Is the TOEFL Hard? 7 Difficult Features of the Exam

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If English isn’t your first language and you want to attend an English-speaking university or grad program, you’ll probably need to submit TOEFL scores. If that’s the case, you might have a lot of questions: Is the TOEFL hard? Should you study? What should you be most prepared for?

We’re here to explain exactly how hard the TOEFL is, which parts of the exam you need to look out for, and (good news!) why the test may not be so difficult for you after all! We end the guide with tips and practice materials to help you be your most prepared and confident self on test day.

 

Is the TOEFL Hard Overall?

First, let’s get a basic sense of the TOEFL’s difficulty by looking at average scores, opinions of previous test takers, and how the TOEFL compares to other standardized tests.

ETS, the organization that creates and administers the TOEFL, describes the TOEFL as an exam that “measures your ability to use and understand English at the university level.” The TOEFL is designed to test how strong your English skills are for undergraduate or postgraduate enrollment in an English-speaking school. Scoring well indicates you are likely to understand the material taught and participate in class without a lot of difficulty.

The TOEFL has four different sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. Each section is scored from 0-30, meaning your total score will range from 0-120.  According to ETS, the average TOEFL score for 2015 was an 84, or about a 21 in each of the sections. However, that information doesn’t really tell us how difficult the TOEFL is.

To get better information, it can help to hear directly from test takers themselves. Now, everyone has their own opinion on the TOEFL, but the general consensus among test takers is that, while the TOEFL can have challenging questions and test you on specific details, it won’t be too much of a challenge if you’re exposed to English regularly, such as taking classes that are in English, and you can communicate fairly easily in English. However, if you are still learning English and are only exposed to it in English-learning classes, you may struggle during the test since it does require a strong grasp of the language to score well, and because you need to be able to block out distractions like other people speaking around you.

Here are some quotes about the TOEFL from students on College Confidential:

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  • “If you can have an everyday conversation and write academic papers in English, you are all set for the test.”
  • “I took the iBT and it is easy, but it is really long so you might get tired. Make sure to check what types of question they ask, just to know what to expect.”
  • “Another thing that is difficult when you do the test, is the speaking part. Since everyone is speaking it is harder for you to concentrate on whatever part of the test you are doing.”
  • “If you have taken the SAT and got above a 600 in both the English sections, you should be able to get a 100+ with ease.”
  • “Sitting in front of the computer for 3 and a half hours can really strain your eyes and make you lose concentration. I hated the speaking part the most cos [sic] I kept on stuttering which made me waste time.”

Hearing the opinions of other people can give you a better idea of how hard the TOEFL is, but it can also help to compare the TOEFL to other tests you may have taken. Compared to other standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and GRE, the TOEFL is generally considered to be easier (assuming you have strong English skills) since it’s focusing more on testing those English skills than testing your knowledge of mathematical equations or nuances in writing. If you scored well on any of the above tests and didn’t struggle too much with the English, you’ll likely do well on the TOEFL, although the TOEFL Reading section has passages written at a more difficult level than those on the SAT and ACT.

Most people find the TOEFL and the IELTS, another English-language test, to be fairly similar in difficulty, although a lot depends on whether which test’s format you prefer. Learn more about how the TOEFL and IELTS compare to each other.

 

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Knowing how others felt after taking the TOEFL can give you a better idea of what to expect.

 

How Hard Is the TOEFL? 7 Challenging Aspects

We’ve discussed the overall difficulty level of the exam, but you might still be wondering, “Is the TOEFL going to be hard for me?” It depends! There are many aspects of the TOEFL that can make it a difficult test, but I’ve listed the seven most challenging factors below to help you see what might be hard for you.

 

#1: Length

Right off the bat, one of the most difficult aspects of the TOEFL is its length. It takes nearly four hours to complete the TOEFL. Even if you find many of the questions easy, that’s a long time to be taking any test, particularly one in a language that isn’t your native language. Many people begin to tire during the later sections, and this can cause you to make silly mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t have.

Added to that, the final section of the TOEFL is Writing, where you’ll need to plan and write two essays which means you can’t be running out of steam when you get to this section. You’ll need to build up your endurance and learn to pace yourself before test day to have an easier time getting through the entire test.

 

#2: Difficult Vocab

You’ll be tested most directly on your vocab knowledge in the Reading section, where you’ll be reading vocab-heavy academic passages and asked questions directly about vocabulary, but you’ll need a strong vocabulary for every section of the TOEFL. Knowing lots of English vocab will help you understand all the questions you’ll be asked and to read prompts and passages.

Even fluent English speakers can have a weak vocabulary, so don’t assume vocab won’t give you any trouble before you take some practice tests. Additionally, because the TOEFL uses a lot of academic texts, a lot of the vocab can be more formal than what you may be used to hearing and reading, adding another element of difficulty.

 

#3: Many Questions Require Multiple Skills

The TOEFL is organized into four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing, but that doesn’t mean you’ll only be practicing one skill at a time. Many questions require you to use two or more skills in order to answer the question. This is seen most in the Speaking and Writing sections. In Speaking, there are two tasks where you’ll need to listen to a conversation, read a written passage, then speak your response, all in rapid succession.

