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TOEFL Tip #110: What Study Time is For

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 16, 2011

In recent posts (here and here), we have focused on having strong study skills as a foundation for success on the TOEFL exam. Today’s post looks at what you’re trying to achieve while you study.

It might seem obvious that the purpose of studying is to demonstrate your mastery of strategies and skills for the TOEFL exam. You might even think of your study sessions as mini-TOEFLs, running through sections of the exam, or even a full practice exam, as if it were test day. If your TOEFL exam is in less than a week, this is a smart approach for your study time.

However, for most students, especially for those who have just started preparing for the TOEFL exam, using your study sessions to prove to yourself that you have mastered what you have recently learned is a less-effective use of your time. Too many Strictly English students never open their notebook after class when they are doing their homework. Instead, they use the evening’s study time as a way to test their memory of the day’s tutoring session. For example, Strictly English has a 120 point checklist that walks you through EVERY sentence of the independent (30 minute) essay in the Writing section. If you use it WHILE you write, then you’ll write a PERFECT essay! But too many of our clients go over the checklist with us in class, say they’ve “got it” and then “test themselves” outside of class by writing an essay WITHOUT the checklist. They want to see “how much they remember from class.”

But that’s only causing them to write a bad essay, and even worse, to memorize incorrect grammar and sentence structures.

Instead of thinking about study time as proving your mastery of class content, use the session to go SLOWLY over the process, WITH your notes OPEN. Your goal is to internalize everything that you have learned until you can do it easily and accurately. That takes time; skipping the steps only reinforces skills that you then need to un-learn.

By using your notes while you study for the TOEFL exam, you will build up your mastery at an even, consistent pace.

TOEFL Tip #109: Keep It Simple

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 8, 2011

As we discussed several weeks ago, an important key for doing well on the Writing and Speaking sections of the TOEFL is to communicate directly. Using layers of explanations to build up to your main idea is not an advantage on the TOEFL. Complicated responses can be difficult for the rater to assess, and can lead you to make grammar mistakes.

A common version of making your ideas too complicated is “graduate-school-itis.”  The suffix “itis” originally comes from medicine, and means “inflammation.” Common examples include tonsillitis (swollen tonsils), arthritis (swollen joints), and meningitis (swelling of the brain). The “itis” suffix is also used metaphorically to describe attitudes or behaviors, such as “Facebookitis” (constantly checking the social networking site). Graduate-school-itis is a version of this metaphorical use of “itis” – it is the tendency for graduate school applicants to over-extend their thinking and communication.

In many ways, graduate-school-itis is admirable. Graduate school is intellectually challenging, and students who aspire to graduate studies must stretch their critical thinking and communication skills. As part of showing that they are capable of doing advanced work, graduate school applicants take every opportunity they can to push their thinking forward.

Here’s an example of the kind of “pushed” thinking we are talking about. The question asks the student’s opinion about having a new restaurant in the neighborhood. The student replies that having a new restaurant nearby is good for the neighborhood because it will improve racial diversity. At first, this seems strange, until the student explains that most restaurants today hire immigrants to work in their kitchens, and those employees will bring more diversity to her town. This seems like a nuanced and sophisticated way to link together two issues, and to demonstrate that the student can think beyond the obvious reasons (new food to try, new place to meet friends) to want a new local restaurant.

But I hope you can also see that this reason requires TWO arguments. First, the writer has to establish the “fact” about the hiring practices of restaurants, and second, she has to explain the outcome of that “fact.” Not only is this two-step argument too complicated for TOEFL, but it also has too many possible contradictions.  One problem is that not ALL restaurants hire immigrant minorities for their staff. Another problem is that immigrant employees might not be able to afford housing the town that they work in, which means that the neighborhood will NOT become more diverse. Instead, just say that a restaurant in the neighborhood will save you time. Here, all you have to say is that it takes you only 5 minutes to walk to a local restaurant, whereas it might take you 15 minutes to drive to the next-nearest restaurant.

