How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score

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How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score

Why Listening Matters-- And Why It Is So Hard To Listen, Especially in a Foreign Language

There's a lot of advice out there on how to be a better listener, even for native speakers. While one can find articles for how to be an active or empathetic listener, which offer techniques and cultural expectations that can greatly enhance your daily interactions, these strategies are often not taught in formal classroom settings and do not always take into account the additional struggles faced by non-native speakers. According to BBC's Learning English, listening is the skill that occupies most of our time, making up 45% of communication for adults.  Yet, it continues to be a frequently overlooked skill. 

In his Ted Talk full of tips for making you a more attuned listener in any language, listening expert Julian Treasure bemoans the lack of formal listening instruction in schools.  In this way, foreign language students are at an advantage as this is a skill that is practiced while in the second language classroom.  However, how many people are actually given instruction on how to do it properly rather than just having an instructor read off the answers to the questions?  When the topics become more complex and the language more academic, like that on the TOEFL and in university classes, listening becomes nearly synonymous with note-taking. Below, learn 5 strategies for successful listening and proper note-taking   

When the topics become more complex and the language more academic, like that on the TOEFL and in university classes, listening becomes nearly synonymous with note-taking

5 Essential Strategies for Better TOEFL Listening and University Note-Taking

1| Set up your notes for the type of listening passage given

When listening to a conversation, divide your paper into 2 columns, one for each speaker. This will help you keep your notes organized, making it easier to find the answers to the questions when you are working under serious time constraints on test day.

When working with any listening that has more than one speaker, often the other person responds by voicing their agreement, approval or support; their confusing or lack of clarity; or their disapproval or disagreement.  Remember to pay attention to both content and tone.  As soon as someone replies with a strong positive or negative, use a quick symbol to record this.  I recommend using a check mark or a minus symbol before taking note on the other information in the reply.

 When it comes to lectures, there are three major types you could encounter the day of the test.   You can either here a lecture where only the professor speaks, a lecture with student interactions, or a seminar-style class.

 A seminar-style course is not very likely, but if the professor informs or reminds listeners that this is the structure, be prepared to hear multiple speakers and have the professor simply guide the students rather than give the majority of the information.  

Treat lectures with student interaction similarly to conversations, noting in particular how the professor responds, affirmatively or not, to student supplied answers.  Let questions from the professor or the students guide your note-taking.  These questions can act as subtopics, helping again to locate the information from your notes quickly when the time comes.

The most difficult type of lecture to take notes on are those that only have one speaker.  The professor will often introduce the main topic in the first few sentences.  Be sure to take notes on lists (as those easily convert to multiple choice questions), definitions,  and subcategories.

              Read more: 3 Qualities of Strong Notes for University and TOEFL Success

2| Don't attempt to take notes on everything someone says

On the TOEFL, you can and should take notes, but you only have the ability to note take on scrap paper.  Most people can type faster than they can handwrite notes, and, as a result, your strategy must adjust accordingly.

Strong listening really boils down to the ability to differentiate between what matters and what doesn't.  Consider, if the lecture were given in your native language, what would you identify as important.  The content of what is important does not change.

Even if you were able to write down every word when you are actually attending lectures in the university program you wish to attend, you would not want to do that.  First, you would not actually be processing what the professor says and you wouldn't want to review the dictation you had taken in order to prepare for your midterm or final.  Second, you would not be truly processing the information that is incoming.  Even if you could do that on the TOEFL, remember, right answers tend to use paraphrases rather than the same exact language from the lecture.

           Read more: 9 Podcasts To Listen to for TOEFL Prep

3| Anticipate the questions

No matter what section you are preparing for, you always want to make sure that you predicting the questions that will come up.  Thinking like the test-makers instead of the test-taker is one of the most important mental shifts one can make for more successful test taking.

Questions on the TOEFL listening fall into several common categories, and your notes should reflect each style of question. Detail questions, like those found on the Reading section, are quite common.  Look out for lists of 3 in order to prepare for detail and negative detail questions.  Those detail questions could also take the form of charts rather than simple multiple choice, especially if there are more or less than 3 items that fit a particular criterion the professor has outlined.   The Listening is more concerned with structure, function, and attitude than the Reading section, so be sure that your notes reflect this as well. While frequently a small snippet of the recording will be played again for those types of questions, by taking note on the attitude the first time, you can use the replay to confirm what you already know.

4| Keep in mind the natural stress patterns in English

Remember, English is a stressed timed language. This means that stress normally occurs at regular intervals rather than on each and every syllable in every word. This is why the subject, verb, and object--known as content words-- receive more stress and are as a result easier to catch than the other function words. The good news is, the content words tend to be the ones that questions will be asked about.

When the usual stress pattern is broken, note it. If the stress has been placed on a word that isn't expected, the entire meaning and tone of the sentence has likely shifted. 

5| Take the hint

Some phrases are the equivalent of the speaker telling you to take notes. This isn't just an artificial, contrived component of the exam. Instructors frequently will set expectations or encourage students to pay particularly close attention to a subject.   The professor might actually provide gentle reminders, make recommendations on how to prepare or what to review or to take note on.  These may become speaker's purpose, function, or even detail questions on the test.

Rhetorical techniques like repetition are another way that the instructor is trying to highlight a given point. If the instructor is saying the same word or phrase (or a synonym for it) again and again, this will almost certainly come up on the exam.  This is almost always how detail questions get developed.

Being familiar with casual phrases utilized in speech and their respective purposes will help you make the most of these clues.  Grab the 2 page TOEFL Listening Phrases At a Glance to printable to become familiar with more than 30+ phrases you'll want to know for TOEFL lectures and university level classes.

Key Takeaways

Having a set system for note-taking based on the types of questions you anticipate will come up will help make you better prepared for the TOEFL now and for midterms and finals down the road. Prioritize content, note tone when multiple speakers are involved, and look for common phrases that set expectations to improve your listening comprehension.


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What is the hardest thing about the TOEFL listening section in your opinion?  Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

From Podcasts to Points: 9 Podcasts to Listen to for TOEFL Prep

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9 Podcasts You Need to Listen To When Preparing for the TOEFL

In the United States, nearly 1/4 Americans listened to a podcast within the last month, according to a report from the Pew Research Foundation, a figure that is climbing year after year.  Podcasts are becoming a way of life for many individuals, but they also present a great opportunity for language learners.  Podcasts can be a great TOEFL prep tool because their format lends themselves to test prep and as the podcast listenership increases, so do the amount of quality shows being offered.

Why Podcasts

The most obvious reason why podcasts are a great fit for TOEFL prep is that the format is most similar to what you listen to on test day itself.  While watching television, documentaries, or Ted Talks can offer good practice, their visual nature might mean that you are not truly getting the true note-taking experience that you should need for something like the TOEFL.  With few visual clues on test day, you need to rely on what you can hear only.  Podcasts come in this format to begin with, but many will include show notes or transcripts that you can use to check against the notes you've actually taken.

Additionally, podcasts are fantastic because they allow you to multitask.  As an absolute podcast addict myself, I love spending time listening to podcasts while I"m doing other solitary activities.  Before getting into the car, going on a run, or cooking dinner, I love to have a podcast to make the most of my time.  It makes me feel more productive and helps me use my time efficiently.

Don't use podcasts exclusively for practicing note-taking.  If you decide to listen to podcasts while doing other tasks, you can increase the amount of time spent engaging with English.  This can help you internalize stress patterns, making speech sound more natural.

Additionally, for podcasts that come out regularly, simply subscribe so you get each new episode as soon as it goes live.  Instead of needing to find Listening Practice, the practice will come to you naturally, making you more likely to follow through.  This can help keep you on a regular schedule as episodes tend to broadcast the same time each week.  Get additional motivation to listen to the podcasts by using push notifications so you listen right away.

