Let’s make something clear, first: the TOEFL test isn’t hard for everybody. If you have a lot of experience speaking, listening, reading, and writing in English, the TOEFL test might be very easy. In fact, if you have enough experience, you might not even need to take the TOEFL test. Your GRE, GMAT, or SAT scores in the reading and writing sections might be enough.
But if your English experience comes mostly from your education–high school and university English classes–then you might be surprised by the TOEFL test. Why?
1. The TOEFL Test Usage, Not Theory
What you learn in English class is half theory. Every time you study grammar, you’re not really learning the English language, exactly–you’re learning rules that describe English. Like those of any language, English native speakers don’t learn the rules at first. We speak first, then create the rules second.
The TOEFL test reflects this. There is no grammar section on the test. You might know your grammar very well, and that will certainly help you to score well in the writing and speaking sections especially, but the TOEFL test writing topics don’t ask you to apply grammatical rules; they ask you to communicate your thoughts effectively. If you don’t have enough practice using English (not just learning about English), then the test can be a bit scary.
2. The Content is Academic
The test contains many lecture recordings and reading passages that are about uncommon, academic topics. The vocabulary might be very technical and scientific, and the topics might be completely new for you. How much do you know about geology? Architecture? Economics? Psychology? Because the topics are so academic, if your only English listening practice is from your English teacher and Lady Gaga (or Michael Jackson, or whoever), then you’ll really need some better suited TOEFL test listening practice that includes the academic language from the test.
This is equally true, or possibly more true, of TOEFL test reading passages. But don’t worry too much about this about seeing very rare, subject-specific vocabulary. It’s possible to deal with that extremely rare vocabulary without studying every single scientific subject before the test. It’s more important that you learn the more universal academic vocabulary that can appear in any passage, but are uncommon in conversational speech. And although that still might not be the same vocabulary you learned in school or use with your English speaking friends, if you expose yourself to enough advanced English reading, it is not impossible to learn.
3. The Clock Is Strict
The biggest problem for many students is the clock. This is especially hard for the same people who have difficulty with number one above. When writing the essays, if you focus too much on perfect grammar, you won’t communicate enough to be effective. The speaking section is especially notorious for this. You will be given six TOEFL test speaking topics, and you will have either 45 seconds or one minute to speak about each one. If you think too much, trying to find the perfect word, you’ll lose a lot of time, and your score will go down. But it you speak too fast, scared of the clock, the listener won’t be able to understand, and (again), your score will go down.
But really, learning to deal appropriately with the clock in any of the four sections takes practice; it’s not just the speaking.
How to Improve
The three difficulties above reflect the same three areas that any TOEFL student should work to improve.
? Natural usage & fluency
? Academic language
? TOEFL test structure & timing
Mastery of any one of these three skills will help you, but no one alone is enough, and that’s what makes the TOEFL test hard. The goal, then, is to know your weakness and focus on it!