Another example of “pushed” thinking involves using overly complicated language. Instead of just saying, “I like laptops because they are portable,” graduate students often want to say, “Laptops provide students with a sense of utter jubilation because these miracles of modern technology allow aspiring intellectuals to be cosmopolitan nomads.” But such an ambitious sentence – without the help of a dictionary, spell check, or grammar book – ends up sounding like, “Laptops provide studiers with senses of utter jibations for those technologic miracles of modernicity allow intellectuals aspirations that can only be made into nomads of the cosmos.” Using advanced vocabulary is an important skill, but over-loading a sentence like this with elaborate expressions obscures what you are trying to say.

Take consolation, though, that this situation is not unique to non-native speakers of English. Even native English speakers suffer from graduate-school-itis. It is a necessary part of the graduate school experience because it originates from the passion and drive needed for graduate studies. Nevertheless, such convoluted expressions are precisely what graduate school is designed to eradicate.

Remember – the TOEFL is not about being smart. It is about being clear in what you say and write. Leave the complicated intellectual thoughts at home on test day. Being direct in your communication is the smart choice for the TOEFL.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOEFL Tip #108: Scheduling Your Self-Study Time

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 1, 2011

We recently wrote about the importance of good study skills for success on the TOEFL exam. In that article, we explained that the self-discipline and focus that you bring to your self-study and homework will prepare you for test day, when you cannot spend 10 minutes searching for a pen that works, and another 5 minutes getting a snack, and so on. Good study habits train your mind to be ready to work at the appropriate time, without a long warm-up period.

The key to effective self-study is making a plan and following it. Whether you write the times on a printed calendar that you keep on your desk or in your backpack, or you use an online tool such as Google Calendar, you need to block out times just for TOEFL study. Think of these study times as commitments that are just as important as work or a Strictly English tutoring session.

We are all used to having classes, tutoring appointments, work meetings, and so on, in our calendars. However, students often forget to schedule homework time, thinking, “I’ll do it tonight,” or “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Too many students have the best intentions to study, and really want to do well on the TOEFL exam. But even Strictly English’s most dedicated students often come to their tutoring sessions saying they’ve not had time to finish (or even start!) their homework. Unfortunately, it is too easy for other things get in the way of studying – students are too tired at the end of the day, or make plans with friends or family that take longer than expected. We go to bed without studying for the TOEFL that day, perhaps for several days in a row.

The answer to this time crunch is to schedule 30 minutes a day into your calendar. If you get invited to do something during that already-scheduled study time, you have two options – either say no, you can’t because you need to study for TOEFL at that time of day, or say yes only if you can immediately move that study time to another 30 minute block in your calendar on the same day. Studying every day for 30 minutes is better than studying once a week for 3 hours.

Scheduling your study sessions not only sets aside the time you need, but also trains your mind to remember that TOEFL studying is a commitment, and only through such a commitment will you be able to get the score you need.

TOEFL Tip #107: Use a U.S. Admissions Consultant When Applying to U.S. Universities

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 28, 2011

Strictly English refers our students to many U.S. Educational Consultants because we believe that U.S. Consultants are better prepared to help internationals get into U.S. universities and graduate programs. We’ve asked EqualApp to explain why. Here’s what they wrote!

The rumors, unfortunately, are true.

Application volume at most competitive colleges in the United States hit an all-time high this year. The year before was also record-breaking. And the year before that? The same.

What’s behind this trend? Two years ago, we saw the highest number of graduating high school seniors in the U.S. That number is predicted to hold steady for another six years, and then go up again. Other factors have contributed to the application increase: a greater percentage of high school seniors are continuing on to four-year colleges; the average student today applies to many more colleges; financial aid has made attending college possible for many; and international students come to the U.S. to study in greater numbers than ever before.