Don't feel like podcasts end with consumption.  Instead, many of the podcasts can leave you with new words to use, new strategies to implement, and new ideas to make small talk about.  This is particularly true if you are listening to a podcast that features current events. 

Some students make the mistake of only looking at podcasts that are designed for English language learners, but for advanced students like those preparing for the TOEFL, be sure to select a mix of those designed for non-native speakers and those that are produced by and for native speakers.

TOEFL Prep Podcast Round-Up: What Podcasts To Listen To

D2B English

Down 2 Business English is a business focused podcast that covers current events and trends.  Hosts Dez, Skip, and Samantha frequently make small talk before the strictly business portion of the conversation takes place, and this is also quite valuable for learning slang.  As they move into the business conversation, listen for definitions of terms.  The trio takes on interesting and relevant topics that make this podcast appealing even if you aren't interested in business.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The business conversation casually mixes in business terms and concepts.  This will be helpful for growing your vocabulary in this discipline but also in regards to listening for definitions of new terms.  The conversations mirror the types of conversations that you might hear if a student goes to see a professor during office hours as one host will sometimes provide definitions or clarification and the other might ask about a term that they anticipate the audience will not know.

Business English Pod (Specifically the Business English News)

The Business English podcast is another great option for those who plan on joining the corporate world either before or after they take the TOEFL.  While some episodes offer advice for business interactions, like making small talk or placing phone calls with clients, the episodes labeled Business English News are particularly useful for students intending on studying any major.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The Business English News episodes in particular parallel the integrated essay nicely.  Typically the episode will start with a summary of the current understanding or thought process on a topic and then the rest of the lecture will go into detail about the opposite, clearing up a misconception, or emerging information and trends on the topic.  Take a look at Episode 40 on Renewable Energy here.  Additionally, the length of the episodes is ideal for TOEFL prep.  Although the lectures on the integrated section won't be of nearly that length, the lectures in the Listening section are often about six minutes long.

6 Minute English

The BBC's 6 Minute English is a fantastic podcast designed for more advanced language learners.  One topic is discussed for the length of the episode, and the topics focus on trends in society.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: The information from 6 Minute English is great for small talk.  They cover topics from fads in health, technology, food and so much more.  The tone between the hosts is casual, but they incorporate facts and academic terms throughout, making it great for practicing TOEFL note-taking.  Use those facts you've written down to add to casual conversations next time one of these current events comes up during the course of everyday conversation.

BBC Radio's A History of the World in 100 Objects

While this podcast no longer produces regular episodes as all 100 objects have been featured, this specialized podcast presents an extremely academic and in-depth look at one object per episode.  This podcast sounds like a series one might find on the History Channel.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: The TOEFL covers a number of different academic disciplines.  This podcast is great for getting additional exposure to anthropology.  The objects date back hundreds of years.  Given the variety of objects covered, interdisciplinary connections can be seen with art, economics, and much more.  The level of detail in each of these podcasts make it useful for TOEFL listening.

ESL Pod's English Cafe

Expand your vocabulary with ESL Pod's English Cafe.  This podcast covers cultural topics regarding famous Americans and significant locations, commonly confused words and phrases, and a ton of new vocabulary that you can find in the show notes for the episode.

Why it is great for TOEFL prep: These episodes feature a number of shorter segments.  The portion that features a tutorial on commonly confused words and phrases is an excellent tutorial that can help you avoid mistakes on the productive sections-- Speaking and Writing-- of the exam.

I Will Teach You a Language

This podcast, delivered in English, is on the topic of language learning.  Olly Richards, a renowned polyglot, shares his own insights on language learning and interviews other language learning experts.  This podcast goes live twice a week, so you have tons of new content to digest.  There are a ton of worthwhile episodes to listen to but stay focused by beginning with this list of his most popular episodes.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: This podcast goes beyond simply listening to English; this podcast features actionable items related to the process of making your language learning experience more efficient and effective.  Covering topics from best practices for flash cards to finding more time for practice to overcome problems with fossilization and pronunciation, Olly provides many useful tips that can be applied to English learning and even test prep.

Luke's English / Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast

Luke's English Podcast is great for those who are looking for British English pronunciations as well as entertainment.  With nearly 500 episodes regularly over an hour long, there is a nearly endless supply of listening material here.  Luke is incredibly honest and entertaining.  He expresses his views on a variety of real-world topics from friendship to fatherhood to television shows and everything in between.  (Bonus- for quick vocabulary tutorials, check out Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast, too!)

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Because Luke regularly works humor into each episode, this podcast presents a great opportunity for increasing your listening stamina.  This is one of the most vigorous in terms of length, but Luke's engaging personality will make it easy to stay interested. 

NPR's Ted Radio Hour

To get a well-rounded dose of academic English, don't miss Ted Radio Hour.  This weekly podcast gives you the same type of quality information and insight you expect from a Ted Talk in a convenient podcast format.  Hear from experts in a variety of fields share a wealth of knowledge, providing tons of chances to expand your vocabulary in everything from psychology to computer science.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Ted Talks are given by academics, so you are sure to encounter plenty of TOEFL level terms.  Additionally, because these experts are speaking to a generally educated audience, they will be sure to give plenty of background information and define industry jargon, which will make you comfortable with locating this type of information come test day.

NPR's Hidden Brain

Humans are fascinating, in no small part because of how our brains function.  This podcast is never dull, exploring the inner workings of the mind.  Psychology, anatomy, and physiology dissect the inner workings of the human brain in an attempt to discover why we do with what we do in terms of money, crime, exercise, nostalgia, and so much more.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep:  Practice English while also getting a better understanding of how to find your inner motivation, to become a better decision maker, and to make more accurate predictions.  Episodes like Deep Work, detailing methods of immersing ourselves in meaningful work to make progress,  or Summer Melt, explaining the annual deterioration of what has been learned during the months we take off during the summer, might even change the way that you plan your prep time.

Key Takeaways

Podcasts are exceptional sources of free English practice material.  As an advanced language learner, don't limit yourself to podcasts designed for non-native speakers alone.  By combining a mix of ESL focused podcasts, general language learning podcasts, and podcasts intended for native speakers from a variety of disciplines, you can increase your listening time while gaining access to new vocabulary and tons of new ideas.


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If you love podcasts, you are probably a big fan of technology.  Don't use your phone and laptop for the Listening section alone.  Take all of your TOEFL prep into the 21st century by getting Trello for the TOEFL-- your organization system for all your TOEFL resources.

Showing & Accepting Thanks: Words You Will Be Thankful You Know on the TOEFL and Beyond

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Showing & Accepting Thanks: Words You'll Be Thankful You Know on the TOEFL

Words for being polite are always one of the first lessons taught in a foreign language class.  However, there are tons of additional ways to say thank you in English that you wouldn’t be taught on the first day of class.  Sound more like a native speaker by utilizing these other ways of saying thanks.  Your TOEFL score will thank you, too.  

On the TOEFL, understanding when people have offered or accepted thanks will help you better understand conversations on the listening section and make you well-prepared for the function questions (the ones that feature a short section of the recording and ask what the speaker’s purpose is).  Remember, the conversations featured are designed to mimic common university conversations, so if you can understand the function of these phrases on test day, you will be able to utilize them when you yourself are going to ask your professor a question or a favor.


How to select the right phrase of appreciation

Why are there so many different ways to show appreciation in English?  The way you have chosen to say thank you needs to be appropriate contextually.  You should select the right way of saying thanks (or accepting thanks) based on the method of delivery (written or verbal) and the magnitude of the gift, favor, or gesture.

Typically showing thanks in writing is considered more formal.  You also should consider the relationship between the person giving and expressing thanks.  Often phrases that are more casual are also more appropriate for peers, friends, and family whereas phrases for interacting with your instructor or boss tend to be more formal.

General phrases for expressing thanks

In regular everyday interactions, these phrases are acceptable for most situations.  Thanks is appropriate even for minor situations like holding a door or passing someone the items they’ve purchased.


