International Students: What is the TOEFL, and what is it good for?

The TOEFL exam (the Test of English as a Foreign Language) is the main tool that universities in English-speaking countries use to evaluate how proficient a foreign student is at reading and writing in English. The goal of having students take the test is not necessarily to find the students with the best speaking or writing abilities, but rather to make sure that the international students they accept will be able to succeed in studying English at an academic level.

The TOEFL has to be taken in specific exam centers designated by the nonprofit assessment organization ETS. There is a list of approved exam locations on the ETS website, and students can take the exam in their home country.


The iBT is the most popular form of the TOEFL, but you should also be aware of the pBT and cBT.

iBT – Internet Based Test

The TOEFL iBT is taken on a computer in an official testing facility. Because the test is computerized, individual scores are available online within about ten days of taking the test.

The iBT has the following structure:

  • 60-80 minutes, Reading: 36–56 questions
  • 60-90 minutes, Listening: 34-51 questions
  • 20 minutes, Speaking: 6 tasks
  • 50 minutes, Writing: 2 tasks
The TOEFL iBT is scored from 0 to 120.

PBT – Paper-Based Test

The paper-based test is offered in cities where the iBT is not available. This test is taken with paper and pencil, and therefore does not include a speaking section. It does include an extra section, the “TWE” (Test for Written English), which measures a student’s ability to write in English. Because this test is not computerized, it takes about five weeks for an individual to receive his or her score.

The PBT has the following structure:

  • 30-40 minutes, Listening comprehension: 50 questions
  • 25 minutes, Structure and written expression: 40 questions
  • 55 minutes, Reading comprehension: 50 questions
  • 30 minutes, TWE (Test for Written English): 1 topic
The TOEFL pBT is scored from 310 to 677.

CBT – Computer Based Test

This test has now been completely replaced by the iBT.

Tips for taking the TOEFL

  • Check the program’s TOEFL requirements
    As you prepare for the exam, look up the TOEFL requirements for the programs that interest you. You can see the required TOEFL score for a program by going to its GradschoolShopper profile page and viewing the “Admissions” tab (see below).
  • Practice academic English
    The TOEFL doesn’t just test your general English proficiency, it tests English use on an academic level. Review academic papers and essays to get a feel for the level required.
  • Know the TOEFL format
    Just like any other standardized exam, the TOEFL has a specific format with which you should be familiar. Know the requirements, the length and purpose of each section, and how each section will be scored.
  • Remember to be consistent
    Unlike previous versions, the iBT evaluates your grammar and ability throughout the entire exam. Be conscious of your grammar during all parts of the exam, including the speech and listening comprehension sections.
  • Take advantage of the practice tests!
    Taking practice tests will help you prepare for the level required and will help you determine which areas need improvement before you take the actual exam.

The TOEFL and the graduate application

The TOEFL is an additional requirement for international graduate school applicants. The scores are sent to you and four more institutions of your choice, and are valid for two years. If you would like to send test scores to additional institutions, you can order them online ten days after you take the test.

You can find the required iBT and PBT TOEFL score for a university on its GradschoolShopper profile page, under the “Admissions” tab:


More Resources:

Photo courtesy albertogp123  / flickr 
Are you an international student? Did you pass the TOEFL exam? Share your experience and tips in the comments!
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