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TOEFL Tip #170: Take The Real TOEFL When You’re Ready, Not Before

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 21, 2012

Last week, we highlighted that ETS will only report the TOEFL scores you designate, no matter how many times you take the test. However, that does NOT mean that you should take the TOEFL exam over and over until you reach the score that you want!

We know of many students who have taken the TOEFL 10 times, or more! Think of how expensive that is. Taking the TOEFL exam in the United States costs $180 per test. If you take the exam once a month for a year, that’s over $2,100. Costs are even higher if you’re taking the TOEFL outside of the U.S.

Taking the TOEFL over and over as a method of study will not work. If all you’re doing to prepare for the exam is taking it time and again, your score will not go up because you’re not learning new strategies about HOW to take the exam. And the real TOEFL is a very expensive way to measure your progress when studying with other materials.

Instead, resources like and ETS’s practice tests can help you gauge when you’re ready to take the TOEFL exam, at a much more affordable cost. Again, we must emphasize that you should not use these tests as your study material. Instead, use them as checkpoints in your journey to the TOEFL exam. Take them once a week, AT MOST. An even better strategy is to take a practice test only when you would have scheduled a real TOEFL exam, such as when you’ve finished a set of classes with Strictly English (sign up for classes now!)

When the score on your practice test is at least 7% HIGHER than the score you need – AND you can do this on 2 consecutive practice tests – it’s time to sign up for a real TOEFL.

For the practice tests to be effective, it’s CRUCIAL that you take the WHOLE test in ONE sitting. Treat it exactly like a real exam. If you chop up the practice test into smaller time segments, then you’re not learning how you’ll really do on test day. You need the stamina – the energy and focus – to sit through the sections of the TOEFL, taking breaks only during the official times. If you don’t practice under the same conditions, your practice test score won’t reflect your genuine level of readiness.

TOEFL Tip #169: Score Reporting Differences Between The GMAT And The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 16, 2012

International MBA applicants have to take both the GMAT and the TOEFL, and there are some stark differences you should be aware of regarding how both tests handle score reporting.

First of all, there is a limit to how often you can take the GMAT. As stated on the official GMAT website, you can only take the GMAT once every 31 days, and a maximum of 5 times per consecutive 12 month period. The TOEFL exam does not have such requirements. Although the iBT used to have some restrictions on how frequently you could take the test, now there are no limitations. We even know of a student who took the TOEFL in Brazil on a Friday, and then again the next day in New York City.

Second, the GMAT has full disclosure of your scores. Again, according to the webpage: “Your scores from all of your test dates within the last five (5) years will be reported to the programs you designate as score recipients.” Many schools frown upon students who have taken the GMAT too many times. But, here again: the TOEFL is different. Even if you take 15 TOEFL tests, you can choose to send only one set of scores to the school, and that school will never know anything about the other 14 tests.

Why the difference between these two exams? Basically, admissions offices recognize that language learning is a slow and difficult process, so it is very common to take many exams to check in on your progress. On the other hand, the skills being tested on the GMAT shouldn’t take nearly as long to master. If it does take 5 or 7 tests to master them, then you might not be the kind of learner that the school wants to admit to their program. MBA programs want to graduate students who can think quickly and process new information efficiently. If you’re taking a long time to master the GMAT, MBA programs interpret this as a poor ability to process information quickly.

So remember: you do want to finish your TOEFL requirement as quickly as you can, if for no other reason than to have it behind you as soon as possible in the application process. Yet, you do not have to lay awake at night worrying that too many TOEFL tests will destroy your chances of being accepted. With the TOEFL, you can send only your best test result.

TOEFL Tip #168: Practice TOEFL Speaking In Your Native Language

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 8, 2012

Today’s post is about a strategy for the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam that seems counterintuitive at first: practicing in your native language.

Of course, many of the skills necessary to get a good score on the Speaking section of the TOEFL are language-based. If your grammar is so poor that you cannot construct a correct sentence, if your pronunciation is so far off that the TOEFL rater can’t understand what you are saying, or if your vocabulary is so limited that you can only repeat a few words in every sentence, you will not score well on the Speaking section of the TOEFL. (This applies, in varying degrees, to the Writing, Listening, and Reading sections, as well.) These skills demonstrate a level of mastery of English.

But do you know that some skills necessary to get a good score on the TOEFL exam are NOT language based?

