The best way to prepare for the TOEFL is to take a practice test. Luckily, ETS (the maker of the TOEFL) offers a handful of TPO TOEFL tests—full-length practice tests that are exactly like the real exam. But are these tests actually worth buying?
In this comprehensive TPO review, we explain what TPO TOEFL tests are, look at their advantages and disadvantages, and give you advice on whether to buy one. We also give you six top tips on how to use TPO tests effectively in your TOEFL prep.
What Are TPO TOEFL Tests?
TOEFL Practice Online (TPO) tests are official, full-length TOEFL practice tests available through the official ETS TOEFL Practice Online website. Each TPO exam is a real, retired TOEFL, making them some of the best resources you can use for authentic TOEFL practice.
TOEFL TPO tests cost 45.95 USD per test. You can also buy individual sections or groups of sections:
- One Speaking practice test for 23.95 USD
- Three Speaking and Writing tests for 25.95 USD each
- Three Reading and Listening tests for 22.95 USD each
You have 18 months to take any TPO test you buy. Once you finish a test, you’ll have 30 days to see the test and save or print your results. You may not take TOEFL TPO tests more than once.
A computer will score your results, which you’ll get within 24 hours of taking the test. (Usually, though, you’ll get them sooner than that—often within just 15 minutes!) You’ll also get performance feedback and scores for each section: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing.
For Speaking, a software called SpeechRater will score your response (instead of human raters). According to ETS, “This program uses speech recognition and processing technology to evaluate important features of your spoken responses. Scores and performance feedback are available within 24 hours.”
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For Writing, a software called e-rater will score your response (again, instead of human raters). Here’s how ETS describes the software: “The e-rater engine assesses each essay by analyzing hundreds of essays that expert faculty readers have scored according to TOEFL scoring standards.”
So are TPO TOEFL tests ultimately worth buying? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
Benefits of TPO TOEFL Tests
There are many benefits of using TPO tests in your TOEFL prep. Here are some of the best reasons you should consider buying a TPO exam.
#1: They’re Actual TOEFL Tests
As I mentioned before, all TPO tests are real, retired TOEFLs. This means all of the questions are former TOEFL questions and therefore the most realistic questions you can practice with.
With unofficial TOEFL tests, you often get practice questions that aren’t very realistic and don’t match the difficulty level of actual TOEFL questions. But with TPO tests, all questions are exactly like the ones you’ll get on test day in regard to format, content, and difficulty, making them an excellent go-to resource for honing your TOEFL skills.
#2: They’re Computer Tests—Not Paper Tests
It’s not just the questions that are realistic but the entire format of the test! Just like the TOEFL iBT, TPO tests are digital tests you take on a computer (though there is a paper version of the TOEFL, too, offered only in areas where the TOEFL iBT is unavailable).
Since the TPO interface is nearly identical to the one used for the TOEFL, you’ll get an incredibly realistic test-taking experience through TPO tests. For example, you’ll learn ahead of time what buttons to press to move on to the next question or section, and see how instructions, passages, and prompts are presented on-screen. Ultimately, knowing how to work the TOEFL interface beforehand will help you feel more prepared for test day.
You’ll also get used to working with headphones and a microphone. While many (unofficial) TOEFL practice tests use transcripts of lectures and don’t require you to speak into a microphone, TPO tests make you complete every part of a real TOEFL, including listening to audio clips and recording your voice.
#3: They Use Realistic Time Limits
What’s especially great about TPO tests is that they time you. A clock in the corner tells you how much time you have left on each section. And these time limits are the same as those on the TOEFL!
(45-60 secs to speak per task)
(20 mins for Integrated task, 30 mins for Independent task)
*On the actual TOEFL, these time limits can range from 60 to 80 minutes for Reading and 60 to 90 minutes for Listening due to extra experimental questions.
Once time is up you may continue to work on that section, but I recommend immediately moving on to the next section, regardless of whether you’ve finished it or not, to ensure you’ll have a more realistic testing experience. On the actual TOEFL, once the clock reaches 0, you’ll need to move on no matter what, so it’s best to obey the timer in your prep as well.
Another feature is untimed mode, which allows you to completely forgo the timer. This means there will be no clock and you can take as much time as you want on each section. However, I don’t recommend using this mode since it won’t be available to you on test day.
#4: All Sections Are Scored
Unlike other (mainly unofficial) TOEFL practice tests, TPO tests give you scores for each section of the exam, including Speaking and Writing. In other words, you’ll get raw scores (i.e., the number of points you earned) for Reading and Listening, and scaled scores (out of 30) for all sections. These scores can help you determine whether you’re making progress and are on track to hitting your TOEFL goal score.
Additionally, TPO tests give you performance feedback to tell you whether you’re ready for the actual test. Specifically, the feedback goes over your strengths and weaknesses to help you target your study sessions and prepare more effectively for test day.
