Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My TOEFL experience.

After falling asleep face-first into one of the many library books I was trying to read about blogging, I was awoken by the ding! of an incoming e-mail from ETS. I'd been waiting all day for my TOEFL results. It wasn't that I actually needed a stellar score, I had to take TOEFL just to meet the minimum requirement of 80 out of 120 to apply for grad school - but I kinda wanted to see how I would fare in a standardized American English proficiency test. Hahaha. Basically, I'm kiasu lah...

My scores -
Reading: 29/30
Listening: 30/30
Speaking: 29/30
Writing: 29/30

Total: 117/120

Yay! :) I'm pretty happy with that.

I've been waiting to get my results so that I could blog about TOEFL - just in case someone wanted to take the test but was nervous or wanted to read a test taker's blog post about it. Lol, I like to search for what people have blogged about for a test or school or program or restaurant before I go try it. xD

To begin with, there are 2 immensely popular English proficiency tests: TOEFL and IELTS. After doing my homework on both tests, I gotta say that they're pretty much the same thing - sure, with a few technical differences here and there, but both test your command of the English language and how well you take the exam. (An English exam is, more than anything else, still an exam.) The big difference is the Speaking section - in IELTS, the Speaking section is tested on the same or separate day, with a human examiner asking you questions, so it's far more conversational; but in TOEFL, it's all computerized, with 15-20 second prep time per question and 45-60 seconds for you to respond into the microphone on your headset.

I'm more comfortable talking with another person than to a computer screen, so I'd say IELTS is easier in this section. The Speaking section in TOEFL is usually the part that test takers are the most frightened of. But if you're used to talking to computer screens or to yourself - like making YouTube videos, FaceTime, Skype, or even using Ventrilo or TeamSpeak for your gaming communication, TOEFL Speaking section would be pretty familiar to you. :) Either way, though, practice makes perfect.

TOEFL Test Prep
If English is truly not your first language, and you're not fluent in it, then you're going to need a few months to master the exam. Practice, practice, and practice - and you'll be able to hit the minimum score you need! Every section and every question has a particular technique to approach it with, so even if the language doesn't roll right off your tongue and you're not really comfortable with it, that doesn't mean you can't get a good score on the test.

However, if English is actually your first language and you're in a situation like myself where you have to take the test because your country's national language is something else, I don't think TOEFL prep is anywhere at all as hard as for the GRE. Anywhere from 1-4 weeks is probably all you need for a decent score, you just have to be honest with yourself about where you stand. :)

For me, the first thing I did was map out the format of the test. Having taken the GRE, I had a rough idea of what an ETS American standardized exam was all about - I knew I would need the official ETS guide, one decent test prep book, practice questions, and sample answers. Test prep is absurdly costly in Malaysia - like all books here are (-.-") so if you can get an e-book or borrow books from your friends, that's good enough. Like with the GRE, I used the ETS Official TOEFL Guide, ETS official practice test software (TOEFL Sample Question Launcher), TOEFL iBT Sampler (on your order page of the ETS website), and a 2008 edition of the Princeton Review test prep book.

I liked Princeton Review's easy-reading style for the GRE, so I just stuck to it for TOEFL as well. There are tons of other test prep books that the many Amazon reviews I read praised, like Longman and Kaplan, but I was kinda lazy to familiarize myself with a whole new format. Haha. :P Another thing I did was look up the differences between American and British spelling, and made sure I rewired my brain to American spelling before test day. When in Rome, do as Romans do, right? :D

Stage Fright
My least favorite part of test prep was practicing the Speaking section. I was a nervous wreck in all my Speaking practices... and they were just practices! The first few times when I gave myself a question to respond to, I would have these long, horrible silent pauses where I blanked out... and I knew that if that happened during the test, I was a goner. ;( And I had to practice to respond in an organized manner within 45 seconds or so. I'm sure that for most of us, it's hard to organize our thoughts in our head under exam conditions, with so little time. After stressing about this for a bit, I figured out a solution: prepare answer templates. I split 1 scratch paper into 6 columns and wrote this down 5 times:
  • Intro
  • Point 1: (write 1 word during test)
    • Detail
  • Point 2: (write 1 word during test)
    • Detail
  • Conclusion

