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TOEFL Tip #97: An Incentive to Begin TOEFL Preparation Today!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 29, 2011

As the current school year starts to come to a close, we know it’s hard to think about the college application process next fall and winter. And yet, you really need to start preparing for the TOEFL now so that you will have everything you need on time for your applications.

Let’s look at the timeline, working backwards from your application deadlines.

Many college applications are due in early January at the latest; some are due in early December. Even if your deadlines are later, the rush of holidays in late December can distract you while preparing your materials, so you should complete as much as you can before mid-December.

Putting together your application – writing letters, writing an essay, and so on – should take about six weeks. You need to leave enough time for the people who write letters of recommendation on your behalf, and you need time to draft and then revise your essay. Your timeline is now back to November 1st.

You also need to take the SAT by November 1st, so that your scores will be reported on time for your application. Students typically need 3 months of prep time for the SAT, which means you’re starting to study for the SAT in early August.

You should take the TOEFL before the SAT, which means that your last chance to take the TOEFL is in late July. TOEFL preparation can take 2-3 months, which means you need to start TOEFL preparation at the end of April – now.

Strictly English has courses designed for different levels of study; classes for each section of the TOEFL typically take 3-4 weeks to complete, depending on your schedule.

If you sign up by April 30th – today – you can take advantage of our best price on TOEFL prep classes: 50% off of your first purchase. See details here. The discount will be 40% off of your first purchase if you sign up in May, and 30% off if you sign up in June. There will be no discount if you wait until the fall to sign up for classes, so sign up today to get the best savings!

TOEFL Tip #96: Speak with Feeling

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 22, 2011

Some of our recent blog posts (here and here) have addressed different issues related to the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam. These posts have focused on your choice of words and the way that you say them. Today, we want to talk about the emotion behind your words – how your tone of voice can influence how well the TOEFL rater understands you.

Your goal is to sound like you care about your topic. When you are talking with a friend, your voice naturally rises and falls as part of the flow of conversation. Do this on the TOEFL exam as well. Vary your tone of voice, and emphasize one or two words in each sentence to highlight their importance to what you’re saying. Avoid speaking in a monotone! A flat voice that does not have any variation sounds like you are bored. If you sound bored, your rater will be bored with your answer. A bored rater might miss details in your answer, and you might end up with a lower grade. It’s ok if you sound a little bit nervous in your answers – that’s to be expected on a test – but try to calm your voice and replace nervousness with confidence. You don’t want the rater to think that you don’t understand the question, or don’t know what the answer should be. A confident voice is strong and clear, but does not yell into the microphone.

In addition, be sure to smile while giving your answer. This will help lift your voice and convey positive emotions. If you are frowning, you will sound angry or sad when you speak.

When your answers sound as if you care about the topic, that tells the rater that you have understood the context of the question, and you are matching your response correctly. If, for example, you are answering a question about your favorite season, you should sound happy, warm, and lively. On the other hand, if the question is about a person from the past you would like to meet, you should speak with admiration in your voice. If you sound angry when talking about your favorite high school teacher, the mis-match between the positive question (favorite teacher) and negative emotion (anger) might cause the rater to think that you did not fully understand the question. Even when giving answers that don’t have particular emotions associated with them, you should still sound interested in the topic. For example, when answering a question about an academic lecture, listen to the way that the speaker in the test talks about the subject for hints about how to sound enthusiastic about the subject he or she is discussing.

In order to be more effective on the Speaking section, practice conveying enthusiasm and interest in your TOEFL answers. You will sound more natural, and that is one of the keys to getting a good Speaking score.

TOEFL Tip #95: TOEFL Tests Effective Communication

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 15, 2011

Students often get nervous about the content of the TOEFL exam. They worry that they won’t be familiar with the topics in the Reading section, the academic lectures in the Speaking and Listening sections, or the written and spoken passages for the Integrated Writing task (also called the 20 minute essay). To prepare for the test, students might be tempted to try to learn something about a lot of different academic subjects, hoping that they’ll get lucky and recognize the topics on test day. While concern about knowing the material on the TOEFL exam is understandable, trying to study for the content of the exam is not a good use of your time and effort. Because you don’t know what topics will actually be on the TOEFL, it is a waste of time and energy to try to guess which random subjects will be on the exam, and study those. Always remember that the TOEFL tests effective communication, not intelligence.

This is really important to understand. The TOEFL tests how well you can understand and communicate in English. You do not have to already know about the topics on the exam in order to answer the questions. According to Test Section details for the Reading section page on the official TOEFL webpage:

TOEFL iBT Reading passages are excerpts from university-level textbooks that would be used in introductions to a discipline or topic. The passages will cover a variety of different subjects. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the topic of a passage. All the information you need to answer the questions will be in the passage.

Although this quote is talking about the Reading section, it also applies to the other sections of the exam – the information you need to answer the questions will be contained in the passages.

