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TOEFL Tips #195: New Site Launching On or Before March 31st!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 17, 2013

In the next two weeks, Strictly English will launch its revamped website. Today’s post will give you a general preview of the changes, and in the coming weeks, we’ll drill down on the details of our new services and features.

 The first thing you’ll notice is that the Strictly English homepage has been reorganized. Whereas it used to look like this:


now you’ll see this when you first come to our page:


The new page showcases our four core services. Of course, we continue to offer our successful one-on-one Online Private Tutoring program. In addition, after a successful pilot program, we are now making group study a central feature of Strictly English’s offerings, with two new group study options: Study Halls worldwide online and Group Classes in the Boston area.

 With the launch of the new website, Strictly English will now be offering 4 levels of membership. Free membership is available to everyone, Basic Membership is $10/month, Premium Membership is $20/month, and Deluxe Membership is $30/2 months. In our next post, we’ll take a look at the details of each membership level, but for now, please note that everyone on our promotions list will get the chance to buy memberships for 50% off, during the first week of launch.

 In addition, the Strictly English blog has been renamed TOEFL Tips on the new website. Be sure to look for us in the dark blue bar across the top of the new homepage!


TOEFL Tip #194: Humor And Grammar

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 8, 2013

If you’re online, you’ve seen memes – images, videos, and jokes which people email to friends, like and share on Facebook, pin on Pinterest, and so on. Almost anything can become a meme – song lyrics, quotes from movies or famous people, funny things that pets do, unusual events in the news …

And English grammar.

There are many memes about grammar, perhaps because many people, including native English speakers, think the language can be confusing. That confusion leads to humorous or sarcastic explanations of the rules.

Here’s a meme we’ve seen lately:



Use memes like this to bolster your study of grammar. Because memes specifically call attention to the underlying rules of grammar, they can point you to common trouble areas in the language. Memes are supposed to be funny, but they’re not if you don’t understand the grammar rule at the center of the joke. So, whenever you see a joke about English grammar, look up the rule. Site like the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) are a terrific resource. Then go back to the meme and see if you “get” the joke.

Soon, you’ll be the one sharing the latest grammar-themed meme.

TOEFL Tip #193: Talk For 30 Minutes Before The TOEFL

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 2, 2013

Imagine running a marathon without warming-up first. You walk up to the starting line, and simply begin running. Your muscles are stiff, your breathing is uneven, and you take several miles to find a comfortable pace.

If you approached a marathon this way, would you win? Of course not. Your body needs to prepare for the longer effort of a marathon by doing smaller stretches first. By warming up before the marathon, your body is ready for peak performance.

Just like stretching your legs before running a marathon, you need to warm up your brain before taking the TOEFL exam.

To do this, speak – in English – for 30 minutes before taking the TOEFL.

Ideally, you should talk about a wide range of academic topics with a native English speaker. This way, you are warming up your voice for the Speaking section, practicing your English grammar for the Writing and Speaking sections, and thinking about the kinds of topics that are likely to be on all sections of the TOEFL exam. A native speaker is more likely to use standard academic English, and may be able to give you some last-minute feedback.

Even if you can’t arrange to have a conversation like this before the exam, you can still use this technique. Bring a textbook from one of your classes or a newspaper such as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, and read sections of it out loud. Talk about something in the news with your family members. Anything you can do to focus your mind on speaking in English before the exam is going to help you be at your best when the TOEFL begins.

TOEFL Tip #192: Sleep Learning Has Limited Applications …. For Now

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 22, 2013

In last week’s post, we discussed how sleep plays an important role in memory. When you are asleep, your brain consolidates everything you learned during the day and prepares your memory for the next day’s information. Rather than avoiding sleep and trying to cram overnight before taking the TOEFL, you should plan your schedule to get a full night’s sleep.

If your brain strengthens memories while you sleep, can you learn while you are asleep, too?

According to a 2012 article in Nature Neuroscience, yes, you can.

To test whether people can learn something entirely new while asleep, researchers first exposed sleeping test subjects to pleasant or unpleasant odors, and recorded how deeply they inhaled (deeply for pleasant odors, shallowly for unpleasant ones). Then, they paired the odors with sounds. Again, the test subjects inhaled deeply when exposed to the pleasant odor, and shallowly for the unpleasant smells. After waking up, the test subjects inhaled in the same way when they heard the sounds, even though the corresponding odor was not present. This demonstrates that the test subjects learned the connection between the pleasant/unpleasant odors and the sounds while asleep, and that the brain retained the information.

But don’t rush to replace typical studying methods with playing recordings while you sleep! As this article from National Public Radio points out, there is still a long way to go before scientists fully understand how the brain acquires information while asleep. The brain can be conditioned to associate smells and sounds, but whether it can learn language-based concepts is unproven right now.

Learning while asleep might be an option for future students, but for now, it’s just a dream.

