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TOEFL Tip #106: A Change in Speaking Task One

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 24, 2011

For more than a year, we’ve been hearing reports that ETS seems to have changed the format of Speaking Task One, from a description of something or someone, to giving advice to someone. Of course, ETS has the right to use older versions of the TOEFL at any given time, so do not assume that you will never get a description question, such as “Describe your favorite pet.” However, based on the information we have heard, ETS seems to have been using a new style of Speaking Task One question consistently for some time.

As we understand it, the new Speaking Task One focuses on giving general advice about common situations. An example might be, “A friend is thinking about buying a dog. What would you advise your friend to consider before making a decision?” Be careful with this question. You want to make sure that you are giving advice TO someone ELSE, rather than stating your opinion about dogs as pets, or your opinion about whether your friend should or should not get the dog. Strictly English thinks that the new format of Speaking Task One is too similar to Speaking Task Two, which asks you to construct an argument or give your opinion about a familiar topic.

To help make sure that your answers for Speaking Task One and Task Two are different, keep in mind that Task One is your opinion about what someone else should do or think about. For example, if you’re giving advice to your friend before she buys a dog, you might suggest that she consider questions such as: How large the dog will be and how much space does she have available in her home? Does she have enough time to walk the dog several times a day? Will the dog bark a lot and disturb the neighbors? These are logical concerns that anyone should think about before buying a dog. It doesn’t matter if you personally love dogs or would never have one as a pet, your advice to your friend would be the same.

Remember that Speaking Task One is always going to be on a familiar, simple, general topic. The advice you give should be straightforward and basic.

It may take a while for this new format of question to show up in study guides, so make sure that you prepare on your own. Have friends and family members ask you for advice on everyday topics (Where should I shop? Which book should I read next? In which neighborhood should I live?) so you can get in the habit of offering simple advice.

TOEFL Tip #104: Rescoring Could Make A Big Difference

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 10, 2011

If your Speaking and Writing scores on the TOEFL are lower than you expected, consider having the sections rescored. Recently, three Strictly English students have benefitted significantly from their rescore requests. Two students each gained four points on the Speaking section – one went from 23 to 27, and the other went from 24 to 28 – and the third student gained four points on the Writing section, going from 24 to 28. These higher scores are life-changing, because they resulted in the scores necessary for each student to pursue professional licenses. With so much at stake, rescoring could be a smart strategy.

The ETS site outlines the process for requesting a rescore, but we wanted to highlight a few points here.

Each TOEFL exam you take can be rescored only one time, but you have up to three months after you take the test to request the rescore. If you want both the Speaking and Writing sections rescored, they must be done at the same time. Each section is $60 ($120 for both sections), which must be paid whether your scores changes or not. Revised scores are ready online three weeks after your request is received.

Only the Speaking and Writing sections can be rescored, because these sections call on the judgment and experience of each person scoring your exam. Of course, ETS has standards and guidelines to help all of its graders assess tests in very similar ways. Strictly English has discussed scoring discrepancies with ETS, who assures us that these are anomolies – unusual exceptions to their typical results. ETS says, “Data collected by ETS indicates that TOEFL iBT score changes based on rescores has always been less than one tenth of one percent and that the rate has actually decreased every year.” Yet, for us to have three students each gain four points suggests that ETS’s scoring on the Speaking and Writing sections might not be consistent all of the time.

Before you request a rescore, be honest with yourself about your performance on the test. Is your actual score on the Speaking and Writing sections lower than the score you need by four or fewer points? Have your practice test scores been higher than your actual test score? Were you well prepared to take the test – well-rested, not hungry, etc? Did you feel that you easily understood the material in the Speaking and Writing sections? Did you feel confident that your answers addressed the questions in a direct, focused way?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, consider having your Reading or Writing sections rescored. Rescoring could make the difference in your final test score between needing to take the TOEFL again, or not. If you request a rescore and receive a higher score, please be sure to let us know!

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 #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.

TOEFL Tip #72: Admissions Offices Prefer TOEFL Over IELTS

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 11, 2010

Not surprisingly, many admissions offices prefer TOEFL over IELTS, and why not? TOEFL is more academically focused and it is more objective in its assessment of Speaking. (Entry continues below picture.)

On the TOEFL, six different  raters evaluate your Speaking responses, and they cannot be swayed by your smile or your tears to give you a higher grade because they feel bad for you.  I know IELTS says that they train their raters to be objective, but I just don’t see how you can coldly grade someone very low who is clearly nervous or afraid.  I would hope people are more compassionate than that, but I would also hope that a test taker doesn’t get a higher grade than their ability just because a rater feels sorry for them.

TOEFL Tip #61: 3 Questions Every TOEFL Tutor Should Be Able to Answer

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 23, 2009

Strictly English has a list of 21 questions about the TOEFL iBT exam that we use when interviewing TOEFL tutors. If they cannot answer these questions correctly, then they don’t get the job!

