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TOEFL Tip #120: Test Taking Anxiety?

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on September 23, 2011

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!

TOEFL Tip #116: Vary Your Vocabulary

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 26, 2011

Today’s post is the fourth in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Writing section. Be sure to check out our posts on the Speaking, Reading, and Listening sections.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the example below has been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

Our researcher – an American and a native speaker of English – wrote all of his essays with perfect intermediate-level English, with no mistakes. However, he wrote with a lot of redundancy, repeating key vocabulary words far too often. He scored only a 20. Our researcher has written just as simply on other TOEFL exams, but varied his vocabulary more significantly. He scored above a 25.

Here is a body paragraph written in the same style that our researcher produced on the exam this summer:

First of all, I like dogs because they are friendly. For example, my friend Mary has a dog. That dog is not friendly. Every time Mary has a friend over, her dog is not friendly to Mary’s friend. On the other hand, I have a very friendly dog. All of my friends love how friendly my dog is, which makes them want to be my friend.

Notice that the word “dog” appears 6 times, and “friend” or “friendly” appears 10 times – there are 3 “friend/friendly” repetitions in 2 different sentences!

So, redundancy kills your score. You must paraphrase and use a variety of words for the same concept. For example, you might say that Mary is your sister, a neighbor, or a co-worker. You could revise the last sentence to say, “Everyone I know loves how approachable my pet is, which makes them want to spend time with me.” These are small changes which convey the same idea in a broader range of words.

TOEFL Tip #115: Listen Carefully

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 19, 2011

Today’s post is the third in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Listening section. Be sure to check out our posts on the Speaking and Reading sections.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the examples below have been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

Last week’s post about the Reading section showed that students can use specific strategies to read only parts of the passage, yet still answer the questions correctly and efficiently. This approach helps students focus on what the questions are specifically asking, rather than get distracted by all of the details in the passage.

Our researcher, an American and a native speaker of English, used this same technique with the Listening section. He did not listen to any of the spoken passages or conversations; he only listened to the questions. This resulted in a score of 16! (When this researcher skipped all of the Reading passages and only answered the questions, he got a 26).

Why the big difference in scores between the Reading and Listening, when using the same technique? Our research suggests that the Listening section actually seems to build out two possible scenarios throughout the questions for a given listening passage.

What do we mean by “two scenarios”? The FIRST question will ask, “Why did the man go to the doctor’s office?” In typical standardized test design, two answers will be silly and obviously incorrect, but the remaining two both seem possible: He needed a prescription filled. He was coming in for a follow up appointment. From here, all of the remaining questions return to these same two possibilities. So the next question might be, “What was the man’s problem when he arrived?” Again, two answers are easily eliminated, and the remaining two are: He forgot his wallet and didn’t have a credit card to pay for the prescription. He forgot his wallet and didn’t have his insurance card to give to the receptionist. If you chose “He needed a prescription filled” for question one (which is wrong), then you’re very likely to continue on that wrong path in question two and incorrectly pick, “He forgot his wallet and didn’t have a credit card to pay for the prescription.” You can see how this might lead to giving incorrect answers for all of the questions related to this particular listening passage.

It’s good to keep in mind that the Listening is the same as the Reading in this respect – an answer for one question can help you pick the next answer for another question. The crucial difference for the Listening passage is that this only benefits you IF YOU GOT THE FIRST QUESTION CORRECT. While the Reading doesn’t seem to have a coherent, consistent, counter narrative that runs through all the questions, the Listening does. This can really trip you up.

Our research suggests that your listening skills need to be sharp in order to do well on this section. If you listen carefully and can take good notes on the passage, you should be able to answer the first question correctly. Since the subsequent questions build on that first one, you will be in a good position to do well on each passage.

TOEFL Tip #114: Understand the Logic Behind TOEFL Reading Questions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 13, 2011

Today’s post is the second in our series about the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Reading section. Be sure to check out our post on the Speaking section.