Thank you

Thank you very much!

Thank you so much!


Casual phrases for saying thanks

For everyday interactions with those you are close with, consider something more casual and with more personality.  If a friend surprised you by bringing you a cup of coffee or they reminded you that you have homework due so yours won’t be late, these phrases will come in handy.

I owe you/I owe you one- In other words, you have done a favor for me, and I will repay the favor soon.

You are a lifesaver! - You have improved this situation or helped me avoid a problem

You are the best! - In other words, you compliment the other person for having done something wonderful for you

You really bailed me out-In other words, you have saved me from getting into trouble

Thanks for having my back- Thanks for showing me support

Thanks for giving me a hand- Thanks for helping me do something (You can also add with in order to specify what this person helped you with)

On the TOEFL these phrases would most likely come up in a conversation between two students. If one student has helped the other study for a midterm, for example, they might be a lifesaver.  If one helped the other find a building on campus, they might owe the other person for having taken the time to provide assistance.

Casual replies (how to say you’re welcome)

If someone uses one of the above phrases with you, reply with one of these casual ways to say you’re welcome.  These are great for conversational, informal situations.  Remember, your response should be chosen from the context and from the level of gratitude the person has already expressed.  If you hear someone use these phrases on the TOEFL, that means that they have agreed to a request made by the original speaker and thanked them.  

Many of these phrases stem from the idea that you are dismissing the thanks as unnecessary because the task was so expected or minor.  This does not come off as rude, but suggests that you are being overly kind or generous by having said thank you in the first place.  This does not mean that you were wrong to say thank you, though!

No problem

No worries

No big deal

Don’t mention it

Sure thing


Not at all

It’s no trouble

Of course

Happy to help

Happy to be of service

It’s nothing

Think nothing of it


It’s the least I could do

It’s my pleasure

My pleasure

The pleasure is all mine

For TOEFL function questions especially, be careful not to take these phrases too literally.  If you look at some of them word for word, you may guess that the person is indicating not to talk or agree to something, but that is not the case when these phrases are used in reply to thanks.

More formal ways to say thanks

For professional interactions, like those in the workplace or between a student and professor, you should upgrade the degree or formality used.  Many of these phrases can be used in both written and spoken interactions.  While they all use thank you as a basis, they are made more advanced by being more specific to a particular situation.

Thank you for your consideration- Use this during the application process for an internship or job

Thank you for your time- While this can also be used upon leaving a job interview, this can also be used to thank a boss or a professor for spending their time listening to your question or proposal

Thank you for coming here today/Thank you for coming in/Thank you for being here- When an employer or professor has asked someone for a meeting, this phrase is often used to open discussion

Thank you for your support- Used to thank someone for helping, sometimes financially or in terms of time dedicated to a specific cause 

Thank you for bringing this to my attention-Used to thank someone for providing information

Thank you for having me-Thanks for inviting me over

Thank you for your understanding- Used to thank someone for his/her flexibility

Thank you in advance- After making a request, you may want to use this phrase.  It may seem a little forward, though, because you are making the assumption that your request will be granted

Other formal ways to say thanks

While not on either extreme end of the formality spectrum, these phrases indicate deep appreciation

I am so grateful for ______

I thank you from the bottom of my heart

This means so much to me

I couldn’t have done it without you


These phrases all share a common trait: they indicate that you are so overwhelmed with appreciation that you are at a loss for words

I cannot thank you enough- You can also use the contraction can’t, alternatively

I cannot put into words how grateful we are

I don’t know what to say

How can I ever thank you

For very formal situations, try these phrases

Allow me to express my sincere gratitude

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks

I would like to thank you for ______

Please accept my sincerest gratitude

When to thank people

In the United States, it is considered good etiquette to thank those who have given a gift, time, or financial assistance to a person or cause.  Writing a thank you note would be appropriate for any of those situations.  Best practices for a thank you note are that it is handwritten, typically in script, that it is specific, and that it is sincere.  If you are writing to thank someone for a wedding gift, for example, it is expected that you include specific mention of what the gift was and/or how you look forward to using it.  

If you ask a professor to write a letter of recommendation, I would strongly recommend that you write a short note expressing your thanks.  Thank them both for their engaging method of teaching in the classroom and for taking the time to write you a recommendation.

When submitting your resume/CV, be sure to thank the person receiving the application. In this situation, just a sentence is fine. Upon returning from a job interview,  be sure to write a full thank you note to those who conducted the interview.  Check out this great tutorial regarding when and what to say for that type of thank you note in this post by English With a Twist.

It isn’t just a cultural expectation.  More and more research like that cited here by Forbes indicates that regularly showing your appreciation to others helps in social situations in the workplace and with friend groups.


Don’t forget to thank yourself

Studies show that expressing gratitude to others has real, lasting, and positive effects.  Although giving thanks is a regular part of everyday interaction in the United States, often we overlook ourselves in terms of showing appreciation.  Gratitude journals have become all the rage.  Why not take advantage of this extra opportunity to practice English, especially considering that cultivating a grateful mindset has been linked to better sleep, self-esteem, and physical health.

Key Takeaways

Showing gratitude has been linked to building better relationships and living a healthier lifestyle.

In American culture, it is expected to thank others for everything from minor interactions, like passing a piece of paper to a colleague, to getting a gift, so having an arsenal of phrases for expressing thanks at your disposal will help select the best fit for any occasion.  Being able to draw upon the right ones in your everyday life means you will be fully prepared for any method of saying thanks that appears in the TOEFL function questions.

As my way of showing my gratitude to my blog readers, get 30 independent essay prompts to help get you TOEFL-ready!

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The Complete List of Election and Campaign Vocabulary for the TOEFL & ESL Classroom

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Advanced Election Vocabulary Made Easy for the TOEFL

History and politics frequently make appearances on all sections of the TOEFL.  While the election for the Presidency only occurs every 4 years in the United States, elections at the federal, state, and local levels take place on the first Tuesday of November each year.  Whether you want to brush up on these terms for test day or you simply want to be more versed on current events, these words are must-know.  (Keep reading all the way to bottom to make sure you anticipate exactly where you will find them on the test). 

Because there are so many terms, don't try to memorize them in a random or alphabetical list.  Give the terms some context by seeing them grouped with similar term

The Big List of Election Vocabulary By Category

Words related to the election process:  

Those interested in running for office (known as candidates) for public office will seek election for a term (set period of time-- in the US, a President serves for a 4 year term, with a two-term limit)  by delivering stump speeches (standard, rehearsed speeches delivered again and again to multiple audiences) in order to make voters aware of their platform (the formal set of principal goals that he/she stands for) with the hope of increasing voter turnout (the amount of people who come out to vote--voting is not legally required in the United States) and convincing swing voters to cast their ballots in their favor come Election Day 

Words related to the people involved:

An incumbent is a person who currently holds that office.  This is widely considered an advantage.  The candidate taking this person on is known as the challenger.  You may also see the word nominee-- the person who is selected to represent his/her party in an official capacity.  A campaign manager is an official advisor to the person running for public office.  The person who wins is often allowed to make appointments of those who have helped them during the campaign to positions of prominence within the administration.  At the presidential level, the highest positions are those within the president's cabinet--his/her official inner circle and closest advisors.  The members of the electoral college are those that make the official decision as to which candidate will be selected as president as the United States does not follow a strictly popular vote model.  The running mate is the candidate selected for the lesser of two closely associated political offices (usually used to talk about the Vice Presidential nominee).  A front-runner is a person that is most likely to win the election while a dark horse is a candidate (or competitor) that little is known about and does unexpectedly well

Words related to being partial/impartial:

Words like progressive or conservative or the official party names like Democrat or Republic are often used to indicate that someone has strong and public ties to one parties beliefs and affiliations.  The word bias means that someone favors one group over another unapologetically.  Politics in the United States is notoriously partisan.  Gerrymandering is the controversial practice of manipulating voting boundaries in order to help one side or the other.  

