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TOEFL Tip #122: Develop Your Skills by Listening to Public Radio

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 30, 2011

We’ve recently discussed some research conducted by Strictly English this summer which suggests that students need to have sharp listening skills for the TOEFL. We discovered that there seems to be two “paths” of connected answers for each listening passage. Each “path” is a series of related answers that follow from the first question. Whichever answer you give for the first question will lead you to select the related choices in subsequent questions. If you’ve answered the first question correctly, you’ll more likely pick the correct answers all the way through that section. If, however, you’ve chosen the incorrect answer for the first question, the “path” of answers will make it more likely that you will miss most of the answers for that passage.

How can you sharpen your listening skills?

Listen to National Public Radio (NPR) programs on your local public radio station.

The TOEFL focuses relentlessly on American-accented English, so listening to NPR will expose you to a wide range of accents. The hosts and reporters who work for NPR generally have slight accents, so they are easy to understand. They also interview people from around the United States and the world, giving you a chance to listen to English spoken with a variety of accents.

In addition to the live broadcasts of NPR programs, many of the shows also have podcasts. You can download them through NPR’s webpage. Consider listening to interviews first, as the flow of conversation might be easier to follow. As your listening skills increase, listen to longer reports on news and other topics.
Another suggestion for sharpening your language skills overall and your listening in particular, is to read about a major world event in a newspaper written in your first language, then read about that same event in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Next, listen to NPR reports about that event. Finally, read about that event in the New Yorker and The Economist. This sequence will help you to compare the ways in which different sources report on the same story, and the types of language each source uses. In addition, you will understand a lot more from the NPR reports because you are already familiar with the story they are discussing.

TOEFL Tip #121: Guest Post: Preparing for the New Revised GRE

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 23, 2011

Here’s a guest post from Jill Muttera, a tutor with Grockit

Use Your Fall to Prepare for the New Revised GRE: What to Expect and How to Prepare for the Verbal Section

Fall is here, and for some lucky people that means trips to go apple picking or to enjoy the season’s brightly colored leaves. But for those of you taking the new revised GRE later this fall or winter, now is the time to buckle down and put in those hours studying for the big test!

It can be easy to feel like there is tons of time to study for the GRE — until suddenly, weeks have turned into months, and the test is just around the corner. To avoid this procrastination disaster and use your available time effectively, create a study plan for the test right away. Most students start studying for the GRE about three months in advance. Set a goal for hours of studying per week and make a schedule of when you will fit in these hours. Some people learn best by studying a short amount daily, while others benefit from longer sessions and having a day or days off. Play around with different schedules until you find what works best for you. Make sure to take practice tests throughout your preparation time so you can get used to the length of the test, as well as gauge your progress in different areas. It is also a good idea to have a reading program set up in addition to your regular GRE practice time. Reading is the best way to learn new vocabulary, especially for non-native English speakers, because you are seeing the word in context. Vocabulary learned this way is more likely to stick with you than vocabulary memorized from a list of definitions. Well-written novels or articles in newspapers are both great options. Many people find that reading one article per day from a newspaper’s website is a nice supplement to their regular GRE practice.

For students taking the new revised GRE, preparing for the test may seem especially overwhelming. Fortunately, a little knowledge about what to expect will allow you to perform your best on these new sections. The new verbal section of the GRE focuses more on vocabulary in context, rather than standing on its own. This is good news for you since context offers clues to the meanings of words. The antonym and analogy questions have been eliminated, and text completion and sentence equivalence questions have been added. If you have taken the TOEFL exam, these new questions will be familiar already. Text completion questions consist of short paragraphs with one to three blanks. Each blank will have three possible choices, or five if there is only one blank. A choice could be one word or a phrase made up of a few words. Sentence equivalence questions contain one sentence with one blank and six answer choices. You must select two answer choices that could complete the sentence. Both of these types of questions do not get partial credit–if you miss one part of the question, you miss the whole thing. An effective strategy for these sections is predicting a word or phrase that would fill in the blank and then trying to find a matching meaning in the answer choices.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about the GRE, especially with a new format and the rush of activity that fall often brings. But armed with a clear study plan and an understanding of the new elements of the GRE, you can make the most of your fall and go into your test confident and prepared!

TOEFL Tip #120: Test Taking Anxiety?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on

Test taking anxiety?

This is a guest post from Renee Hoekstra, Psy.D.

There are several reasons that people get anxious about test-taking, and here are a few things that you can do about it.

