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Guide to Effective TOEFL and IELTS Preparation

Last updated on 23 Oct 2018

photo-1524646432175-d58115a8a854.jpeg Photo by Lonely Planet via Unsplash

By Sonia Azalia

Having trouble studying and preparing for TOEFL/IELTS?

If you're a foreign student about to enroll in an English-speaking university, there's no skipping these examinations.

We understand the pressure.

Especially how it builds up day by day, since it requires such complex and lengthy preparation.

But no fear—this article will give you a step by step guide to prepare for TOEFL/IELTS effectively with in-depth explanations surrounding the test format and helpful studying techniques.

Plus, we include advises from awardees who have done the tests themselves!

Steps to Prepare for the Test

Step 1: Set your target score

Remember that TOEFL and IELTS are not a pass or fail exam, but standardized tests to measure your ability to use and understand the English language as it's read, written, heard and spoken in the university classroom and the real world.

Try to judge your current English proficiency;

Are you a basic?

Intermediate?

Advanced enough to understand common academic text?

Advanced enough to interact with local speakers and understand their slangs?

Then think about the kind of universities you're aiming for. You've probably made a good list already. Every university has their own TOEFL and IELTS score requirements, so how high a student's score have to be depends on the university they choose to enrol in.

You can start setting your score target this way. Research a bit on your chosen universities and find out the minimum TOEFL and IELTS score each regulates. This way, you have a basis on how broad and how intense your studies need to be on the long run.

Of course, a desirable score is a score that exceeds the minimum—some universities will offer special benefits or opportunities for students with extra points, such as a teaching assistantship and on-campus work opportunities.

"I myself took the test three times. I failed the first one, the second one didn't meet my expectations, then it was on the third test I got the score I wanted. What I mean is that because the higher the IELTS score the better it’ll look for the application." —Affan Giffari, Law and Technology Masters Graduate of Tilburg University. (Read his full story here)

Also, not all universities specify the minimum TOEFL and IELTS score, so you may need to have a score that's in a certain range, depending on the university's ranking (upper, mid, or average-ranking). In this case, you can go through TOEFL and IELTS own range of scores, see what level each range represents, and set your target score to the one that standardizes with with your chosen university's ranking.

A good TOEFL score is identified by the level of performance achieved. Each test section are broken down into three to four score range levels:

  1. Reading and Listening: High (30-22), Intermediate (21-15), Low (14-0)
  2. Speaking: Good (30-26), Fair (25-18), Limited (17-10), Weak (9-0)
  3. Writing: Good (30-24), Fair (23-17), Limited (16-1)

As for IELTS, the overall score ranges between 1-9, where each scale corresponds to specified competencies in English:

1 = Non-user, 5 = Modest User, 7 = Good User, 9 = Expert User.

In conclusion, a good TOEFL and IELTS score depends on many things. If you're aiming for upper-ranking universities, student benefits, or your majors requires you to be actively communicative, then you need to aim the highest score possible. If you're aiming for mid to average-ranking universities, or your chosen major doesn't emphasize excellent English skills, then average scores might be enough.

Step 2: Gather all essential studying materials

A good preparation makes all the difference—and a good preparation requires the right studying materials.

If you google "studying materials for TOEFL/IELTS" or encounter the educational books section of a bookstore, you'll be flooded with a lot of references.

So, how to know which ones you truly need?

In essence, students need to be equipped with preparation books and practice tests. You can start with those created by some of the world's leading English program specialists:

  • Kaplan TOEFL iBT Premier 2016-2017 with 4 Practice Tests
  • ETS Official Guide to the TOEFL Test, Fourth Edition
  • Kaplan TOEFL Vocabulary Prep
  • Barron's TOEFL iBT with Audio CDs and CD-ROM
  • Barron's TOEFL iBT Superpack, 2nd Edition
  • Writing for the TOEFL iBT with MP3 CD, 5th Edition
  • Essential Words for the TOEFL
  • British Council How to Prepare for IELTS
  • Official IELTS Practice Materials Volume 1 & 2
  • Top Tips for IELTS Academic
  • Vocabulary for IELTS

There also many TOEFL and IELTS study materials available online that you can use besides (or better yet, alongside) books. Sites such as 4tests and Exam English offers practice tests for free. YouTube videos are also a popular choice.