With the fixed "IPPC" template on my scratch paper, I just had to fill in a word or two for the two main points during prep time. During response time, I simply held the paper up and talked according to the format - moving along smoothly from each part of my answer to the next. The only time my IPPC template varied was for 1 of the questions, where you have to recommend one of two solutions the audio passage and reading passage talked about. For that question, my template was:
  • Problem
  • 2 Solutions
  • My choice
  • Why 1
  • Why 2
Having these 6 templates made my life so much easier during the 6 questions in the Speaking section. I could hear some other test takers struggling so much, their responses punctured with long "umm....."s and very awkward long silences. It was like they were blanking out and having stage fright, and I could fully understand because I felt the same way during my Speaking practices as well... that's why the templates are so awesome! :)

The Testing Center
While I took my GRE at the Sheraton Imperial in KL and I loved that test center, TOEFL was offered at a much more convenient location - Centrepoint, Bandar Utama. I'd read about how this test center wasn't that good (for example, no lockers - the Sheraton test center had nice lockers) and was worried about technical difficulties, but I went to Iverson Associates anyway.

It was stated on our registration papers that reporting time was 8.15am, and the test was supposed to start at 8.45am. But the Iverson staff was obviously following "Malaysian time", because all the test takers were waiting at the benches in front of the center (left picture below) for a good half an hour before the staff even opened the doors and took out registration forms for us to fill in. It was 8.40am. After everyone filled in the forms (and you have to copy a passage word-for-word promising you won't reveal the questions to people outside, bla bla bla), it was past 8.45am when the staff finally led us into Iverson.

I have a horrible sense of direction, so when the staff led us through the zig-zag path past a bunch of identical-looking doors and identical-looking corners, I tried to remember landmarks so I could go to the bathroom during the 10-minute break. (Of course, I failed, and I had to ask for help to find my way back to the testing room later on. LOL.)

When we entered the testing room (which was basically a classroom, and everyone sat next to everyone with 1 empty computer between 2 people), we couldn't even begin our test yet. -.- The staff had to register each of us, one by one, to a computer, and snap a photo of each of us. One lady did all this, for about 20 test takers. After she was done with all of us, she then had to go to one computer at a time to key in her admin password to activate our test. -.- Omg. Inefficiency ttm.

When she reached my computer, she pulled the mouse towards her so that she could click on the box to type in her password - and she adjusted the screen slightly towards her so she could see where to click... and my screen went blank. -.- She gasped in horror, which horrified me even more. Then, she jiggled my monitor a little and it came back to life. Wth. -.- There was also no way to test if my earphones or microphone was working, until the test started. The guy two seats away from me realized his headset wasn't working, and the staff had to look for another headset and replace it. -.- Can't they check this kinda stuff before the exam? People are, like, already so nervous and pressed for time... and the testing center is so inefficient (and slow and not punctual) that they add extra stress with technical problems.

This is where the Sheraton Imperial test center really showed Iverson up - the staff at the Sheraton center were friendly, punctual, pleasant, and each test taker has an individual cubicle with extended cubicle walls so you don't really hear or see other test takers. Iverson Associates in Centrepoint - unfriendly staff, not punctual, just a classroom where you can actually see the answers of other test takers if you just look, and everyone can hear everyone during the Speaking section. A sea of nervous voices!

The Actual Test
I started my test earlier than 90% of the other test takers because she keyed in her password in my computer already (she went front left to right through the room), so I finished my Reading and Listening sections pretty fast. People always warn TOEFL test takers about how exhausting a 4-hour exam is, and I'd already experienced a long, exhausting exam when I took the GRE.

I thought the Reading section was a little tiring, but you don't go through 4 years of undergraduate study without reading long, boring academic articles - so the Reading section was basically like that. I have to admit that if I were younger, maybe just out of high school, the TOEFL would be intensely difficult because it would be something totally new and different (compared to Malaysian high school material).