With all this competition, how can you give yourself an advantage in the admissions process? Although it is tempting to use an educational consultant from your own country, who speaks your language, knows your customs, and understands the strengths of your educational system, it might not always be to your advantage to use such home-grown consultants. Instead, working with a U.S. admissions consultant (or counselor) is one way to ensure that your application will stand out. This is very important to build an application that works for U.S. admissions officers. So, how can a U.S. admissions consultant help you?

1. Consultants who have worked in at U.S. admissions offices know what can get you admitted. Those who have evaluated applications can provide you with an insider’s perspective. It’s important to make sure that your consultant has actual admissions experience at a U.S. university! A consultant from your country that graduated from college X doesn’t have the same knowledge as a former American admissions officer at that same college.

2. Consultants provide an objective opinion. If you ask your parents or friends to look at your application essays, they’ll be biased and perhaps not give you their real opinion. Instead, a consultant will be more honest when it comes to giving you constructive criticism. U.S. admissions consultants will not write your essays, but instead give guidance on what works (and what doesn’t work) to get you admitted.

3. You’ve got lots of questions that you need answered. Non-U.S. consultants might not have the most recent information to your questions or will not know what works best in the U.S to gain admission. For example, consultants outside the U.S. might value high test scores, but U.S. admissions officers might instead value other areas of the application, like your leadership, non-academic activities, and essays.

4. Consultants think creatively to help you stand out. U.S. admissions consultants can give you ideas about summer and extracurricular activities to make you stand out and appear different from other applicants from your country. For example, perhaps almost all applicants from your country play a certain musical instrument or participate in science research. While these are terrific activities, it’s not very unique if everyone from your country “looks” the same as you! Instead, you’ll need guidance on joining other activities that highlight your uniqueness and leadership.

EqualApp is not only a U.S.-based admissions counseling firm, but our counselors are all former admissions officers from highly selective U.S. colleges and universities. Because we deliver our counseling “virtually” – by phone or online – we’re able to bring all the advantages of a U.S. education consultant into your home for a fraction of the cost of face-to-face educational consultants, regardless of location. Our counseling packages are more flexible and affordable than any other alternative out there.

Hiring a consultant is an important decision – be sure to do your homework and pick the consultant that you feel will most enable your success as an applicant.

Visit EqualApp‘s website to learn more about how they can help you in your application process!

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 #105: Your Study Habits Can Affect Your TOEFL Performance

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 19, 2011

Today’s post is about how you study for the TOEFL. Maybe you’re using official materials from ETS, or maybe you’re using study materials such as guides by Barrons or Longman. Of course, we hope that you have already signed up for tutoring sessions with Strictly English! The materials you use to study, and the strategies you learn for each section of the exam, are very important. Unless you have good study habits, however, that information is not as effective as it could be, which could, in turn, drag down your TOEFL score by a few points or more.

Think about your typical TOEFL study session: Do you need to gather your notes, study materials, notebook, and pens from several different places? Do you try to squeeze some studying in between other tasks, while commuting to/from work or before going to bed? Do you have to clear off a table or desk to be able to work? Are there distractions when you’re studying? All of these factors detract from your study session by dividing your focus. The more often you answer “yes” to the above questions, the greater the effort you have to make just to get your study session started.

For the most effective study session, reduce distractions as much as possible. Have a dedicated place to study, and a dedicated place to keep your study materials. Keep all of your materials together. To the extent possible, limit interruptions from family members, noise, etc. Once it is time to begin studying, you should be able to sit down and immediately start work. These suggestions will help you to make the most of the time you have available.

How often and how long you work in each study session depends on your particular circumstances. There is no single correct answer, except that you should be consistent with your study times. Studying for 4 hours one week, ½ an hour the next week, then 3 hours the week after that will make it harder, not easier, for you to prepare for the TOEFL. Examine your schedule, find a regular series of times when you can study, and commit to always studying at those times. Think of your study times as a part-time job – you wouldn’t skip work just because a friend suggests getting together for coffee, and you shouldn’t skip a study session for similar, non-urgent reasons. Once you get into this habit, you will find that you can focus on your TOEFL studying much more quickly.

