Basic Facts about the TOEFL Test

The TOEFL Assessment and its Purpose

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is an assessment of English-language skills taken by university applicants who are primarily speakers of other languages. Most students who received their secondary and/or tertiary education in another language will be required to demonstrate their suitability for university study in English-speaking countries by passing the TOEFL, and minimum score requirements are established by individual universities, schools, and departments. The TOEFL currently exists in two versions: the internet-based test (iBT) and the paper-based test (PBT). The latter is only provided in countries where internet testing is not available, and 97% of students take the exam via the internet. Both versions consist of reading, writing, speaking, and listening sections, although each has distinct scoring scales and timing. The iBT is offered more than 50 times per year at test centers in 165 countries, and a mandatory 12-day waiting period between test attempts is the only official limit on multiple administrations.

Timing, Structure, and Scoring

The iBT takes between three hours and 20 minutes and four hours and 10 minutes to complete, including a single 10-minute break. TOEFL reading (60-80 minutes) includes 3-4 passages and 12-14 questions for each. TOEFL listening (60-90 minutes) covers 4-6 sample lectures and 2-3 conversations, with 6 questions per lecture and 5 questions per conversation. TOEFL speaking (20 minutes) consists of two independent tasks and four integrated tasks. The TOEFL writing section includes an integrated task (20 minutes) and an independent task (30 minutes), for a total of 50 minutes. Sectional iBT scores for reading, writing, speaking, and listening are given on a scale of 0 to 30 for each, in one-point increments. The iBT total score is the sum of all four sectional scores (0 to 120). The TOEFL PBT is also built from four sections, entitled "Listening Comprehension" (30-40 minutes, scored from 31-68 in one-point increments), "Structure and Written Expression" (25 minutes; 31-68), "Reading Comprehension" (55 minutes; 31-67), and "Writing" (30 minutes; 1-6). Total PBT testing time is 140-150 minutes (2 hours and 20-30 minutes), and total PBT scores are reported from 310-677 (the writing assessment is separate from the rest of the exam and is not included in the total score). Once again, the vast majority of students must take the TOEFL iBT, and the PBT is not offered in most countries.


Educational Testing Service (ETS), the owner and administrator of the TOEFL, has published several studies that support the value of the exam. For example, a 2016 ETS paper claimed links between high listening section scores and positive student evaluations for international graduate teaching assistants. Independent research into the predictive validity of the TOEFL has often shown less flattering results. A 2013 article published in the International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature asserted that "TOEFL scores were not found to be an accurate and effective predictor of academic performance as measured by GPA," despite the fact that many students held positive views of the academic benefits of the test. A 2010 master's thesis written at the University of Illinois concluded that the TOEFL does not accurately predict placement levels in English as a second language courses, although the writing section can be a useful placement tool. Critical views of the TOEFL, however, are by no means universal among investigators with nothing at stake in the debate. A 2014 doctoral dissertation written at Texas A&M University "yielded a statistically significant and positive relationship between international students' TOEFL scores and their GPA." Discrepancies in the results of various TOEFL studies can possibly be explained by limited sample sizes.

TOEFL Requirements at Universities: An Illustrative Example

Universities in the English-speaking world frequently have broad TOEFL requirements, but individual schools, departments, or degree offerings within those institutions may have higher or lower expectations in terms of sectional or composite test scores. Princeton University's English Language Proficiency Policy, for example, is one of the most rigorous in the world. The policy applies to all graduate applicants who are not native English speakers and who earned their undergraduate degrees at an institution where the primary language of instruction is not English. All Princeton graduate applicants who scored less than 28 on the speaking section of the TOEFL must be evaluated by the university's English Language Placement (ELP) staff for possible remedial English courses. Princeton's Department of Computer Science does not officially observe any minimum TOEFL requirements, but it does report average total scores of 108 and average sectional scores of 28 listening, 29 reading, 24 speaking, and 27 writing for its accepted graduate students. University applicants preparing for the TOEFL must become familiar with the testing requirements and/or averages associated with their intended course of study.