As an ESL and TOEFL test prep instructor, one of the most common questions that I get asked is some version of the question what book should I buy to get ready for the TOEFL. While this question is simple, the answer isn't. Of course, there are some books that are just better than others; after all, it is quite clear that not all test prep books are created equal. As a result, a good starting point is usually to buy the book that is made by the company that actually makes the actual test. Because it is made by and approved by those who make the actual exam, the questions will offer the most realistic version of what you will see on test day. For that reason, books such as The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test (click the picture of the book to buy through my affiliate link) are always my go-to suggestions and this is true for many test prep experts. That being said, there isn't necessarily one book that is right for all students. For example, some students are only looking for practice tests while other students need actionable advice. Some students respond better to a playful tone when information is given while others prefer just the facts. And while The Official Guide is a great in terms of realism, for students who are just starting out, this book may be better-used closer to test day. In other words, the best book truly depends on the particular student. When I know the individual who is asking the question, I can tailor my recommendation to fit the student's needs. But how can you do this without access to the teacher? Follow these simple steps to evaluate the text as well as your needs before hitting purchase in order to buy the book that is best for you.
What factors should you consider when buying a TOEFL prep book?
1. Timeline. How much time do you have before you are taking the actual exam? If you only have two weeks to study, and within that time period, you know you've only got 4 hours of time that you can completely dedicate to working with the book, maybe getting a test prep book that is 500 pages long is not for you. Before even looking at the specs of the book, honestly think about the time you can devote to this as it may lead you to make a different decision. If you know that you will be spending months preparing for the TOEFL, you might also want to think about the order in which you utilize books if you decide to buy more than one.
2. Price and pages ratio. Whenever making a purchase, the first factor most consumers consider is the price. But don't take the price at face value. What is included in this price? Consider the number of pages and the type of content. Is it more of a workbook where you are filling in the majority of the page or is each page packed with content? How much detail is included? Do you get explanations for each of the answer choices or just the correct letter for practice questions? Also, if you decide to purchase a book just because it is at a cheaper price point, is this going to potentially make you have to spend the money to buy another supplemental book or a second TOEFL test if you didn't reach your goal score?
3. Number of and quality of full-length practice tests. For the TOEFL in particular, most students want to be able to evaluate their progress, and the best way to do this is to take full-length, high-quality practice tests. Before starting a test prep routine, I would strongly suggest that you take a full practice test as this will give you an idea of where you are. You will also want additional practice exams to monitor your progress. However, some test prep books only offer one full-length test and some of them will divide a full practice test over the length of the entire book. Keep these things in mind when making your decision. In addition to the number of full-length tests, you will also want to keep in mind that some practice tests found in books are not as realistic to the actual test questions as you may have hoped. The number of questions in a section or the length of recordings might be a bit shorter than what you actually get on test day. Should you decide not to buy a book because the tests are a bit simpler than those found on the TOEFL? Not necessarily. This might be a good starting point for students who are just beginning as you can learn some strategies and then over time work your way up to more realistic practice (especially given that most students will spend months preparing for this type of exam).
4. Number of TOEFL sections covered. Many TOEFL prep books cover all 4 sections of the exam, but not all students need this. If you have taken a practice test and you scored well on all areas except for the writing section, you might not want to purchase a book that covers all topics, especially if you are working on a tight timeline. If all you need is more practice with integrated essays, select a test prep book that only covers the writing section like Barron's Writing for the TOEFL iBT (click the picture of the book to buy through my affiliate link) so that way you get the practice questions you need without the information you don't.
5. Amount of instruction provided. The majority of students that I have worked with have wanted instruction as well as practice questions. Even if they are taking a TOEFL prep class in person or working with a tutor, some students like to have the information presented in another way, and a book could be the perfect solution. This leaves them confident that they have mastered all the strategies needed for TOEFL success and allows them to review concepts covered in person. Some books do an excellent job of providing an overview of each section or even each type of question that could be covered while other books are practice questions, nothing else. Books like Delta's Key to the TOEFL iBT Advanced Skills break down each specific type of question found on the reading section, for example, and then follow that with practice of just that type of question, which could be a good starting place for beginners. Others, like Barron's TOEFL iBT give a general overview of important academic skills instead.
6. Customer provided reviews. Take a look at what other students thought of the book you are looking to buy. Of course, you want to take their reviews with a grain of salt. Each student is different and typically people who write reviews have strong feelings, either for or against, motivating them to share their thoughts. This will still give you a good idea of what others were able to get out of the book and what to avoid-- like recordings of integrated essay questions that seem to have strange accents or test questions that seemed too easy or much more difficult than those found in the actual exam.
7. Test prep plan. You've already thought about how much time you have, but now you should come up with a coherent strategy for using the book between now and test day. Is the book already divided into sections that will make the work easy to divide? Is there a section in the back of the book that only features campus vocabulary that you can separate into smaller lists to memorize a few each day? Without a coherent plan, even the best book will not help. For more advice about coming up with your study plan, check out the post here.
Now that you know what to consider before buying your test prep book, put this information to good use. Print out your free Book Evaluator. This will allow you to record the information from the above guide in an organized way for each book you are considering so that way you can compare books side-by-side and make the decision that is right for you.