Instead, this additional set of skills is linked to public speaking. If you can speak with strength and confidence in your voice, you will sound more convincing. If you can speak slowly and clearly into the microphone and project your voice without shouting, your recorded answers will be easier to understand. If you pause for a moment between sentences, you will sound calm. Although you are not speaking to the entire room during the TOEFL exam, it is still a kind of performance. With so much at stake, you need to give the best performance that you can.

Therefore, learn how to become a more powerful public speaker in your own language. You’ll be able to translate those performance skills into English for the Speaking section of the TOEFL exam.

How can you employ this technique? First, try answering TOEFL questions in your own language. Pretend that you’re talking to a young child who needs concepts explained step by step in order to understand them. Then try to deliver that same CONTENT in the same STYLE, but using English instead of your native language.

Good public speaking skills will showcase the content of your Speaking section answers to their best advantage.

TOEFL Tip#166: Strictly English’s YouTube Channel

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 24, 2012

Did you know that Strictly English has its own YouTube channel ? We do! Check out our videos on a variety of topics:

We have a number of videos which showcase a particular skill or tip for taking the TOEFL exam. Whether you want to improve your Reading, Speaking, or Writing (part 1, part 2) score, we have helpful advice.

Of course, we have information about our programs, such as the Study Hall, and a Frequently Asked Questions video made at

But don’t take just our word about how effective our programs are. Listen to what our clients say about our services.

Several students have contacted Strictly English after getting the TOEFL score they needed, and have shared their experiences in videos. We recently discussed one client’s success on the TOEFL, which she needed in order to get her nursing license. Other students have needed a particular TOEFL score for dentistry or pharmacy. As these students say, working with Strictly English made the crucial difference in their TOEFL scores.

Come back often and see what’s new on Strictly English’s YouTube channel!

TOEFL Tip #165: Answer As FEW Reading Questions As Necessary

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 18, 2012

So many people worry about not having enough time to answer all of the Reading questions on the TOEFL exam. Indeed: time is tight. At best, you only have about 1.5 minutes for each question, and that’s possible only if you go directly to the questions without reading any of the passages beforehand.

Of course, if you need a score of 110 for Harvard Business School, then yes: you have to try to answer *each* question in less than 1.5 minutes. But most TOEFL test takers only need a 20-25 on the exam, and therefore can go more slowly on each question. This will, in turn, increase their accuracy.

Let’s take a pharmacist, for example, who is required by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy to score a 21 on the Reading section. In this situation, 21 points out of 30 is 70% accuracy. And 70% of 39 questions (which is about how many Reading questions there are on average) is only 27.3 questions. To be safe, let’s round that up to 29 questions. If you only need 29 correct questions, then you need answer only 9.6 questions correctly per passage. Let’s round up again and say a pharmacist needs only 10 correct questions per passage. This has increased the time per question to 2 minutes each. Granted, 30 seconds is not long in the real world, but on the TOEFL exam, 30 seconds is a huge increase in time.

Now, for the bad news: it is true that if a pharmacist answers only 10 questions, he or she could still get one or two wrong and fall short of the needed TOEFL score of 21. True.

But this blog article wants to use this statistical analysis for a more important point:


The bottom line is this: if you remove the pressure of being a “perfect answering machine” from test day, then you will not be as anxious. You can take pleasure in ignoring 1 or 2 questions per passage that just look too hard. Or you could just ignore, for example, all of the insertion questions if you know that you never get them right in your practice exams. Or, if you have one passage that you know a lot about from your personal life (say, a pharmacist gets a passage about biology), then you can try to answer ALL of the questions correctly for that passage, but then neglect 4-6 of the questions in the passage that you know very little about, like Native American Art.

The psychological boost to your ego that results from your taking control of the test will definitely translate into more relaxed confidence while answering questions. Let’s face it, most questions are answered incorrectly because of nerves and time pressure. Remove those two negative elements, and you have a much better chance of meeting your goal!

TOEFL Tip #163: It’s (Not) About Time

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 27, 2012

By far, people’s worst anxiety about taking the TOEFL iBT comes from the timers ETS uses on the Speaking section of the exam. This is probably because the time allocations are so short – 45 seconds for Tasks 1 & 2; 60 seconds for Tasks 3-6 – that test takers cannot give themselves the luxury of “losing themselves in the question.” “Forgetting” about the timer is almost impossible in the Speaking section of the test because the clock is staring the speaker right in the face the whole time he/she is talking.

But we have good news: You can, and indeed should, FORGET THE TIMER!!!!

