Your Insider Guide to the TOEFL

[not sponsored or endorsed by
the Educational Testing Service (ETS)]

All About the TOEFL Test

All contents ©2024. TOEFL is a registered trademark of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which is unaffiliated with and does not endorse this website.

Overview of the TOEFL

Hundreds of thousands of international students take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) each year in order to fulfill the English language requirements of undergraduate and graduate degree programs. If you are an applicant to a university in an English-speaking country and your high school and/or college education was received in another language, you will probably have to pass the TOEFL. Educational Testing Service (ETS), the owner and administrator of the TOEFL, does not specify passing TOEFL scores, leaving individual schools and departments to formulate their own standards. The TOEFL evaluates reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, but more importantly, test-takers are expected to demonstrate their ability to synthesize these skills. TOEFL exercises focus on academic English as commonly encountered in university lectures, readings, and discussions, and students are also tested on aspects of university life outside of the classroom, such as interactions with non-academic staff.

Test Length, Test Content, and Test Scoring

Over 97% of TOEFL administrations involve the internet-based test (iBT), although a small number of students take the paper-based test (PBT). We advise all students to choose the iBT because it is a more effective assessment of language skills than the PBT, and the iBT is also much more widely available. The iBT includes four parts that are always given in the following order: a reading section (60-80 minutes), a listening section (60-90 minutes), a speaking section (20 minutes), and a writing section (20 minutes). Students may take an optional 10-minute break after the listening section. Each iBT section is ultimately scored from 0 to 30, and these section scores are added to arrive at the total TOEFL score of 0 to 120. Scores for the reading and listening sections, which consist entirely of multiple-choice questions, are calculated electronically, while the scores for the speaking and writing sections are based on the assessments of human graders.

ETS TOEFL Research

ETS has conducted and published a large body of research on the TOEFL in the years since the test was first given in 1964. Many of these studies are available to the general public on the ETS website. Aggregate data on TOEFL scores by student status, country of origin, and native language may be helpful to test-takers, and students may also review ETS research correlating TOEFL scores to GPA and other measures of academic performance. Other research topics include test quality, fairness and accessibility, scoring and technology, and score interpretation, and a bibliography of recent external studies relevant to the TOEFL may be downloaded.

Common TOEFL Requirements at Universities

TOEFL students must ensure that their understanding of university TOEFL requirements is accurate and precise. It is exceedingly common for a graduate division to stipulate a set of minimum TOEFL scores that are not necessarily observed by individual departments. Although TOEFL standards are most commonly given in terms of total scores, it is not unusual for specific degree programs to also have sectional requirements, especially if the applicant is seeking a teaching assistantship. It is possible to list some widely observed minimum scores, but students are urged to review the expectations of their chosen programs before beginning TOEFL study. For most undergraduate or graduate degree offerings, a total score of 100 and sectional scores of 25 each will be good enough for full admission. Many schools are willing to admit students with lower scores, but the TOEFL threshold tends to be inversely proportional to the institutional acceptance rate (lower score requirements usually correlate to higher admit rates). Adequate TOEFL preparation is the path of least resistance for international students, with high scorers saving both time and money by avoiding remedial English requirements.

TOEFL History

The need for a standardized assessment of English as a foreign language was first identified in the early 1960s. The TOEFL was developed by a group of educators and government officials, and was initially offered in 1964 under the auspices of the Modern Language Association. Taken over by ETS and the College Board the following year, ETS has been the sole administrator of the TOEFL since 1973. For the first 15 years of its existence, the TOEFL consisted only of reading and listening assessments. Speaking and writing sections were added during the 1980s, and this four-section format has been the basis of the TOEFL ever since. The first electronic version of the TOEFL, known as the computer-based test (CBT) was released in 1998, and the iBT was introduced in 2005. In 2011, the iBT reading section was revised to include a smaller number of reading passages and continuous timing for the entire reading section. The TOEFL iBT is currently one of the world's most widely taken standardized tests.

Recent TOEFL Score Data

According to the most recent available ETS reports, the mean total score for all test-takers is 82, and the average sectional scores are 20.5 reading, 20.2 listening, 20.4 speaking, and 20.9 writing. As one would expect, average TOEFL performance improves by level of educational attainment, with graduate students receiving higher mean total scores (86) than undergraduate students (80) or high school students (72). Native speakers of European languages generally outscore other groups, and many European countries report average total scores of 90 or higher. The lowest mean TOEFL scores are associated with certain Asian and African countries.

Qualifying for TOEFL Waivers

In most cases, only international students who have completed several years of education at an institution that taught in English can be sure that they will be granted an exemption from the TOEFL. However, some institutions are flexible with respect to the ways in which English skills can be demonstrated. Undergraduate applicants, for example, may sometimes waive the TOEFL if they have received high scores on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT or the English section of the ACT. International students are advised to carefully review all relevant institutional and departmental TOEFL policies, which can be found on university websites.