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ETS TOEFL IBT Test Format and Preparation

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The Complete TOEFL iBT Success Course

As an MBA applicant, apart from your GMAT score there’s another test score that the MBA school Admissions Committee would want to know – your TOEFL score.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL, in short…and misspelt by many as TOFEL & TOEFEL) is the most popular English proficiency test among international students applying to a range of universities and undergraduate / graduate programs. Rohit Gupta provides a quick overview of the ETS TOEFL iBT test format.


ETS TOEFL IBT Test Format and Preparation

by Rohit Gupta

Now as you’ve finally decided to pursue a foreign MBA, you’ll have to jump through a few loops which will serve as a prerequisite to your candidature. For all the non-native English speakers, a proof of language ability is required which can be fulfilled by various tests available in the market; TOEFL and IELTS being the most preferred ones.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a favorite among the students, as it very widely accepted (9000 colleges in around 130 countries accept TOEFL scores). A TOEFL test center is usually not too far away, the result arrives fairly quickly and you can customize the test date (more than 50 test dates per year) to suit your overall MBA plan.

The exam, as the name suggests, is taken to test the reading, listening, speaking and writing skills of the applicants. The certificate has a validity of up to two years after the date of the test.

You can reappear as many times as you wish, but you cannot do this within a 12-day window. The cost of the test ranges from US$160 to US$250 and varies from country to country (the cost is US$180 in India as of now).

The TOEFL has two avatars: internet based (iBT) and paper-based. The iBT was introduced in 2005 and has increasingly become the default choice for most applicants.

While a cut-off score is required to prove your mettle in the English language, it differs from CAT/GMAT in the sense that a higher test score does not do any good for the overall candidature (the law of diminishing returns?).

TOEFL Exam Format Decoded

Your starting point for the TOEFL journey should be, the official website of the organization responsible for conducting the TOEFL. The entire test lasts for around four to five hours, along with overheads like check-in and instructions. During the test, you are evaluated on tasks that combine more than one skill (reading, listening, speaking and writing).

Section Time Task
Reading 60 – 80 minutes 36-56 questions
Listening 60 – 90 minutes 34-51 questions
Break 10 minutes
Speaking 20 minutes 6 tasks
Writing 50 minutes 2 tasks

You may hear different accents, as there are speakers from the UK, New Zealand, Australia (apart from the US, of course) to reflect the variety of people you’ll likely come across while pursuing your education abroad.

The registration is mandatory to appear for TOEFL, and online registration should be done at least 7 days before the test. You should preferably enlist the schools you plan to apply during the registration only, as you won’t be allowed to do this during the test.

The Official Guide to the TOEFL iBT is a good resource for those who are already proficient in the language, as it serves as a good repository of different types of questions that can be expected in the test.

In the TOEFL iBT, your aptitude is judged on the scale of 0-120 points. Every section (reading, listening, speaking and writing) is assigned 30 points and the scores are taken together to compute the total score.

ETS TOEFL Preparation

Your level of familiarity with the TOEFL iBT test is at least as important as your grip on the English language. Like almost all the standardized tests these days, the TOEFL has a particular structure and places certain expectations on a candidate, adherence to which can go a long way in improving scores.

Here’s a quick and simple summary of how to prepare for TOEFL.

TOEFL Reading Practice

The TOEFL Reading section contains questions that judge your comprehension and vocabulary, and the difficulty level is fairly easy as compared to GMAT.

There are three to four reading passages, and 12 to 14 questions per passage. The passages are mostly excerpts from university-level textbooks, and often present information from more than a single perspective. Someone who reads on a regular basis should not face any difficulty in this part of the test.

For your TOEFL reading practice, here are some tips:

– English language reading materials – newspapers, books, magazines and blogs will help.
– Flash cards can prove to be a handy way for increasing vocabulary. For improving your speed, you can try ‘speed reading’.
– Make a habit of summarizing the texts you read and to go through it afterwards to make sure you retain the essential parts.
– One smart TOEFL reading practice idea is to read individual paragraphs and not the complete passage at one go as the questions are pretty straight forward and are asked in sequence generally, to save some precious time.