The Listening section was definitely the easiest for me. I'm a vigorous note-taker - during lectures, meetings, seminars - and I have my own note-taking system that works for me. It consists of crawling spider-legged mind maps, and looks kinda messy. Hahaha. But all I had to do during the Listening section was take notes, which helped me to find the answers as well as not fall asleep during the audio passages. All the answers were directly or indirectly stated in the audio passages.

After the first two sections, there was a compulsory 10-minute break. I went to the bathroom and then couldn't find my way back (ha, ha) so another staff member pointed me in the right direction. When my break ended, most people hadn't even started their 10-minute break yet. So after the lady keyed in her password into my computer (again!), I got to do my Speaking section earlier than everyone else except this Eurasian guy with an Australian accent. He spoke really loudly, so I actually waited for him to finish recording before I clicked "Next"... I knew I wouldn't be able to concentrate on my stuff with his Aussie slang booming throughout the room.

So there were 6 questions in the Speaking section. As I mentioned earlier in this blog post, working with templates helped me steady my nerves and respond in an organized manner. However, for the first Speaking question, I made a mistake and forgot to look at the timer countdown during my 45-second response time. When it beeped and said "Your response time has now ended" while I was in the middle of a sentence, I went, "Oh shet" and hoped nobody heard me. :/ For the next question onwards, I made it a point to look at the timer countdown!

Now, I'm really glad I did my Speaking section earlier than most people, because when the rest of the test takers started recording their responses... there was a cacophony of voices that was extremely hard to ignore. I just remember thinking, "Wow... I'm glad I finished my 6 questions already!" It would've been so hard to concentrate on my own response otherwise.

The last section was the Writing section, which was basically a watered-down version of the GRE's Analytical Writing section. I'd studied the format Princeton Review recommended for each essay, and read dozens of sample essays, so I wasn't too worried. All I had to do was write 2 short essays, and I kinda love writing. :) I finished my whole TOEFL in a little over 3 hours, so it wasn't as exhausting as I expected it to be. I still passed out on the bed when I went home, though. Lol!

Soooo... that was my whole TOEFL experience. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or drop me an e-mail! I hope my very long blog post has helped someone. Lol.


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Wan said...

Hope u can help me :)
About the TOEFL test..
Did u take any classes? attend like workshop or programme?
or just the test?
may i know the fee for that test :)

Sha-Lene said...

Hi Wan :)

I didn't take any classes or workshops, I studied on my own using online resources and the free ETS software that comes with registering for the test. As for the fee for the test, I think it changes every now and then - I'm not sure what it is now, but it should be about RM500-600. You can find out the exact price by calling up any TOEFL test center here, too.


How to pass the TOEFL exam, tips to prepare

• One of the first steps we must take to pass the TOEFL is to find a specialized teacher, who knows the operation of the test and of course, with whom we learn English in a practical way. In our academy we specialize in specific TOEFL courses in Madrid.
• As you can imagine, knowing the schematic of the exam is important, however there are students who are not clear, or prepare the exam for free without taking into account the specifications of the test. Do not forget that to pass the TOEFL it is essential to know the exam model and its parts. In the following link you will find information on the model TOEFL IBT.
• Do not forget to set goals and schedules. Preparing an exam is a responsibility, and as such it is necessary to establish schedules and routines that help us to study, so that we can memorize what we will need to get the degree.
• The test exams are always useful, especially to know the test. If you are going to attend a specialized academy like ours, you will have the opportunity to take exams or mock exams with which you can measure your level. Once you take the official exam you will have had enough time to know its structure.
• Although you have attended many classes and you are confident, one of the essential conditions to pass the TOEFL is to be safe but without taking anything for granted. It is true that you must perform the safe and secure examination of your knowledge, however you should keep in mind that not all exams are equal in content.
• Do not stop practicing. Both speaking and listening can be exercised outside the class schedule, do not forget to learn and perform exercises that focus especially on these two parts.
• And finally, a tip that you must follow at all times, relax. When you are doing the test try to concentrate and do not get nervous at any time.
Here are our tips on how to pass the TOEFL test. If you want to know more about this official exam, contact our academy.