For the Integrated Task in the Writing section, you’ll need to listen to a conversation, read a passage, then write your response. Other questions on the TOEFL mix listening and reading, reading and writing, speaking and listening, and other combinations of skills.

In short, you’ll need to be able to quickly switch between multiple English skills throughout the test in order to answer a majority of the questions. Many English learners, particularly when they’re still becoming more comfortable with the language, struggle to go from speaking to reading to listening in such quick succession, and it can cause them to miss important details and make careless mistakes, further increasing the difficulty of the TOEFL.

 

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You’ll often need to juggle different skills to do well on the TOEFL.

 

#4: Questions About Minor Details

The TOEFL is definitely not an exam where you can get by skimming passages and questions and getting by only knowing half of what was discussed or just the “big picture.” You’ll often be asked questions about minor details in order to really test your English knowledge.

On both the Reading and Writing sections, you’ll need to be able to understand and answer questions about minor details mentioned in written passages. If you’re used to skimming or just skipping words or phrases you don’t know, you could be missing a lot of questions. This factor is most obvious in the Listening section, where you’ll listen to audio recordings that are several minutes long. A lot is discussed in these recordings, and, while you can take notes, you won’t be able to listen to any of the recordings a second time. You’ll have just once chance to remember everything you need to.

Again, if you’ve gotten by so far by only understanding, say 85% of what’s said during conversations in English, you may find yourself struggling a lot to answer the more detailed questions on the Listening section and other parts of the TOEFL.

 

#5: Open-Ended Questions

Answering four hours worth of multiple-choice questions in English is hard enough, but many questions on the TOEFL require more than just selecting the correct answer. On both the Speaking and Writing sections you’ll be asked broad, open-ended questions and asked to give a clear and detailed response.

Take this sample Speaking question: “What is your favorite childhood memory?” To answer it, you’ll need to select one memory from all those (probably hundreds or thousands) you have from childhood and speak about it for 45 seconds. Similarly, on the Writing section, you’ll see essay prompts that ask you to explain your opinion on a particular topic and back up that opinion with specific reasons and examples.

For both of these types of questions, there are many things you could discuss, and that can often make it more difficult because you are the one who has to choose what the best things to talk/write about are instead of it being chosen for you. If you are used to taking tests with mostly multiple-choice questions, having to answer open-ended questions that require you to choose what topic to discuss then add details and examples to it can be difficult to do if you haven’t had a lot of practice.

 

#6: Distractions During the Speaking Section

You’ll likely be taking the TOEFL in a room full of other test-takers, and when you reach the Speaking section, you’ll all be speaking at more or less the same time. Numerous test-takers mentioned this as one of hardest parts of the TOEFL because they found it difficult to concentrate and give their own response when in a room filled with other people talking. Some even suggested that ETS should change the way the Speaking section is administered because it’s so distracting. If you’re used to quiet or near-quiet when practicing English, this change can be jarring and cause you to stumble over your words and miss important points.

 

#7: Time Crunch

In addition to being a long test and having many tricky questions, you also need to get through those questions at a fairly quick pace. Below is the format of the TOEFL, and each section has the number of questions and length included.

Section Number of Questions Time Given
Reading 36-56 60-80 minutes
Listening 34-51 60-90 minutes
Speaking 6 tasks 20 minutes
Writing 2 tasks 20 minutes, then 30 minutes

As you can see, you’ll need to answer Reading and Listening questions at a fairly decent pace, especially considering that some time will be lost while you read passages or listen to conversations.

The Speaking section probably has the fastest pacing of the entire TOEFL, and you’ll need to quickly jot down notes after hearing/reading the prompt in order to be ready to start speaking when the timer starts. For the Writing section, you’ll have more control over how you organize your time, but you’ll still need to complete two essays in less than an hour.

Overall, you won’t be able to spend a lot of time pondering over a particular question or figuring out what to say if you want to answer all the questions in time.

 

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4 Reasons the TOEFL May Not Be as Bad as You Think

The TOEFL can be a tricky test for sure, but there may actually be parts of it that are easier than you’re expecting. Below are four ways in which in TOEFL may not be as hard as you think.

 

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You’ll Have (Some) Time to Prepare All Your Answers

For every question you answer on the TOEFL, you’ll have a bit of time to take a breath and prepare your answer. On the Reading and Writing sections, you’ll move through them at your own pace, so you can take a moment to collect your thoughts and ponder a difficult word if you need to. On the Listening section, you’re able to take notes during the conversations to get your thoughts in order, and you’ll have enough time to collect your thoughts and consider which answer is best for each question set. Speaking, as mentioned above, gives you the least amount of preparation time, but even for this section, you’ll have 15-30 seconds to prepare for each question before you need to begin speaking.

None of the sections of the TOEFL give you enough time to just stare blankly into space for several minutes, but you’ll have a little time to prepare for and think about every question you’re asked which can help reduce anxiety and make you feel more confident.

