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.

Take Note: How To Note-Take for TOEFL and University Success

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How To Note-Take for TOEFL and University Success

Getting prepared for university classes shares a lot in common with getting ready for the TOEFL; this should come as no surprise given that the TOEFL was built to mimic university situations that non-native speakers will encounter in college classes and is used to, therefore, gauge student readiness. While some sections certainly do this better than others (for example, the independent essay questions are probably not on par with the type of essay you will need to write for college level classes while the reading passages seem just like those that may come out of a college level textbook), effective note taking on lectures is an essential skill to master for TOEFL and university success.

Why Note-Taking Matters

Note-taking is a component of several sections of the TOEFL. It is not limited to the Listening section only; the integrated questions for the writing and speaking sections require you to take good notes as well. Without these, you will not be able to provide enough detail to craft a fully developed response.

When you do make it to the university of your dreams, classes (especially those taken by freshman undergraduates) tend to follow a lecture format.  This means that the professor is typically standing in the front of the room delivering information without a lot of input from students and often (though not always) without putting notes on the board or projecting slides. Because first-year university students are typically required to take a certain number of core classes, these classes can be quite large, so you need to be an excellent note-taker in order to know what questions you want to ask your TA or during office hours and what to study when the midterm or final approaches.

Qualities of Strong Notes

The best notes, whether you are listening to a TOEFL lecture or one in your college or graduate school, are efficient.  To be a skillful note-taker, you must work quickly, identify important pieces of information, and stay organized.  All three of these essential characteristics work hand in hand.

Working quickly combines using smart symbols and abbreviations with finding only the most important items to record, tasks that non-native speakers frequently neglect to do in test-taking situations.  Do not try to write down everything the professor says. First, it is impossible, even for native speakers, to keep up with the speaker word for word. Additionally, if you are only copying verbatim what is being said, you aren't actually processing what he/she has stated.  Instead, only write down the key words (who/what/when/where/why/how) eliminating all the extras (articles, prepositions, most adjectives and adverbs).  Can you summarize the main point of the sentence?  Write it in your words, not necessarily the words the professor used.  Furthermore, you don't need to write out the entire word.  Is this lecture about a person?  Use abbreviations for names, places, etc. especially those that occur more than once.  Use symbols for common words like increase/decrease, similar to/differs from, and causes.  Drawing an arrow is much faster than writing down a series of letters (plus you remove the need to think about spelling when you are working under these time constraints).

Good notes need to be organized or it will be impossible to find the information when a question prompts you to recall specific information.  Remember, unlike the Reading section, the Listening section will only give you a certain amount of time per question.  In other words, while the Reading questions are self-paced, the Listening questions are not.  While this does have pros and cons, it means that you need to be able to call upon information in your notes quickly.  This necessitates good organization. Just like reading passages tend to follow a specific format, listening passages are usually organized in a similar fashion.  The professor will begin with a short introduction which will give you an idea about what the main idea of the lecture will be and this will help you guess the structure the lecture will take.  Additionally, you want to learn to anticipate the types of questions that you will be asked.  Only take notes on these pieces of information in order to avoid clouding your notes with distractions.

Where To Note-Take Before and After Test Day

Obviously, when you are taking practice tests or doing TOEFL practice problems, you should be taking notes in order to polish this skill.  But are you taking advantage of all the other opportunities you have to make good note taking a habit?

Do you take notes when listening to TOEFL prep strategies, like videos you find on YouTube?  Note taking more often will clearly improve your abilities, but it will also better help you retain information that you will need come exam day.  Because you are putting into practice the qualities of good note taking above, you are actually internalizing the information by note taking instead of passively listening and hoping to absorb some of it.

Don't limit your listening sessions solely to those dedicated to advice for language learning or TOEFL prep.  Use high-quality lectures to hone your note taking skills, and be sure to get a good balance of language learning/test prep and lectures across disciplines.  Using lectures from Ted.com and Ted Ed as well as quizzes created on ESLvideo will give you a nearly endless supply of material to work with.