First of all, figure out what it is that makes you anxious. There are many reasons why people are anxious in testing situations, and the reasons vary. Some people have a hard time speaking openly and in public. Some people get really self-conscious about their accents and are afraid of saying the wrong thing when learning a new language. Some people are highly self-conscious and are afraid of being made fun of. The idea of taking a test in a different language can be intimidating.

Other people may get anxious in test taking conditions. People who have a history of poor academic performance may get anxious in any situation in which they are graded. Some people grew up in environments that were demanding or critical when they did not perform well. Competitive environments often foster the belief that a person’s worth is based on success. Anxiety can get in the way of a person’s ability concentrate, to organize information coherently, and to pay attention to something long enough to come up with the correct answer. Sometimes just being in a testing situation or classroom is enough to get people anxious.

Other people are afraid of the consequences of failure. If the consequences are very meaningful and limit options for the future, this makes sense. However, if one becomes overly focused on the consequences of failure this can “kidnap” attention that is needed to concentrate on the exam itself.

Here are a few ideas for handling test-taking anxiety:

1) Find out what you are afraid of: What is the “worst case” scenario? Share your “worst case scenario” with a trusted peer. Sometimes saying things out loud and talking openly about fear can help it to diminish. If thinking about your “worst case scenario” is enough to spike your anxiety, you may want to re-visit your scenario over and over again until your fear goes down. If you don’t know of anyone who can work with you on your “worst case scenario,” you may want to find a psychotherapist trained in exposure therapy (such as myself) to help you. The intended result of this exercise is to be able to imagine feared situations with less anxiety. When you can bring to mind the feared situations without your brain shutting down, you will have more control of your anxiety.

2) Develop a plan to cope with the worst case scenario. Figure out a Plan B. If there is a realistic chance that you will fail, accepting and tolerating the moment- your current life situation- will enable you to handle the situation better. This does not mean you have to accept failure or approve of your expectations of yourself. It does not mean that you have to give up, and it does not mean that other alternatives won’t make themselves available to you. It just means that you’ve got to get through a tough situation the best way that you can. A refusal to acknowledge and accept reality on the terms of reality can actually make your life worse. Remember that many successful people have failed. Tolerating the consequences of potential failure does not mean that your life is over. It just means you have to look for alternative paths.

3) Do everything you can to practice being in situations that make your anxiety go up. Usually, people avoid situations that make them anxious. This increases the belief that what they are avoiding is actually fearful. This increases anxiety. When forced to confront such feared situations, people are faced with flat out panic. Don’t let this be you. If being in a classroom makes you anxious, find a classroom and sit there until your anxiety goes down. If your anxiety doesn’t go down, then plan on a specific period of time- with a beginning and an end- to sit there. If going to a testing center makes you anxious, go sit in a testing center. If the click of a keyboard makes you anxious, record keyboard-clicking noises and listen to them over and over again. If the exam center allows you to take a practice test, by all means- take the practice test.

4) Know what is ahead of you. Don’t go into an exam “blind” because you were so busy avoiding taking the exam! Know all the components of the exam and know how long the exam will take. Know how many breaks you have. Know where the exam center is and anticipate problems with traffic or public transportation. Go to the exam center on a day before your exam and time how long it takes you. Talk to people who have taken the exam to get their impressions. Take practice exams and get feedback. Most anxiety can be decreased by being fully aware of- and planning for -anything that can go wrong on exam day. Get adequate sleep, take snacks to the test- taking center, eat well, don’t change your diet or make any big plans right before the exam. Stick to your schedule and your routine to the best of your ability. And be willing to accept that things don’t always go according to plan.

TOEFL Tip #119: Know Your Signs Of Nervousness

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 16, 2011

Two weeks ago, we talked about converting nervousness you might feel at the TOEFL exam into excitement. If you think of the test as a series of fun challenges, you are more likely to perform well.

But how can you tell if you’re feeling nervous?

We usually associate nervousness with certain responses in body. Tensing your muscles, shrugging your shoulders, tapping your fingers or bouncing your foot very quickly, crinkling your forehead, and playing with your hair are all signs of anxiety. While you might not realize that you’re nervous, if you notice that you’re doing one or more of these physical behaviors, you very likely are.

So how can you calm down?

If you’re sitting at the test station and you’re in the middle of a section, take a few seconds to breathe in deeply, and exhale slowly. Do this several times, as often as necessary. Also try stretching your legs out as far as possible. Force yourself to lower your shoulders, and roll them back. If the TOEFL exam hasn’t started yet, or you’re on the short break, take the opportunity to walk around a little bit. Do some toe-touches, deep knee bends, or any other stretches that you can comfortably perform. Likewise, if you practice yoga, select one or two positions that you can easily do in the lobby. Whatever you choose to do, the main idea is the same – to ease your muscle tension and lower your heart rate, which will allow you to concentrate on the exam.