If you’re looking for an iBT tutor, make sure he or she can answer at least these three questions below. If your tutor cannot answer these questions, then you might want someone who knows more about the test to be teaching you!

1. Can I get a 25 out of 30 on the Speaking section of the iBT?
2. What section of the TOEFL iBT asks you questions that directly test your knowledge of Grammar?
3. On what part of the iBT are you most likely to use modals?

1. NO. TOEFL does not give a score of 25 on the Speaking.
2. NONE: There are NO grammar questions on the iBT.
3. Speaking Task 5. It is the only place where you talk about offering suggestions.

EXTRA NOTE: Make sure you see the tutor’s TOEFL SCORE. Even if he/she is a native English speaker, your tutor should have taken the TOEFL so that he/she knows exactly what you’ll experience on test day. Every Strictly English tutor has taken the TOEFL. This also means that we know exactly how the real test is different from what is taught in the books. Much of the information in the books is out of date because the books were published 3-5 years ago. TOEFL books should be updated at least every 2 years if not every year. If your tutor is not taking the test regularly, then he/she is relying on information in the books, which is usually old and out-of-date information.

TOEFL Tip #58: ETS Now Allows Score Recipients To Verify Your Results

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 25, 2009

The following letter explains that institutions that receive your score can now contact ETS and verify that the scores you submitted to the institution are the same as the scores ETS gave you. This will help eliminate fraud. So don’t send fake scores to your school; they will find out! Here is the original email:

Dear TOEFL Test Taker,

Thank you for taking the TOEFL® Internet-based Test (TOEFL iBT™). This message is to inform you of a change in ETS policy regarding verification of scores by institutions and agencies.

Effective July 2009, if you provide an institution or agency with your score information and/or TOEFL registration number, you are giving ETS permission to allow that institution or agency to verify your scores.

If you do not want an institution or agency to have access to your score information, do not provide them with information about your scores or your TOEFL registration number.

You can read more about this change at under Test Takers, Internet-based Test, Scores, Policies.

TOEFL Tip #55: Picking The Boarding School That Is Right For You!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 3, 2009

This article was written by Heather Johnson, CEO and Founder of Heather Johnson Associates. You can visit her company at

When I was a boarding school admission officer, the range of questions I would answer from families would sometimes surprise me. However, there were some concerns that would repeatedly surface. For students, as much as they might be interested in the idea of going away to boarding school, they were usually very concerned about leaving their friends from home. For parents, there were always questions about how their child would be supported and guided when they, as parents, were not there to do that themselves.

Of course there is not one set answer to either of these concerns, as they are particular to the individual student and to the individual school. Therefore, it’s most important to keep your eyes and ears open when visiting a school to see how these questions will best be answered for you. As a student you know best what makes you feel comfortable. Would you rather be a large fish in a small pond or doesn’t that matter to you? Is there something in particular that you would like to participate in at your next school? Maybe a single-sex environment is more comfortable for you than one that is co-ed. Perhaps you love the idea of “dressing up” for school in khakis and a blazer or a skirt and jacket; on the other hand, it’s quite possible that you would feel much more comfortable in different clothes.

The truth is that while traditional boarding schools are college-preparatory in nature, there will be many variations on this theme. You might be very conscious of the names of some schools, yet the best fit for you may be a school you have never heard about before. A visit to your schools of interest is most important. Ask to meet a coach or instructor of a sport, activity or of a class that interests you. Ask your student tour guide what his/her transition was like to boarding school. Ask your admission officer all of the additional questions you have to see how you might fit into this particular place.

Boarding schools are full of students who can become lifelong friends like your friends at home. They are also designed to be places that are supportive and guide students in their pursuits of intellectual and extra-curricular interest. It’s all about finding the right “fit.”

TOEFL Tip # 53: Improving TOEFL Comprehension Via 360 Research

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 30, 2009

Since TOEFL is a Test of ENGLISH as a Second Language, you can greatly improve your TOEFL score by improving your English comprehension. One way to do that is to initiate a 360-review of an academically-oriented or politically-focused news story. 360-Research means looking at the story from all possible angles. For example, you could:

1. Read about the story in respected American news papers such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Huffington Post.

2. Read about the story in respected English-Language magazines, such as The Economist, The New Yorker, and

3. Listen to radio reports about the story on or on respected radio shows like On Point, Talk of the Nation, Here and Now, or The Diane Rehm Show.