Get used to taking your note organization one step further.  Instead of just organizing the information on the piece of paper itself, make sure that if you encounter valuable information for the long term, you store it in such a way that you can find it again.  Use my free Trello Boards while you are prepping for the test, and then move over the relevant vocabulary and academic skill advice to a university resources folder so you can keep it for reference well after test day.

TOEFL Grammar: Why The Sentence Fragment Should Be The First Grammar Focus

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Why The Sentence Fragment Should Be The First Grammar Focus

You want the highest score you can achieve on the TOEFL, and you know that you want to focus on the writing section because small changes can make a significant difference in terms of your score.  You are improving your vocabulary by taking the words you are memorizing to increase your understanding of reading passages and utilizing them in your own essays, and you are creating organized essays because you are using transitions and brainstorming before you start composing your essay.  While the improvement in vocabulary and organization will absolutely make a huge difference in terms of your overall score, you know that in order to maximize your potential points earned on the writing section, you need to improve one other fundamental aspect of your writing: grammar.

To get the highest score on the TOEFL writing, you know that you need to eliminate or at least minimize grammar mistakes.  But where should you begin?  You've probably been studying formal grammar rules in school for years, so how do you know what particular points to focus on when your TOEFL test date is on the horizon?  If you only have time to brush up on one grammar topic, make sure that you make it sentence fragments.

Why You Should Focus on Sentence Fragments

Is it possible that some grammar errors are more serious problems than others, even on the TOEFL?  Notice how ETS phrases how grammar and vocabulary issues are taken into account.  To achieve a 4 or 5, you may only have "minor lexical or grammatical errors" that do not "interfere with meaning."  Furthermore, the human essay scorers read tons of essays every day, and at many test grading centers, scorers are encouraged to spend about 2-3 minutes per essay in order to keep up with the number of essays submitted.  A very slight issue might not matter enough to warrant decreasing your score or it might be so minor that it gets missed because the grading process necessitates going through the essays so quickly.

Even after test day, some native speakers reading your work may overlook some smaller mistakes, especially if they can still understand the meaning.  In fact, some native speakers might not even realize that a grammar error has occurred as they may not be clear on what the grammar rule actually is for certain topics.  Generally speaking, Americans are not instructed in grammar topics beyond elementary school, and the importance of good grammar frequently gets downplayed in formal school settings. As a result, many may not even be aware of the complexities and minutia of many grammar rules.  

But one grammar issue that cannot be easily overlooked is the sentence fragment.

A sentence fragment is difficult for native speakers to ignore because it interrupts the normal flow of reading. Even those who do not consider themselves grammar experts can spot fragments because as they read, something feels missing; things are incomplete.

In other words, sentence fragments are one of the most noticeable and recognizable grammar mistakes on the TOEFL and in writing situations after test day, so learning about them now will yield short and long term benefits.

One final benefit of making sentence fragments your grammar priority is that they are found on standardized tests beyond just the TOEFL.  If you are studying for the TOEFL, you may also need to take other admissions tests like the SAT.  Sentence fragments are common sentence errors that appear on the new SAT in the Writing and Language section, so by eliminating this issue from your own essay writing, you will be able to do so on the multiple choice section of the SAT and in the optional SAT essay.  One of the top errors to look for, the run-on sentence, is essentially the exact opposite of the sentence fragment, so by getting a better understanding of the fragment, you will also get a better grasp on how to fix run-ons as well.

What Is a Sentence Fragment

In order to know what a sentence fragment is (and how to prevent these types of errors in your own writing), we need to know what makes up a sentence.  A full sentence is an independent clause.

  1. The subject
  2. The verb (the predicate)
  3. A complete idea 

You should check that you can clearly identify the subject and the verb of each sentence that you write.  This will also allow you to check that your subject and verb agree, which is a good habit to get into (especially because this is another frequently tested grammar error). 

If you don't have a subject or a verb, you cannot have a complete sentence.  Also be sure to confirm that the verb in the sentence is actually acting as the predicate in the context of the sentence.  

   Writing, proofreading, and note taking.                           Incorrect

   Writing, proofreading, and note taking are all essential academic skills.      Correct.