Words related to negative campaigning:

The highly partisan nature of American politics means that often candidates will resort to mudslinging (the use of unjust or unwarranted insults and accusations) and attack ads (an advertisement designed to wage a personal attack on the other candidate).  Propaganda is the material that is viewed as biased or misleading and is designed to promote a particular political point of view.  Spin is a type of propaganda designed to sway or persuade public opinion to see an issue, event, or public figure in a particular light

Words related to money:

While you might encounter phrases related to how the candidate plans to spend money if elected (like taxes, budget, and deficit), canvas and war chest are used to refer to how much money the candidate has raised (through fundraising efforts like canvassing) and how much the candidate has left (in the war chest).

Words related to the voting process and the outcome:

A straw poll is an unofficial ballot conducted to test public opinion.  Absentee voting is a ballot completed by mail in advance of the election because the voter cannot go to vote at his/her polling place in person the day of the election.  Electronic voting refers to voting using electronic means to cast votes (like a computerized machine).  Ballot just means a process of voting, typically in writing and in secret.  Journalists and politicians may conduct exit polls in order to try to determine who has won before the official ballot count has been tallied.  If the race is tight, a journalist may report that it is too close to call.   With a slim margin, one party may call for a recount to make sure that the tally is correct.  If the race is very one-sided, it will be referred to as a landslide.

Elections and Exams: How Elections Show Up on the TOEFL

Election vocabulary can show up on any of the 4 sections of the test.  As politicians have historically been important public figures, biographies of politicians are quite common on the reading section of the exam.  They are also similarly found in lectures delivered by professors n the Listening section.                   

Biographies are not the only types of texts that feature the vocabulary found prominently on Election Day.  While campaigns are frequently used to talk about political campaigns, a business class might have a discussion about a marketing campaign or a psychology class might feature a talk about why certain candidates are perceived to be likable (or unlikeable).  The aftermath of an election or the causes for a certain election outcome can also become passage topics.

Student government is very common at American universities, and as a result, you may even see these words in campus situations like Speaking Question 3.  In Speaking Question 3, you will read a passage that makes an announcement about something that is happening on campus and then you will hear a student voice his/her opinion on the subject.  The student council may be in charge of this message or the school might be launching a campaign to get student interest or involvement in a particular issue.

Perhaps the most common place to see these vocabulary words is on the writing section of the TOEFL.  Of course, you might see an independent essay question related to elections-- like what qualities should a leader of a nation have--but more likely, you will see integrated essay questions that feature topics related to elections.  Subjects here could include what types of voting should certain countries use (electronic, computerized mail in, etc.), what methods of campaigning should or shouldn't be legal, what caused a particular candidate to win/lose.

There are many excellent online resources to find passages to help you practice with election day vocabulary.  The New York Times Room for Debate section features passages that can easily be turned into integrated essay practice on topics ranging from how, if at all, Election Day should evolve to the future of the electoral college to social media and selfie culture's impact on voter turnout and casting ballots.  Take practice to the listening section with Ted Talks on the struggles that come with a country's first election  or think about the relationship between gender and public office with this lecture.

Key Takeaways

Campaign and election vocabulary is a likely candidate to make an appearance on the TOEFL.  Become familiar with these important terms ahead of time so your score can turn out the way you want it to.

Want to practice now?  Get the free election independent essay pack.

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Overcome the Top 5 TOEFL Fears

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Overcome the Top 5 TOEFL Fears Quickly and Easily

What you should and shouldn't be afraid of

Around Halloween, there is endless discussion of scary movies and costumes. While some people derive great pleasure from the manufactured fear of watching a horror film or dressing up like a zombie, few would say the same for the very real fears that surround test day. With a handful of tricks, turn the test into the closest thing to a treat, eliminating the most common TOEFL terrors.

1| Not having background knowledge on the topic

For many students the idea that the first reading passage will be on a topic that they've never heard about before and in a discipline that they know little to nothing about strikes fear into test-takers hearts.  While it is easy to see how a reading about a chemistry topic might be intimidating for a person who struggled in science classes in his/her native language, do not allow yourself to get intimidated.  The TOEFL passages are designed so that way anyone could answer the questions even if they did not come in with any prior knowledge.  That means that all the academic terms that are specific to that field will be defined for you, but most people get so panicked that they do not even attempt to find the gist of the passage.  

In order to combat this problem, read passages on a variety of topics before test day.  Follow all sections of the newspaper or sites like Newsela instead of only reading the topics that you naturally gravitate towards.  If you struggle with having enough self-discipline to seek out passages that you do naturally feel inclined to read, follow along with the passages I like to on Twitter to get a well-rounded selection.

2| Running out of time

For many students, the sound of a ticking clock counting down the minutes or seconds left on each section of the exam is enough to make their blood run cold.  If looking at the clock brings about feelings of apprehension, you need to rethink the way you consider the clock.  Being afraid of the clock almost always means you are ignoring the clock, usually resulting in looking at the remaining time so late that you can no longer change your strategy.

Time management is a learned skill.  For each section of the test, you need to be able to pace yourself, and you should follow a pacing guide so that way you can check at regular intervals to make sure that you are sticking to the time recommendations per question.  By checking the time left regularly, you can determine what you need to do moving forward.  This is particularly important on the reading section as the test does not prompt you to move to the next passage.  You need to take the responsibility for using the time allotted wisely, and that means not being afraid of the timer.  Don't do practice problems or full-length practice tests without a time limit.  Knowing your limits (and where you need to be at any given point) will give you confidence when checking the clock, not fear.

3| Not recognizing the vocabulary word being asked about

Students frequently spend tons of time memorizing new vocabulary words because they are so afraid of encountering a word they've never seen before on test day.  While learning new terms is good, it is nearly impossible to know every word that you see in the passage as there is a such a range of academic vocabulary and discipline specific terms you would need to know.  While you don't need to understand every word in a passage (after all, the passages are roughly 800 words and you are only asked 13 questions per passage), what happens when the word you don't know is in the question stem or the answer choices?

Most students freeze up when they are asked about a word they don't know (or are given a word they don't know as an answer choice).  If this happens, don't fret.  ETS has likely given you a clue in either the sentence before or after or enough information to allow you to make an educated guess.  Can you use part of the word-- like a prefix, for instance-- to make an inference about what the word means?  Do you know the word that they are asking about, but not one of the answer choices?  Just like on the SAT, if this happens, ask yourself, how close of a synonym are the other answer choices you do recognize?  If someone asked you what the word means and you would have selected one of the answers that you know, odds are that that is the right answer and the brand new word is simply a distraction.  Don't fall for the predictable trap like those in horror movies; be confident in the knowledge you have.

4|  Freezing up on the speaking

Perhaps the single scariest section for test-takers is the speaking section.  Having to speak in your non-native language might induce fear on a regular basis, and the idea that you are creating a recording with the sole purpose of having your speech be judged only raises the stakes.  Add in the additional stress of having only seconds of preparation time, and this fear seems valid.  While worrying about your accent or that you will make a grammar mistake can cause people to lack confidence about their speaking abilities, the number one phobia students have is not having anything to say at all when the recording time begins.

To cope with this feeling of alarm, make sure that you have a solid template to fall back on to get you started with each of the 6 types of speaking questions.
This way you will never feel like you have been caught off guard.  After getting the first sentence of two under your belt, you will feel the momentum on your side and be able to complete your speaking response.

5| Not having ideas for what to write about

You see the essay prompt-- and your mind goes blank.  You cannot come up with anything to say that seems relevant or important.  If this sounds like a recurring nightmare that you've had, then you might be suffering from common fear #5: having no clue what to write about.

One of the easiest ways to fight this fear is with solid preparation.  First, you can and should free write on some of the most common topics-- like education and technology-- that the TOEFL loves to ask independent questions about.  In fact, by exploring your ideas ahead of time, you will be able to prepare yourself for both the writing and the speaking sections as there is often a great deal of overlap.

