The Guide to the TOEFL Test

The TOEFL Test Summary
What: Test for foreign students wishing to study in an English-speaking country.
Who: Foreign students take this test, developed by the Education Testing Service (ETS).
Where: Over 4,300 testing centers in 136 countries.
When: Offered multiple times, year-round.
How: Either internet-based (iBT), or paper-based (PBT).
Type: Either paper and pencil, or computerized. Timed.
Why: Benefits foreign students who wish to study abroad. Allows acceptance into universities, graduation, and scholarship opportunites.
Time: 4.5 hours
Language: English
Preparation: Free online courses, and products availble for purchase through test publisher.
Cost: $150-$185

by Alyssa Choiniere, Tests.com Contributing Writer

The Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, is designed primarily for people who wish to study in the United States and need to prove their English speaking abilities. The test is based on classroom studies and is accepted by more than 6,000 institutions in 136 countries. It is the top English-language test and is designed by Educational Testing Service (ETS). Scores may be submitted to English-speaking countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and can be used to help gain acceptance into top colleges and universities, to qualify for scholarships and to make graduation decisions.

Test Subjects

The TOEFL includes four tests: reading, Test of Written English, Test of Spoken English and listening. At a university, students are required to participate in class discussions, speak with other students and professors, critically analyze texts and write clearly. Therefore, test questions are designed to test one’s ability to speak in a normal classroom setting and succeed at the college level. The TOEFL is written in two formats, Internet (iBT) and paper (PBT). One format or both may be available at your testing center. The iBT is recommended over the PBT, as it is far more comprehensive.

Internet-Based Test (iBT)

The iBT includes sections on reading comprehension, listening comprehension, speaking and writing:

  • Reading Comprehension – This section presents three to five academic passages, followed by 12-14 questions about each passage. This section has a total of 36-70 questions that are to be answered in a 60-100 minute period.
  • Listening Comprehension – In this section, test takers listen to lectures, some including classroom discussion, and answer questions based on each lecture. Test takers also listen to conversations and answer questions regarding the content. Test takers have up to five minutes to answer five or six questions on each lecture or conversation.
  • Speaking – Test takers are asked to speak on a general topic, such as describing a fond childhood memory. Test takers then read a passage or listen to a lecture, and then discuss four related topics. Scoring in this section is based on verbal skills, thought development, pronunciation and other linguistic skills. Twenty minutes are allotted.
  • Writing – Test candidates are to write two essays, one in response to either a reading passage or lecture, and one that supports an opinion on a given topic. Fifty minutes are provided for the writing section.

Scoring for reading and listening comprehension range from 0 to 30:

  • 0-14 – Low
  • 15-21 – Intermediate
  • 22-30 – High

The speaking and writing sections are evaluated by a certified tester, and scores range from 0 to 4 in speaking and 0 to 5 in writing. Scores are converted to fit the 0 to 30 scale and are judged as follows:

  • 0-9 – Weak
  • 10-17 – Limited
  • 18-25 – Fair
  • 26-30 - Good


  • 1-16 – Limited
  • 17-23 – Fair
  • 24-30 – Good

Paper Based Test (PBT)

The PBT includes tests of listening comprehension, structure and written expression, reading comprehension and a writing essay:

  • Listening Comprehension – Students have 30-40 minutes to answer 50 questions that evaluate how well one understands spoken English.
  • Structure and Written Expression – 25 minutes are given for 40 questions on one’s ability to recognize grammatically-correct English.
  • Reading Comprehension – Test takers have 55 minutes to answer 50 questions about reading passages.
  • Test of Written English – In this section, test takers must write an essay on one topic in 30 minutes.

PBT scores are reported quite differently than iBT scores. The total PBT score ranges from 310 to 677. Listening comprehension and structure and written expression scores range from 31 to 68 and reading comprehension scores range from 31 to 67. Essay scores can range from 1 to 6 and, as they do not factor into the overall score, are reported separately.

TOEFL Registration

Aspiring test takers can find a test center in 136 countries. Test candidates can register through the mail or online through Educational Testing Service. The PBT test fee is $150, while the iBT test fee varies from $150 to $185, depending on the location.

Test takers should receive their scores within 30 days of the test date. Test takers who are not satisfied with their scores may retake the test after waiting one week.

Candidates should be sure to bring a photo ID with name and signature, as well as the registration number assigned during the registration process.

Are you ready to start preparing for the TOEFL? Visit our TOEFL Test Directory to find helpful test preparation materials. To learn more about the TOEFL, read our interview with TOEFL expert Joseph Larimore.

Source: Educational Testing Service; ets.org