Drawbacks of TPO TOEFL Tests
Now that we’ve covered the benefits of TPO TOEFL tests, let’s look at the drawbacks. What kinds of problems or negatives do TPO tests have that might affect your decision to buy one? Here are three to consider.
#1: They’re Expensive
Price is often the top reason test takers decide not to buy a TPO exam. At 45.95 USD a piece, TPO tests are some of the most expensive official TOEFL resources available, so not everyone can afford to buy one (or thinks they’re worth buying).
TPO tests are especially pricey when you compare them to other official resources. For example, The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test, which comes with four original practice tests, is around 25 USD on Amazon. That’s $20 less than a single TPO test!
Even more shocking, Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 1 and Volume 2—which each contain five full-length practice tests—cost only about 20-25 USD each. This means you’re potentially getting 10 times the number of practice tests at the same cost of a single TPO test!
Besides these prep books, ETS offers tons of free TOEFL resources that are almost as good as TPO exams. These materials include the TOEFL iBT Interactive Sampler, a software offering an abbreviated TOEFL practice test, and TOEFL iBT Quick Prep, a four-volume collection of PDFs containing realistic practice questions for each section of the exam.
#2: Speaking & Writing Scoring Is Questionable
What’s nice about TPO tests is that they score all of your sections, but the scoring software they use isn’t particularly reliable. On the TOEFL, human raters grade your Speaking and Writing sections, but on TPO tests, computers do all of the scoring, leaving more room for errors and glitches.
First off, I felt the Speaking scoring was too harsh. When I took a TPO test, I got only a 26 on Speaking even though I’m a native English speaker, spoke the entire time, enunciated, and used clear details and examples. This is likely due to the fact that the SpeechRater software isn’t 100 percent accurate: ETS admits that the software is “limited in its evaluation of Topic Development features”—a key part of your Speaking score.
The scoring software for Writing isn’t great, either. Usually, as long as you use correct grammar and write enough words, you’ll get a high (and perhaps perfect) Writing score, regardless of what you write about. So even if your essay is completely off-topic (which would give you a score of 0 on the actual TOEFL), the e-rater could still give you a high Writing score!
Another bizarre issue with Writing scoring is that the e-rater doesn’t score any essays that don’t use paragraphs. However, as some of these official high-scoring TOEFL essays show, you don’t always need to use paragraphs to get a high TOEFL Writing score. Thus, we can see that the e-rater isn’t as realistic as it could be.
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#3: You Can Only Take a TPO Exam Once
Despite the high price of each TPO test, you can only take a test once—and that’s it! So if you wanted to retake the test to try out new strategies or work on your time-management skills, you can’t. Instead, you’ll need to buy a new TPO test or find a different resource.
Though most people won’t need to take an entire TPO test more than once, it’s strange that ETS doesn’t allow you to use the test you bought for further practice since you can do this with other official resources such as prep books and PDFs.
Should You Buy a TPO TOEFL Test?
As you can see, there are a lot of benefits and drawbacks to TPO tests. But in the end, should you buy a TPO TOEFL test? The answer to this question depends mainly on what type of TOEFL prep you want to do and what you’ve already done. Below, we look at the top four factors to consider when deciding whether to buy a TPO exam.
Factor 1: Price
As I mentioned before, price is a pretty big factor that often keeps test takers from buying a TPO test. If money isn’t an issue for you, though, TPO tests can be good investments as they offer high-quality practice questions with a realistic testing interface.
On the other hand, if you’re concerned about money, don’t buy a TPO test. Many cheaper but still high-quality options exist, so don’t feel as though you must spend a ton of money on a TPO test in order to get solid TOEFL practice.
Factor 2: What Other TOEFL Resources Have You Used?
Because the practice tests in official TOEFL prep books are cheaper than TPO tests and offer more tests and general prep material to work with, it’s better to use these books first before buying a TPO exam.
As a reminder, the three official TOEFL prep books are as follows:
- The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test (about 25 USD)
- Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 1 (about 20-25 USD)
- Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 2 (about 20-25 USD)
Once you use these materials, if you think you need more TOEFL practice, go ahead and buy a TPO test. However, if you feel the books are sufficient, stick with what you have and don’t buy a TPO test.
Factor 3: How Confident Are You?
TPO tests are exactly like the real TOEFL. So if you’re nervous about taking the test and want to know what it will be like from start to finish, a TPO exam can get you used to the time limits and number of questions and help you build stamina so that you’re mentally and physically prepared for test day.
On the other hand, if you’re already fairly confident in your test-taking skills and English ability, a TPO test probably isn’t necessary. As long as you know the format of the TOEFL and are working with other high-quality materials, you should be fine on test day!
Factor 4: How High Are You Currently Scoring?
Finally, if your current TOEFL score isn’t as high as you want it to be, TPO tests can help you get used to the overall format of the test, practice managing your time better, and try out various test-taking strategies you’ve learned.
