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toefl prep

Many students are often very perplexed as how to finish the TOEFL reading portion of the test on time.  On a TOEFL reading exam, you can expect anywhere from 3-5 reading sections.  Each reading section is broken down, as follows:

  • 1 page-long reading article on an academic topic (history, science, the arts, philosophy)
  • 13-14 corresponding questions
  • 20 minutes to read the passage and answer all questions

Reading on the TOEFL exam is not necessarily “normal reading.” In other words, students don’t have time to read the reading section in-depth, so a very essential skill is necessary: skimming.  Skimming is basically reading quickly for a general understanding of the passage, taking note of main ideas and overall organization.  How does one go about doing this?  Well, when you are skimming, keep the following in mind:

  • Read only the first two or three sentences of the first paragraph and the first and last sentences of each paragraph after that. Move quickly across the words as you read them – do not be tempted to read the passage word for word.
  • Take note of key words. As you skim each TOEFL reading article, you will probably notice words that are repeated or words that are synonymous with the main idea of the passage as a whole.  Taking note of key words, which are words that define the topic and supporting points of the passage, is crucial on the TOEFL.  More than likely, questions that follow will ask specifically about key words and if you have an idea of where they are in the passage, you will be able to answer the questions faster.
  • Don’t be afraid to take notes. Overall, taking brief notes on a reading passage can be very helpful because it will give you an idea of where to find specific bits of information in each passage.  Sometimes, it might even be useful to give each paragraph a word or phrase that best summarizes its main idea.  Keep in mind that all note-taking will have to be on a separate piece of paper because the TOEFL iBt is now given on a computer.

When you finish skimming each passage, which generally takes about 1-2 minutes, you should have an outline of the passage in your mind.  This outline will serve as a guide when answering the bulk of the TOEFL reading questions and hopefully, a tool to get you to finish each 20-minute reading section on time!

The TOEFL reading section is broken down into 10 different reading question types.  Many TOEFL test-takers find it easier to complete a reading section on time if they are aware of the reading questions they will encounter, and then be able to identify them.  Here is a quick rundown of each question type you will encounter:

  • FACTS/DETAILS: Fact/Detail questions want to know specific information found in the passage.  The easiest thing about this question type?  It’s always possible to find the answer, since it’s found directly in the passage!
  • NEGATIVE FACTS/DETAILS: These questions sometimes confuse students because they often ask for the wrong answer, not the right answer.  These questions are easily identified because they contain the words “NOT” or “EXCEPT.”
  • REFERENT: Another word for “referent” is “pronoun.”  These questions require a sharp eye and a solid knowledge of singular/plural, masculine/plural pronouns.
  • VOCABULARY: Vocabulary questions ask for definitions of specific words that are closest in meaning out of all four possible answers.
  • INFERENCE: Inference questions can be difficult because they are asking you to infer or imply something about the passage, meaning it’s not stated outright, like in a fact/detail question.
  • PURPOSE: This question type asks the reason, or purpose behind a reading passage or portion of a reading passage.  Often times, the word “purpose” is actually found in this type of question.
  • PARAPHRASE: Paraphrasing means saying the same thing in similar words.  On the TOEFL, paraphrase questions will ask you to choose a sentence that is most like a specific highlighted sentence within the passage.
  • COHERENCE: Another phrase for coherence questions is “sentence insertion.”  For these questions, you are required to take a sentence in bold and replace it within the most appropriate place within the passage.  Coherence questions require an eye for where a sentence is specifically placed within a sentence.
  • SUMMARIZING: Summarizing questions ask you to form a summary based off of six possible sentences.  You are often asked to choose three out of six that most closely resemble a topic sentence given to you – all of which are related to the reading passage.
  • CATEGORIZING INFORMATION: When approaching categorizing information questions, you are asked to place specific bits of information into categories related to the passage.  Often, categorizing questions are found at the end of a 20-minute reading section.

Overall, recognizing TOEFL question types can expedite your process when working through a reading section.  Along with each question type comes specific strategies – all of which a very knowledgeable TOEFL preparation instructor at Manhattan Review can assist you with!

While the Listening section on the TOEFL doesn’t have as many question types as the reading section, it’s still important to know the types you might encounter.  As with the reading section, when you are able to identify a listening question type, it very well might help you move through the section faster.  Keep in mind: the listening section on the TOEFL exam has 34 questions total with 6 main question types.

* Topic/Main Idea: When identifying the topic or main idea of a lecture of conversation, questions along the lines of: What is the subject of the conversation/lecture?  What is the topic of the discussion/academic talk? Keep in mind these are general questions needing general answers.

* Details: These questions are asking for particular pieces of information, as stated by the speakers.  Note-taking is essential for these types of questions, as well as a good memory!