To get a clear sense of your current study habits, write down everything about your TOEFL studying for a week or two – what time you start, what time you finish, the conditions around you (cold/warm, noise, other distractions), and so on. Use that information to decide where you can make adjustments to your studying to increase your focus. With better study habits comes a better understanding of the material, which will serve you well when you take the TOEFL on exam day.

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!

PTE Tip #1: New Partnership With Pearson Test Of English, Academic

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on June 3, 2011

Strictly English proudly announces its partnership with the Pearson Test of English, Academic (or PTE Academic). For over seven years, we have been developing proven techniques for doing well on the TOEFL. Now, we’re applying our expertise to help students excel on PTE Academic.

PTE Academic tests your English ability in real-life situations. The test has three main sections, and twenty different types of tasks. Some tasks test multiple skills at the same time, for example, reading and speaking. PTE Academic also has an introduction section, so you can tell the institutions receiving your scores a little bit about yourself. The introduction is not assessed by Pearson.

This is the order of the sections, and the general time limits for each. Test is always three hours in total, although the exact timing of each section varies.

Introduction: untimed, unassessed
Speaking & Writing: 77 – 93 minutes
Reading: 32 – 44 minutes
Break (10 minutes, optional)
Listening: 45 – 57 minutes

Some of the benefits of PTE Academic include:

• The test is only three hours.
• You get your scores online, usually within 5 business days after taking the test.
• You can send your scores to institutions electronically.
• You can choose where to send your scores after you’ve seen them.
• You can register for the exam 48 hours before you take it.

While there is much to commend about PTE Academic, be sure to consider these factors as well:

• The institution you’re applying to might not accept PTE Academic scores – yet!
• PTE Academic tests your general English ability, but some say that the TOEFL is still a better measure of your readiness to do college-level work in English. If the institution you’re applying to requires a high TOEFL score (100 or higher), you might need to focus on the college-specific types of tasks that the TOEFL tests.

As always, students need to learn about all of their options, and make their own decision about which test will best serve their needs. If the Pearson Test of English, Academic is right for you, Strictly English can help you prepare for the exam!

TOEFL Tip #103: Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 31, 2011

Did you know that Strictly English also offers a program in Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing? This program is only offered to students who have already gone through our TOEFL program and is designed to prepare both university students and graduate students for the kind of thinking and writing they will have to do in their academic programs.
Here’s what one of our clients just wrote to us. We’ve been working with him specifically on public speaking since he’s a Ph.D. candidate who has to give many public talks about his work. He writes:

I came back from Zurich and I have to say that I am getting better and better with public speaking.
There is still a lot to work on but clearly I separated myself from 80% of robots that happened to give a talk at the symposium.

Funny was that various folks due to my talk smiled to me, and indeed wanted to talk to me.
For a moment I was a rock star, which in science does not happen often.

Also I noticed that in a flow of excitement and stress just before giving a seminar, I get an extra wave of energy.
Which I could use to modulate my voice and to have a strong voice throughout a talk, which keeps me far from talking in a boring and low tone.

THANKS FOR HELP! Your tips are priceless.

In respects to next classes I will contact you soon.

Ciao:)
M—–

TOEFL Tip #102: Another Happy Pharmacist Scores 29 on TOEFL Speaking

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on May 27, 2011

In late March, we had a pharmacist come to us who had taken the TOEFL at least 7 times and was unable to get the score of 26 on the Speaking and 24 on the Writing that he needed for his pharmacy license. With only 14 hours of tutoring over a 6-week period, he got a 29 on his Speaking and a 24 on his Writing: Here’s the email we received:


Hi Alex hi Jon
My results are out last night. I got 29 on Speaking. 24 on Writing. And this means I PASSSEEEEDDDDD YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
THIS ONE IS FOR U ALEX iiiiiiiiii i i ii i i i i i i i i i i i i yea yea yea yea yea yea. Sorry I was holding it in. hehhehe Thanks guy. You were awesome. Best teacher I every had. Thanks a million times

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