Remember, too, that you do not need to give your honest opinion.  If you had a gut reaction as to what your answer is for the question but you cannot come up with any reasons, don't feel like you need to draw upon the rationale that actually supports your initial feeling.  Similarly, don't feel like you can't modify a story from your life in order to make it fit the position you are taking.  For example, if you don't have direct experience with the topic but you know that a personal example would offer the support and the authority you need to round out a particular paragraph, for standardized test writing, stretching the truth is perfectly fine (and no one needs to be the wiser).

Key Takeaways

Being afraid of the test only leads to poor test-taking come exam day.  Fight fear with sound strategies and practice before the test, making your test-taking fears rest in peace once and for all.

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Conceding Points to Score Points: Why You Need to Use Concessions in TOEFL Writing

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Why You Need to Use Concessions in TOEFL Writing

How do you convince someone to agree with your opinion on a certain topic?  While there are many factors that determine if a reader will ultimately agree with the position you take in an essay, trust may be the single most important.  But how do you get someone to trust you when the only connection is your writing?  To win over your reader every time, you need to carefully consider your word choice as well as the supporting details you choose to feature. However perhaps the most underrated method for getting readers to trust you is to acknowledge the other side.  In other words, to use concessions. 

The word concede often has a negative connotation.  While the word concede does mean to surrender, as in when a losing candidate officially declares that they have lost and the other person has won, in writing, the word concede typically refers to the strategy of showing that the opposite side does have a valid point.

Concessions can be as short as one sentence in which the writer demonstrates something's accuracy or advantage followed immediately by an independent clause that moves into stating why the other side is still the clear victor.  Common words and phrases for introducing concessions are: admittedly, although, even though, while, however, yet, and despite.

The TOEFL itself features many examples of concessions as they are common in academic writing.  Look for them at the beginning of the integrated essay lecture.  Most of the time, the reading passage and the lecture disagree, with the professor starting his/her lecture summarizing the gist of the lecture and following it up with an opposing viewpoint.

Concessions: A rhetorical strategy used across disciplines

Too many students assume that acknowledging the validity of a point made by the opposition is a sign of weakness.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Ignoring the other side entirely or making it seem like it has nothing going for it often just feels inauthentic.  By using a strategically placed concession, you are essentially showing that you are trustworthy. You aren't so biased that you cannot even admit that there is another side. Instead, you are showing how reasonable you are by making a small concession to a reasonable point that others would find convincing.

If you want to see how effective concessions are, just imagine the last political debate you watched.  If one candidate is doing everything in his/her power to avoid talking about the other side, it seems like this person isn't being completely forthcoming or totally reasonable.  However, if they first make a brief concession, stating that yes, there are one or two solid points that the opposition makes before diving into why his/her position still is the more advantageous, people can more easily buy into this idea even if they were not initially inclined to believe this.

Using concessions to build trust isn't exclusive to the realm of politics, either. A common piece of business advice is that people buy from those they know, like, and trust.  This exact formula can be applied to writing for certain types of standardized tests.  On the TOEFL, sharing personal experience is a completely appropriate way to support your position, and while that isn't always the case for formal writing situations, this certainly increases the know factor for this exam.  Like can be achieved through a combination of word choice and examples given.  While diction can also help when it comes to the trust factor, the concession is a great strategy to use to establish that content as well can contribute to creating confidence in the writer.

The When and Why to Use Concessions on the TOEFL

On the TOEFL, you do not need to dedicate an entire paragraph to crafting a concession.  While this might be necessary if you are writing an entire term paper length essay, a TOEFL essay tends to be 4 or 5 paragraphs in length.  As a result, devoting an entire paragraph to a concession would be overkill.   Rarely, ETS will ask you a compare/contrast question, when you should devote equal time to both positions.  For the vast majority of test questions, simply staying with one position with succinct concessions built into the paragraph is the most effective strategy.

Instead, try to use concessions in your topic sentences (the first sentence in each body paragraph) or following your topic sentence before introducing a key example in your body paragraph.

In addition to being great practice for cultivating trust in any type of writing assignment that you will need to craft in your university program, using concessions has two other fringe benefits on the TOEFL specifically.

First, it allows you to showcase your knowledge of transition words.  Because concessions require you to talk about the other side before switching to your primarily point, you will need to ease the reader in, guiding readers through this change in idea through well-placed transitions.  Using transitions that introduce contrast, like however, on the other hand, or yet are useful ways to create cohesion between ideas and sentences, helping to create the flow that ETS graders are looking for.

Second, concessions frequently force the writer to utilize complex sentences and subordinating conjunctions, providing a variety of sentence structure.  Are you the kind of person that relies on simple S-V-O sentences again and again?  There is an entire subsection of subordinating conjunctions that are used for introducing contrast.  Words such as although, while, and whereas can not only introduce a concession but also get you out of your simple sentence rut.  Varying sentence structure signals to the essay scorers that you are comfortable with more grammatically advanced types of sentences.

Key Takeaways

Use concessions (the acknowledgement of the validity of the opposite side) to increase your credibility as a writer, vary your sentence structure, and create flow in your own independent and integrated essays, just as professors in the integrated essay lecture do.

Now that you know what how concessions strengthen writing, practice putting them in your own essays by downloading One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge Printable.  Get 30 TOEFL independent essay prompts to practice with right now!

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TOEFL Grammar Series: How Mastering Pronouns Will Help You On Every Section of the TOEFL [Video Post]

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How Mastering Pronouns Will Help On Every Section of the TOEFL

Grammar is a topic which is often overlooked on the TOEFL.  Because the TOEFL does not have an explicit grammar section, students tend to see it as a lower priority.  While there is no section that tests grammar exclusively as is the case on other standardized tests, most students will readily admit that it is still necessary to know the rules and to use good grammar when producing open-ended responses on exam day.  But is being knowledgeable about grammar topics helpful for the receptive skills, like the Listening and Reading Sections?  In a word: yes.  

One set of grammar rules that comes into play in a big way on all four sections of the exam is pronoun rules. Learn the most important pronoun rules, then find out how to apply them to the test.

Pronoun Guide: An Overview Of Six Types of Pronouns

When most students think of pronouns, personal pronouns immediately spring to mind.  This makes sense because they are the ones students recall through muscle memory developed when learning how to conjugate verbs.  However, personal pronouns are only a small subsection of pronouns.  In fact, not all pronouns truly fit the description of being a word that stands in place of a noun, the general definition that most grammar books boil it down to.  Pronouns can be divided into a number of categories, the biggest of which are indefinite and definite pronouns.  Within the category of definite pronouns, you will find even smaller subcategories, such as personal, possessive, reflexive, reciprocal, relative and demonstrative.

Unlike indefinite pronouns which do not point to something specific, definite pronouns go by this name because they reference something clearly called an antecedent.  Because indefinite pronouns are not linking back to something mentioned earlier, they are less likely to be on the TOEFL.  However, the rules for indefinite pronoun agreement can get a little tricky, which is why they commonly show up on the SAT as even native speakers struggle with them.  Because indefinite pronouns are not as heavily tested on the TOEFL, we will focus our attention on the types of definite pronouns.

Personal pronouns are the ones that typically stand in for a person or a group of people.

 They include I, you, he/she/it, we and they.  These pronouns need to agree with their antecedent in number, gender, and case.

In other words, you need to know how many people the noun being replaced represents and, depending on the situation, if those people are male or female. Case refers to how the word is used in the context of the sentence.  Is it the subject or object?  (This is why it is grammatically correct to write My friend and I traveled to Spain last summer but not My friend and me traveled to Spain last summer.  When deciding if you need I or me, you need to determine what case is being used in that sentence.)

Possessive pronouns indicate belonging.