TOEFL Tip #191: Sleep Is Crucial For Memory

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 15, 2013

For many students, the following scenario is all too familiar – it’s the day before a big test, and you feel like you’re not ready. You know that you should get a good night’s sleep, but you’re tempted to stay up very late, or even pull an all-nighter, to cram as much as possible. What should you do?

For the best chances of remembering what you’ve learned, study during the day and early evening, and get a full 8 hours of sleep.

According to a recent study by Robert Stickgold and Matthew P. Walker published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, sleep has several functions regarding memory. In an interview about the study, Dr. Stickgold says the brain not only sorts new information into categories during sleep, but it also begins to let go of unneeded information. According to Stickgold, “you have to clean out your “Inbox” before you take in more information, and sleep seems [sic] (def) to be really good at that. Somehow, it’s filing, it’s reorganizing, and I think what we’re most impressed with is that it’s doing it in a really smart way.”

Stickgold points out that your brain needs about 1 hour asleep for every 2 hours that you’re awake and taking in new information. What type of activity you are doing doesn’t matter. You could be studying or watching TV. This is why a full night of sleep is so important. If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain cannot process what it’s learned and is not prepared to take in new information. Furthermore, for the brain to do this works in relation to memory, it has to be fully asleep, not resting lightly.

Because sleep helps the brain to detect patterns and rules, sleep is especially important for the TOEFL test-taker who is struggling to remember the rules of English grammar.

Make getting a good night’s sleep part of your TOEFL preparation!

TOEFL Tip #190: Improving Gets Harder As You Go

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 10, 2013

Have you ever noticed a pattern when learning to do something new? At first, you make a lot of progress. After a while, however, you need to work harder and harder and you get only a little bit better. This is common when losing weight, for example. The first 10 pounds might come off quickly and with only a few changes to your diet and lifestyle, but the next 10 take longer and require more of your effort.

TOEFL study can be the same way. Maybe the score for your first diagnostic test was an 80. You study for 10 hours, working on your most frequent grammar mistakes, practicing answers to speaking prompts, and your score goes up to 95. But that’s lower than the score you need, so you study for another 10 hours. This time, you practice writing organized essays, correct even more grammar errors, learn a lot of new vocabulary, and listen to news broadcasts in English. Your score does go up, but only from 95 to 104. To get from 104 to 109 will take more than 10 additional hours of study.

The following chart shows the relationship between the time and effort you put into a task, and the quality of your results.


We know it can be frustrating to have a score that’s just a little bit lower than what you need.

To get to your goal, you need to make a number of small changes that will add up to the result that you want. Study your performance for patterns, and look for places you can adjust your strategies. Knowing that the last phase of your TOEFL studying might take the longest can help you focus your efforts, and schedule exams when you are truly ready.

TOEFL Tip #189: Take Advantage Of TOEFL’s New 21 Day Waiting Period

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 2, 2013


ETS’s new policy requiring a 21 day waiting period between TOEFL exams has been in effect for a month, and everyone is getting used to this adjusted timetable. We have seen some test-takers schedule their TOEFL exam well before application deadlines so they can retake it if necessary. Others are only scheduling their TOEFL exam when they’re confident that they’ll get the score they need. Both of these are good strategies.


But what if you’re not sure whether you’ve earned the score that you need? What if you’re just a few points lower than the score required for your application?


Use the 21 day waiting period to your advantage! Take a course or two with Strictly English to target your specific trouble areas.


You can find out your iBT scores approximately 10 days after your exam (for ETS’s list of estimated dates for viewing your iBT scores online, click here). That leaves nearly 2 weeks for improving your skills before your next exam. Or, if you know that you didn’t perform well on one section of the test, contact us right away to schedule some tutoring sessions during the full 3 week period.


Strictly English has a variety of courses to suit your needs. Do you need to fine-tune your skills in one particular area, such as one Speaking task, or one type of Listening question? We can help you improve in as little as 2 hours. Do you need a better set of strategies for a task on the TOEFL, such as the Integrated essay? Work with us for 4 hours. Do you need to boost your overall performance for an entire section of the TOEFL? That’s just 8 hours. Although everyone’s pace of learning varies, we have found that many students improve substantially within these time frames.


As you can see, the 21 day wait period provides enough time to tweak your skills between exams. Instead of chafing against this restriction, view instead as an opportunity to focus intensely on improving your TOEFL performance. By looking at this in a positive light, you will be more likely to produce the change that you want to see. Contact us today!

TOEFL Tip #188: Poor Grammar Can Limit Your Job Opportunities

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 25, 2013

At Strictly English, we sometimes hear students talk about having to learn the rules of English grammar “for the TOEFL.” These students seem to see mastery of English grammar as a stepping stone to the TOEFL exam, rather than as a skill that they will continue to use throughout their careers.

