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TOEFL Tip #185: Successful New Year’s Resolutions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on January 4, 2013

The beginning of January is a season of transition and assessment. After relaxing over the holidays, we look ahead to the new year with refreshed determination to achieve our goals. And yet, all too often, we slip back into old habits, despite our best intentions to change.

If you are preparing to take the TOEFL exam in 2013, how can you use New Year’s resolutions to help you reach the score you need?

First, decide if you need to explore or exploit. That is, do you need to develop new study habits, or learn new test-taking strategies? This is a resolution to explore – you will be absorbing new material, using new ways of thinking, and reinventing your TOEFL-prep process. On the other hand, do you need to make adjustments to techniques that already work pretty well for you? Then you will be exploiting the process that you already have, fine-tuning it to meet your needs more effectively.

Most likely, you will need a combination of exploring and exploiting. Think carefully about how you learn and how you study for tests. If you need to explore new areas, you need to be willing to try lots of things, discard those that don’t work for you, and move on. If you need to exploit your current resources, make small adjustments and track their effectiveness. Knowing which type of resolution you’re working on can help target your approach.

Overall, you will be more successful with any New Year’s resolution if you break large goals into smaller sub-goals, and if you are specific about what you want to do. To take a simplified example, if your current score is 80 and you need a score of 100, instead of making one resolution – to get a 100 – establish sub-goals. Maybe your goal will be to take the test twice, and raise your overall score by 10 points each time. Maybe your goal will be to take the test four times, and focus on raising your score on one section at a time. Maybe you will take the TOEFL before a new study program and again afterwards in order to measure how well that new system is working for you. By breaking your major goal into smaller pieces, you can build motivation and momentum toward the overall goal.

Think about HOW you want to reach your goal, rather than focusing only on the end result you want to achieve. Leave us a comment, and tell us how you are going to reach your TOEFL goal in 2013!

TOEFL Tip #184: The Year In Review

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 28, 2012

For our last post of 2012, we’re taking a look back at a year’s worth of news items, study tips, and section strategies. Take a look at a post you may have missed when it was originally published, or review an especially pertinent item. As always, we appreciate hearing from you. Leave a comment telling us which posts were most helpful, and what topics you would like to see covered.

Our most dramatic news item was also one of our most recent posts – starting in January 2013, test-takers must wait 21 days between scheduled TOEFL exams. We also alerted readers to changes in security policies to prevent TOEFL test-takers from using a fraudulent identity, as well as differences between how GMAT and TOEFL test scores are reported. We highlighted ETS’s policies for test-takers with special needs and for rescheduling an exam, and discussed two programs – TOEFL Junior and TOEFL Journey.

Most of our posts discussed the specific sections of the TOEFL exam, with many topics applying to multiple sections. The important skill of paraphrasing applies to all 4 sections. Reading and Listening both indicate the greater value of broad-based knowledge instead of perfect fluency in English. We also advised test-takers to answer as few Reading questions as necessary, to know the various types of Reading questions, and to go straight to the questions instead of reading the Reading passage first.

Strategies for the Writing and Speaking sections have a significant degree of overlap, reflecting the two areas in which many of our students need the most assistance. For both sections, we emphasized how tricky it can be to get the details right, as well as the importance of keeping the details simple and vivid. The test-taker’s grammar is a significant element in the Writing and Speaking sections, so we focused on the level of grammar necessary for a high score, effective intermediate English, including subject-verb agreement and appropriate use of coordinating conjunctions. An additional Writing section strategy advised test-takers to avoid redundancy.

By far, we addressed issues concerning the Speaking section most often this year. In addition to the strategies mentioned above which also apply to the Writing section, we had a lot of Speaking-specific advice. We discussed two cultural elements that can unexpectedly affect the Speaking score – Americans’ greater tendency to share personal details, and the speed at which a test-taker’s native language is typically spoken. Because the Speaking section has a unique performance aspect that the other sections do not have, we suggested that test-takers develop a speaking persona and warm up their voices, as well as sharing other performance tips. We also noted the various implications of the casual “OK.” To further improve Speaking performance, we advised test-takers to practice in their native language and to ignore the clock.

Beyond these strategies for particular sections, we discussed several general techniques for studying: eliminating distractions, immersing oneself in English, being enthusiastic about the TOEFL, improving comprehension, and understanding the logic of how the TOEFL exam is structured. We looked at the value of group study, and how to use the Strictly English blog for self-study. We advised students against taking multiple exams to prepare, and suggested that some students can benefit from taking a gap year to prepare for the TOEFL. On a broader level, we examined why students who are considered “smart” in high school sometimes perform poorly on the TOEFL.

