Do-it-yourself guide for online TOEFL prep

The Test of English as a Foreign Language, also known as TOEFL, demonstrates your English proficiency for academic study or work in a government agency. With a little dedication and resourcefulness, you can study for TOEFL by yourself. Create your own do-it-yourself TOEFL prep course by following these five steps.


1. Get to know the TOEFL

The first step in any TOEFL prep course is to gain familiarity with the exam--including its format, structure and question types. The most common test format is the Internet-based test, or iBT, available at most testing centers. Centers without Internet access offer the paper-based test, or PBT.

  • The iBT TOEFL features four sections in key language competencies: Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing. Altogether, the test takes about four hours.
  • The paper-based TOEFL is about three hours long, and features slightly different sections: Listening, Structure and Written Expression, Reading Comprehension and Writing.

It's important to know which version of the test you'll take before you begin preparing. For example, Speaking accounts for a quarter of your iBT score but is absent from the paper version, so the internet exam will require more conversational English practice. Do-it-yourself TOEFL prep allows you to customize your study regimen to your needs.

2. Take a timed diagnostic test

Begin by taking a timed diagnostic test under conditions similar to those you'll encounter on exam day. Select the exam type available at your nearest testing center, Internet-based or paper-based, and time yourself according to the instructions. You can purchase an internet-based test or paper-based test from ETS, the company that administers the TOEFL. The downloadable iBT includes scoring and an analysis of your performance. The paper-based test comes with a scoring rubric to help you pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses. You can download TOEFL timer applications on your computer or smartphone (e.g., Adiante TOEFL Timer, free iPhone app).

3. Log into online TOEFL prep resources

The world wide web is home to a variety of resources to support your do-it-yourself TOEFL prep.

  • ETS features a number of free and paid resources, including Free TOEFL iBT Sample Questions and TOEFL iBT Test Tips.
  • AmEnglish.com in partnership with ETS publishes a series of web-based interactive programs targeting specific skill areas such as pronunciation, idioms and writing. Choose the program that best addresses any weaknesses revealed by the diagnostic test.
  • Mobile apps have covered every aspect of TOEFL preparation, with an emphasis on vocabulary flashcards (e.g., VocabWiz TOEFL, $.99). You can study for TOEFL by yourself anywhere you go, practicing everything from irregular verbs (Irregular Verbs for TOEFL, $2.99) to essay writing (TOEFL Essay Preparation, free).
  • Online TOEFL prep courses generally feature a more flexible and affordable alternative to campus courses. Pay by monthly subscription, by lesson or by course. Examples include Manhattan Review, which offers online TOEFL prep courses. Look for online courses in your home country; Nigerian students, for example, can sign on with EasiPrep, which offers online TOEFL prep assistance by monthly subscription.

The Internet also features discussion boards and chat rooms to connect with other students preparing for the TOEFL.

4. Take practice tests

Hone your test-taking skills by drilling yourself on practice tests. ETS features TOEFL Practice Online, a set of full practice tests for purchase that simulate the experience of taking the Internet-based TOEFL. The test includes instant scoring and feedback in each of the four skill areas, reading, listening, speaking and writing. You can also find print practice exams in ETS' The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test. Repetition is the key to success; drill yourself in practice questions to build familiarity with the TOEFL's quirks and patterns.

5. Read, write, listen to and speak English

Last but not least, practice your English--reading, writing and speaking. A combination of basic informal skills practice and TOEFL-focused training offers the most comprehensive way to study for TOEFL by yourself.

  • Reading. Use Lexile Measures to find reading materials appropriate to your reading level. The free ETS-sponsored service matches your TOEFL Reading Section score with a MetaMetrics Lexile measure, and suggests book lists customized to your comprehension level. For a more comprehensive reading practice regimen, invest in The Engaging English Service.
  • Writing. Practice writing in English using ETS' list of Writing Topics. Have a native speaker correct your essay, or turn to sites like TOEFLNow.com, which connect you with exam graders who can assess your score on the TOEFL rubric.
  • Speaking. Join a conversation group or find a native English speaker to practice your verbal skills. If you live abroad and don't have access to an English speaker, find an English speaking partner online though a site like GMAT Club. For specific TOEFL speaking exercises, sign up with an in-person tutor (try WyzAnt) and access TOEFL conversation topics online.

The key to a high TOEFL score is building your English proficiency, and that takes practice, practice and more practice. With dedication and the help of online TOEFL prep resources, you can study for TOEFL by yourself and achieve the score you want.

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