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TOEFL Tip #87: “Less is more”

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 18, 2011

Always remember that the TOEFL values the idea that “Less is more.” The phrase means that, in some situations, doing less will bring a better result than trying to do too much. The key is that what you actually DO has to be good in order to be effective. Obviously, doing less and being careless will not bring the result that you want.

“Less is more” on the TOEFL, too. Although this post will discuss the written section of the test, you can apply this approach to the speaking section, too.

Both essays on the Writing section of the iBT have a word count. This is there for a reason! The Integrated Writing Task (informally called the 20 minute essay) should have about 200 words, and the Independent Task (informally called the 30 minute essay) requires a minimum of 300 words, but don’t go too far beyond that. Keep these word counts in mind, and focus on making your essays perfect, not longer.

One way to think about “less is more” is to use the word count as a guideline for how long each part of your essay should be. For the Integrated Task, if the reading and the listening make 3 points about the topic, you should have about 50 words per paragraph. (For example, the two sentences I just wrote = 50 words). It’s the same for the Independent Task. If you have 3 reasons/examples to support what you want to say, the introduction and conclusion paragraph might each have about 50 words, and the 3 paragraphs with your reasons might each have about 65 words. (Of course, one paragraph might have 60 words, and another might have 75 words, but you get the overall idea.) If every paragraph has 80 words, you’re trying to cram too much into the essay!

Another way to think about “less is more” is remembering the purpose of each writing task. The Integrated Task asks you to compare an academic reading passage with a spoken lecture on the same topic. That’s all you have to do – state the topic of the reading and the listening, and then compare what each says. Your goal is to summarize the main points made in the reading and listening and offer a FEW details to explain these main points. Do not try to repeat all of the details! That takes up too much space and time, and it does not necessarily improve your essay.

The purpose of the Independent Task is to respond to a question using only enough details to support your point. The key here is to focus! Be sure that your reasons and examples are direct and succinctly show the point you are trying to make. Details themselves will not gain you points. Only the details that matter will. Also, do not say things like, “And that is why I think ….” Remember, your essay has already been explaining what you think; that the reader knows that anything you write is “what you think”.

TOEFL Tip #84: Elocution: focusing on HOW you speak

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 28, 2011

This post will be the first in a 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. Look for new installments about once per month.

We’ll start by taking a look at “elocution.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “elocution” as a “way or manner of speaking,” with a focus on the speaker’s “delivery, pronunciation, tones, and gestures; manner or style of oral delivery.” As you can see, elocution is about the performance of what you’re saying, not the content of what you’re saying. With good elocution, reading the phone book sounds interesting. With bad elocution, a speaker can’t hold the audience’s attention, no matter how exciting the topic is. Let’s focus on each part of this performance.

Delivery is mostly about your speaking speed. Do you speak quickly? Slowly? Do you speak at about the same speed for the entire answer? Do you slow down or speed up at any point in the answer? Do you stumble over common words? Do you stutter? Do you use a lot of filler words, such as “um” or “like”? You goal is a consistent, medium speed that is not interrupted by filler words.

We’ll discuss pronunciation in depth in a future post, but for now, a key point about pronunciation is that there is a correct way – or sometimes, more than one correct way – to pronounce a word. To do well on the TOEFL, you must pronounce words correctly. For example, the word “epitome” is pronounced “ee-PIT-oh-me,” with emphasis on the second syllable. Saying “EP-ih-tohm,” is wrong.

We’ll also discuss tone in a future post. But for now, keep in mind that you want to convey interest with your tone of voice as well as with the words you’re speaking. Avoid speaking in a monotone, or sounding bored by using the same 5 words over and over!

Obviously, your gestures won’t be recorded as part of the TOEFL, but you should still pay attention to how and when you move your hands when you speak. For example, if you usually point your finger to emphasize something you’re saying, then you should also do that when giving your TOEFL answer. You will sound more natural, and you will be more likely to vary your tone as well.

TOEFL Tip #83: TOEFL Scores And Admissions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 21, 2011

Strictly English noticed that there has been discussion throughout the web about whether high TOEFL scores play a big role in admissions decisions. The question is: do you only need to get the  minimum TOEFL score requested by the university or can a higher TOEFL score sway the decisions of college admissions?

Some internationals are convinced that a high TOEFL score will get you into the university of your choosing. For example, two non-native students are trying to get into an MBA program where the TOEFL requirement is a 90 on the iBT. If one student scored a 99 on the TOEFL iBT and another student scored a 110, then most test-takers erroneously assume that the higher score would get admitted into the university while the lower score would be declined. According to this view, even though both students made the minimum requirement, only the higher score would be accepted.