For the day of the exam, we gave test-takers an effective way to manage their notepaper.

In addition to two guest posts addressing different aspects of merit scholarships for international students (here and here), we had several posts about Strictly English itself. We launched our YouTube channel this year, as well as our Study Hall service. As always, we appreciate hearing about our students’ success, as in this testimonial. We had a contest to locate typos in a post, and the winner received 2 free hours of tutoring. Congratulations, Flor! We also ran a Cyber Monday sale. Finally, we asked Cambridge about when they will update their instructional CDs to run on Macs using the Lion operating system — look for these in early 2013!

Thank you for a terrific 2012! See you next year!

TOEFL Tip #183: Mac Users Get Closer To New TOEFL CDs From Cambridge (And Barrons?)

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 21, 2012

When Apple launched its Lion operating system in July 2011, Mac users were instantly crippled in their TOEFL study. This is because the CDs that came with two of the best study guides for TOEFL no longer worked in this new operating system. Unfortunately, this problem persists with Apple’s newest operating system, Mountain Lion.

If you put your Cambridge CD or your Barrons CD into an Apple computer, it just wouldn’t work.

So Strictly English called up Cambridge and Barrons to ask them when they would release CDs that would work for Mac users. We got an update from Cambridge, but have not heard from Barrons.

Cambridge says it will have a Mac-friendly CD by early 2013. Of course, we’re very glad to hear this, but we have to admit that this is a bit slow. Lion came out a year and a half ago, which means that all new Mac owners have not been able to use the Cambridge CD for all of that time.

Publishers of educational material need to remember that Apple computers are far more popular in educational institutions than PCs are. Perhaps this is too much of a generalization, but the basic trend is that PCs are found in businesses and Macs are found in schools.

Therefore, educational companies can’t afford to put their Mac users on the back burner for so long, especially since Apple products continue to take a larger share of the computer market.

THANK YOU, CAMBRIDGE for getting a CD ready for release. But please BE QUICKER next time so all of us Mac users can enjoy your fantastic products without interruption.

TOEFL Tip #182: Know The Types of Reading Questions

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 18, 2012

Time is of the essence on the TOEFL exam. You have a specific amount of time to finish each section, and you cannot get any extensions. You need to use your time effectively in order to have the best chance at a high score.

One way to use your time well on the Reading section is to be able to identify the different types of questions quickly. For example, if a question asks about a fact stated in the passage, you will use a different strategy to find that answer than you would use to answer a question about something inferred by the passage. Similarly, you can generally identify a vocabulary word’s meaning by reading the sentence in which the target word appears, but you may need to read the entire paragraph to answer a reference question correctly.

Being able to identify each type of question on the Reading passage quickly has three benefits.

First, the more quickly you can identify the category for each question in the Reading section, the less time you will waste re-reading too much of the passage to answer each question. By using your time efficiently, you will have a few extra minutes to answer a question that you find particularly challenging.

Second, once you have identified each type of question, you can answer all of the questions in a particular category, then move to the next category, and so on. This keeps your brain focused on one type of task until it is finished, rather than switching among multiple tasks repeatedly. The more you can focus on one thing at a time, the better you will perform.

Third, being confident about each type of Reading question will boost your overall confidence on the TOEFL exam. Since Reading is the first section, this confidence will carry over to the other sections.

So, as you prepare for the Reading section of the TOEFL, practice categorizing the questions, too!

URGENT NOTICE: TOEFL to Limit How Many Tests You Can Take!!!

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 16, 2012

On Friday, December 14, 2012, ETS announced a new policy regarding retaking the TOEFL exam. Here is the announcement in full:

Beginning in January 2013, there will be a change in the Repeat Policy for the TOEFL iBT® test. Test takers can still take the test as many times as they wish, but only once within a 21-day period. If a test taker has an existing test appointment, he or she cannot register for another test date that is within 21 days of the existing appointment.

This policy change will have serious, immediate repercussions for students with upcoming deadlines. Many students register to take the TOEFL 3or 4 times in the two months preceding an application deadline. That won’t be possible starting in January 2013. First, you have to wait 10 days to get your scores to decide if you want to take the exam again. If you do want to retake it, you have to choose a date that is 21 days after your most recent exam. These two factors significantly cut down a student’s opportunities to take the exam just before a deadline. For example, if your deadline is January 13, 2013, you have to take your last TOEFL by January 3rd, and you cannot have taken a previous test any closer to that January 3rd date than December 13th.