 If you want to show that an object belongs to someone, instead of using 's, you can use the appropriate possessive pronoun.  The most complicated rule here for possessive pronouns is to remember that the word itself is noting belonging, so there is no need to add the apostrophe s.  Many students try to add the apostrophe to words that already end in s, like her's, but that is incorrect.  The one that confuses most people, even native speakers, is its/it's.  Remember, its is possessive already (it's is for the contraction it is).

Reflexive pronouns and intensive pronouns

Both reflexive and intensive pronouns usually end in -self or -selves.  Reflexive is when the subject is also receiving the action: Don't feel bad for him.  He did it to himself. Intensive pronouns, also called emphatic pronouns, are used to stress who performed the action: I made it myself!


Relative pronouns are a unique group because they do not replace an antecedent.  Instead, they connect the noun to a word or phrase that modifies or gives additional information.  These words include who/whom/whose and which/that.  In order to determine which relative pronoun to use, you must consider both the case (subject, object, possessive), the necessity of the following information (known to grammar lovers everywhere as restrictive and non-restrictive clauses), and whether or not the initial noun being modified is person or a place/thing/idea.  


Demonstrative pronouns help create cohesion.  They frequently point back to an antecedent in the previous sentence, which students do not always anticipate when working with them.  Demonstrative pronouns explain which one(or), pointing to a specific thing(s).  They are used frequently in conversation, but they can also be used in writing to create flow between sentences.  Demonstrative pronouns must agree in number (singular/plural) and distance.  Use this/these to show that something is close by whereas use that/those to make something seem further away or to the feeling of distance.

More of an audial/visual learner?  Watch the video I've created on this topic


Pronouns For Each Section of the TOEFL

Now that you know the most common pronoun rules that show up on the exam, you will want to know where each of these topics will most likely appear. This will give you a leg up, making it faster for you to draw upon this information.

Writing section

Whether you are writing for the TOEFL or for your university level class, using pronouns effectively is important for clear, concise communication.  Pronouns can create cohesion in your essay, making neat transitions between sentences and ideas through the use of demonstrative pronouns that begin sentences and alternating between relative clauses and adjectives to vary sentence structure.

Furthermore, using pronouns reduce unnecessary redundancies in your writing.  You do not need to mention the name of the same person over and over again.  Instead, after the first usage, replace the antecedent with the pronoun. 

Eliminate grammar mistakes in your writing by knowing the pronoun rules.  Have you been that person debating whether or not you need to put an apostrophe in yours, theirs, or hers?  Now that you know the rules for pronouns, you won't be tricked by these silly grammar errors that constantly find their way into student produced essays.

Ready to put what you've learned about pronouns into practice in your own essay writing?  Grab 30 days of TOEFL independent essay prompts in a convenient 2-page download.

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Speaking section

One major pronoun problem that is particular to speaking is the use of personal pronouns.  Too often students will make mistakes with personal pronouns in spoken English when they would never have made that mistake in written English.  By understanding the importance of both gender and case when it comes to selecting the correct personal pronoun, you can cut down on errors made.  If you find you have accidentally switched over from he to she, use I mean to correct your mistake.  Do you hear native speakers use the wrong form of I/me all the time in informal speaking situations?  While that likely happens regularly in everyday life, do not replicate this when speaking your response on test day.  

Additionally, now that you know the purpose of intensive pronouns, you can incorporate them into your own responses.  English is a stress-timed language.  If you use an intensive pronoun, make sure that your speech pattern indicates that emphasis as well.

Listening section

On the listening section, the quality of your notes almost always has a direct correlation with the score you receive.  Based on your knowledge regarding pronouns, you will better be able to understand the strategy the professor is using for making a group more specific (like using relative pronouns in order to make something more specific, which may show up as a detail question), the use of demonstrative pronouns to connect one sentence to the next, or points of particular interest through the use of intensive pronouns to highlight something that is remarkable or surprising.

Reading section

The Reading section most directly tests your pronoun knowledge.  Referents questions make up one of the most common types of TOEFL reading question.  At some point for each passage that you've read, a definite pronoun will be undermined.  The question will then ask you what that pronoun refers back to.  In other words, you will be asked to identify the antecedent of a word in the passage.  Armed with the knowledge of pronoun rules, you will be able to make the correct selection each time.  

Though possible, it is unlikely that EST will ask you about a personal pronoun.  However, you may be asked what a possessive, relative, or demonstrative pronoun is pointing to.

Be sure to follow the rules listed above so that the answer you select makes sense with all of the rules for that type of pronoun.  For example, the relative pronoun who is used specifically for people, so I don't want to select an answer choice that features an inanimate object.

Pronoun referents questions are one of the best types of questions to focus on for the Reading section because once you think you've found the correct answer, you can check it.  When you think you've located the proper antecedent, put that word back in that sentence where the pronoun stood.

Remember, Pronoun Referent questions are just one type of commonly asked Reading question.  Get your free Reading Questions Tracker here to keep tabs on all types of questions as well as your progress.

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Key Takeaways

The TOEFL infuses grammar concepts throughout the exam.  By understanding how pronouns can be used to eliminate redundancy, to create cohesion, to modify nouns, to imply case or gender, to add emphasis, or to indicate literal or figurative relationships, you will be able to score points on questions that directly test pronoun knowledge, such as referents questions on the Reading section, as well as those that indirectly do so, like using pronouns to create flow in your own writing.

Top 10 TOEFL Speaking Myths Debunked

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The Top 10 TOEFL Speaking Myths Are Debunked Here

For many students, standardized tests produce a lot of anxiety;  this creates an environment in which myths thrive.  Students pass along advice to other students without necessarily having any foundation for it.  For many TOEFL-takers, the speaking section of the exam produces the most fear and consequently some of the most ingrained misconceptions.  Here are some of the top misunderstandings students have about the TOEFL speaking section (and the truth that you need to know).

Myth #1|  Native speakers would ace the speaking section

Non-native speakers assume that those who grew up speaking English as their primary language would have no problems on the speaking section of the exam.  Although it is true that, for the most part, native speakers would have no problem with using slang, choosing the correct word, or speaking at an appropriate pace, native speakers would not be able to work within the time constraints or summarize all the main ideas from a lecture like in speaking question 6 without some note-taking abilities and some preparation on the test criteria.

Measuring your own test scores against how a native speaker would perform is a futile comparison.  It is often used as an excuse or serves as another reason to be discouraged.  Native speakers aren't taking the exam, and even if they were, they wouldn't be able to achieve top scores without understanding the ins and outs of the test itself.

Myth #2|  If you make a mistake when speaking, it is impossible to correct it

One reason that the speaking section is more nerve-wracking than the writing section is the disparity between tactics to correct errors.  When typing, no one has to know you initially made a mistake.  By deleting typos and mistakes as you go and leaving time at the end to proofread, editing can help remove any errors that were initially made.  However, when it comes to speaking, there is no back or delete button.  Just like with any in-person conversation, there is no back button or do-overs; you only can get one chance.

But even when native English speakers talk, mistakes are made because of the improvisational nature of speaking.  Because you cannot plan every word in advance, everyone-- English speakers and English learners alike, make mistakes.  You can and should correct important mistakes.  Native speakers do this regularly and casually by inserting the phrase "I mean" before the correction.

For example: My brother is a doctor.  She-- I mean, he-- needed the perseverance to get through the academic and emotional challenges of medical school.

In this case, using I mean to make an essential correction was essential.  Using the wrong pronoun is, of course, a grammar mistake, but more than that, it could have made the listener believe that you were now talking about a different person, causing greater confusing.  By using I mean to correct these types of errors on test day and in regular conversational, anyone who is listening to you will have a much clearer understanding of your meaning.

Myth #3|  Speaking faster is better

Different regions of the United States are known for having certain quirks regarding their speech patterns.  Those in the Northeast, for example, are known for speaking quite fast (like the characters on one of my favorite shows of all time, Gilmore Girls).  