Luckily, this is not the case. Even if the applicant with a 110 got accepted and the person with the 99 did not, it was definitely not because the applicant with 110 had a higher TOEFL score. Rather, the person with the 110 must have had a better application essay, and he or she probably interviewed better. Application essays and interviews are where a student is critiqued on whether he or she will be able to excel in a university classroom. For example, an essay on the TOEFL with a perfect score is at best a C+ essay in a university classroom. TOEFL graders have different criteria about what makes a good essay than admission officers have.

To recap: If the applicant who scored a 99 submitted a great application essay while the applicant who scored a 110 wrote a terrible, or even a mediocre, application essay, then the score of 99 would be admitted and the 110 would be declined acceptance. The perspective of most American college admissions officers is that the applicant who scored 99 would be admitted because he or she achieved the minimum TOEFL requirement and had a good application essay. This applicant had two positive points while the applicant with the 110 only had one positive point (a high TOEFL score, but a poor essay). Remember there are a lot of people who speak perfect English, but are not capable of college-level thinking.

Having now explained why a higher TOEFL score won’t help you get into college, there are two possible caveats to this rule. One, the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam is important to admissions. A high Speaking sub-score will benefit the student applying to schools because verbal articulation plays a vital role in the university classroom. Your TOEFL’s overall score does not need to be higher than the requirement, but the Speaking score must be as high as possible if you want to sound your best in the admissions interview and in the classroom. Also, a high overall TOEFL score may be vital to the applicant indirectly. The preparation needed to acquire a top TOEFL score does not only develop one’s English skills but also his or her communication skills in general. If applicants can harness these skills during their TOEFL preparation, then they have a higher chance of putting together a competitive and outstanding application packet.

So a higher TOEFL score will not directly improve your chances of acceptance, but the skills you learn in order to get a higher TOEFL score might make all the difference in how you present yourself in your written and spoken communication to the school.

TOEFL Tip #82: Even Native Speakers Don’t Score 120 On The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 10, 2011

Strictly English has recently researched how a native speaker of English would perform on the TOEFL iBT. Many of our clients assume that native speakers will score perfect 120s on the test, but this turned out not to be true.

Because TOEFL is designed for high school seniors, we wanted our English-speaker to be 17 or 18 years old. Our most important characteristic for the native English speaker was that he had excellent high-school grades and that he had no knowledge about the TOEFL exam nor of Strictly English’s strategies. In fact, he did not even know how many sections there were on the exam.

Our native speaker scored a 105. Like so many of our clients, his worst sections were Writing (25) and Speaking (26). Granted, a 26 is a fantastic Speaking score for an international test-taker, but it’s pretty low for a native speaker. Clearly this indicates that scores of 27 and above are not just about being able to speak English. Instead, you have to speak English with a professional clarity and purpose that even the most intelligent high-school students are years away from mastering.

Our native speaker’s highest score was a 28 on the Reading, which he admitted tired him out a lot and had a significant effect on his performance as the exam went on.

After the exam, all he said was, “A little knowledge of the exam prior to would have been extremely helpful,” which suggests that even a native-born speaker could have benefited from guidance on the TOEFL.

For an American student who had previously scored in the 95th percentile for the SATs to come into the TOEFL and only get a 105 on the iBT should send a message to all those internationals who are aiming to get a similar score or higher. If a straight-A native speaker only scored a 105 without coaching, you should be prepared to need some tutoring yourself if you’re trying to get a 100 of higher.

TOEFL Tip #81: Happy Student Scores 113 On TOEFL!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 23, 2010

We’re so proud to have received this email today:

*******EMAIL BEGINS HERE********

Hi Strictly English!

I just got an email that I can check my TOEFL score online. I couldn’t wait to tell you my score. To my surprise I have more than what I was thinking to get, I have 113: Reading: 29, Listening 29, Speaking: 26 and Writing: 29. I am so happy…………..

Super super thanks for your making it possible for me to get such a beautiful score.

Have a Great Thanksgiving,

TOEFL Tip #80: Reading Is Key To Improving All TOEFL Sections

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 24, 2010

You already know that reading more will improve your score on the Reading section of the TOEFL (see our March 2010 blog entry), but now you’re wondering how to improve your Speaking, Listening and Writing, too.  Surprisingly, the answer is the same: read.  Read every day, read a lot, read a wide range of topics, read different kinds of materials (poems, newspapers, magazines, novels, etc).  Study after study shows that any kind of reading improves every other aspect of language learning.

But, you might ask, what should I read?  How will I know that I’m reading the correct things?  How can I be sure that what I’m reading is at the right level for my ability?

In general, TOEFL-level reading is about the same as  the articles in The New York Times and The Guardian.  Consider reading one news story across both newspapers, and notice the differences in the way each article reports the story. Once you understand the facts of the story well in these publications, try reading about the same issue in a publication that has writing slightly above TOEFL (The New Yorker Magazine). For a real challenge, then try reading about the same topic again in The Economist, which is much harder than the TOEFL. Read articles in history, arts, culture, business, technology, science, and health because these are common TOEFL topics.

