Appearing for an exam is always a little nerve-wracking, but it always helps to do your research and know what to expect.

To date, over 30 million people from around the world have appeared for the TOEFL iBT, using their score to prove their proficiency in the English language. Besides improving your chances of admission in a foreign university, scoring well on the TOEFL test can also help you fulfil visa requirements in countries like Australia and the UK.

Despite a litany of comprehensive preparation resources available online, a rising number of applicants find themselves re-writing the test in the hopes of achieving a better score. This poses a significant question regarding the level of difficulty of the test.

Is the TOEFL iBT exceedingly difficult? Do requirements for the test change every year? Is the test too long and complicated? Or are most people simply underprepared?

Today, we will share important answers to commonly asked questions to help you prepare for one of the most sought-after English language tests in the world.

Understanding the TOEFL iBT

To truly assess the difficulty level of the TOEFL iBT, it is imperative that we first understand the true purpose behind the test.

According to Educational Testing Services (ETS), the TOEFL iBT “measures your ability to use and understand English at the university level”. This alone tells us that the test is designed solely to evaluate your English proficiency and ensure that you can adapt easily to an English-speaking environment.

In this case, a higher score reflects your ability to:

  • Understand the course material, as well as what is being taught.
  • Participate in class discussions.
  • Interact with other students without feeling alienated due to language barriers.

Indeed, this is also why the test is strictly academic in nature.

Unlike other internationally-recognised academic tests like SAT, ACT and TRE, the TOEFL iBT is generally considered to be easier than most standardised tests.

Average Scores and Test Takers

TOEFL iBT Difficult

A great way to measure the difficulty of a standardised test is to take a look at the average score and discuss the process with people who have recently taken the test.

In 2016, ETS reported an average TOEFL score of 82 out of 120 (20 in each section), following an average score of 84 (21 in each section) in the year 2015.

These figures alone may not mean much, but if you take advice from those who have appeared for the test, you will be in a much better position to define a “good score”. Ultimately, different universities define different criteria for an “acceptable TOEFL score”. Generally, however, the scale ranges from low to intermediate to high, with low indicating the need for a possible re-take, and “high” making you eligible for Ivy League schools (depending on your overall academic standing).

Here are some important observations made by non-native TOEFL test takers:

  • Being constantly exposed to written and oral English makes a big difference.
  • If you already have a great command of English, the TOEFL iBT is mostly a test requiring smart timing and efficient test writing skills.
  • As a 3-and-a-half-hour long exam, the TOEFL iBT requires consistent focus and concentration, which can be quite tiring.
  • You may need to develop your ability to block out external noise and distractions.
  • If you are new to the English language, you may want to consider enrolling in a language improvement course prior to the test.
  • If you have already scored well on your SAT, the TOEFL should not be a problem.

Ultimately, most test takers agree that having a strong grasp of English and disciplined timing makes the TOEFL iBT one of the easiest standardised tests today, similar to the IELTS.

What Makes the TOEFL Challenging?

While the TOEFL iBT may not be difficult per se for non-native English speakers who are fluent in the language, there are aspects of the test that can be rather challenging.

Here are some of the major ones.

Duration of the Test

At a length of nearly 4 hours, giving your TOEFL test in a foreign language can be rather exhausting, especially if you go in unprepared. In addition, the constant presence of a timer can increase your stress as you attempt to focus while blocking out all distractions.

This is precisely why ETS encourages test takers to build up their endurance by practicing thoroughly and pacing themselves.

Pro Tip: Practice essays can help you develop an excellent sense of planning and self-timing.

Academic Vocabulary

Despite your frequent exposure to English, you may find the vocabulary used on the TOEFL exam a little complex if you are unaware of the language commonly used in the academic world.

Pro Tip: Remember that the vocabulary complexity on the exam does not go higher than an early university level.

Multiple Skills

As with any language evaluation test, the TOEFL iBT determines your proficiency in English by testing your listening, reading and writing skills—sometimes all at once.

For non-native English speakers, verbally communicating or writing in English may not be challenging on its own. However, when you are expected to switch rapidly between the three modes of communication, it can be a little distressing (especially if you are relatively new to the language).

Pro Tip: All test questions are fairly straightforward and expect to give direct answers in return.

Remembering Details

Unlike some exams, the TOEFL iBT does not let you get away with “skimming through the details”. In fact, the details may be the very subject of your question.

Questions are designed as such to test your comprehension capabilities, so if you are unable to recall an excerpt from the audio or simply misread the text, you may unnecessarily compromise your score.

Pro Tip: You may turn to the written passage for reference, and take notes while listening to the audio.

Ultimately, the TOEFL iBT is as difficult or easy as you make it.

Avoid common mistakes and prepare in advance to get an ideal score that could put you ahead of the competition.

We offer a comprehensive list of resources to help students and teachers gain a better understanding of the TOEFL iBT. For more information on TOEFL online preparation, check out our free guides and register now for unlimited resources!


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