TOEFL Listening Practice

In the Listening section, for TOEFL listening practice it will be best if you listen to native speakers from all over the globe (US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia etc.) to get accustomed to different accents. Listening is vital for comprehension, understanding and synthesizing information.

Add these tips to your TOEFL listening practice:

– Being a Hollywood fan or an audiophile will surely help. For beginners, subtitles can be a godsend.
– YouTube can also prove to be an excellent source for this section.
– Make a timeline and attempt listening questions (conversations/lectures etc.) to have a good understanding about what is important enough to jot down and what can be skipped.
– The key is to understand the idea that is being transmitted, and the ability to distinguish opinions from facts.

TOEFL Speaking Practice

In the TOEFL Speaking section, you will be asked to speak on topics related to your experiences, real-life based situations and academic content. 20 minutes long with 6 questions; the first two are independent speaking tasks (you are expected to formulate your own ideas) and the other four are called integrated speaking tasks (you are required to integrate your overall English skills).

The TOEFL speaking section can be a tougher nut to crack as compared to the previous two. First of all, you are seated in a room with other people who are also taking the test; the anxiety and nervousness can take a toll on you when your neighbor is shouting into the microphone to convey his/her strong opinions.

More importantly, you are expected to formulate a train of thought in 15 seconds, and deliver it within 45 seconds. Delivery, fluency with the language and coherence are the main evaluation criteria.

As expected with a section like this, practice is essential (using a timer is strongly recommended). Here are some tips for getting the most out of your TOEFL speaking practice:

– You can have someone who has a strong hold on the language to critique you, or better yet, you can record yourself to spot any errors afterwards.
– A structured, consistent and coherent answer with good pronunciation and intonation accompanied with ‘feelings’ is the key to convey your expertise.

TOEFL Writing Practice

The TOEFL Writing section is the part where your previous experience with the language is the most important.

There are broadly two types of writing tasks – integrated and independent.

In the integrated writing task, you organize the information based on your notes, then paraphrase and summarize information from the source material.

The independent writing task requires you to express opinions and back them based on your experience/knowledge. Communicating your thoughts through the written word in the most efficient way is a skill that you pick up over time.

Here are some TOEFL writing practice tips.

– You have to get acquainted with the nuances of punctuation and paragraph creation.
– Try to be extra cautious when it comes to tenses.
– You can start with writing effective Emails, or better yet, start your own blog! Here too, timed practice is important, and equally important is getting feedback – to polish the hidden writer within you.

TOEFL Test Day Tips

On the test day, it is imperative to put your best foot forward.

– Have a good breakfast and carry energy bars to boost your energy levels during the test.

– Have adequate sleep the day before to maintain top-notch concentration levels during the test, and arrive at the center before the scheduled time.

– Have a steady pace and avoid spending too much time on one question while making sure you attempt each and every one.

Taking the risk of going overboard with the suggestions, don’t forget to take your registration number and valid ID!

PS. Here is a thread that contains free resources for cracking the TOEFL iBT. Cheers!

Author Bio: I am Rohit, an engineer by education, a data analyst by profession and a reader by inclination. Since 2012, I’ve been writing about self-improvement, productivity, coping with life as it comes and just being plain happy. I blog at

And once again, it’s TOEFL, not TOFEL or TOEFEL (though those variations do sound closer to how it’s pronounced). Good luck with your preparation.

Also read
General guide for the TOEFL English language proficiency test in India
TOEFL IELTS Waiver for the top universities abroad
Best TOEFL Books
Average TOEFL scores, Minimum TOEFL scores for MS MBA
TOEFL Preparation Guide

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

18 thoughts on “ETS TOEFL IBT Test Format and Preparation”

  1. Hi Sameer

    Do we require TOEFL for applying for MBA in the US ( in addition to GMAT). I had the opportunity to study overseas in the South Pacific (4 years – 9 to 12 Stds. equivalent). Also I had studied in an English medium throughout.

