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Toefl Exam Preparation

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After working as an EFL teacher and a translator for several years, I decided one day to apply to graduate programs in American universities. I was looking for a program that could offer an appealing mix of courses and faculty within my area of interest, plus attractive and abundant ways to fund my education. I set myself to do some research into universities and programs, paying attention to requirements and benefits, and then sent application packages to four of them.

A few months later I got word from three of those four universities. The first one was a rejection, but the other two universities offered admission in very attractive terms. Nevertheless, I now wonder if my application could have been stronger, and thus my options could have been broader. Higher test scores could have been key in a stronger application.

Applying for Admission at a North American University

In order to apply for graduate programs at North American universities, a series of requirements need to be fulfilled. These requirements vary from place to place, but one thing in common for all of them-–at both the graduate and undergraduate level--is the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL. American universities demand a minimum TOEFL score from their international applicants, in order to ensure they possess the level of English necessary to succeed in their programs.

The TOEFL scores I obtained were high enough for me to apply to the graduate programs of my choice. However, considering I had learned English as a young child and had been working for several years as a teacher of English, they did not at all reflect my ability and capacity with the language. Why did this happen? Looking back, I can now pinpoint some of the causes for my underachievement.

Rather than my level of English, the main problem was a lack of test-taking strategies specific to the TOEFL. I now know I'm not good at taking exams, especially when they involve time constraints. The TOEFL must have been the first computer-based exam I ever took. Not being aware of these things worked against me. Had I prepared for the exam, taking a course or familiarizing myself with the computer-based test, my TOEFL scores would have certainly reflected my level of English more accurately.

Obtaining High TOEFL Scores

With the aid of hindsight, I now realize there are at least two areas to cover when preparing for the TOEFL exam. One is, of course, the language area. In order to obtain high scores in the exam, one must have achieved a level of proficiency in the English language which includes mastery of all four (reading, listening, writing, and speaking) communication skills. This may be achieved with continuous and focused practice over a period of time, by living in an English speaking environment and interacting with English speakers regularly, or, desirably, by a combination of both.

On the other hand, obtaining high TOEFL scores is also a matter of mastering the structure of the exam itself. The computer-based TOEFL (CBT), prevalent nowadays worldwide, includes sections on listening and reading comprehension, and writing. Familiarizing yourself with the number and types of questions asked in each section will increase your chances of doing well.

Furthermore, since this is a computer-based test, you should be well-versed in the basic use of the computer. Practice on the computer, paying special attention to simulating the time-constraints of the actual exam. There are plenty of print and electronic resources, as well as TOEFL practice courses which will help you gain mastery over these issues.

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