 

Reading Level Doesn’t Go Higher Than Early University Level

If you’re imaging trying to work your way through dense academic papers on the Reading section of the TOEFL, don’t be! None of the passages in the Reading section will be higher than an early university-level of difficulty.

If you’ve taken entry-level university college classes (or AP or IB classes) in English or read reading materials from those types of classes, you’ve already gotten practice with the difficulty level of passages you’ll be seeing on the TOEFL. If you’re looking more materials to prepare you for the Reading section, check out university-level academic texts that introduce a topic. University books with titles like Introduction to Russian History or Zoology for Beginners are potential examples. You can also look what textbooks are assigned to different beginner-level university classes and read those as well.

 

Reading Comprehension Questions Are Straightforward

Reading questions on the TOEFL generally are just testing your reading comprehension knowledge, so they are simpler than reading questions on other standardized tests. The passages used in the Reading section are more difficult than those found on the SAT and ACT (and about the same level as those on the GRE), but the Reading questions themselves are generally significantly easier. This is because SAT, ACT, and GRE Reading questions often ask you about subtle meanings in the passage, inferences you need to make, and/or include tricky wording designed to make the question harder. Therefore, if you can do well on the Reading section on another standardized test, you’ll likely do well on TOEFL Reading.

 

You Don’t Need a Perfect Score

A final point to remember when answering the question “how hard is the TOEFL?” is that no one is expecting perfection on the exam. Your TOEFL score can range from 0-120, but even top-tier schools like Harvard and MIT don’t ask for a score higher than 100 (though scoring higher can sometimes help you), and many mid-tier schools are happy to accept TOEFL scores in the 80-100 range, with some even accepting scores as low as 60. So don’t feel that you need to have absolutely perfect English or can never make a mistake.

 

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Perfection is not required on the TOEFL.

 

How to Reduce TOEFL Stress

Now that you have a better idea of how difficult the TOEFL is, follow these three tips during your studying so that you’ll feel confident and ready to crush the TOEFL on test day.

 

Learn the Format of the TOEFL

For almost every factor listed above, studying the TOEFL and becoming familiar with its format and the types of questions it asks will make the test easier and be a massive help when it comes time to take the actual exam. Read up on the TOEFL’s format if you need a review, answer practice questions, and generally get to know the test inside and out.

We have guides on how to prepare specifically for each section of the TOEFL. Each of these guides explains the content you’ll be tested on, the types of questions you’ll see, and how you can prepare.

The better you know the TOEFL, the more comfortable you’ll be on test day and the easier it will be for you to spot any tricks designed to fool you into answering incorrectly.

 

Take Full-Length Official Practice Tests

Your test prep absolutely must include taking full-length practice TOEFL so you can become more familiar with the test, track your progress, and increase your test-taking stamina so you’re not feeling burned out towards the end of the TOEFL. During your studying, try to fit in at least 2-3 practice TOEFLs, spread out regularly, so you can see where you’ve made improvements and what you still need to work on.

Be sure to take these exams timed and with minimal distractions so that they’re as close to the real TOEFL as they can be. This will get you the most accurate estimated score and a better idea of where you need to improve.

You may also want to take the test in a place where there’s some background noise, such as people talking or music quietly playing in another room, to get used to potential distractions. (Though remember that you’ll be speaking for part of the test, so taking it in a place like a library may annoy the people around you.) We have a guide where we’ve compiled all the official TOEFL resources there are, as well as additional unofficial practice tests to supplement your studying.

 

Strengthen Your Vocabulary

This is most important for the Reading portion of the exam, but having a strong vocabulary will help you on every part of the exam since you’ll be listening and/or reading for every question. Not being able to understand or answer a question because it contains words you don’t know can be frustrating, and it can hurt your confidence and throw you off balance while you’re taking the TOEFL.

Building your vocabulary well before test day is a great way to reduce the chance of this happening. Regularly reading in English will help expand your vocab, but for more targeted practice, check out our list of the 327 words you must know for the TOEFL. Each word comes with a definition and a sample sentence to help you learn and remember it.

 

Review: Is the TOEFL Hard?

So, just how hard is the TOEFL? Everyone has a different experience taking it, but many test-takers find the following seven factors the trickiest parts of the exam:

    • Length
    • Difficult vocab
    • Multiple skills needed to answer questions
    • Questions about minor details
    • Open-ended questions
    • Distractions during the Speaking section
    • Time crunch

Not everyone finds the TOEFL difficult, however; and you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that:

    • You’ll have some time to prepare each of your answers
    • Reading passages don’t go above early-university level
    • Reading questions are straightforward
    • You don’t need to get a perfect score
  • In order to reduce test anxiety and be well-prepared for the TOEFL, you should learn the format of the test, take official practice TOEFLs, and strengthen your vocabulary before test day.

 

What’s Next?

Not sure what TOEFL score you should be aiming for? Learn what a good TOEFL score is based on the schools you’re interested in.

A prep book can be your most useful study tool for the TOEFL. Learn what the five best TOEFL prep books are so you can start studying!

If you’re looking for more TOEFL practice materials, there are lots available online! Check out our guide to the best online TOEFL practice resources and get your studying started!

 



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Author: Christine Sarikas

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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