Pacing is an important part of making sure that your spoken response can be understood by the graders.  Although you want to make sure that you can fully develop your examples and reasons in your response, there is no need to rush.  When speaking too quickly, you could be sacrificing the clarity of your pronunciation.

Myth #4| Grammar mistakes matter significantly, so you should think carefully, pausing if needed, when choosing each word

While speaking so quickly that you cannot be understood will undermine your score, speaking too slowly could be just as, if not more so, detrimental to your TOEFL speaking score.  Listening to students who pause frequently between words or sentences is a very challenging experience.  It is difficult for the grader to follow the ideas because there seems to be no clear flow.  Pausing often in your response causes students to sound like they lack confidence in their speaking abilities, something you do not want your graders to infer.

Furthermore, hesitations and pauses cause the language to sound unnatural.  Spoken English regularly makes use of reductions and stress is not divided equally on every word.  This means you may sound robotic or mechanical to a native speaker if pauses interfere with what would be considered normal speech patterns.

Myth #5|  You must use formal, academic language all the time

Using academic language is vital for highlighting your vocabulary.  While writing typically requires a formal register, speaking does not always have some strict guidelines.  For spoken responses, using a mix of more academic vocabulary words as well as slang and phrasal verbs when appropriate will help you sound natural.

Writing is almost always a more formal register. While there is a lot of overlap as both writing and speaking are productive rather than receptive skills, expectations for sentence varieties, vocabulary, and tone are lower for spoken interactions. Don't put unnecessary pressure on yourself to make them match.

Myth #6| You should correct every error you realize you made

While correcting your mistakes can be a good thing and may end up clearing up potential misunderstandings, correcting every single error made could be unnecessarily distracting.  

First, the person listening may not have caught each mistake.  Second, you may not be making the right correction;  you may have substituted one mistake for another.  Lastly, in addition to drawing more attention to the mistakes, you could be preventing your response from developing any sort of flow and coherence, compounding grammar or vocabulary mistakes with larger content problems.

Myths #7|  It is polite to apologize for any perceived shortcomings

Just like you do not want to apologize at the end of your essay for anything that you believe you did poorly, in your spoken responses, you similarly should not issue an apology.  Some students think it is polite to apologize for their accent or their grammar mistakes, but this is something that will absolutely cost you points.

Students are even more tempted to apologize for speaking mistakes than they are with written mistakes as people often unthinkingly apologize in conversation frequently.  We apologize for interrupting what someone else said, for being late to a meeting, or for saying something that we didn't really mean.  Because spoken apologies are such a natural part of conversation, it is easy to do so in your response, especially if you feel you have messed up.  If you have done this in your Speaking section practice, it is important to break this habit as it will cost you points.

Myth # 8|  Transitions are unnecessary in spoken English

In written responses, it is important to guide the reader through your ideas. The best way to do this is through the use of transition words and phrases.

Although your transitions don't have to be as formal, you should still use transitions when listing reasons and when introducing examples. While you might not always have time to use a concluding sentence at the end of each response, these internal transitions will help keep your ideas organized, create cohesion and flow, and ultimately make it easier for the listener to understand. While listeners can ask questions when interacting in person, the recorded nature if these one-way responses make transitions that much more important.

Myth #9| Speaking into the microphone is exactly like speaking to someone in person

Practicing small talk regularly can go a long way in developing your confidence and your oral skills. However, when you add in the element of a recording device, the interactions feel a little bit different than speaking to someone in person. 

While imagining that you are speaking to someone you are comfortable with, like a family member or a friend, might help make you feel more confident and at ease when forming your responses, don't completely ignore the technology element involved when recording TOEFL speaking responses.  Because you will be recording your answers via microphone and getting no visual cues as to the listener's comprehension of your statements, make sure to practice in situations that mimic this. Talking to your friend via phone call, using a free audio recorder on your mobile device, or using apps like Recap to send practice answers to your tutor or teacher are great ways to simulate the test.

Myth #10| You need to be quiet when giving your answer because that is polite

When grading TOEFL speaking homework for my students, sometimes I would encounter recordings that were so quiet it was nearly impossible to hear the response.  Students who would speak confidently in class, raising their hands to volunteer answers, suddenly became nearly impossible to hear on recordings.  If you are barely speaking above a whisper, this will influence how the person grading your response perceives and understands your response.  First, speaking that softly may inadvertently make it appear that you are not confident in your response.  More importantly, however, when you are whispering, it is difficult to get a good sense of the pronunciation, causing the grader to strain or guess at what is being said.  

Although you don't want to yell or project your voice in the test center, be sure to speak at a regular talking volume, as if you are interacting with someone sitting near you. It may feel uncomfortable to speak even at that volume in a near silent atmosphere like the testing center, but speaking at a regular tone is the only way to avoid whispering or mumbling.

Key Takeaways

 By recognizing the differences in expectations between written and spoken situations, practicing the correct volume, vocabulary, and pacing, and understanding the conventions regarding making mistakes, test-takers can avoid the common pitfalls of many responses that craft responses based on myths, not on grading criteria and listener expectations.  Practice these in daily interactions by grabbing the small talk cheat sheet!

Mind Matters Series: Are You Suffering From Test Prep Burnout? How To Recognize It + Come Back Stronger

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Are You Actually Suffering From TOEFL Test Prep Burnout? How To Overcome It

Intro: What is Burnout

When it comes to both standardized testing as well as language learning more generally, perception and mindset can have a big impact on results.  While lacking confidence and overconfidence are both real issues that can hold you back, they are not the only issues that can stand in the way of making progress.  One of the most common issues that students preparing for standardized tests face is burnout.  Burnout can take a real toll on your TOEFL score, but by recognizing the signs, you can combat this problem head on.

Burnout is when one health or work suffers as a result of mental or physical exhaustion.  In other words, one ceases to be able to function properly-- to do what one needs to do, like study for an exam, get a project finished on time, or finish writing a term paper.  Burnout happens when you are so fatigued that you cannot move forward with the tasks you need to accomplish, and it is particularly likely to happen when you are faced with a particularly large task, meaning that the TOEFL is a likely candidate for causing burnout.

Signs of burnout

Even though you now know the definition of burnout, it might be difficult to identify in the moment.  While every person copes with mental of physical stressors differently, look out for these three common signs of burnout.

1| Inability to focus

Are you noticing that you are having a problem with staying on topic?  If it exceeds the normal, you might be suffering from burnout.  Although everyone will encounter the inability to focus from time to time-- maybe you've got something weighing on your mind, like a fight you've had with your significant other-- or you keep getting interrupted by pop up messages on your computer as you work-- the inability to focus whatsoever in multiple study sessions in a way that seems out of the ordinary for you could be a sign of burnout.

2| Lacking motivation  

Although the vast majority of people don't get excited at the thought of test prep, if you are so lacking in motivation that you are making a habit of not sticking to your test prep, you may be suffering from burnout.  If putting in your regular test prep time is like pulling teeth, you may be experiencing test fatigue.

3| A pattern of declining scores  

Are you putting more and more time in and seeing lower scores every time?  When there isn't a language skill problem to explain a series of declining scores, burnout may be the answer.  If you are putting tons of time in but nothing seems to be changing in a positive way, it is very likely that burnout has occurred.

How to beat burnout

The good news is that once detected, burnout can be overcome.  There are several different strategies that you can use in order to rectify the situation.

1| Change up your routine  

Are you stuck in a rut? To put it another way, are things getting stale?  If you've been test-prepping for a long time, you may need to shake things up in order to breathe new life into your study habits.  Do you always study at your desk in your room?  Maybe try spending a few days at a desk in the library instead.  By changing your location, you might be able to recharge.  In addition to switching up your study site, consider changing the exact study plan you've been using.  Do you do the exact same thing all the time?  Perhaps you always start with vocabulary flashcards, then work on one essay and then move on to one hour of reading practice.  While routine is good, it could cause burnout faster.  Consider batching your days instead of thinking about every single section of the test every day if that is different from your usual schedule.

