86 is a low TOEFL score

The TOEFL test guide to prepare and register for the test

General information about the test

The TOEFL was introduced in 1964 as an international language test for students whose first language is not English. Since then, the test has been taken by more than 27 million people around the world and is accepted as a standardized language test by more than 8,500 universities in over 130 countries around the world.

Among the international study and language tests, the TOEFL is usually the first international, standardized test that students from Germany have to face in their lives. While tests such as the GMAT or GRE only become relevant for Master, MBA and PhD applications, the TOEFL as a language test is of much more fundamental importance and is accordingly very widespread. This is especially true as the TOEFL is also required and used more frequently than its direct competitor, the IELTS.

At the latest when applying for a semester abroad in English-speaking countries, the TOEFL is required by the target university or your own university and for scholarship applications to the DAAD, the TOEFL is either a mandatory component of the application or it is optional, but not without the DAAD's note that a good TOEFL test significantly increases the chances of receiving a scholarship, provided the rest of the application is correct.

Most students who have never taken a test like this and only know it from hearsay have deep worry lines digging their foreheads at the unknown requirements of the test. Here comes the good news: The TOEFL is a relatively simple test and any average student should, with a little preparation, have no trouble getting good scores without ever having been abroad. There is no "secret recipe" to successfully master the test, instead - and this is initially unusual for German students - you have to understand, in addition to your own language skills, how an American, standardized multiple choice test such as the TOEFL is structured and the Know the idiosyncrasies of this test. Once you have understood how the TOEFL is structured, you can usually walk through the test without any major problems.

Structure of the test and assessment key

The TOEFL is still hovering around in some Internet descriptions as "Paper-Based", "Computer-Based" and "Internet-Based". Only the latter, the Internet-Based-Test, or "ibt" for short, is currently available. The old test formats are no longer used or only where the ibt is not available, e.g. in developing countries.

The TOEFL test examines the categories "Speaking", "Writing", "Reading" and "Listening" and evaluates these sections with 30 points each, which means that the perfect TOEFL result is 120 points. In the areas of "Reading" and "Listening", a higher-level topic is dealt with and then the test participant is given a series of multiple choice questions on the topic. In the "Speaking" section, the test participant reads texts or listens to short audio passages and finally has to answer one question orally on the topic. A total of six questions must be answered in this section. Finally, in the last part, the test participant reads some texts again and listens to audio passages before being instructed to write two essays on a specific question.
The evaluation, which in the end amounts to a score between 0 and 120 points, follows the following structure: For the reading and listening sections, the computer calculates the scores directly from the multiple choice questions answered. For the section "Speaking", however, each question receives a score of 0 to 4 raw points. The evaluation is carried out by certified examiners from ETS, who decide on the final score for each answer. The sum of the raw points is then converted into a point value from 0 to 30 points. Similarly, the two essays are rated with a score of 0 to 5 points. These raw points are then also converted into 0 to 30 points.

While ultimately only the final score of the test is decisive, ETS also divides the respective scores for each test section into three performance areas and thus gives an indication of how the respective evaluations of each section are to be interpreted:

sectionAchievable scoresclassification
Reading 0-30 points
  • 22-30: High
  • 15-21: Intermediate
  • 0-14: Low
  • Listening 0-30 points
  • 22-30: High
  • 15-21: Intermediate
  • 0-14: Low
  • Speaking 0 to 4 raw points per answer
    Conversion into
    0-30 points
  • 26-30: Good
  • 18-25: Fair
  • 10-17: Limited
  • 0 - 16: Weak
  • Writing 0 to 5 raw points per essay
    Conversion into
    0-30 points
  • 24-30: Good
  • 17-23: Fair
  • 0-16: Limited

  • With regard to the areas of responsibility, the TOEFL is designed as an integrated test. This means that various aspects of language proficiency are tested simultaneously, if possible. An example: In the speaking section, the ability of the test participant to construct a meaningful answer fluently and without errors in a short period of time is tested. The test participant takes the information for the answer from various elements, e.g. a lecture by a speaker or a short piece of text. This means that the "Listening" and "Reading" aspects are automatically checked in the "Speaking" category. The same applies to the essays.