Even for those test-takers without deadlines in the next few weeks, this new policy is going to drastically change how almost every TOEFL student approaches studying and preparing for the exam. You will NO longer be able to CRAM in multiple exams and hoping for the best. Students are going to have to plan much further ahead, and pay very close attention to schedules and deadlines.

Another issue is that many professionals, like pharmacists, are being given a deadline for when their licensing application expires. This year, we had a lot of students at Strictly English who knew in FEBRUARY that they had to pass TOEFL before December 15th. Many of these professionals planned on taking the exam every week until they passed. However, this new policy will dramatically reduce their chances to take the TOEFL. If, for example, they found out on February 1st that they had until December 31st to pass the exam, that’s 48 weeks – 48 chances to pass under the previous policy. With the new policy, they will only be able to take the exam 16 times – cutting their chances in thirds.

Perhaps the most important complication regarding the new policy is the subtle difference between 21 days and 3 weeks. What if you take a test on a SATURDAY, and “three weeks” later you want to take a test again, but that weekend only has a FRIDAY date available. This is only 20 days later, and you would have to sign up for the following week, instead. This is effectively 27 days before you can take the next test, a significant delay if your deadline is coming up soon.

Strictly English believes that this is a terrible decision by ETS. It will reduce their income significantly and give PTE Academic a huge advantage in the English proficiency testing market. By making it possible to register for an exam 48 hours before taking it, PTE Academic offers nearly on-demand testing, and results are typically ready within 5 working days. For students applying to institutions which accept both the TOEFL and PTE Academic, the flexibility of PTE Academic may be more appealing.

TOEFL Tip #181: Use Appropriate, Vivid Details

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on December 9, 2012

Vision is most people’s dominant sense. We take in more information by seeing than we do by hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. That’s why there are so many aphorisms about sight: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” “Seeing is believing,” “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”

Keep this in mind as you prepare for the Speaking and Writing sections of the TOEFL exam. For the rater, hearing and reading your words is not enough. He or she needs to SEE the images that your words create in his or her own mind. When you create a visual image with your words, you are using language in a more sophisticated way, which can have a positive effect on your score.

Here’s an example to clarify the different between an answer that paints a picture and one that does not. One friend tells you that she had “a big meal,” but a second friend tells you that he had a “huge medium rare steak, with a big baked potato and a side of green beans with tons of butter on them.” Which dinner do you see in your head? A generic “big meal,” or steak and vegetables?

Of course you see the second friend’s dinner.

This example might make you think that you just need to pack your answer full of details to get a good score. This is partly true; detailed answers are stronger than general ones. However, not all details have the same effect, and if you string a lot of details together, the list itself might become the answer’s main focus. That will not create the CORRECT image in the rater’s head. For example, a long list of food on your plate might make the rater see only a shopping list in his or her mind, instead of seeing you at dinner with your friends, enjoying a rich dessert while music plays in the background.

You need the art of using appropriate details that will work to your benefit. Like too much food piled on a flimsy paper plate, too many details piled onto a weak narrative will cause your whole answer to fall on the floor. Once that happens, you can’t put it back together.

We at Strictly English can teach you how to have the RIGHT amount of APPROPRIATE details to score over a 26 on the Speaking section of the TOEFL. Contact us today!

TOEFL Tip #180: Consider Taking An Extra Year To Prepare

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 30, 2012

A “gap year” is a break between phases in a person’s life, particularly a break from education. High school students are increasingly taking a gap year before starting college to better prepare themselves for college-level expectations and workloads. Mark Greenstein of has a recent newsletter article addressing the ways in which students with widely varying levels of college readiness can benefit from taking what he calls a “planned gap year.” A planned gap year is an intentional break before college, with specific goals for how to use the time away from school.

A yearlong break between high school and college can also benefit students preparing to take the TOEFL exam. You might need more time to study for the TOEFL without the competing demands of your high school classes. Maybe you started the college application process late, and now you don’t have much time to make sure you get the TOEFL score you need for admission to your first choice schools. Perhaps you have not been exposed to much English in your daily life, and you’re nervous about suddenly switching to an all-English college campus. Whatever the reason, a gap year can help you be more prepared for the TOEFL exam, and for college.

What should you do if you take a break between high school and college?