However, if you’re already scoring highly on TOEFL practice tests and questions, buying an entire TPO test probably isn’t necessary. In this case, you’ll benefit more by honing the weaknesses you still have through targeted practice and content review.
How to Use TOEFL TPO Tests Effectively: 6 Tips
If you do decide to buy a TPO exam, you’ll need to know how to use it effectively so that you can get the most out of it. Here are some tips on what to do with your TOEFL TPO test.
#1: Make Time for the Test
Before you take a TPO test, you’ll need to carve out plenty of time to take it. Even though you can stop your test and resume it later, it’s far better to take it all in one sitting so that you’re getting a more realistic TOEFL experience. Therefore, you’ll need to set aside at least four hours for the practice test (i.e., the length of the real TOEFL).
Try to choose a day and time that work well for you as well—ideally a weekend or whenever you’re not busy with school or work. If possible, take your test in the morning or early afternoon so that it’s not too late (and you’re not too exhausted) by the time you finish it.
Ultimately, planning ahead for your TPO test should help you feel more prepared and less worried about trying to make time for it.
#2: Prepare Your Computer and Materials
As you prepare to take a TOEFL TPO test, get your computer and other materials ready. This way you won’t have to leave in the middle of the test or pause it to fix a technical problem.
Specifically, make sure to do the following before taking your practice test:
- Confirm that your computer can run the TPO software.
- Fully charge your computer and have your charger on hand. Remember, the test is four hours long, so you’ll likely need to charge your computer at some point during it!
- Test your headphones and microphone to make sure they work properly. Any earbuds or headphones should work, and most laptops have a built-in microphone you can use.
- Have paper and pencils ready for note taking.
If you really want to simulate a test-taking experience, don’t have any water or snacks at your desk, either. These aren’t allowed in real testing rooms, so you’ll get a more authentic TOEFL experience if you don’t drink or snack during your TPO exam.
#3: Find a Slightly Noisy Environment
Unlike other tests, the TOEFL isn’t always quiet. This is because test takers in the same testing room often get to the Speaking section at the same time, making the room louder than normal. As a result, on test day you might find it difficult to focus on your own Speaking responses (or whatever section you’re on).
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The best way to combat this distraction is to prepare in a similarly loud environment. I suggest finding a cafe, mall, park, or other public area to take your test in and help you get used to the noise. In turn, you’ll learn how to tune out background noise and can later do the same on test day.
#4: Close All Computer Applications
Your computer shouldn’t run slowly or encounter any problems as you take your TPO test, so make sure to close out of all other applications or browsers you have running in the background. This allows your TPO test to proceed as smoothly as possible, technically speaking.
#5: Use Official Time Limits
You should always follow official time limits as you take a TPO test. The easiest way to do this is to use timed mode instead of untimed mode. Timed mode gives you a more realistic test-taking experience since the timers are the same as those on the actual TOEFL.
In addition, don’t continue a section if time runs out. Timed mode allows you to continue working on a section or question if time’s up, but the real TOEFL doesn’t allow this. So if you keep working past the time limit, you’re not getting an accurate look at your TOEFL scoring abilities.
On a related note, don’t ever pause your TPO test. You won’t be able to pause the TOEFL on test day, even for a bathroom break, so avoid the temptation to pause your practice test at all costs.
#6: Print Your Scores
Once finished, your TPO test scores will be available to view online for 30 days. Since you won’t be able to view your scores after this period, I highly suggest printing out your score report so that you can have a record of your practice test scores and overall performance feedback. You can then use this record to help track your progress toward your TOEFL goal score.
Recap: Are TOEFL TPO Tests Useful?
TOEFL Practice Online, or TPO, tests have both positives and negatives. On the one hand, they’re extremely realistic tests and by far the closest you can get to taking the TOEFL without actually taking it. At the same time, they’re expensive and use unreliable Speaking and Writing scoring software.
Here are the most important factors to consider when buying a TPO exam:
- Whether you’ve used cheaper, high-quality TOEFL practice tests already
- How confident you are in your test-taking abilities
- How high you’re currently scoring on other TOEFL practice tests and questions
And here are our top six tips for using TPO tests effectively:
- Carve out at least four hours for the test—ideally on a weekend or other free day
- Prepare your computer ahead of time and gather materials you’ll need such as paper and pencils
- Take it in a slightly loud setting so you can get used to background noise
- Close all computer applications to keep your computer from running slowly
- Abide by official time limits and don’t pause the test or continue working if time runs out on a section
- Print your scores so you can have them on record longer than 30 days
Hopefully, this TPO review has given you a better understanding of what TPO tests are and how you can use them to your advantage!
Want more TOEFL resources? Check out our compilation of the best TOEFL prep books to learn which official and unofficial books will prepare you effectively for the test and help you reach your score goals.
Need help with specific TOEFL sections? Then take a look at our top guides for the TOEFL Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing sections to get access to dozens of high-quality practice tests and questions!
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