Our research this summer confirms the approach that Strictly English has taken to the Reading section for some time: reading the entire passage slowly and thoroughly is not the best use of your time. Instead, you need to understand the logic behind the questions, and read the passage strategically.

Our researcher was an American and a native speaker of English. He took a recent TOEFL and did not read ANY of the Reading passages, except to answer the Insertion question, which demands that you read the paragraph into which you’ll insert the new sentence. Even for the Insertion Question, our researcher read only the relevant paragraph, not the entire passage. For all the other questions, he only looked at the questions. Before the test, our researcher expected that by ignoring the passage, he would score around a 17-22, but much to his surprise, he scored a 26!

This proves that the passage is truly a distraction. If you know the logic behind how standardized tests ask Reading questions, and if you know how to take the information from one question and apply it to another question, then you can get a high score with very minimal reading.

We are NOT advocating that non-native speakers of English should skip the Reading passages and go straight to the questions. Our researcher has over 18 years of TOEFL experience behind him, unlike most test takers who have been studying for only a few months by the time they take the test. But if a professional can get a 26 by NOT reading the passages, then you should be able to get the same score if you READ the passage *strategically*. Want to learn those strategies? Contact us today.

TOEFL Tip #113: Content not as Important as Pronunciation & Grammar on TOEFL Speaking

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on August 5, 2011

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing the results of Strictly English’s research on the TOEFL exam, conducted this summer. Today’s post focuses on the Speaking section.

Because Strictly English fully respects ETS’s copyright protection, the examples below have been fabricated in order to illustrate the issues we’d like to discuss from our research. This material is not quoted from the TOEFL exam.

In the Speaking section, our research has identified a surprising, perhaps even shocking, result. The information we have gathered indicates that content plays a far less important role than we initially thought it did. Strictly English test-takers said that they only briefly addressed the prompt’s content before abandoning that topic and instead, rambled on about something else that was only tangentially connected.

For example, if Task One asked the test taker to describe your favorite season, our researcher responded as follows: “I love summer because that’s when I get to visit my mother in Florida. I love Florida because I like watching the tourists who come from all around the world to enjoy our warm ocean water and terrific beaches. I also enjoy freshly squeezed juice made from oranges that grow in my mother’s back yard. Finally, I like the excitement of DisneyWorld and Epcot Center.” Notice how most of her answer says nothing about summer, the speaker’s favorite season. In fact, these reasons to like Florida are not seasonal at all; they are available year-round in Florida. Our researcher–an American and native speaker of English–spoke in perfect English with no grammar mistakes and no pronunciation errors. She scored a 30. This indicates that talking about the prompt’s topic might not really be as important as everyone thinks.

Another researcher reported that he spoke with virtually no details for any of the tasks. In fact, he stated in his answer that he didn’t understand everything in the announcement. This test-taker also started his response by spending 20 seconds reading the prompt aloud, and then said, “hmmmmmm….. I didn’t understand the announcement very well, but I know it was talking about a school dorm. I’m not quite sure about the details, but I know that the woman is not happy.” This was his complete answer. Notice that he didn’t summarize any details from the announcement (for example, that the dorm was closing, or that it was closing early to have lead paint removed). He just referred to “dorm.” He also said nothing about the woman’s opinion, except that she is unhappy. This test-taker stretched out this paltry content for the full 60 seconds, and still received a 26. Again, he spoke with perfect English.

What is the lesson to take from this research? The scores for the Speaking section seem to be all about having perfect intermediate level English and no accent. Please note: we are not encouraging test takers to entirely ignore content and speak about topics completely unrelated to the exam questions. Instead, we are encouraging you to be less anxious about the content. Instead, you need to worry a lot more about speaking clearly with correct grammar.


TOEFL Tip #112: Fossilized Grammar: Eliminating Persistent Errors

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 29, 2011

Communicating in a second language at a level equal to that of a native speaker is difficult. Second language speakers often stumble over certain aspects grammar, no matter how long or how intensely they have studied the language. This is called fossilized grammar. Just like ancient plant or animal remains that have hardened over a long time, fossilized grammar errors are mistakes that have become embedded in a person’s way of speaking and writing.