4. Watch videos about the story on or on your local Public Television station.

5. Look up key ideas relevant to the story

6. Follow the story on

7. Read about the story in your own language.

This last point is very helpful. Because it is hard to understand the more subtle ideas in news stories, it is often good to read about the story first in your own language. That way you’ll understand the story, which will improve your comprehension of the story in English. Once you understand the story in your own language, then you’ll be able to focus on how the English is conveying the same idea. This is particularly helpful when the entire story focuses on one central idea or quotation. For example, do a search in your own language for Judge Sotomayor’s statement that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” In Spanish, one blogger translated this as una latina inteligente podría tomar mejores decisiones que un hombre blanco que no ha tenido las mismas experiencias vitales”, and if you search the web in Spanish for “Sotomayor,” you’ll find every hit mentions “latina inteligente”. So when you read “wise latina” in English, you’ll quickly figure out that WISE must mean INTELIGENTE, since you’ve seen “latina inteligente” 20-30 times already.

Here are some links to get you started for a more recent story: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.





Talk of the Nation

PBS: (click on the STREAMING VIDEO link)



Definition of racial profiling.

article about racial profiling.

Definition of 911 calls.

Definition of sensitivity training.

Article on how diversity training doesn’t work.


Do this once a week on a new topic, and your English will improve much more quickly!


TOEFL Tip #51: College In The US | Does Brand-Name Matter?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 15, 2009

Strictly English asked Adam Goldberg, M.Ed. (CEO and Educational Consultant of The Goldberg Center for Educational Planning) if the name of the school you attend really matters.  Here’s what he said:

If you are considering an American college education as a non-US citizen, don’t limit yourself by applying to only the “big name” institutions.

A good example of this bias came to our educational consulting office this morning from China:

“My son wants to go to USA for the high school and the college from Beijing, China. We are hoping for entry to the top 20 universities in USA. To get this done easily we decide to spend the high school in USA. He had taken a tours to visit 10 famous university and likes MIT, Princeton, and Yale very much.”

This is actually a very typical inquiry. Whether they come from China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, England, Australia, Panama, Argentina, or any other country for that matter, prospective students and their families come with “brand name biases.” Most have either only heard of the most prominent colleges (like those listed in the inquiry above), or have decided in their own minds that it is only worth pursuing an American college education if it’s at one of these “famous” institutions.

While I do not intend to crush dreams, suppress ambitions, or change others’ plans, I feel it is necessary to present the reality so that these prospective students and their families can make more informed decisions.

Here are some facts to consider:

• There are many tier three colleges in the US with a quality of education, as well as of prestige as those on the lists of the top 10, 20, or even 50 US universities.
Application volume is still high relative to prior generations, especially due to the movement of applications online. As a result, acceptance rates are considerably lower. Colleges mentioned in the above inquiry generally end up accepting no more than 7-15% of all applicants … and those applicants are collectively credentialed well above the norm to begin with.
• The currency imbalance has caused many international students to study in the US for much less money. Therefore international demand is up as well.
• You gain no advantage by applying to the same colleges to which your country-mates apply.
• Attending a top or “famous” private school in the US does not guarantee admission at the aforementioned colleges.

So, now that you have some of the basics and perhaps a slightly new perspective on American colleges, what can you do to more successfully navigate the admissions process?

1. Open up your scope of college options! Beware of lists such as the Shanghai Jiao Tong Rankings in Asia – they are not focused on individual student needs and don’t necessarily give you a truly accurate picture from afar. Besides, in my opinion, it doesn’t do you much good if everyone is operating off the same list in your geography. You will need to do more research, perhaps enlisting some help to do so, but it is well worth the time and effort in the end. As a hiring manager, there are many brands beyond the “famous” ones on a resume that stand to impress me.
2. At the same time, I certainly won’t fully minimize the importance of name brands since they do matter in some domains… you just have to consider which domains are most relevant. If a student is planning on ultimately taking a job in the US, brand name will mean something very different from a scenario where a student is likely returning to his/her home country for work. Carefully consider and discuss the longer-term outlook.
3. Differentiate yourself as a student. US colleges are not looking for generalists these days. They want specialists… those students who have demonstrated a commitment to thoroughly studying one academic topic. Again, extending the scope beyond institutions to which peers are applying immediately creates differentiation as well.
4. Most importantly, consider the fit of a college (and a private school if you decide to get an earlier start in the US system) before anything. Would you rather be a miserable student at Harvard or thrive at a slightly lesser known (but still top quality) institution? Most studies show that the latter student is more successful in the end. Socialization, acquiring work skills and ethics, and gaining confidence and self-advocacy skills, along with building productive relationships, are considered integral assets in the college experience here in the US.

The bottom line is that brand names do matter in the US college realm … but only to a certain extent. My experience tells me that prospective international students can achieve much greater success in both the admissions process and post-matriculation by merely opening up their minds a bit more.

For additional insights into both college and private school admissions, feel welcome to visit our educational consulting blog. For information on educational consulting services offered through companies, visit EnCompass Education.

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