In the example above, the be verb are is the verb and begins the complete predicate even though you may at first be drawn to the words writing, proofreading, and note taking as they are actions that you can see.  In this example, however, they act as the subject. 

If you know that you have both a subject and a verb in the form of a predicate, ask yourself if you have a complete idea.  In other words, have you given the reader all the information that they need to know in order to avoid confusion?  This lack of information may occur if you did not provide an object but the verb must take an object (as it is a transitive verb).   

    My boss sent.                                                                       Incorrect

   My boss sent the email yesterday.                                       Correct

   Her mother bought.                                                              Incorrect

   Her mother bought that sweater.                                        Correct

However, length of a sentence itself does not determine whether something is a full sentence or a sentence fragment.  This is a common misconception that even many native speakers have.  Frequently, sentence fragments occur because we have started a sentence with a subordinating conjunction.  These words—which include although, because, after, since, while, when, and if, to name just a few—take information that would be a complete sentence and make it weaker (dependent), so the information can no longer stand alone (work by itself).  For instance:

    I believe that parents are the best teachers.                         Correct

   Since I believe that parents are the best teachers.                Incorrect

When working with a subordinating conjunction, you will need a separate independent clause (full sentence, meaning a subject, verb, and complete idea).  If your subordinating conjunction begins the sentence, you will need a comma before your independent clause.

    Since I believe that parents are the best teachers, I think homeschooling is a great method of education.                                                                                    Correct

Using subordinating conjunctions allows us to add sentence variety and often complex ideas to our writing.  By understanding the rules for subordinating conjunctions and complete sentences, readers will be able to understand and appreciate all of our ideas.

So, by confirming that you have a subject, a predicate, and you've expressed a complete idea, you can be sure that you have a full sentence and not just a fragment-- a portion of a sentence masquerading as a full sentence.

Become An Expert At Locating and Fixing Sentence Fragments

My favorite grammar website, bar none, is NoRedInk.com.  I have used this website with native and non-native speakers alike, and I cannot speak highly enough of this excellent resource.  Because of the way that the site is set up, you are able to select particular topics.  Although subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and comma rules are all also excellent topics to review and NoRedInk makes grammar practice as painless as possible by crafting example sentences based on your own self-selected interests, if you are pressed for time, begin with the unit on sentence fragments.  By locating and fixing sentence fragments in the given sentences, you'll be able to apply the same concepts to your own writing, where it is often more difficult to find sentence errors.

Once you feel comfortable, go through old essays and see if you can locate sentence fragments.  If you locate any, fix them.  Once you think you've taken care of them all, upload your essay to Grammarly (this is an affiliate link.  If you want to read more about why I am a huge fan of Grammarly, check out my post about it here).  Grammarly will catch any sentence fragments you may still have and recommend ways to fix your sentence.  For this reason, it can be an excellent learning tool.

Get into the habit of writing new essays within the time constraint, leaving two minutes at the end to proofread and edit your work.  As I recommended in the pacing guide I wrote for WeAreTeacherFinder.com, don't practice writing right up til the last second; give yourself time to catch those grammatical errors, particularly sentence fragments, in order to get the highest score.  Not sure what topics to write new independent essays about?  Grab 30 days of writing prompts in the free One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge Printable.

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University Vocabulary Words + Conversation Starters You Must Know For The TOEFL (and The First Week Of School)

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Popular University Vocab for the first week of school + TOEFL

There is no denying it, and it isn't just retail store hype anymore; back to school season is upon us.  Although start dates vary in the United States based on region and the level of the institution (with schools in the American south and colleges typically going back to school well before the first work day after Labor Day, which most primary and secondary schools in the Northern part of the U.S. use as their guideline), the academic year tends to start at the end of August or beginning of September.  Heading back to the classroom can be both exciting and nerve-wracking, especially if you have just enrolled at a new school.  If you are thinking about university-level classes, you will have to deal with specific vocabulary that is unique to the college setting and many of the terms that you will encounter during your first week there are words that you are expected to know.  

