TOEFL: What to Expect on the TOEFL Exam

The TOEFL exam is the Test Of English as Foreign Language. The TOEFL exam is for college students who live in countries that don't speak English as a primary language and who plan to attend college in the United States. It measures a student's ability to use and understand English as it is used in the United States.

There are two unique versions of the TOEFL exam: one, called the PBT, is conducted on paper, and one, the iBT, is administered on a computer. Generally, a student doesn't have a choice between the two, and the determination is made based on the country in which the test-taker lives.

The computerized iBT contains the following four sections:

  • Reading: You read three to five passages and answer questions about each. This section takes one to slightly less than two hours.
  • Listening: You hear four to six lectures and answer questions about each. This section takes between one hour and 90 minutes.
  • Speaking: You have to convey your thoughts orally. This section may combine reading, listening, and writing and generally takes only 20 minutes.
  • Writing: You to write an essay in about 50 minutes.

As you can see, the iBT takes between 3 and 4-1/2 hours to complete.

The paper-based test follows a slightly different format:

  • Listening comprehension: The test administrator plays you a series of recorded statements and conversations in English. You are asked a series of questions immediately following each recording. You cannot take notes, and you have 50 questions total to answer.
  • Structure and Written Expression: You see a series of sentences containing various spelling, grammatical, and usage errors; you must identify the mistakes. There are 40 questions in this section.
  • Reading Comprehension: You read a series of passages in English and answer 50 questions that relate to them.
  • Writing: You write an essay.

The entire paper-based TOEFL exam takes about 2-1/2 hours to complete.

Your TOEFL scores are considered an accurate reflection of your current command of English for up to two years after you take the exam. If you wait longer than two years to apply to a school in the United States, you'll have to retake the TOEFL.

In addition to college admission, many U.S. government agencies use the TOEFL exam to evaluate the English proficiency of potential employees.