    Other stats wise, I have more than 7 yrs of work ex. Not a very brilliant record when it came to under-graduate studies, I had backlogs. Also I took a break from work since past May.

    I have registered for GMAT in early November. Had been preparing on my own. In a conversation with an associate, this TOEFL topic came up.

    Can you please clarify this for me. Also how good do you feel my chances are at getting through to a top 25 (Bloomberg) school in the states.

    Looking for ward to your reply,

  2. @UK: Though most top universities in the US ask for the TOEFL score, there are many who’d give you a waiver if you can demonstrate that your medium of education was English.

  3. hi sir,

    I have completed 2nd yr and want to pursue masters from european university but confused which course will have more job opportunities in future MBA or MIM. is european university is a good option to go with or I can have better one in Europe itself ? at end is it compulsory to go with TOEFL even if i’hd my bachelor degree by English as teaching language ? jus one more that does my bachelor degree marks card have any affect in admission process of these courses or they will jus go by my GMAT score.

  4. Hello Sameer !
    Pleasant Greetings !

    I would like to know about my chances in the process of getting admitted in the Top 50 Business Schools in the world. I have a great passion towards pursuing MBA in the top grad schools. Below is my test scores :-
    1. XII th grade – 91%
    2. B.E – 75%
    3. GMAT – 690
    4.TOEFL – 110
    5. 2 years of Work Experience ( Application Developer)
    Will I be able to stand a chance among all other applicants who are appying in those Grad Schools ( NUS, Nanyang, INSEAD, ESADE, RICE)
    Is a normal application approach is enough ? or I have to wait and stregthen my stance so that I could get admitted in one of them.

    Please advice ! Also please provide a way to have an appointment with you, so that I could consult with you directly.


  5. Hi Sameer,

    I have completed my Bsc in Bio technology in 2006 and have worked in the BPO industry in several sectors like back operations in accounts receivable, customer service, healthcare claims with different companies like Genpact, HSBC, Deloitte. ( i have changed a lot of jobs. :/ )My latest work experience was for almost 3 years at Dell in the Global Order management. This helped me gain a bit of interest and understanding about the Supply Chain sector. I recently had to quit my job as Dell had outsourced its operations to another company and it was not the wisest option for me to move. I m currently unemployed, looking to pursue an education program at my 28 years. Either a masters program
    (MBA) or a certification in SCM which can be a great launch pad for me to kick start my career within this field. I have gone through few blogs , info and there is so much of info that is so confusing and it is good to get advice from someone like you.
    Please advise me if it is good to go for GMAT, TOEFL and pursue MBA in SCM specialization and eventually get into a job or are there any specific SCM certifications/ diploma programs offered to someone who had finished bachelors in India ? Which move is more meaningful and proves beneficial for a better career in supply chain? Your advice would really help me to channel my confused thoughts. Thank you.

  6. @Aryan: Read the previous response on whether the TOEFL is compulsory or not. Regarding your other query about the relevance of bachelors degree marks, yes they would matter. A GMAT score by itself isn’t sufficient.

    @Arul: We can’t talk about chances on the blog. Read this to know why: How not to select business schools

    @Samira: You are on the right track. A good MBA or Masters degree in SCM can help you in the transition. Read this: MIT Supply Chain Management (SCM) Course

  7. Dear Sir,

    I am in big confusion regarding my career .
    i am an Science Graduate ( BSC MAths), PGDCA & MBA – FInace & Marketing.

    Presently working with Industry but not at all satisfied with my current package of 3 Lacs . I got 3 years of experience & doing Assistant type Job.

    Please give your valuable feedback as I am thinking to quit this job & want to do something of my own.

    Request your suggestion.