Even if you aren't heading to a university yet because you still need to take the TOEFL and get to your goal score, knowing these vocabulary words is essential because they frequently appear on the integrated speaking and listening sections of the exam.  Remember, the TOEFL is designed to mimic actual university situations, so it is quite possible that you will hear a conversation between a new student and a university employee or listen to a lecture that takes place on the first day of class.  By preparing yourself for the exam with this vocabulary, you will also be ready to hear these words when you arrive at your college campus.

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On the first day of class, your professor will provide you with a syllabus.  The syllabus is the formal write-up of all the information that you need to know about the class-- the course description (so you will know what you are studying), the grading breakdown, the required course materials, etc.  You will want to pay particular attention to what comprises the grade for the course.  Is there a midterm, a final paper, or a final exam?  If so, is the final exam cumulative (in other words, does it cover everything from the first day of class or just from the midterm on)?  Although it might seem premature to be thinking about the final exam this early, putting these important dates and knowing exactly how you will be graded might help you decide whether or not this is the right class for you and how you will need to structure your time for the rest of the semester.  The professor will also list their office hours (the times when the professor is sitting in his/her office waiting for you to come in and ask any questions you may have) on this document.  In America, it is not considered rude or insulting to ask your instructor questions, and many professors welcome students who want to know more information about a particular topic.

At many American universities, you have roughly two weeks of school to decide if you are going to keep the classes you initially signed up for or if you are going to make changes to your schedule.  This time is usually called add/drop or shopping period, where you can decide to take (or not take) classes without any penalty.  In order to decide what classes you should take, you should speak with your academic advisor.  This is typically a professor in your department who recommends what classes you should take based on your major, the number of credits you need to take, and the number of electives that you have.  Your major is your primary area of study, so many of the classes that you will take will all be related to this topic.  At the beginning of your time at a particular university, you may have to take some core requirements first-- the types of classes that the university has decided all students must take in order to have a well-rounded education.  Keeping track of how many credits you have-- the worth that the university has assigned to your particular class-- is important because it may determine the price of your tuition for the semester as well as how many classes you should take.  Classes outside of your major are known as electives, and courses you must take before you can take a more advanced level class are known as pre-requisites, all key terms for you to know before interacting with your advisor.

After you have spoken to your academic advisor, you may need to see the registrar.  This is the person who approves the official schedule every student takes.

Hopefully, you are able to take all of the classes you want, but you may encounter problems with registering for classes or moving into your dorm room if you have a hold on your account.  A hold simply means that your account has been frozen-- you cannot do anything-- until something, usually a financial problem, has been cleared up.  Perhaps you did not pay the deposit or submit the appropriate medical forms to the university, for example.  If this happens, make sure you talk to those who work for the university in order to resolve the issue.  On the listening section of the TOEFL, you might hear a conversation when a student visits the registrar's office to discover he can't drop a class because there is a hold on his account.  For this reason,  it is imperative to know these words for the test as well as to address real issues that may arise when you arrive on the college campus.  

During the first few days of school, your RA (resident assistant) will be one of the best resources that you have available to you.  He or she is an upperclassman (an older student), so they will know what buildings you will need to go to, who you need to speak with, and what activities are going on on campus.  

If you are living on campus, the RA will likely have a meeting during the first few days where they explain all of the policies for living in the dorms and the emergency procedures.  This meeting will likely involve an icebreaker-- a get-to-know you activity to help you learn a little bit about the other people living on your floor.

Some of the words on the list are important for making small talk, a type of conversation that is expected and considered polite and appropriate in the United States.  Although there are generally good guidelines for what you should and shouldn't say to those you make small talk with, when it comes to your first meeting, there are several key phrases that make sense for you to draw from.   If you lack some confidence in your own speaking skills, just remember, people love to talk about themselves.  These questions give the other person an opportunity to really expand, and by asking follow up questions or prompting the other person to go into more detail, they will do the majority of the talking.  As a bonus, these are the questions that they are most likely to ask you, so if you have an idea of what you are going to say, you will be even more confident that you will be able to adeptly navigate these interactions.