* Attitude/Purpose: These questions types are not always easy to answer, as they are not details found specifically in the lecture or conversation.  The purpose of a lecture or conversation is its primary function, whereas the attitude of a speaker is his/her feelings, thoughts and emotions.  Remember – tone of voice is key to finding the attitude of a speaker.

* Inferences/Predictions: Similar to the reading section, the listening has quite a few inference questions, which require you to come to a conclusion about a statement not directly stated.  Inference questions require a sharp eye for interpretation, often involving the words “infer” or “imply.”  Prediction questions aren’t quite as common as inference questions, but they require you to determine what will more than likely happen in the future, based on what a speaker says or doesn’t say.

* Categorizing: Also like the reading, the listening has several categorizing question, which often come at the end of a series of questions.  These types of questions often take longer to determine and requires a test-taker to filter through his/her notes.  Pay close attention to any categories, types or divisions when taking notes on the TOEFL listening section.

* SUMMARIZING: When you encounter a summarizing question, you are asked to put a series of actions in order.  This occurs through the “drag and drop” process on the computer, so it enables you to see the sentences in order right in front of your very eyes.

Above all – the most important skill you can do on the TOEFL listening section is to take notes.  In the meantime, familiarize yourself with these listening questions so you can answer them with ease on test day.

Posted on July 13, 2010 by Manhattan Review

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When writing either your independent or integrated TOEFL essay, keep in mind there are certain words that will make your writing come across as more academic and intelligent.  Coherence is essential for getting a high score on the writing section. Often times there are specific words you can try to incorporate in your essay that will make your essay easier to read.

Perhaps the most difficult thing on the integrated essay is connecting ideas. After all, you are connecting ideas from both a reading passage and an academic lecture.  As we know, sometimes the information from both sources is contradictory and sometimes similar.  Several hints and corresponding words for your integrated essay would be:

1)    Always tell the reader where your information is coming from. For instance, is the information you are comparing or contrasting from the reading or listening?  It’s important the grader knows that you know which is which.  When presenting information from either, keep in mind you should add some variety to your citations.

“According to the lecture…”

“The reading states…”

“According to the speaker/lecturer….”

“The reading made the point that….”

Remember to alternate how you quote your sources. Otherwise your essays can get repetitive and come across as not very sophisticated.

2)    When showing examples, keep in mind variety is also key. After all, examples are the bulk of your information. So when presenting them in your essay, don’t forget to “mix it up.”  Here are some ways you can do so, with many more options out there.

“For instance…”

“As an example…”

“In addition…”


Using variety in your integrated essay with how you cite your sources and give your examples will make for more interesting reading and can only help you attain the highest TOEFL score possible.

In terms of the independent essay, we are not so much citing sources as we are trying to link our ideas together.  While it’s true you are giving specific examples and, of course, example phrases and words will prove to be useful, your independent essay is significantly longer than your integrated essay and involves not only a strong opinion/thesis statement, but also often times personal examples.

1)    When linking ideas, try your best to use different “connecting words.” You don’t always want to use “and” throughout the course of your essay, so here are some other suggestions, with many more options out there, when trying to link ideas in your writing.





2)    Since your independent essay is a persuasive one with the sole purpose of expressing an opinion with supporting arguments, keep in mind using strong words to emphasize your point is crucial in writing an effective essay. Here are some suggestions of words to emphasize your point.





In the end, strong writing on the TOEFL independent essay section requires you to display unity, coherence and an advanced understanding of both question prompts.  Adding variety to your word choice will also help along the way!

Posted on June 22, 2010 by Manhattan Review

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As many TOEFL-bound students may know, ETS gives 30 minutes to plan, write and edit the independent essay.  Sometimes, test-takers jump right into the writing portion of the essay and forgo the “planning stage” altogether.  Planning, or outlining your independent essay, is crucial to giving you the basic information to write your essay effectively.  How do you outline an essay?  It involves the following steps.

Brainstorming involves you writing down all the possible ideas, stream-of-consciousness that enter your mind in regards to the given topic.  Take a look at the following example of brainstorming on an independent writing TOEFL topic:

TOPIC: Do you believe students should be required to wear school uniforms?  Why or why not?  Use details and examples in your explanation.

BRAINSTORMING (2-3 minutes)

- disagree

- inhibits creativity

- middle school: black pants, white shirt, uncomfortable

- hated wearing uniforms as a child

- university – no uniforms

- more fun with sense of style – discovery

- open environment/accepting

- freedom of choice good for education

The above was written in about 2 minutes on the given topic in regards to wearing school uniforms.  Again, this step is called brainstorming and is free association with the given topic.  After the brainstorming stage, you should go directly to the outlining stage, which should take a little less time.