"When I was preparing for the IELTS, I didn't join a course. I learned from YouTube because it has various channels that gives out lessons on how to pass the TOEFL or IELTS; from grammar, vocabulary, how to write, read, and many more topics." —Abdul Rahman Ismail, MS Engineering/Industrial Management Graduate of Uppsala University. (Read his full story here)

If you plan to self-study, you'll need studying materials that are more interactive. Online courses should be considered. We suggest affordable, effective and enjoyable online courses like Magoosh, where you will not only be given practice tests, but video lessons and online email support.

Step 3: Make a studying plan

With all the materials you need to go through, no doubt it will stress and overwhelm you.

However, by having a studying plan, you are able to have all your studying time broken down into tidbits and organized in a schedule you can follow up.

There is no "correct" or "one-size-fits-all" study plan. When creating your personalized studying plan, you should ask yourself and analyze: Which subjects do I need to prioritize? How many free hours are available?

When you're studying for TOEFL and/or IELTS, it's best to classify the time between studying each skill, doing the practice test and going over the answers of your practice test. Make a monthly or weekly to-do-list or make a mark in your calendar. Write in detail the subjects you want to study or tasks you want to work on and the time duration for each subject and task.

As an example, this study guide can help you set the flow of your studying schedule until the exam day.

Step 4: Familiarize yourself with the test format

Once you've built a good foundation on all four skills—reading comprehension, academic level vocabulary, standard grammar—the next crucial step is to familiarize yourself with the test format.

Your TOEFL and IELTS studies will be a lot simpler and effective once you get the idea of the content of the test, the question and task types of each section, and also their rules and regulations.

The best way to do this is by regularly taking the practice test.

TOEFL takes about four hours long. The test is done orderly: Reading (36-70 questions, 60-100 minutes), listening (34-51 questions, 60-90 minutes), speaking (6 tasks. 20 minutes), and writing (2 tasks, 50 minutes).

IELTS test takes about two hours and 45 minutes long. The listening test consists of 40 questions (30 minutes), reading 40 questions (60 minutes), and writing 2 tasks (60 minutes). These three tests are done in one sitting. The speaking tests, consisting of three parts (11-14 minutes), may be on the same day or up to seven days before or after the other tests.

"Besides the weekends, after coming home from work I would do the exercises from the IELTS practice book. Once I also joined weekend classes for IELTS preparation, but for me, not that I'm discrediting, it didn't help much. For me, practices help us more." —Affan Giffari, Law and Technology Masters Graduate of Tilburg University. (Read his full story here)

"Make a commitment to study an hour every day then test yourself with pratice tests, this is very important. Try to understand the pattern of the questions.” — Christine Lora Egaratri, Master of Arts (Development Studies) Gradute of Erasmus University Rotterdam. (Read her full story here)

Another important thing to notice is that even though both tests the four language skills, TOEFL specifically spans around academic topics, while IELTS gives more of a real-world feel. Expect in TOEFL predominantly multiple choice questions, university lectures or conversations in a campus, and more analytical thinking — while in IELTS more short essay and gap-filling tasks, English spoken in a range of different accents, and broader comprehension skills.

Step 5: Join a Course or Hire an Expert

The more you take practice tests, the more you'll able to identify your weak spots. In this case, for a faster and more effective progress, it's best to have a tutor alongside your studying journey.

You can join a TOEFL/IELTS course or work with a professional tutor in each of those fields. It's better to have tutors that are both English experts and are familiar with the test form rather than just hiring an English expert.