Want more?

Services such as Lexile and Bee Oasis can help target reading materials to your level.  At Lexile’s site, you can enter your current TOEFL score (or your target score!), select topics of interest to you, and they will produce a reading list that matches your reading level.  Bee Oasis is a subscription service that gives you “graded materials,” which means texts that that match your reading “grade” level.  The targeted reading from both of these sites can help support your language development by effectively focusing your reading.  You’ll have more confidence that the material is appropriate for your current level, and you can get a clearer sense of what reading level you need to reach for your desired TOEFL score.Language development takes time and consistency, but if you keep reading, you WILL get better.  Start reading today!

TOEFL Tip #79: Brazilian Testimonial

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 20, 2010

Antes de fazer o curso de Strictly English, já havia realizado duas vezes o Toelf. A primeira vez 93 e na segunda 94, bem abaixo dos 100 pontos que necessitava. Comecei meu curso com SE no dia 29 de setembro e no dia 9 de outubro tirei 103 de score. O diferencial do SE é que eles dominam a metodologia do exame e te dizem exatamente como deves responder cada uma das questões. Na hora da prova eu estava muito relaxado e confiante. O resultado foi que em 10 dias eu consegui o score que estava buscando fazia 3 meses. Não acredito que haja outra opção melhor que SE, nem em qualidade nem em preço. Você não vai se arrepender! RFMM, Porto Alegre – Brazil. Outubro 2010.

TRANSLATION: Before I took Strictly English’s course, I had taken the TOEFL twice. The first time I got a 93 and the second a 94, far below the 100 points I needed. I started my course with Strictly English on September 29th and on october 9th, I scored 103. The big difference between Strictly English and another courses is that they master the format and methodology of the exam, and they tell you exactly how you have to answer in which question. In the exam I was very relaxed and confident. As a result, in only ten days, I got the score I want and that I had been pursuing for three months. I really believe that Strictly English is the better choice both in quality and price. Once you`ve tried it, you will never regret it! RFMM, Porto Alegre – Brazil. October, 2010

TOEFL Tip #78: Response To Strictly English’s Newest Tips Video

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on October 19, 2010

We received an email regarding our newest Tips Video, ” Pronunciation Tip to Improve Enunciation” (watch now):


Thanks for sharing the tip and I can tell you . . . that it works. An excellent strategy to dissociate the words and avoid making clumps of words which are not understandable. But, there is one drawback to this technic which I have noticed after trying it a couple of times. It decreases your speed significantly. I can’t complete two points in 45 seconds while I can do that without using this technic. Is there a solution to that? Can you make only one point and get a good score?



It is true that this technique will slow you down at first, but with time (usually within two weeks if you do it every day) your speed should begin to pick back up again, and this time, your fast speaking will have clear and articulate enunciation. Perfecting anything (riding a bike, knitting, playing the piano) always begins with slow practice, but quite soon, you find yourself going more quickly and with better accuracy.

Regarding your question about “can you make only one point and get a good score”: maybe. If you’re a very high speaker, then one point might be good enough since you have been able to use a wide range of vocabulary and a lot of details. We recommend two points because it forces you to switch topics, and therefore, switch vocabulary. It also forces you to use transitional phrases, which also demonstrate a fuller understanding of the language. So keep trying for two reasons in your responses to Task 1 and Task 2 on the Speaking.

TOEFL Tip #77: How Could One Person’s Score Change So Much In 24 Hours?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 23, 2010

We recently had a client at Strictly English take two TOEFLs within 24 hours of each other and the results were incredible. He scored a 114 on both tests, but his breakdowns were very different:

TEST ONE: R27, L29, S29, W29
Test TWO: R29, L29, S26, W30

Notice that the Speaking score changed a lot. (On a previous test, he scored a 27 on the Speaking.)  A 29 indicates near-perfect, native speaker fluency and a 26 only indicates the highest you can score while still having noticeable traces of your original language appearing in your speech. Now clearly this student’s ability to comprehend and speak English didn’t change from almost perfect fluency to “best-performing ESL” student in only 24 hours. Something else must have been at work to make such a big difference.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure what this “something else” was since no one was in the room to evaluate him as he took both tests, but the possibilities are endless: one confusing vocabulary word in the reading for Task 3 or 4, or a key word that the test-taker found particularly hard to pronounce. Maybe he misunderstood one key word, like he might have mistook, “profession” for “possession”, a mistake that even a native speaker could make quite easily. It could also be that he was speaking his native language right before going into the test, and it was harder for him to switch back into smooth, elegant English. Then there’s also the possibility that the test center was loud and he was distracted. Or, perhaps the raters were slightly off. Granted, ETS tries to make their grading as uniform as possible, but a one point difference in grading wouldn’t be unheard of. And if you add one point in Rater-discrepancy, and one point for a slightly thicker accent, and another point because he had trouble with one of the reading or listening parts of the speaking, then BAM: 26!