Strictly English knows this sounds crazy. We know that every TOEFL exam study guide and every other language school has convinced TOEFL test takers that they have to speak for the full 45 or 60 seconds, and they have to display mastery of all the content they read and hear (in Tasks 3-6).

However, our research, and that of other Speaking Specialists, has proven that this is not true. In fact, page 165 of ETS’s Official Guide to the TOEFL states that “Good responses generally use all or most of the time allotted” and that “it is important to note that raters do not expect your response to be perfect.” (Bold added for emphasis.) This means that you do not have to reproduce every detail from the short text and/or the lecture/conversation you were given. Nor do you have to finish that perfect content at the exact moment the timer reaches 0:00.

If this is true, then why does the TOEFL exam use a timer?

The timer is really for ETS. It is not for you. Since the TOEFL exam is a standardized test, it has to make sure that all responses from all test-takers are equivalent. TOEFL can’t simply have a STOP RECORDING button that the test taker can push when he/she is finished talking. If it did, then all students would have differently timed “samples” of their speaking. Therefore, the raters must have the same length of audio recording (notice that this is different from the same amount of speaking) from each test taker.

Let’s run the numbers for a moment: From the original text of ETS’s Speaking Rubric on page 166 of the Official Guide to the TOEFL, we can identify the following points that raters use to grade your speaking:

1. clear speech
2. fluidity
3. good pronunciation
4. natural pacing
5. natural intonation
6. effective grammar
7. effective vocabulary
8. full answers
9. coherent presentation
10. using all or most of the response time
11. relationship between ideas
12. progression from idea to idea

Notice that TIMING is only 1/12 (or 8.3% )of the grade.

Granted, you DO have to FILL MOST OF THE TIME with your response. However, this can be achieved, and SHOULD be achieved, by talking slowly and calmly. Doing so will allow you to focus on the other 11 items above, which compose the other 91.7% of your grade. Sadly, our new students come to us having reversed this priority. They make time the most important factor, which causes them to rush, rush, rush. This hurried response is then chock full of bad pronunciation, unnatural pacing and intonation, egregious grammar errors, and incoherencies. No wonder they score so low.

So now that we’ve explained WHY it’s important to forget the timer, you have to learn HOW to forget the timer. It’s not easy to do! But our tutors can teach you very quickly the strategies necessary to turn your back on the timer and face a higher Speaking score!

TOEFL Tip #162: Speaking Section Testimonial

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 20, 2012

One of our recent students was thrilled to earn a 26 on the Speaking Section of the TOEFL exam. Before coming to us, she had taken the TOEFL six times over the course of approximately 2 ½ years. Every previous score for the Speaking Section was a 24. Scoring a 26 is essential for her nursing license, but she had not been able to reach that mark on her own. She was frustrated and increasingly anxious about taking the test.

After four hours of instruction at Strictly English, she got the score she needed the next time she took the exam!

Our student took eight classes, each lasting 30 minutes. We focused on two areas: practice tests with immediate feedback so she could identify where she was making mistakes, and strategies to reduce her anxiety. With our templates to give structure to her answers, she was much more confident! Click here to listen to our full interview.

An important lesson to draw from this student’s experience is the value in trying a new approach. Doing the same thing over and over will not somehow produce different results. In fact, the opposite may happen. Our student reports feeling a kind of depression as her score remained the same with each new test.

So, if you’ve taken the TOEFL multiple times but still haven’t reached the score you’re aiming for, talk with us. We’ll develop a study plan that targets your particular needs!

TOEFL Tip #161: Occam’s Razor

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 13, 2012

The title of today’s post is a play on words that combines the modern expression “Keep It Short and Simple” (K.I.S.S) with the same idea in its much older form, Occam’s Razor.

The “K.I.S.S. Principle” comes from the field of engineering. It reminds designers that elaborate systems are not inherently better than simple ones. In fact, simple systems are often easier for a wide variety of people to understand. An example of the K.I.S.S. Principle is a car engine that can be fixed with a wrench and a screwdriver, instead of needing to be hooked up to a computerized diagnostic system.

Similarly, the idea behind Occam’s Razor is that the best explanation of events is the one that makes the fewest assumptions while still accounting for all of the facts. The razor slices away unnecessary details, so that what remains is both essential and accurate. If you make lunch in the morning but arrive at work without it, Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s far more likely that you left your lunch at home, rather than thinking that someone snuck into the back seat of your car and stole your lunch while you were stopped at a red light.