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TOEFL Must-Know Words and Debates About Literature


10 literary words that you need to know for the TOEFL

The topics for the lectures, reading passage, and integrated essays can come from any discipline that you can find at the university level, so you will notice a mix of pieces from humanities as well as the hard sciences as you go through your preparation process.  Although you will not see any passages that are excerpts from classic pieces of literature like those you might find on the New SAT, you may encounter readings or lectures that are based on literature.  Some of these passages may take the form of biographies, providing a detailed account of the author, playwright, or poets life, career, and legacy.  However, more often than not, these literary-based discussions or articles will feature a position taken on a particular work of literature.  As with any form of art, literature leaves room for interpretation and as a result, these are particularly likely to show up as topics for a lecture with student interaction, perhaps a seminar style class, or an integrated essay.

While it would be impossible to be knowledgeable about every piece of literature that might be featured on test day, becoming familiar with some key literary terms will give you an advantage, no matter what piece of writing is being discussed.


Discussions that center on literature tend to focus on ambiguity, those moments that are unclear or intentionally confusing.  The author's motivation for doing something (otherwise known as his/her intent) is often a source of debate among literary scholars. This might take the discussion an interdisciplinary route, especially if the writer is supposedly critiquing the government or a trend happening at the time the work was penned. Similarly, a character's reason for taking (or failing to take) some sort of action might be cause for disagreement.  Is the character actually dynamic (one that changes over time) or has he/she remained the same?  This question is often asked of protagonists though minor characters or villains can draw some attention to.  These topics will likely connect back to important moments in the plot of the main conflict of the story.  Critics might also discuss the meaning of a particular symbol-- what something is supposed to represent in the work of literature-- or what genre the work can be best classified as.  Especially if the discussion is based on genre, expect to hear a list of criteria for putting it into a certain category (or not).

Regardless, when someone is supporting his/her position in this type of environment, they will use textual evidence to back up his/her opinion.  You might hear directly ask a student about this, which may turn into a listening detail question, so be sure to pay particular attention.  Look out for the phrase refer back to the text as well, as they mean the same thing.

Don't feel limited to using these words in a discussion of literature, though.  Although these words draw from that discipline, many of them can easily transcend the field of literature or even art and can be incorporated more broadly into your own writing and speech. Conflicts can be used for any sort of struggle or fight, internal or external, physical or verbal.  This word can be used when discussing countries, wars, and politics or in everyday situations like getting into an argument with one's brother.  Intent-- what you've meant to do-- is similarly useful for both conversational settings and for formal situations.

Although being widely read is a great way to expand your vocabulary, reading classic texts probably won't help you make much headway on test day; however, knowing the terms above and the topics of discussion that usually occur surrounding literature will help you better anticipate the main idea, regardless of which section of the test you find it in.


5 Root Words To Catapult You Towards Your Goal Score [Video/ Cata]


There are tons of vocabulary words you need to learn in order to succeed on the TOEFL and in university level classes.  In order to maximize the amount of words you know, you will want to think about memorizing words that are related to one another.  There are several ways to achieve this.  Memorizing one word and all those in the same word family, several words that are all on the same topic, or words that share the same prefix, suffix, or root.

One reason that it is particularly useful to memorize prefixes, suffixes, and roots is that they are often recycled.  As a result, even though you may not know a particular word on test day, if you recognize the common component--the prefix, suffix, or root, you may be more prepared than you had thought.  

Remember, when studying words for the TOEFL, you want to think about where the words might appear but also where you can use them in responses you produce.

How should you decide what terms to learn first?  Of course, you want to learn those that are the most likely to show up on test day, and if you can stay on track using a list in which words are ranked by likelihood of appearance, this is a brilliant tactic.  However, another way to keep you interested is to use current events in order to get you in the mood to study.  Whether you want to take a silly, bizarre holiday like International Cat Day or an established holiday like the 4th of July to inspire your academic endeavors, harnessing the power of what is going on at the moment can help you better understand puns the day of the event or understand cultural traditions.  If studying a list of 100 words a day listed in no particular order isn't your cup of tea, then why not use the calendar to find additional motivation?

So, let's get the ball rolling.