As you prepare for the TOEFL, take note of your particular signs of nervousness, and practice relaxing in whichever way works best for you.

TOEFL Tip #118: How The TOEFL Helps You At Business School And Beyond!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 9, 2011

Today’s post was written by our guest, Harriet Murdoch, a journalist at, a business school news, networking and jobs site. Helping business applicants choose a b-school and business students find a job.

Business schools place great emphasis on oral and written communication. This makes the TOEFL especially important, not only do you need to pass but having a good score will make life easier for you once you are studying for the MBA.

Bennet & Olney’s survey of Fortune 500 Vice Presidents showed that 97.7 percent of them “believed that communication skills had affected their advancement to a top executive position.” Whilst you are preparing hard for your TOEFL it may seem a pain, but bear in mind this is an investment that will continue to pay off throughout your career.

At most top business schools the MBA is taught in English. At the McDonough school of business at Georgetown University they offer a pre-term course, Communication Tools for Success, offering the “edge you need to be ready for your MBA program.”

English language coach Bruce Cooper, said that while doing his MBA at France’s EMLYON he was constantly presenting and was surprised at the start of the year that many people in the class were ill at ease speaking in front of the group. However, they did improve over the year: “Because you give presentations on a weekly basis, you can see the changes over the course of the year!”, he says.

For those for whom English is not their first language it is obviously a larger task, and Cooper believes these people are very courageous as they can be “out of their comfort zone as it is such an intensive course with so much reading, writing and many assignments”. Throughout the course you are taught the quality of eloquence and rhetoric, “they teach you how to approach your audience”. You can read more in Bruce Copper’s recent interview about his business school experience on

Carmine Gallo, communication coach for business leaders of some of the world’s largest companies, said that “as a business student, manager, leader or aspiring leader, you need to know what very few people will ever tell you—you are being judged by how well you speak in public and how persuasively you deliver a presentation”. He says “your Harvard degree might get you in the door but starting on day one you’ll be judged by how effectively you communicate your ideas.”

An MBA student blogging about starting at IFL, Stockholm School of Economics, said “the first week has been truly intense and it is quite clear that you need a high level of English on an MBA Program. At the beginning of the week I was worrying about where my English had gone, but the longer the week went on – the better it became”.

If your grasp of the English language is good to begin with, you’ll do well. However, if you go to business school with underdeveloped linguistic ability you may find yourself struggling to stay afloat.

Also worth noting is that for entrance to an MBA program the TOEFL is not like the GMAT: a higher score will not boost your chances for being admitted. Most schools ask for a score over 100 (out of 120), a few ask for scores over 110 e.g. Harvard, but most schools are happy with anything that meets their cutoff scores.

TOEFL Tip #117: Converting Nervousness Into Excitement

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 2, 2011

You feel restless, you are full of anticipation, you are obsessing about the future. You might even feel your heart beating faster. Are you nervous (generally seen as a negative feeling) or might you possibly be excited!

The answer is … either one. How we feel is highly influenced by the circumstances in which we experience something. If you’re feeling the bodily sensations described above, and your birthday party is later in the afternoon, you call it “excitement.” If, however, you feel this way right before a test, you call it “nerves.” You’re actually feeling the same set of physical responses, but the CONTEXT leads to a different interpretation of what those sensations MEAN.

One of Strictly English’s tutors shared the following story about how context changes the meaning of how she feels.

“When I first started teaching, I got nervous at the start of every semester. I asked myself questions like, ‘Would the students work well together?’ and ‘Would they like me?’ By the time class started, I had butterflies in my stomach. One semester, I decided to think about my students as friends who didn’t quite know me yet. Introducing myself to them and getting them interested in the class became a game, a challenge for my creativity, rather than something to be afraid of. Since then, I still have the butterflies, but I think of them the same why I think of the feelings I get before going on a date with a man I’m really excited to get to know. Once I traded my nervousness for excitement, I became a much more effective teacher.”

So let’s PURPOSEFULLY turn the tables on TOEFL test day. As you begin to feel yourself getting nervous, say to yourself, “THIS IS EXCITING! I’m going to have FUN!” Turn TOEFL into a game and not a test. We don’t start to cry and shake when we have a bad round of Angry Birds. Of course not! We just try again. And we have FUN trying again! So, for example, if your Speaking Task 1 seems like it wasn’t very good, just laugh at your own mistakes, and then start Task 2 with the same excitement that you would have if you were trying another round of Angry Birds.

Such a simple shift in perception can make the difference between a 24 and a 26 on the Speaking!