the registration information thoroughly and give yourself plenty of time to prepare. For further information on the TOEFL, consult, or contact your nearest US educational information centre for help with this and other aspects of applying to study in the USA.

Author: Louise Cook Director, US Educational Advisory service, The Fulbright Commission.

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