Cata (from the Greek kata meaning down from, down to, or sometimes against) is a common root that can be seen across all four sections of the TOFEL.

-CATALYST: a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change.

-CATASTROPHE: an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster

-CATACLYSMIC: relating to or denoting a violent natural event

-CATHARTIC: providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions

-CATAPULT: to hurl or launch

Catastrophe is strongly negative and would be extremely useful to reinforce your point in a conclusion paragraph, stressing how doing the opposite of what you advocate would have costly consequences.  You can use it in the adjective form, catastrophic, too if that fits your sentence better.  Cataclysmic is even more strongly negative and should be reserved for world shattering consequences.

Catapult can be used to answer independent speaking and writing questions when used in a figurative sense.  A career or even a country can be catapulted, for example.  Don't feel like you can only use it for discussing rocket ships.

Now use these new TOEFL vocab words to catapult your score to the next level.  How?  Try to work in at least one of the new words into a practice independent essay response.  Need some practice questions?  Grab my list of One Month of TOEFL Writing Questions for free.

Want to see more videos like this?  Check out the 2 Minute TOEFL series to learn even more terms.  Never miss a new video by hitting the subscribe button.

How Small Talk Can Make A Big Difference For TOEFL Speaking And Listening Section Scores


13 Useful Small Talk Transitions To Look for on the TOEFL

Speaking and listening go hand-in-hand, something that all language learners and teachers can tell you.  Too often, though, students don’t realize that the same holds true when it comes to the TOEFL test.  Frequently students tend to study skills in a bit of a vacuum, isolating one language skill from another unless they are practicing an integrated question, ETS’s term for questions that involve multiple skills. But because the listening section features a lot of informal phrases, the same that are used in everyday conversation, participating in daily conversation with your classmates and teachers could make you more ready for the TOEFL as well as for life post-test. 

So what should you talk about? The possibilities are nearly endless (eventually). Of course, it is important to know your audience, meaning you want to avoid topics Americans consider taboo if chatting with someone in the US. In other words, don't bring up religion,  only, or politics as many people in the States would find this rude. Americans love to start by talking about the weather, light-hearted (non-controversial) stories from the news, sports (especially local teams or big games like the World Series) or general plans for the upcoming weekend or vacation/break.

How does this help you on the TOEFL? It isn't likely that you'll hear a full conversation of small talk. 

A frequently overlooked skill is the ability to transition from small talk to what you actually want to speak about.  While we often associate transitions with writing, they are just as important and useful in speaking.  This is even more true given that Americans expect small talk before actually discussing the reason for the meeting or appointment.  In fact, most people would consider it rude to skip the small talk.  So, how do we get from small talk to what you actually want to discuss that day?  By using transitions--the same transitions that you might hear in a conversation on the TOEFL when a student goes to see his/her professor during office hours, begins by being polite, and then gets to why he/she actually stopped by.

Here are some key transitions that native speakers use that you can use as well when you want to move from small talk to the real reason for why you started up a discussion or if you just want to change the topic of conversation for whatever reason.

By the way…
That reminds me of…
Speaking of…
Before I forget…
Oh, while I remember…
I just thought of something.
Oh, there’s something else I wanted to say/ask you.
This has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but…
Changing the subject for a minute…
That’s funny, because something similar…
      (note, it does not actually have to be funny.  This is more used like “That’s interesting because I had a similar situation”)
I know this isn’t really what we are talking about, but…
I know this is changing the subject, but…

Using these phrases during the course of your regular routine will help you recognize these phrases when they come up on the listening section (or integrated speaking question 3 and 5); as an added benefit, if you are using them regularly, that means you are speaking regularly, gaining extra practice in pronunciation, pacing, and word choice along the way.


Get all the phrases you need and a recap of all the topics to discuss (or to avoid) in a convenient one page printable that you can take with you wherever you go.