    With high hope , I am waiting for your valuable suggestions


    Sandeep makwana

    i am a parent of my boy who has done B tech in electrical and electronics (EEE) from surathkal. He worked for a telecom company for 18 months and resigned. he had applied for CMU and BERKELy to pursue M S with good score both in TOEFL and GRE. He was disappointed when his applications did not come through during summer and winter. Twice he had applied. Meantime, i wanted to pursue cyling in all india expedition and i permitted him. He also wanted to go on treking and did so. I do not know after some time he has resisted to go cycling and most of the time he spends his time on computer. Meaintime, i advised him to take IAS and he did so taking preliminary. I also advised him to take MBA which he is doing now.

    From my point of parentship, i have done and given him the best ICSE education, well defined college for B Tech and Now i am confused about his behaviour. Is there anything that i should and should not advise him. enlightened readers can please suggest me through this column which may help other parents like me as how to deal with this kind of situation.

    My son has good behaviour in all aspects except the decision at right time he wants to take, he will be confused. While my advise to him to take up M Tech in the insitution he has done B Tech and finish his Phd, he does blast me for what purpose Phd would do and i am not allowing him to do what he wants. While on the other edge i am due to retire in next 1 year, with little bit of money coming from my side, i am not so networthy to make my son to spend he wishes to do so. all that i have a small plot of 1200 sft house with one 5 years old daugther purusing college eduction.

    My question is does student of this age like my son, do they thiink their responsiblity and onus they owe to society, parent, to do the good things. I am totally disappointed with the current situation my son undergoing without job, without experiend, without earning. He is not so enterprising personality as i have tried to make him introduce to enterprenueship programmes.

    what is stored in for my son, can anyhbody advise me. thanks a lot for reading mailing. I am bassically a father who has done myi qualification upto PUC and do not have much intelligence to tackle the curent days student like my son.

  9. Hi,
    I have completed my B.COM degree from mumbai university with 60% in the year 2005. I also done distance MBA(finance) from sikkim manipal university with 78% in 2011. I have 3 year experience in very small company as accountant. My toefl score is 74. Can I do MS in USA or UK . which is good.

  10. hello sameer!
    i’m pursuing my final year and preparing for my GMAT and TOEFL.I’ve applies for shortlisting services and then i have been advised of going into MIM’s than brief elaborating is the scope for an MIM good to climb up teh executive cadre in top servise sector companies or else at one point of time you end up doing an MBA.what do you advise me MIM or MBA?

  11. hi sameer,
    i have completed my 3 years Bcom computers in the year 2015
    now i want to apply for mba in us i got 6 bands in IELTS and i have not written GMAT. what is your suitable suggestion for me…..

  12. hlo Sameer,
    I have completed BCA with 60% in the 2015, I want to apply for mba in US I’ve no experience, so now can I apply for Stanford university?

  13. @Ayub and Vishal: Don’t rush in now. The top schools ask for experience (4-5 yrs is average in the class).

    It can be a big liability to go into the apllication process with nothing to talk about on the career front.

  14. Hi…

    I have completed BTECH from CSE(2008-2012) , Now have a 3 year experience into Software Testing (working as a SDET). Now I am planning to pursue masters from Germany.. Can anyone guide me on this. My academic record:

    X : 86%
    XII : 85%
    BTECH : 71 %

    • Respected sir,
      Myself Bhawna, currently pursuing English honours (2nd year ).I am confused about MBA ..Sir, does it is necessary to clear all the sections of TOFEL exam?

  15. dear sir,
    I am very impressed in your MBA CRYSTALL BALL. N ow please inform what are total cost in average for study in a average good university for MS course in computer science.If I scored well in GRE & TOEfel or IELTS how is the chance for any scholarship and financial Aid from the university.
    please inform and waiting for your early reply

    Thanks & Regards,

  16. Hello,
    I am 2nd year BTech student. I have a great passion towards pursuing MBA in the top grad schools. But due to an accident my 12th and 1st year result is low. Will it affect my GRE score?


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