Outlining requires you to take information from the brainstorming stage and organize it into the skeleton of your essay.  This outline will be the blueprint, so to speak, for your independent TOEFL essay.

OUTLINE (1-2 minutes)

-       thesis: disagree with uniforms

-       1st point: inhibits creativity (personal example from middle school and how my creativity suffered due to a strict uniform policy)

-       In general, students were not as happy and often times, their artwork was dismal and depressing because they were not allowed to experiment with color in their wardrobe

-       2nd point: increases an open mind (personal example: during university, there was no dress code and this made people more accepting of others and their sense of style). In general, this was good for education and allowed us to approach one another with an open mind.

Having the above outline will come in handy when actually sitting at your keyboard and typing out a 300-400-word essay.  Not only does the outline help you work faster, but it also helps the overall organization of your essay.  Remember – in addition to supporting points and examples, TOEFL writing section graders also judge organization and coherence.

Advice: Practice at home outline essays from various TOEFL independent writing topics.  You’ll be surprised how easy it can be to do in 5 minutes and how useful it will prove itself during your test!

Manhattan Review offers a variety of TOEFL preparation choices including online live recording library, in-person private tutoring, online tutoring, online courses and classroom courses. It has over 5 years of experience in preparing students for TOEFL around the world and has consistently received student compliments with their score increase. Meanwhile, Manhattan Review has hosted a number of advanced business English programs and communication training for leading institutions including Columbia Business School.

When applying to universities, schools will almost always ask for international students to supply a TOEFL score.  Your TOEFL score is proof you are sufficient in English to the point where you can function properly in an academic environment, listen and comprehend all necessary material, as well as work in the realm of business as an English speaker.  Many universities provide a TOEFL minimum score on their website; if not, it is advisable for all international students to inquire to the admissions office what their minimum score might be.

ETS has generously released some universities’ minimum TOEFL scores on their website, which are seen through the following Undergraduate examples:

  • Boston University – College of General Studies, School of Management

-       READING: 25

-       LISTENING: 21

-       SPEAKING: 23

-       WRITING: 22

  • Columbia International University

-       TOTAL SCORE: 80

  • Oregon State University

-       TOTAL SCORE: 80, with a minimum of 16 for each section

  • Syracuse University

-       TOTAL SCORE: 80

  • University Of Toronto

-       TOTAL SCORE: 100, with a 22 minimum on the WRITING section

You might be surprised to see schools require specific minimums on certain sections.  Often times, the speaking and writing sections will have these minimums, as colleges and universities consider both speaking and writing critical to success in their programs.  How do you begin to tackle your TOEFL preparation, knowing you might need specific scores on all four sections?

Here is some TOEFL prep advice so you don’t feel too overwhelmed.

1)   Know the grading system.  As you study, keep in mind what the raters are looking for in terms of a good essay and speaking response.  What makes an independent essay get the high score of a 5?  What can I do in order to make my integrated speaking responses gain the high score of a 4?  The better you know how they grade you, the better you will do on test day.

2)   Learn the point system.  In addition to knowing the rating system of speaking and writing responses, get to know what questions are worth their particular number of points.  For example, in the reading or listening section, if you are answering a categorizing question where you are asked to place particular words or phrases into a category – how would they grade your answer if you got three out of four categorizations wrong?  These are important things to know so you have no surprises on test day.

3)   Study the TOEFL on a section-by-section basis.  Occasionally, when you have the time, it’s a great idea to practice all four skills (reading, listening, speaking & writing) all in the same day; however, it’s in your best interest to focus on each of the skills one at a time.  For example, take two days in a row and just work on your speaking.  Warm up with independent speaking tasks and then move on to the more challenging integrated tasks.

Remember, progress on the TOEFL takes time, so be patient with yourself.

Overall, the first step in your admissions process is to find out your TOEFL score requirement, then plan your studies accordingly.

Many of you who are studying for the TOEFL might wonder what raters are looking for, especially out of your independent speaking responses.  The raters, in fact, grade you based on levels broken into the following 4 categories.

  • 4 >> If you get a score of a 4, that means you’ve have achieved the highest score possible on the TOEFL independent speaking question.  A 4 means you have effectively addressed the task and generally speaking, your response is organized well and coherent.  With a 4 you have also used both grammar and vocabulary in an effective way, although you might have a few minor errors.  (Remember – to even get a score of a 4, you are allowed minor language errors, so long as they do not interfere with the overall meaning of what you are trying to say.)

Finally, with a 4 you have demonstrated clear speech but also might have minor problems with pronunciation or intonation.  Keep in mind, which you are allowed several minor errors, this is not encouraged when you make your response.