Know Your Body: How To Perfect TOEFL Body Paragraphs


How To Write Perfect TOEFL Body Paragraphs Every Time

A Step-By-Step Guide To Creating Structured TOEFL Body Paragraphs

When hearing the word body, most people immediately imagine exercise, sculpted abs, or getting in bathing-suit ready shape.  As an educator who has taught writing at both the high school and college levels, my mind jumps to something very different: body paragraphs.  While the paragraphs that follow the introduction segment of an essay might not at first seem to have much in common with fitness, both types of bodies are at their peak when planned out and when following a particular regiment.  In other words, planning and structure are critical for building solid, powerful body paragraphs.  So what shape should body paragraphs take? Here are the 6 parts every body paragraph needs to have.


Start with a topic sentence

Besides the thesis statement, topic sentences are the most important sentences that you will write.  You know that those who grade essays on standardized tests do not have very long to spend with each essay, and as a result, it is even more important to make sure that the reader is clearly guided through the essay. The topic sentences states the main idea of that body paragraph, and as a result, it should reflect some part of the thesis.


Sentence Two: Explain or clarify your position

Your second sentence gives you the opportunity to restate the idea from the topic sentence, showcasing your paraphrasing ability, and allows you to get a little deeper, clearing up any terms that need to be defined (especially big abstract nouns like freedom or success that may be very subjective) or getting more specific. This should set the reader up for sentence 3.


Sentence Three: Support with a reason or example

Now you are ready to dig into your main reason or support. This idea can make up the bulk of your body paragraph, but it should be spread over multiple sentences as to avoid creating a run-on sentence. You can reference an article you read recently on the topic that has lead you to take this position or you can talk about a personal situation that has informed your opinion. You may find as you practice that you are frequently reusing the same material in a number of essays and that's okay as ETS doesn't know that;  as long as your versatile example seems appropriate for the question presented on test day., feel free to use the same ideas you've used in prior practice essays or modify those ideas so they seem to fit perfectly (even if that means slightly exaggerating).  If after adding your main reason or example, your paragraph is now at least five sentences long, you can move on to your wrap up sentence and then move on to your next body paragraph.  If not, continue to add to that paragraph with the next step.


If necessary, smoothly transition to introduce another, secondary, reason or example.   Gain trust with your reader and add to your word count by adding another similar piece of support for the main idea featured in your topic sentence.  If you used a more academic reference use a personal one. This will round out your answer, making it seem more thought out.  It is necessary to include the proper transition so the reader understands how this is connected to the first example given.

Provide the second reason or example, if needed. Just as you did with the first supporting reason or example, explain fully how this supports your main claim in the topic sentence.

 Always end each body paragraph with a concluding thought

Remind the reader how this reason/example ties back to the position stated at the top of the body paragraph.  Especially if you've got more than one reason or example, it is imperative that you reiterate how these points illustrate your main idea.  Don't use the same exact language because you do not want to sound redundant.


Key Takeaways

Body paragraphs are where the bulk of development happens inside an essay. As a result, using transitions, clear reasoning, and supporting details are crucial.  By following this pattern, your essay will stay well sculpted time and time again.

Get tons of body paragraph practice when you download the free One Month Writing Challenge printable. Perfect your strategy by writing 90 body paragraphs for the over two dozen practice independent essay questions in this download.

6 Ways to Increase Your Accountability And Stay on Track When Studying for the TOEFL


What is more difficult than taking a standardized test?  For most people, preparing for that exam is harder than the experience of the exam itself. The struggle to get oneself ready for the exam is where much of the real leg work comes in.  So how can we make sure that we stay on track with our test prep? Of course, you want to make a reasonable study plan that helps you avoid common pitfalls, overcome distractions during the time you've allotted for studying, and stop mistaking the illusion of studying for actual progress.  But even if you have done all of these things, it can still be difficult to get into a regular rhythm of getting test-ready.

What it boils down to is needing accountability.  Accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility.  This concept is not unique to test prep or even education.  You will find this idea in everything from dieting advice to business books.  Why?  Because these often involve difficult, long-term goals that can only be met with diligence and consistency.

So, how can you hold yourself more accountable in order to keep up with your study plan? Here are 6 great ways to stick to those #TOEFLgoals.