As I said above, we’ll never really know why this difference occurred, but what we DO know is that someone who has the ability to score a 29, only scored a 26. The moral of this story: please take every precaution to guard against your best abilities not being accurately represented on the test. Whatever Speaking score you’re trying to get, plan on working toward a score that’s at least 3-5 points higher, so that any unforeseen factors will not work against you on test day!

TOEFL Tip #70: The Limits Of Memorized Answers

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 25, 2010

Many of our clients want to have a list of memorized answers for the Speaking and Writing sections of the iBT. They believe that if they memorize 100 answers that are general enough, then those 100 answers will apply to any question they get on the test.

Although Strictly English does believe that you can have some “go-to” topics before you walk into the exam, it is not realistic to assume that your standardized answers will easily fit for any question you get.

For example, one standard topic that can work for many questions is “BODY”.  So let’s imagine that a student has memorized the idea of talking about BODY. That is GOOD. It will probably help them come up with an answer. But let’s take this a step further and say that they have memorized one very specific positive body answer and one very specific negative body answer. The positive body answer is, “It keeps me fit” and the negative body answer is “It might hurt me”. So let’s look at five possible questions on either Task 2 or on the Independent Essay and see how many of them we can use these standard answers of STAY FIT and HURT MYSELF for.

QUESTION: Should children be required to take gym class in high school?

POS: I believe that children should be required to take gym class in high school because it helps them stay fit.

NEG: I believe that children should not be required to take gym class in high school because they could hurt themselves.

We were lucky here, because GYM CLASS is already about BODY, so our general catch-all answers work. But we’ll still have to explain specifically HOW children might hurt themselves. And that hurt must be SPECIFIC for each prompt’s situation. At this level of detail a standard answer is no longer possible. For example, let’s imagine our more detailed standard answer is “IT WILL HURT YOUR BACK.”  Will it work in every question? Let’s see:

QUESTION: “Do you agree with the statement that owning your own home is better than renting an apartment?”

ANSWER: I do not agree that owning my own home is better than renting an apartment because home ownership hurts my back.

At first glance, this sounds silly. Millions of people own homes and 99% of them do not have a bad back. And if they DO have a bad back, it is not BECAUSE of home ownership. Now, BAD BACK can still be used to answer this question, but we have to introduce that concept in a way that is unique to the question.

REVISED ANSWER: I do not agree that owning my own home is better than renting an apartment because home ownership requires more physical labor, which might hurt my back.

This is better, but now we have to explain WHAT KIND OF PHYSICAL LABOR hurts the back. Gardening? Shoveling snow? Raking Leaves? Mowing the Lawn?  Again, at this level of detail, whatever answer we come up with, won’t work for another answer. Sure shoveling snow can hurt your back, but we can’t use that for an answer to a prompt like:

QUESTION: “Is it better to wear glasses or contact lenses?”

I think it is better to wear glasses because I will not hurt my back while shoveling snow.

I hope you can see that this answer is TERRIBLE. And we seriously get students who try to answer with these kinds of memorized answers. Now please note that BODY is still a good topic, and even HURT is still a good idea. For example,

I prefer glasses because contacts can infect my eyes.

Now the good thing is that HURT is still our answer, but the bad thing is that we still had to come up with a hurt that was SPECIFIC to contact lenses (an infection).

Please remember that the directions for both the Speaking and the Writing on the iBT say to give “reasons and examples” to support your opinion. These reasons and examples must be specific and relevant to the prompt.

Of course, you can say, “well, I’ll just memorize 10 different kinds of hurt”, but I hope you can see that what we’ve shown here will just happen again.  If you memorized 10 kinds of hurt, then you’ll get a prompt that needs an 11th type of hurt. If you memorize 100 types of bodily injury, then you will get a prompt that requires a 101st type of bodily injury.

Trust us when we say: It is not possible to memorize enough answers.

And on a broader picture. Is this really how you want to be preparing for your college career? I hope you understand that you cannot memorize your way through the American university system.  Sure, you need to memorize many facts in, say, an organic chemistry class. But most of your classes will evaluate you on your ability to think critically and your ability to synthesize new ideas from existing information. Therefore, you might as well begin learning how to do this NOW.

So, in conclusion: Yes, Strictly English encourages you to memorize some GENERAL TOPICS, but we do NOT encourage you to memorize specific details. Instead, you need to learn lateral thinking skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to synthesize information. These skills are really only taught in university. It’s what differentiates university from high school. Therefore, you really need to be working with Strictly English tutors, all of whom have their Ph.D.s and work at a university.

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