TOEFL Guide for International Students

Exam Guide

When applying to a university in the U.S., you must take specific tests to be accepted into the program of your choice. As an international student whose first language is not English, one of these is a standardized test to assess your proficiency in the English language. Several companies offer tests accepted by most universities worldwide, but one of the top tests is the TOEFL.

What is the TOEFL?


TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is a standardized test created and offered by the Educational Testing Service. This test is one of the tests available to international students who wish to study in the U.S. but whose first language is not English. The TOEFL tests an applicant’s ability to read, write, listen to and speak English in an academic setting. As one of the most widely accepted standardized tests for English language proficiency, it’s used in more than 150 countries and 11,500 institutions worldwide.

How is the TOEFL structured?

The test is divided into four sections:

The total test time is three hours, with 30 minutes to check in and get organized and a 10-minute break between the second and third sections. 

Here’s a detailed breakdown of each section:


This section requires you to read three or four passages of about 700 words taken from university-level textbooks. You will answer 10 questions per passage. The answers can be found in the relevant passage, so there is no need to be familiar with the topic.


This test section determines how well you can understand lectures and conversations. This includes assessing your basic understanding, understanding the speaker’s opinions and attitude and how well you can pull and analyze information from what you heard.

You will hear three or four lectures lasting three to five minutes. There will be six questions for each lecture. You will also hear two or three conversations lasting three minutes. There will be five questions per discussion. You may take notes while listening to the lectures and exchanges to help when you are answering the questions.


In this section, you will answer four questions to assess how well you can speak academic English. The first question will require you to respond based on your thoughts, experiences and opinions. The other three questions require you to combine your speaking skills with listening and/or reading, which you would encounter in a real-life setting. All your responses will be recorded as you speak into the microphone.


The writing section assesses how well you communicate in written English. There are two tasks. The first is an integrated writing task requiring you to respond to a short written passage and a short audio lecture. The second is an independent writing task requiring you to write an essay based on your thoughts, experiences and opinions.

TOEFL Scoring

The TOEFL is scored on a scale of zero to 120, weighted evenly between the four sections. This means each section is worth 30 points and the total score is the sum of the scores in each section. For example, if you score 28 in reading, 27 in writing, 25 in listening and 26 in speaking, your total score would be 28 + 27 + 25 + 26 = 106.

Even though each section of the test has a maximum of 30 points, the proficiency range for each section varies. Here’s the proficiency breakdown based on section scores:





Remember, there is no pass or fail with the TOEFL. Instead, the university you are applying to will interpret your score based on its requirements.

Access to your TOEFL score will come in the form of a score report that you will have access to roughly six days after taking the test. Eight days after taking the test, your score report will be ready to download as a PDF. This is not an official copy of the score report. However, ETS will send an official copy of your test results to up to four schools of your choice.

If you wish to dispute your test scores and the ETS agrees that your scores may not be valid, you will be able to do one of the following:

TOEFL cost

The cost of the TOEFL varies depending on what country you are taking it in. In general, it ranges from US$185 to US$265. Other fees include:

How to take the TOEFL

women typing on a laptop

To register for the TOEFL, you can use your ETS account, which also serves as your gateway to the entire testing process. When it comes to taking the TOEFL, you have the flexibility of choosing between multiple options. The exam can be undertaken at a certified test center conveniently located either nearby or in various international locations. For your convenience, ETS offers a user-friendly and easily navigable database containing all the authorized TOEFL testing locations, both within the United States and abroad. You can take the exam at a test center near you or online from home. There is a paper-based test available, but taking the online test, known as the internet-based test (iBT), is preferred. If you take the paper-based test, you will do so at a testing center over two sessions.

The TOEFL iBT can be taken in testing centers, and there is a TOEFL Home Edition if you want to take it from home. If you take the test in a test center, you will be provided with all the equipment and the testing environment you need to complete your test.

If you take the TOEFL at home, a proctor will monitor your exam. You will need to prepare your environment as follows:

You must ensure the environment in which you are taking the test is private and quiet. Your computer must be on a table or desk, and you should be seated in a chair. The computer and the chair must be positioned to have a clear view of you and the door, which must be closed.

You must dress appropriately without a watch, jewelry, head coverings (unless previously approved), purses, bags or other technology. Your cell phone may be used for check-in but must be removed from the testing area. There is no eating or drinking during the test, and you should not have books, notepads or writing implements nearby. Once you start the test, your browser will be locked, and you won’t be able to access anything else on your computer.If you want something to help you take notes, you are allowed a physical whiteboard or a piece of paper with a sheet protector. You can then use an erasable marker and a whiteboard eraser for taking notes. When the test is over, you must show your proctor that all notes have been erased.

Once you finish the test, you will receive your results in 13 calendar days for the paper-based test and three to five days after the online test. You can check these results on the Test Taker Portal. Online test results will be mailed to you 13 days after your test date, and results will be sent to institutions requiring an original copy. Test results will not be emailed to you or disclosed over the phone.

If you do not pass the TOEFL, you can retake the test every 12 days, and there is no limit on the number of times you can take it.

Canceling or rescheduling the TOEFL

You can cancel the TOEFL test for a refund of 50% of the paid test fee or pay an additional fee to change the date of your test registration. This must be done no later than three full days before the test date. Any refunds owed to you will take three to four weeks to be credited to your account. If you wish to reschedule, you must do so at least four full days before your test date, and you will be charged a fee of US$60.

TOEFL preparation and tips

exam preparation

Now that you know what to expect when taking the TOEFL, here are some final tips:

Finally, when taking the test, skip any questions you are unsure of and go back to them once you have finished answering all the questions in that section. Remember that you must check your answers for each section before you move on because once you leave a section, you can’t go back.

Final word on the TOEFL

english book with pencil

Proving you are proficient in English is only one of many steps you must take when applying to a university in the U.S., but it’s important. The last thing you want is to arrive in the U.S., start your studies and  have difficulty keeping up because you don’t understand the course content, your professors or your fellow students. The TOEFL assesses how well you can converse in English, but it can also assess your English language strengths and weaknesses.