The reasons why we’re talking about these two idioms is because simplicity is key for the TOEFL exam. In addition, so is avoiding redundancy, which is why we’re highlighting this ONE idea with TWO different phrases!

This idea of “using simple thought processes” is the best way to think throughout the test. In fact, the clearest answers on the Writing and Speaking sections follow these principles. Clearly expressing a few details is better than creating complicated arguments that require more and more sentences.

Now, we’ll follow our own advice, and Keep (this post) Short and Simple!

TOEFL Tip #160: An Interview About Strictly English’s Study Hall Program

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 6, 2012

Strictly English has introduced a new Study Hall program that combines the focus of private lessons with the affordability of group tutoring. Our tutor works 1-on-1 with you, and responds to another student while you are typing your answers. Each Study Hall is one hour long, and we have a number of days and times available. See the Study Hall page for more information, or click here to sign up.

Below is an excerpt of an interview with three recent students in Strictly English’s Study Hall:

Strictly English: What were you expecting for the Study Hall?
VN: I thought one of the students would write some, like we did, and everybody can see and make corrections. The teacher would see each correction, and evaluate if it is right or not. So the teaching method would be like correcting somebody’s mistakes and learning the grammar from these mistakes. However, this was better because the previous is more passive learning. It is a more “active” process.

Strictly English: What did you like most about the Study Hall?
MC: I liked that I can see how much time I spent to write my sentence, and that there was time to evaluate my work before sending to the tutor.

DH: Also, the time for thinking is approximately the same as for the TOEFL test, which is very good for training. This was very effective and really good way to practice.

VN: All my mistakes and their corrections are fixed in the Skype notes, and I could review them.

Strictly English: In which areas of English did you receive help during the Study Hall?
DH: I learned couple of essential points about TOEFL writing, such as, how to use punctuation, how to use transitions, and how to organize sentences.

MC: I learned how to create short sentences. It also helped me with my repetition of word problem.

Strictly English: Did you learn any tips for taking the TOEFL exam?
MC: I have learned about “slowing down,” and not being nervous when I write.

VN: The brainstorm and idea of the question were very good because they can cover the speaking and writing parts on the real TOEFL.

Strictly English: What would you say to someone who is thinking about signing up for the Study Hall?
DH: I liked it. I felt comfortable when my mistakes were corrected. I am very satisfied with my Study Hall experience and find it very helpful for any ESL or TOEFL student.

VN: It supported my skills, and I really like they taught me how to figure out my mistakes by myself. I believe that it is very good and progressive method of studying English.

MC: In my opinion, it is very helpful and at the same time you don’t feel any tension, really enjoying your lesson. If I keep taking this Strictly English Study Hall, I think I can be a better writer!

TOEFL Tip #159: “Okay” Is Often Not Okay

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 29, 2012

In casual conversation, people often reply in the affirmative with the word “Okay”. This can be a useful word to indicate that you agree with what is being said, but be careful. A big part of the meaning comes from the way “okay” is said, rather than from the word itself.

For example, when a wife says, “I’m going to work now,” her husband might say “ooo-kayyyy” in a sing-song voice. In this context, his response means something like, “I’ve heard that you’re saying good bye, and I’m wishing you a good day.”

Change the way “okay” is said, however, and the word is far less affirming.

Consider this situation: A father says to his young son, “Clean up your room,” and the child says, “okay,” but 30 minutes later, the room is still a mess! The father thinks the “okay” means, “I’ll do that right now,” but what did the child mean? Here are a few possibilities:

1. “I heard you, but I don’t want to do it right now. I’ll do it later”
2. “I heard you say something, but I wasn’t really listening. I’m a kid and you’re always telling me to do something, so I just tune you out most of the time.”
3. “I heard you, but I have no intention of doing what you’ve asked. I only said ‘okay’ so that you’d leave me alone while I play with my computer.”

As we can see from this example of the parent and child, it’s not always clear what “okay” means. When the word is said with little or no emotion, it can be unintentionally insulting, as in #3 above and sometimes #2.

At best, an emotionless “okay” means, “I heard you and am waiting for more information.” This is not rude (like #3), but it might suggest that you do not comprehend what was said to you. It’s like saying “go on” or “continue,” to keep the conversation going. These expressions do not always indicate that you understand what is being discussed.

So, be sure you’re saying “okay” with excitement and interest in your voice when you communicate. Better yet, say a phrase like “I get it” or “that makes sense” or “I understand.” These phrases are harder to say emotionlessly, so you’ll convey what you actually feel.


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