Let’s be clear: there are definitely strategies about TOEFL content that will help you to do well on the exam because they will save you time on test day. Our post from March 29th, for example, pointed out that students should be familiar with terms about American university campuses. Another strategy is study the roots, prefixes, and suffixes of English words to that you can more quickly figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. The important difference between these strategies and trying to study for the content of the TOEFL is that knowing campus vocabulary and understanding how to figure out what a word means will help with all sections of the exam. This is time and energy well spent.

Rather than worry about what will be on the TOEFL exam, work on strengthening your core English language skills, and expressing yourself clearly and succinctly.

TOEFL Tip #94: Diction: Word Choice And How You Speak

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 7, 2011

Today’s post is part of our series examining the subtle but important differences among terms used to describe speaking. Understanding these terms will make you more aware of how you speak, and will help you understand and correct some common speech problems.

This post focuses on diction. The term “diction” has two different, but related, meanings. One meaning refers to the words that you choose, and the way that you phrase your ideas. The other refers to the way that you speak. Let’s look at both of these meanings in more detail.

Word choice is important on the TOEFL, in both the Speaking and the Writing sections. Having good diction means that you use language that is appropriate for your audience, and for your purpose. On the TOEFL, this means that you should use a range of vocabulary that mixes short, simple words with longer, more sophisticated words. Similarly, use a variety of sentence structures. Writing or speech that has all short words in short sentences makes the writer/speaker seem uneducated, whereas writing or speech that has all long words in complex sentences can be difficult to understand. By mixing your word choice and sentence style, you demonstrate your mastery of the language. Avoid all swearing on the TOEFL, even expressions that seem mild or are in widespread use, and limit your use of jargon – that is, specialized vocabulary – from your profession.

The other meaning of diction – how you speak – is equally important. You want to speak clearly, and fully pronounce each word before moving on to the next. Many speakers frequently drop the final letter from words when speaking (especially the final “t” and “d” sounds); for example, reading the previous sentence out loud might sound like this: “Ya wanna speak clearly, an fully pronounce each wor before moving on t’the next.” Don’t do this on the TOEFL! Each word needs to be clearly heard. Speaking quickly makes diction harder, so practice speaking slowly enough to be easily understood.

To better understand diction, try listening to two or three news reports from different sources on the same topic. Because the subject is the same, you will be able to hear how each report uses word choice and clear speaking to convey information quickly and clearly.

TOEFL Tip #93: Guest Post: In Praise of the GMAT Official Guide

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on April 1, 2011

This week’s guest post is from Jim Jacobson,’s expert on the Verbal section of the GMAT. Check out their site if you are planning to take the GMAT, LSAT, or GRE exams.

Jim Writes:

One question I hear often is “what sources should I use?” The answer isn’t entirely straightforward — as always, exact tactics can vary as much as GMAT students can vary — but the Official Guide to the test should be at the heart of every single study plan, especially for GMAT aspirants whose native language is not English. What does the OG do for you?

It provides authentic test questions. The GMAT is not published after the fact the way the LSAT is; all makers of prep materials must model their questions after the ones published in the Official Guide. This means that only the OG has real, recent questions, and any other test prep source risks coming up with something the GMAT itself wouldn’t do, even on the same test topic.

The quantitative overview is comprehensive. The section that lays out what topics they want you to know is quite extensive; if you are wondering what math you will need to know/review/learn the first time to get a top score, that section gives it to you.

The verbal questions and their explanations are a priceless guide. This is the part that is useful for everyone, but particularly useful to non-native English speakers. The GMAT’s idea of English deviates a bit from standard written English, in that some things that are grammatically correct are still considered wrong on the test for stylistic reasons. The ONLY way to get a good feel for GMAT English is by careful study of the Official Guide.

It provides a basis for comparison with other test prep materials. If you use GMAT materials from any other source, you run the risk of inaccuracies (and occasionally outright incorrect information). Familiarity with the OG will enable you to better evaluate other sources, and settle disputes for yourself when sources contradict each other.

The Official Guide isn’t without any drawbacks, however:

If you have a substantial study program, you will run out of questions. The number of questions is finite, as is the number of official CATs. This leads many people to other sources. The Official Guide should still be your basis, however.

The quantitative questions do not test all the topics covered in the overview. If you struggle with Interest questions, for example, or Permutation/Combination, there are not many questions of those types in the OG. If those trouble you, you’ll need to get more practice elsewhere.

The verbal questions cannot possibly adequately test all verbal idioms. This is just a fact of human language. If idioms are a problem for you, begin a program of reading perhaps even before you start doing practice questions.

The OG is by its very nature retrospective. Because it is entirely based on previous test questions, you will not be prepared for questions that are “new.” While new question forms are tested in advance as experimental questions, they do not show up in the OG. This is perhaps the best argument in favor of supplementing with other test prep sources, not just in spite of their potential to deviate from the OG norm, but because of it! If you’re forced to see an old idiom or formula in a new way, it can help keep you flexible. Too much emphasis on simply recognizing OG patterns on the real GMAT can hurt you.