Some second language learners might think that fossilized grammar is not a problem at all. People they encounter in their everyday lives understand what they are saying with minimal difficulty – they can work, shop, travel, and so on, without needing translation or assistance. They think that as long as a few grammar mistakes do not get in the way of what they mean to communicate, those mistakes don’t matter.

But they do matter on the TOEFL. Fossilized grammar in the Speaking and Writing sections of the exam can give the impression that the test taker is not as proficient in English as he or she really is. Strictly English’s experience has repeatedly shown that how students communicate on the TOEFL is as important as what they say. Spoken and written answers that contain many grammar errors are unlikely to receive scores higher than the mid 20s, and will probably be much lower than that.

So what can you do to eliminate fossilized grammar? First, you have to identify what your particular pieces of fossilized grammar are – every second language learner has different stumbling points. Record yourself having several different conversations, and make a transcript of what you say. Look for patterns in your speech. If you have trouble identifying grammar mistakes, ask a native speaker to help you. Do the same with several pieces of writing: identify mistakes and look for patterns. If, for example, you see that you are regularly using the wrong verb tense, or your verbs and nouns do not match in number (he say, they claims), these are your fossils.

The next step is paying very close attention to what you’re saying when you communicate. That focus will help you make the correct grammar choice each time. It’s easier to make mistakes when we are speaking quickly, or are not really choosing our words carefully (even for native speakers!). Do this repeatedly, every day, every time you speak or write. Only by carefully correcting yourself each time will you eventually be able to eliminate that fossil from your speech or writing.

As you prepare for the TOEFL, assess whether you have fossilized grammar in your speaking or writing. If you take steps to eliminate those persistent mistakes, you will create a much better impression on the exam.

TOEFL Tip #111: Study WITH Distraction

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 22, 2011

In our recent post about study skills, we suggested that one key for a successful TOEFL study session was to eliminate distractions as much as possible. Work in a quiet space or wear headphones to block out noise, turn off your mobile phone, and ask friends and family not to interrupt you. This approach will help establish your study habits, and will make each session more productive.

However, as your test date approaches and your skills improve, you should switch strategies. Test centers can be loud, so you should study with distractions in the two weeks leading up to your test date. TOEFL test centers are not intentionally noisy, but the circumstances of taking the test, plus common technical glitches that must be resolved, can disrupt your concentration if you’ve not studied with noise in the background before. By practicing the TOEFL with distractions, you will be better prepared on test day. There are a variety of possible distractions on test day, but you will not be able to stop your test until the distraction is over. Once you begin your exam, you must continue with each section, except for the scheduled break.

First, new people might come in to start the test after you have begun your exam. The test center staff has to get that person set up, explain directions, and so on, while you are trying to focus on the test material. This might happen several times.

Second, there may be a technical problem with a computer in your room. Because students have to finish the TOEFL on the same computer that they start on, the staff has to fix any computer with a problem WHILE everyone else is still taking their tests. One of our students reported that during his reading section, there was a test center employee on the phone with ETS for 15 minutes, trying to resolve another student’s computer problem.

Third, not everyone moves through the TOEFL at the same pace. People who started the test before you will move on to the speaking while you’re still in the listening section. People who started after you will be talking while you’re trying to concentrate on your writing.

So, what can you do about distractions at the test center? Many centers have earplugs, but you should also consider bringing your own. You want the earplugs to be comfortable, and you should practice having them in your ears so you are used to the way that they feel (if you’ve never used earplugs before, they can feel a bit odd at first).

In addition, during the 2 weeks leading up to your test date, make a point if studying WITH distractions around you. Study in a café or another location where people come and go frequently and talk loudly. Have the radio or television on in the background. Tune the radio or TV to an American news station or talk show, so you can hear a variety of American accents. Finally, study in the same room with your children (or younger siblings) – their play will likely create bursts of noise and movement. Knowing how to ignore distractions such as these will keep you calm on test day when something is inevitably loud.

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