Immerse yourself in as much English as possible, every day. Read newspaper and magazine articles in English. Change your internet browser settings to English. Choose English-language entertainment – movies, television and radio programs, music. The more English that is around you on a daily basis, the more vocabulary, syntax, and inflection you will learn.

While you are absorbing English from these sources, you also need to be producing English. Seek out friends – perhaps online – with whom you can practice communicating in English. If you are able to do so, take a job where you will be required to use English frequently. Similarly, join a club or a group that is related to one of your interests and whose members speak English. Because you would be familiar with the club’s main activity, you can focus on improving your English. The more you communicate in English, the better your skills will be.

Taking a year before college to focus on improving your English can significantly improve your TOEFL scores and your college applications. Consider taking a year so you can take concrete steps to develop your skills.

TOEFL Tip #179: Cyber Monday Weekend Sale – 55% Off

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 23, 2012

Strictly English is running a weekend sale for Cyber Monday!

From now through 11:59 p.m. EDT on Monday, November 26th, you will receive 55% off of our REGULAR prices for 1:1 Private Tutoring. Save 100s of dollars!

Contact us today to find out which package is right for you!

TOEFL Tip #178: Tips For Better Performance On TOEFL Speaking Section

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 16, 2012

For many students, the Speaking section of the TOEFL is the hardest. Not only do you have to show mastery of spoken English, but you also need to perform well. If you’re not used to speaking in front of an audience, or if you’re generally shy or soft-spoken, the performance aspect of your oral answers can affect your score significantly.

Why does this happen?

Inexperienced public speakers aren’t used to calibrating their voice and speed. They may mumble, speak too quickly or in a monotone, or insert filler phrases like “um” when uncertain of what to say next. Without the feedback of an audience, such speakers don’t realize that the WAY they’re speaking is creating a negative impression about WHAT they’re saying.

How can you avoid these pitfalls?

Create opportunities for public speaking, if you can. Volunteer to lead a group presentation, or teach a group of friends how to do something that you know well. Read a newspaper item out loud to your family. If you can’t practice in front of an audience, you should still practice speaking out loud to an empty room. The goal is to get used to projecting your voice, speaking clearly, and pacing yourself.

Here are some additional tips for good public speaking:

Breathe. Students often try to say as much as possible in their answers. This causes their words to blur together, and makes the rater’s job harder. Slow down by taking a breath at the end of each sentence. This will also give you a moment to organize your thoughts.

Sit up in your chair. Or even better, stand. Projecting your voice is difficult if you’re slouched into a chair. Whether sitting or standing, have your back straight and your head up. Breathe slowly and deeply.

Avoid caffeine and dairy products. Caffeine dehydrates. Since nervousness alone can cause dry mouth, you don’t want to make the situation worse by drinking caffeinated beverages before the TOEFL exam. Similarly, dairy products create the sensation of needing to clear your throat. Drink water instead.

Warm up your voice. Try a few tongue twisters or other brief speaking exercises to warm up your voice. This will help you to enunciate clearly.

Even though you can’t practice answers for the content of the Speaking section, you can practice your performance skills. By improving the performance aspect of your answer on the Speaking section, you might raise your score by two or more points!

TOEFL Tip #177: Studying In A Group Is Helpful

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on November 9, 2012

While group study has long been a staple (see adj, meaning 2) tool of education, this practice has increased sharply for the so-called digital native generation. Many students today expect to collaborate on projects and share information in a variety of formats. Once the bastion of silent study, even libraries are increasingly restructuring their facilities to accommodate students working in groups. Clearly, group study is a significant element in education today.

In light of this, consider studying for the TOEFL with others who are also learning English.

Group study benefits students in a variety of ways. Being accountable to the groups helps everyone to stay focused and get their work done. Preparing for the study session meeting becomes a mini-deadline that adds some structure to your own schedule. Group members not only share their knowledge, but also can work together to figure out missing information. In addition, explaining something to another person reinforces that information for yourself, making it easier to remember. Finally, the emotional support of a group helps students feel less isolated and eases their frustration.

While these are the benefits of group work for any subject, studying for the TOEFL in a group has the additional benefit of providing more opportunities to practice speaking English. The more you practice, the better your English will be.

Although group study can have some drawbacks, such as chatting about non-TOEFL topics and some group members being unprepared for the study session, these are issues that can be resolved by the group members as they occur. Compared with the benefits of group study, these challenges are relatively minor.

If you’re studying for the TOEFL on your own, consider joining a study group. If you’re already part of a study group, we’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave us a comment below!

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