    Regarding the final score in the TOEFL test, there is no "fail" or "passed", only the final score between 0 and 120 points. The point scale on the top right gives a rough indication of which points correspond to which language level in the TOEFL. However, the scale is only to be interpreted as a non-binding rule of thumb, which, based on subjective opinions and empirical values, provides a rough indication of which scores are realistic with how much preparation and previous knowledge. The percentage values ​​under the absolute scores indicate the global ranking of a test participant with the respective score. Using the example of 110 points, the 93% percentile is to be understood as follows: 93% of all test participants in the TOEFL achieved a worse result than 110 points or exactly 110 points, while 7% of all test participants achieved a higher score.

    In many cases, 80 to 90 points are often enough for a university abroad, especially if it is only about a single semester abroad. This is a value that a German high school graduate with good grades should actually grasp without any major preparation. Elite universities like Harvard usually ask for 105 or 110 points, setting scores that are possible but require some preparation. In general, applicants should also expect that the required scores for Master's and MBA applications are higher than for undergraduate programs.

    Regarding a university application itself, applicants should always be aware that high scores in the TOEFL are more or less a kind of hygiene criterion for universities. This means that a TOEFL score that is too low almost immediately leads to the application failing, while - in contrast to the GMAT - applicants with very high scores (even beyond 110) will hardly impress the admissions committee of a university, since its informative value via the Candidate is too limited.

    Instructions for preparing for the test

    With the TOEFL, two things must be observed: The test must be prepared intensively with specialist literature and you should take enough time for this. The TOEFL is internationally standardized and clearly structured. The problem is that you can only crack the typical multiple-choice strategy of the test with specific preparation. Anyone who associates multiple choice with "It's easy" should be pointed out directly that the testers have almost perfected this procedure in order to confuse test participants or lure them on the wrong track, while the time pressure in the test is very high.

    To prepare for the TOEFL, candidates should choose the following strategy: As long as the test is still a long way off in the calendar, i.e. several months, it is advisable to practice English language skills in order to constantly confront the language in everyday life. Reading English books and news, as well as watching English-language TV programs or films are great options here. The latter in particular should not be underestimated. As an integrated test, the TOEFL tests the test participant's ability to listen to and understand an English-speaking speaker at several points in the test. A well-developed listening comprehension is one of the most important foundations for successfully mastering the test.

    As soon as the test approaches and there are only a few weeks left, test takers should move on to the technical aspects of exam preparation. Candidates should avoid cramming tons of vocabulary that they will most likely not need, but instead concentrate on the structure of the test and learn to understand what the developers of the test at ETS expect from successful test participants.

    For this very reason, Princeton Review's "Cracking the TOEFL ibt" is highly recommended as a preparation. The book is published in a new edition every year and is therefore always up to date with the introduction of new questions in the TOEFL by ETS. The book is a little over 500 pages long and prepares candidates very well for the test if you take enough time. For each section of the TOEFL test, the book offers a comprehensive introduction to the structure of the respective test section. For the reading section, for example, in the TOEFL it is important to be able to grasp information quickly and to be able to differentiate between details. "Cracking the TOEFL Test" trains the reader to read and understand comprehensive text passages quickly and under great time pressure in such a way that the respective questions can be answered optimally. The book also explains all the question types used and shows where the most common pitfalls lie. The book is structured in a similar way in the other sections. For example, in the last section, when writing the two essays, the ETS examiners expect the participants to adhere to a very specific text structure. Anyone who writes blindly must expect to only achieve an average score, even with the best knowledge of English, if the essay is poorly structured from the perspective of the examiner. If you write a few essays at home beforehand and thus practice the optimal structure of such a short text, you can expect to achieve high scores, even if there are a few minor grammatical errors. The book also points out an interesting fact: The rule "quantity is not quality" is suspended in the TOEFL test. There are certain guidelines on how many words an essay should have, but no upper limit. As long as the structure and content of the essay do not suffer excessively, it makes sense to work out as many points as possible in the train of thought and to write a longer essay, since the examiners of the TOEFL test evaluate a high number of written words within a short time as strong evidence that the examinee can work quickly and efficiently in the English language.