Kyle Wiens has a simple answer to the question of whether good grammar REALLY matters in the “real world” beyond college, “Yes, it does.”

In fact, good grammar is so important to Wiens that his companies, iFixit and Dozuki, require all job applicants to take a grammar test, even for jobs that are not primarily about writing. Those who don’t do well on the exam are not hired, even if they are otherwise excellent candidates. The grammar test helps his companies maintain a high standard of professionalism.

In July 2012, Wiens explained his views about the link between good grammar and good job performance in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review. For Wiens, “Good grammar makes good business sense.” Wiens’ experience shows that people who make the effort to use correct grammar are also careful about other aspects of their job performance. Similarly, Wiens says, “Applicants who don’t think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things also aren’t important.” Wiens also insists that his companies are not alone in valuing good grammar, “I guarantee that even if other companies aren’t issuing grammar tests, they pay attention to sloppy mistakes on résumés.”

How is this related to preparing for the TOEFL? Think of mastering English grammar as a long-term investment in your future career, not as something you need to do “just” for the TOEFL exam.

TOEFL Tip #187: Answers To Your Questions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 18, 2013

We love getting comments on the Strictly English blog! We want to hear how your experience compares with a situation described in a post, or suggestions for future posts. Did you find a particular post especially helpful? Let us know!

Lately, readers have also asked a number of questions in the comment section. Because these are questions that we think a lot of people might have, we wanted to answer them in a post, rather than just respond directly to the original question.

Question #1: Scheduled exams and the new 21 day policy

ETS’s new policy requiring a 21 day wait between exams is causing some anxiety. One reader said that he has two TOEFL exams scheduled within 21 days of each other in January. He scheduled the exams in 2012, but is worried that he won’t be allowed to take the second exam because of the new policy. He asked whether these two test dates are a problem, and what he can do about it.

The new policy started as of January 1, 2013, regarding scheduling exams after that date. As far as we know, this does not affect close-together exams that were scheduled in 2012, but which now violate the new policy. If you are in this position and want to make sure that you can still take the second-scheduled exam, contact ETS and ask for clarification.

Question #2: How to answer the Speaking section questions

Another question asked what format to use when answering the prompts for the Speaking section. The reader wanted to know if Speaking Section answers were more like a response to a teacher’s question in a classroom, or more like a spoken essay with a thesis, support, and a conclusion.

The answer is – some of both (depending on what your classroom is like, of course!). There are 6 Speaking tasks. Some of them ask for your opinion on a topic, and those answers should have a main idea that answers the question, and supporting details for that main idea. Other sections will require you to read and/or listen to a passage, and answer a question based on information from the passage. That might be more like a classroom answer, where you are repeating key points from the passage rather than giving your own opinion. There are lots of resources for practicing the speaking section and getting a better feel for how to answer the prompts. For a quick example, see this page.

Question #3: Retaking the TOEFL to get the score you need

A reader has the total score that he or she needs, but the score in one section does not meet the minimum required by the program to which he or she is applying. The question is, does the reader need to retake the TOEFL to boost his or her score in the section that is too low, knowing that he or she would miss the application deadline by taking the exam again?

We don’t know – this depends on the policy at each school or program to which you are applying. We have found that policies vary quite a lot, so it is not wise to assume anything about a program’s requirements. Call the program, ask to speak to an admissions counselor (or other staff person who knows the school’s policies well), and explain your situation. Do this as soon as possible in order to have the greatest number of options for addressing your issue.

Got a question? Leave it in the comments!

TOEFL Tip #186: Take PTE Academic When In Need Of Last Minute Testing

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 11, 2013

Last week, we suggested making New Year resolutions to help you reach the TOEFL score you need in 2013. In light of the new restriction from ETS requiring a 21-day wait between exams, perhaps you have resolved to be more organized this year. Your application deadlines are already on your calendar, you’ve registered to take the TOEFL weeks before the deadline, and you are already studying. Congratulations! You are well on your way to reaching your TOEFL goal!

But sometimes, even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Maybe you are sick on the day you take the TOEFL, and your score is lower than you need it to be. Maybe you need tutoring for the exam (sign up with Strictly English!), but those classes will not be finished before your scheduled TOEFL date. Maybe you have only recently decided to apply to a program, and their deadline is only a few weeks away.

What can you do?

Take the PTE Academic, instead!

Many institutions accept both PTE Academic and TOEFL test reports. Be sure to double check if the institutions you’re applying to are among those that accept both scores!

With their fast turn-around time, you will know very quickly if you have reached the score you need. While PTE Academic’s website says that the turn-around on test results is typically 5 business days, our contact at the company reports that scores were ready in 2 days, on average, in 2012. As soon as students get a set of test results, they can take the PTE Academic exam again.

As you look ahead to your application deadlines, remember that PTE Academic’s substantially shorter turn-around time can make a big difference.

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