If changing the study site or practice set up itself doesn't seem to be enough, consider changing your reward strategy.  How do you keep yourself on track with your study plan?  Do you always buy yourself a coffee after you've completed a full study session?  If that has been your routine but you no longer feel motivation, change your reward strategy.  Perhaps after a full week's worth of test prep you treat yourself to a bigger reward, like getting a pedicure or going to the movies with your friends.  Know what motivates you-- material items, experiences, keep a streak, etc.-- in order to find what else could work for you other than what your default has always been.

2|  Take a scheduled break  

If your test burnout is severe, you may want to take a short, scheduled break from all test prep activities.  If you have been studying for hours every day for months on end without a break, you are bound to be feeling the effects.  Take a long weekend off from formal test prep completely, only reading or listening to English for fun.  If you opt for this, which offers the most powerful potential benefits, you need to be very disciplined when it comes to scheduling this break.  Without an exact start and end date and with burnout having overtaken your mindset, you might never return to your study plan.  For that reason, it is important to take a short but clear break.

3| Bring in reinforcements

Often students see test prep as a solitary endeavor.  Make it a team effort to help you avoid burnout.  By keeping an eye on one another and acting as one another's motivation, you can avoid burnout before it happens, keeping each other to study schedules (and scheduled breaks).

Key Takeaways

While experiencing burnout is not unique to test preparation, it is extremely common in this area because of the time-consuming and difficult nature of getting ready for a standardized test.  By recognizing its signs, like lacking motivation where you once had it or focusing on constantly declining scores, you can implement the suggestions above, recharge your batteries, and get back to regular test prep with progress. 

Need ideas for fun ways to practice English that won't leave you feeling burnout?

Mind Matters Series: Is Overconfidence Preventing You From Reaching Your Goal Score?

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Is Overconfidence Standing in the Way of Your TOEFL Goal Score?

Not All Score Problems Are Language Issues

Confidence is critical for success.  Whether you are trying to get a job, to make a good impression on your future in-laws, or to get a perfect score on the TOEFL speaking section, being self-assured (or at least projecting that you are) is key.  Is it possible to have too much confidence?  In a word, yes.  In fact, being overconfident could be the very problem holding you back from achieving your goal score.  

While many would agree with the statement that a language test is not an indication of one's intelligence, too often we assume that language is the only factor in determining what score one receives.  Sometimes the score you get on the TOEFL has nothing to do with your language ability but is more of a reflection of one's attitude and preparation.  

While lacking confidence comes with many of its own problems, being overconfident can undermine your study habits and ultimately your score.

5 Common Mistakes That Overconfident Students Make (And How To Fix Them)

The #1 most common mistake that overconfident students make is that they simply do not study for the exam.  

Not preparing for the exam is a recipe for disaster.  Students who are extremely confident in their language abilities might think that they will be able to take the test without any problems because their language skills are so good.  Doing this puts you at a huge disadvantage, and remember, even native speakers might not get a perfect score if they went in not familiar with the exam.  For some people, they might see it as a point of pride that they are able to take the exam without having studied for it, but you do not get any extra points and no one in the admissions office will know that you took the exam cold.  As a result, there is no benefit to not getting ready for the exam.

The solution: acknowledge that studying for the exam is not a sign of weakness or a sign that your language skills are insufficient.  Think of it as leveling the playing field considering that most students preparing for months before they ever take the exam.  If they are putting their best foot forward, you should as well.  Even if you do not need to prepare for the same length of time as those who do not measure up in terms of language skill, you absolute should need to familiarize yourself, at minimum, with the structure and scoring of the exam. 

While not quite as bad as problem #1, problem #2 is very similar: not preparing for the exam properly.  

Students who are overconfident tend to focus on the wrong things, and they inadvertently squander their time as a result.  Although these students are studying for the exam, they are using their time and focus to learn about the wrong things.  For example, if you are reading a particularly difficult passage, going back to review, record, and memorize the unknown vocabulary words is a good idea.  However, students that fall into this category frequently try to dedicate every single new vocabulary word to memory, dismissing a key consideration: the likelihood of that particular vocabulary word to occur again.  Students are not concentrating on anything specific or being systematic when it comes to their test prep, resulting in a lot of time spent on test prep without a lot of progress.

This can lead to problem #3: burnout.  

Students who are overconfident might be incredibly motivated students.  In fact, the underlying reason behind their confidence is probably due to the success they have had in academic settings in the past.  For extremely motivated students, it may be difficult to draw boundaries or realistic expectations.  This can result in burnout, where you have spent so much time studying you become absolutely exhausted.

The solution here is to stick to a study plan.  (Bonus points if you stay with an approved study plan).  If you know that you are the kind of person that sets unrealistic expectations, like memorizing 100 new vocabulary words each day,  have a teacher, tutor, or a friend who is also preparing for the exam look over your study plan.  Stick to your schedule.  Do not let yourself go over the allotted time to spend on preparation.  When you are out of time, you are done.  That means that you need to start using your resources, in this case time, more wisely, preventing you from focusing on the wrong areas and eliminating or at least minimizing the risk of burnout.

Common problem #4: Attempting to utilize every vocabulary term at one's disposal to the detrimant of clarity of concepts (In other words, over using fancy vocabulary).  

This one is probably the most shocking of the problems on the list for most overconfident students.  They have worked hard to learn many new terms, and they want to make sure that they show them off in their essays.  While it is admirable to use a range of vocabulary and you want to showcase your extensive knowledge, frequently overconfident students fail to make progress on the writing section of the test in particular because no one knows what their essay is about.  When students become consumed with using challenging vocabulary words, they often do so at the expense of their essay.  Forcing yourself to use every single vocabulary word you know often results in awkward or imprecise phrasing.  Reading these essays takes serious effort on the reader's behalf, ultimately lowering your score.

The solution: use good synonyms when appropriate.  It is perfectly okay to show off that vocab.  You can and should! But try to limit yourself to two serious vocabulary words per sentence, maximum.  If you stack the vocabulary words, any errors become compounded and leave the reader lost.

The last frequently occurring mistake that overconfident students make is refusing to play the test's game.  

Even after taking the time to learn the structure and scoring systems, to make and stick to a study plan and focus on the areas linked to score, sometimes, students refuse to follow the advice from teachers or tutors regarding how to make the most of their time on the test.  I always advise that when you find something that works for you, keep doing it over and over again.  For example, if you've got a topic sentence that works really well to start the second paragraph of your essay, use that same sentence structure each time because you'll know the grammar and vocabulary will be correct and the transition will be strong, all resulting in a high writing score.  However, after giving this suggestion to a student, sometimes overconfident students in the very next essay would come up with an entirely new topic sentence for the second body paragraph.  This sentence may not have been as strong, but at the very least, it would have cut into valuable composing and editing time.  Teachers and tutors know what test scorers are looking for and the strategies to help you make the most of every second on the test.  By ignoring ways to take advantage of the test, you might actually be leaving points on the table.

The solution here is a complete mindset shift.  Listening to the advice of your teacher or tutor does not mean that he or she is necessarily smarter than you are or that you are dumb.  They are not suggestions that you are incapable of writing a great essay; instead, they are trying to help you make the most of your study and test taking time by making the structure and patterns of the test work for you instead of you always working for the test.


The good news is that your language skills, which take a long time to cultivate, are well-developed, and changing your attitude will be a much quicker fix.  By determining if your goal score obstacle is a mindset issue, specifically, that your overconfidence is the root cause of why you aren't making progress, you can easily implement the solutions.  Being confident is great, but being overconfident can lead great English speakers to see less than impressive scores.  Stay humble and get to the score you deserve.

Now that you know the potential problems (and how to fix them), put what you've learned into practice by concentrating first on the independent essay question with 30 free essay prompts.

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