1. Find an accountability partner (or two).

This is an incredibly common tactic for increasing accountability easily. Chances are if you are studying for the exam, you know of at least one other person doing the same thing.  Send your partner a message at the beginning of the week with your specific plan and goals for the week. Then on a designated day, follow up with a call on FaceTime or Skype to chat about the progress that you've made. An added benefit is that if you are struggling with a certain area, you could ask your partner if they have any advice.

Steal another idea from the business world and start a TOEFL mastermind group. You could start a Slack account (it's free) to message one another when issues come up and have one channel for each of the different sections. This will help you stay organized. A bonus to using Slack is that you can share links and files within in the chat, so you can ask your partners to review a speaking response that you recorded or an essay that you've written.

2. Find a group that allows you to post a progress log

You are probably a member of Facebook groups already, but have you thought about leveraging this group to help increase your accountability?  When you set goals in front of the group, you are more likely to achieve them.  Join a Facebook group that allows you to keep a running progress log, where each week you set goals.  Though you might not get direct feedback like you would with a partner of a mastermind style group, this is a great place to feel like you are making a public declaration that you must stick to and get encouragement from people who are doing the same thing that you are doing.  Don't know where to post?  Coming soon I will be opening the brand new Test Obsessed private Facebook group for you to join, complete with a thread exactly for this purpose.  You might even start there and meet some folks that become accountability partners. 

3. Social share your progress

If you are very brave or you are addicted to posting what you are doing to your Twitter or Instagram streams, why not use that as your motivation?  Sharing with hundreds (or thousands) or your closest friends what you hope to achieve for the week and then being able to tell them that you did it at the end of the week will feel amazing and certainly lead to lots of applauding emojis! 👏🏻 This works on the same premise as posting before and after photos when dieting and exercising and for some people, this might be enough to get them to stick to their goals.  Use the same hashtag to find others doing the same thing so you can cheer them on.  You won't want to let those who follow you down, so you are more likely to hit the goal you had set forth.

4. Use a paper tracker

For those on the opposite end of the personality spectrum, you may want to keep a more private record of your achievements.  While it is still important to set a clear goal in writing, you may want to do it the old fashioned way: using paper and pen to see your progress.  If this seems attractive to you, make sure that you don't cheat by putting your log in a place that is seen frequently.  You may even want to keep a copy of it in more than one place.  While any version that allows you to write your goal, time spent, and measure whether or not the goal was achieved will work, attaching it to a calendar or planner can be even more useful.

5. Use a digital streak tracker

Like the idea of tracking your progress privately but want to bring this technique into the 21st century?  Use a digital tracker to do so.  Go one step further by keeping tabs of the amount of time you have stayed on track for using apps like Streak or Momentum.  You could always use a tool like this in conjunction with a paper and pen tracker to log specific progress.

6. Use journaling methods

Last but certainly not least is journaling to stay accountable.  Journaling is all the rage right now.  You may have heard of the 5-minute journal, the bullet journal or a host of others.  While the particular method isn't important and you should use the one that you most identify with, the reflective nature makes this method a bit deeper than some of the other accountability strategies.  Additionally, it gives you yet another opportunity to write in English, which is a huge fringe benefit.

Grid Diary's clean interface and customizable questions make it a great tool for getting test-day ready.  There is a free version of this app, so there is no reason not to try it out.  A side benefit is that this will also allow you to practice typing on a QWERTY keyboard.  It is one of my favorite apps of all time, so be sure to check it out.

Key Takeaways

Don't feel like you have to select only one method--accountability partners, progress logs, social sharing, paper trackers, digital streak trackers, or journaling-- of holding yourself to the goals that you set.  If you want to share the results of a perfect week in your streak of independent essay writing in a status update on Facebook or with a study partner, by all means, you should do so.  Mix and match as you please, but make sure to keep consistent with both your primary accountability tactic-- which will ensure consistent practice for the exam and an increase in your score.

Perhaps it isn't a surprise that the term accountability is on the rise.  In fact, the word took off in the 1960s and has grown exponentially since.  It is easier than ever to track your data and habits, so make sure to do so (and of, do it in English in order to get even more language practice in.)

Need an idea of what to track?  Grab the free One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge printable here.

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