TOEFL Prep For ELL and ESL Students

Learn about how to improve your chances of passing the TOEFL for college admissions.

What is the TOEFL?

The TOEFL exam, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, is used to assess your ability to use English in an academic setting. For students that do not use English as their primary speaking language, it is important to take the TOEFL when applying to college, and to begin preparing for it early on.

The TOEFL is a four-hour exam that is broken down into four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing.

Below are the four parts of the Internet-based test, also known as the iBT, which is the most common form of the TOEFL.


The Reading section will most likely be the longest part and will focus on reading comprehension. It will contain between three to five academic passages to read closely, followed by questions about the passages’ theme, vocabulary, and other important grammatical details. You will often have to infer things from the text and recognize arguments or the overall purpose of the reading.


The Listening section has six audio clips, including two student conversations and four scholarly discussions of lectures. The examiner will hear each passage once then answer questions related to the material. There will be five questions about the student conversations and six questions regarding the lectures.


The Speaking section is the shortest section, but often the most daunting for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. For all six sections, you’ll answer questions based on reading or audio passages. The speaking section tests your ability to improvise with the English language, and to clearly articulate your thoughts on a particular theme.


The Writing section consists of two exercises. The first exercise requires you to listen and read about a topic, then synthesize a summary of it. The second is an essay that will require you to argue an opinion on a subject, and strongly support the thesis.


The paper-based test (PBT) is an option if the iBT is not available. It has some variations in testing structure, and the score can range from 310 to 677, as opposed to the iBT TOEFL score – which ranges from 0 to 120 points.

Your target score may vary depending on which colleges you’re applying to. For example, some universities will accept students with scores in the 60’s, while other more competitive schools will require a TOEFL score of 109. Check each university’s website for TOEFL score requirements.

How do I Prepare?

When it comes to preparation, The TOEFL is not an exam you can study for overnight. The best way to practice is to listen to and use English whenever you can. Watch English movies or TV shows, and practice with fluent speakers. Ask your English teacher, or a native speaker, to give feedback on your clarity of speech.

Remember, the exam is heavily focused on academic topics or situations. It’s helpful to read scholarly texts in English, such as academic journals or college textbooks, or attend some college courses if you can. Write up summaries of what you read and hear; this will help you prepare for retaining and recounting information in English.

When Should I Take It?

If possible, plan to take the TOEFL junior year of high school. You can take it more than once, and most schools will only look at your most recent score. If you begin testing early, you’ll leave yourself room to improve.

To register for an exam or learn more, visit the TOEFL website.

Related College Testing Information and Preparation Articles

TOEFL: The Essentials
SAT or ACT: Which Should You Take?
SAT: The Essentials
ACT: The Essentials
What's a Good SAT Score or ACT Score?
How to Improve Your SAT and ACT Scores
Low SAT or ACT Test Scores? You Still Have College Options
SAT Subject Tests: the Essentials
10 SAT Test Day Tips
The GED, IB, CLEP and Other College Admissions Tests


Visit Our Student Center

Get on track!

Visit our Student Center

And find out everything you need to know about planning for college.