    The "speaking" passages are also a particular challenge. The problem with the TOEFL is not to give the correct answer, but to write the answer briefly and concisely in a time window of only 30 or 45 seconds. "Cracking the TOEFL ibt" also helps a lot here, as the candidate is made aware of this fact and prepared for it.
    We also highly recommend visiting the official ETS website, where sample questions are stored for prospective TOEFL test participants, which also give an insight into the test structure.

    As the author of this article, I would like to report from my own experience in preparation for the test and the use of the above book:

    When I took the test for the first time, I had never been abroad for a long time and in the summer of 2009 I put about 7 weekends in the book, so that I came to about 50 working hours. In retrospect, it was the appropriate preparation time for me to achieve a very good result with only a relatively moderate and somewhat rusty knowledge of English. In the end I got out of the TOEFL with 110 points, which was more than sufficient for all projects abroad.

    In 2011 I finally took the test again because my old test result had expired and I was preparing my master’s applications abroad. After I already knew the test format and had been in the USA and London for six months, I only invested about five hours in the test to review all the important facts and then left the test with 117 points . Of course, the language skills I acquired abroad helped me a lot, but here too the key was again knowing the TOEFL test format.

    Registration for the test and the course of the exam

    For the TOEFL test, ETS offers a network of 4,500 test centers in over 165 countries and the test is offered 30 to 40 times a year at test centers around the world. Especially for students in Germany it is therefore no problem to get a test place if you register in time. Ideally, you should register for the TOEFL test around three to four months before the desired test date, otherwise you run the risk of not getting a test place or only a place in a very unfavorable place. You can register online at http://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/register/ and the test currently costs (as of January 2013) USD 240.00. You can then choose where you want to be tested via online registration.

    After you have checked in at the test center, the test starts after brief instructions from the supervisor and lasts approx. 4 to 5 hours (this depends on the number of tasks, the computer generates the test at random, so that some take longer and others shorter ). The timing is as follows:

  • Reading: 60 to 80 minutes duration with 36 to 56 questions
  • Listening: 60 to 90 minutes with 34 to 51 questions
  • Short break over 10 minutes
  • Speaking: 6 tasks with a response time of 30 or 45 seconds
  • Writing: 50 minutes for two essays

  • You will then receive your test result online 14 days later and about a month later you will be sent your test report again in writing. Important: It has to be AT REGISTRATION specify the universities to which the result should be sent! Subsequent dispatch of the results is possible in any case, but always subject to a charge, which should not be overlooked. Another important tip from my experience: During the TOEFL test you also have to speak into a microphone yourself so that you are assessed for the "Speaking" section. The "Listening" section can be particularly difficult if the neighbors have already moved on and suddenly start speaking their sentences at full volume because they fear that they will be drowned out by others. This put me out of step with my first test in 2009 and resulted in "Listening" being my worst area in the end, because I was completely ripped off by my neighbors and missed an entire section. Such problems shouldn't actually arise in a professional language laboratory, but the equipment of the test centers is different, hence the tip that is taken seriously: take a noise stopper for your ears to use during the passages where you don't have to listen yourself (e.g. when "reading" - Section writing the essays), to be able to work and think undisturbed. Otherwise you have to rely on the headphones to be soundproofed and that is almost never the case.

    If the TOEFL test has been taken, it is valid for two years, after which it expires. It is therefore definitely valuable for students in the second semester, because with the test towards the end of your bachelor’s degree you can "just about" apply for a master’s program without having to take the test again, provided that it turned out correspondingly good .

    Important and useful links on the web

  • Official website of ETS for the TOEFL ibt test
  • Registration for the test on the ETS website
  • Article in the German Wikipedia about the TOEFL test
  • Interpretation of TOEFL scores by ETS