Generally, it's hard for self-learners to know where they stand: whether progress has been made, whether there's an unnoticed mistake committed over and over, or whether they are already well prepared for the exam. By hiring an expert tutor or teacher, you have someone alongside you with the eyes to identify the gaps in your learning process, pinpoint your weaknesses and give you the right guidance to hone each skill and tackle every section of the test.

Tips on Mastering the Four Language Skills

On Reading

By having good a reading comprehension, even as a start, the three other skills will also be easier to master.

Gather as much English-written materials as you can: Academic books, novels, long articles, blog posts and so on. Be open to texts with different narrative styles, level of difficulty and subjects. The more diverse your reading materials are, the more you are able to familiarize yourself with different grammaric structures and the ways they are applied.

Throughout the learning process, have a dictionary and thesaurus in hand. Every time you encounter words or phrases you don't understand in a text, don't skip them. Circle or take notes of those words and look up for their meaning.

On Listening

To improve your listening skills, you have to make general understanding of what is being talked about your goal. The mistake most language learners make is trying to understand every single uttered word. A good listening skill is actually more about having the ability to keep up with the conversation and comprehend the main idea.

You can practice with your favorite podcasts, documentaries, and even films. A great tip is to listen without reading the transcript and subtitles.

"Often listen and read English news such as those from BBC London. I find BBC London very interesting. For a few months after coming home from work, before going to bed, I would always listen to BBC London radio. Then, during our free time try to record our own voices with a mobile phone and analyze for pronunciation or grammatical errors." — Abdul Rahman Ismail, MS Engineering/Industrial Management Graduate of Uppsala University. (Read his full story here)

"Try to learn from YouTube videos. From YouTube videos we can learn accurate pronunciations, and apply them ourselves. This is more efficient and practical because it can be done anywhere.”—Affan Giffari, Law and Technology Masters Graduate of Tilburg University. (Read his full story here)

A good listening skill is also about understanding English vocabulary spoken in different pronunciation styles. This is also how you'll be tested when taking IELTS.

Challenge yourself to listen to English-spoken audios in multiple dialects. In the listening section of IELTS you'll be hearing English spoken in 10 accents: Northern British, Southern British, Scottish, Welsh, Northern US, Southern US, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi and South African.

On Writing

In writing, you are challenged in the ability to interpret the main points of a text and express personal opinions on a specific subject in accurate use of written English. This includes the use of text symbols, capitalization and spelling.

You can start by using your reading and listening materials. Write down your opinions towards what is being talked about, summarize it in a few good paragraphs of five to six sentences.

The easiest way to improve your writing is to find examples of text and copy them. As you copy down sentence after sentence, you are internalizing sentence structures and word order—making them gradually second nature.

On Speaking

You might've mastered the fine points of English grammar but is still at a loss when it comes to actually having a conversation in English. This is because you're required to be more spontaneous than you need to be compared to the other three skills.

The only way around it is to practice, practice, practice.

This goes the same with improving pronunciations. Have conversations with native speakers or an acquaintance with excellent English skills. Talk about your hobbies, interests, every day life, current events, dreams and aspirations.

Constantly think in English

Above all, the most important thing about studying a language is...

Persistent practice.

"In learning English, even though it's not IELTS, if we study consistently, we’ll be able to get use to it quicker. If we kept taking long pauses between studies we’d forgot (what we’ve learned last time)." — Christine Lora Egaratri, Master of Arts (Development Studies) Gradute of Erasmus University Rotterdam. (Read her full story here)

Thinking in English at all times can be a challenging yet fun way to quickly improve all those four skills. This way, you'll start developing the ability to think faster. Your mind will less spend time figuring out the meaning of a sentence or figuring out what grammar structure fits best for the sentence or what tense you should use. The right words will come out more naturally without you needing to be conscious about it.

As you use English day-to-day, going back to your studies will be easier to follow up.

And in time, you'll see yourself ready to tackle the TOEFL or IELTS test.

Good luck!