  • 3 >> When you have a score of a 3, you have still done a good job, but perhaps your response doesn’t have quite the organization that it would if you had gotten a 4.  In other words, your development in terms of specific examples and details might be limited and perhaps several of your ideas aren’t as clear as they could be.  While a score of a 3 demonstrates effective use of grammar and vocabulary, it’s still not quite what a 4 would be in terms of your mastery of the English language and specific uses of words.

A score of a 3 still means you have done well, it just might mean it takes some extra effort on the part of the rater to understand what you are saying and to make sense of your ideas.

  • 2 >> A score of a 2 is a response that is on topic, but where the development is so limited that is becomes unclear what points you are trying to make.  A score of a 2 would be given if you demonstrate an extremely limited use of vocabulary and overall, requires much more effort on the part of the listener to understand what you are saying.  (This type of a response might cause the rater to listen to your response several times in order to make sense of it, which is never a good sign.  Remember – your job is to make the life of a TOEFL independent speaking rater easy!)
  • 1 >> A score of a 1 is more than likely not really on topic and filled with very vague ideas with little or no relevant details to support them.  Perhaps, even, the ideas expressed in a response with a scoring of a 4 are inaccurate.  The expression of ideas in this type of response would be very limited, almost to the point of not being able to make sense of anything, and there might even be many pauses where it feels the speaker has no idea what to say next.  Overall, a response of a 1 is not what we are out to obtain for out TOEFL responses, so practice – practice – practice, so you will get a higher score!

It should be noted, that there is a score of 0, if you would believe it.  However, the only way you would get a 0 is if you said nothing or if you talked about your plans for the weekend instead of addressing the task.  Also, raters are known to give half scores – i.e. 2.5, 3.5, etc…

Many people might feel apprehensive about the TOEFL speaking section because they simply don’t know what is expected of them for each question type.  While the speaking section on the TOEFL requires you to speak, there are slight variations between each question.  Below is a breakdown of all six TOEFL speaking questions in an attempt to ease apprehension for test day!

  • QUESTIONS 1 & 2: Both the first and second questions on the TOEFL speaking section are independent topics; meaning, you are required to speak on a topic that is familiar to you, as it’s purely opinion-based.  Some independent questions will ask you your preference on a topic, such as:

-       Do you think it’s better to study alone or in groups when preparing for an exam?  Use reasons and details in your explanation.

While some are more open-ended, such as:

-       What is your idea of the perfect house?  Use reasons and details in your explanation.

For independent questions on the TOEFL, you will have 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to give your response.

  • QUESTION 3: Question #3 on the TOEFL speaking section begins the integrated speaking portion of the exam and involves reading a short passage (45 seconds) and then listening to a conversation on the same topic.  The conversation will always be between a man and a woman and usually university-related.  The reading portion on this question will usually have to do with a university-related topic that is the basis for the conversation between the man and the woman.

Typically in Question #3, one speaker will have a strong opinion about the given topic and you are expected to give the reasons the main speaker has and any supporting details that go along with it.  For Question #3, you have 30 seconds to prepare and 60 seconds to respond.

Remember – your personal opinion is not needed or wanted for this type of question.

  • QUESTION 4: Question #4 on the TOEFL speaking section is very similar to Question #3; however, this question type, in particular, will give you a short reading passage (45 seconds) on an academic topic and then play a lecture on the same topic, as well.

This question always seems a bit more difficult than Question #3, because the material is much more dense, particular if the topic is science-related, and often times it’s difficult to give a full response with all relevant information under 60 seconds.  (The prep time and speaking time for Question #4 is the same as Question #3.)  Basically, you are required to give a summary of the lecture, with a focus on a particular process or emphasis given to you in the question.

  • QUESTION 5: Question #5 takes you back to conversations, as you hear a lengthier conversation than in Question #3, and are required to give a short summary of all the important information.  This question type gives you 20 seconds (not 30 seconds in Question #3) to prepare your response and 60 to speak.  Ultimately, it will be a bit more difficult in terms of content and vocabulary than Question #3, but it also requires you to give your opinion at the end of your response.  Question #5 has no reading portion, only listening and speaking.
  • QUESTION 6: Question #6 is often the most difficult question on the TOEFL speaking section, as it’s typically a rather dense lecture you are expected to listen to and give a summary of.  With 20 seconds to prepare and 60 to respond, many students have trouble with the complex academic vocabulary in the lecture, as well as sorting through so many facts to get to the main idea.  The key to an effective response for Question #6 is not to get boggled down with the intimidating vocabulary and focusing on just the main ideas.

All in all, a key to a great score on the speaking section of the TOEFL exam is to familiarize yourself with each question type and practice, practice, practice!

Posted on January 19, 2010 by Manhattan Review

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