The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

Read our guide to the TOEFL test including fees, exam structure and how to prepare.

TOEFL exam

In order to successfully enrol with a university abroad, you will need to demonstrate that you have the sufficient English language skills to study on that course and keep up with the course material. This proficiency in the English language can be tested by one of several English tests, though two are the most prominent.

While there is also IELTS, here we will take a look at the TOEFL test...


What is TOEFL?

TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and is one of the two most popular standardised English proficiency tests in the world. As well as a means to proceed on to academic study, TOEFL can also be used when applying for employment with a company in an English-speaking country. When applying to a university, you will need to find out what TOEFL score they require and include this as part of your application to them once you have your TOEFL result.

TOEFL is administered by ETS and is recognised in more than 130 countries around the world. In fact the ETS site states that ‘4 out of 5 admissions officers surveyed said that they would accept TOEFL’. However we recommend always confirming with the institution you are applying to as to which test they would prefer.

The test is available in either paper-based (PBT) or internet-based (iBT) forms.

Check to see if an institution you’re interested in accepts TOEFL

One of the main differences between TOEFL and IELTS is that TOEFL was originally conceived for those seeking study in America; hence the language in the TOEFL test is more closely reflective of American English.


How do I register for a TOEFL test?

You will need to check that the university you’re interested in accepts TOEFL. If they do, you can find the closest TOEFL test centre to you and book a test. You can register online through the official TOEFL website.


Sitting the TOEFL exam

You can expect the TOEFL exam to be similar to a school exam in how you should conduct yourself. You should bring the following with you to the test centre on test day:

  • Registration Number
  • Form of identification (e.g. passport)
  • Clear water bottle
  • Pen (more than one)

Read more about what you should bring on test day, including further info about the above documents you will need.


Exam Structure


The reading section is between 60-80 mins long. It requires candidates to answer 36-56 questions about 3-4 passages of text. These will be multiple choice questions. The texts will be academic in nature and similar to those you can expect to come across at degree level study. It does not matter what subject you hope to study, as the texts in the reading section of the TOEFL test won’t be subject-specific and therefore will not require any specialist knowledge.



The listening section is 60-90 mins long. It requires candidates to listen to 4-6 academic lectures and 2-3 conversations, and then answer questions about what the content of what you have just heard. The speakers on the audio will be very natural in tone. Here is a sample of what you might be asked to listen to and ask questions about.



The writing section lasts 50 mins. You will be asked to write responses to 2 writing tasks: an integrated writing task and an independent writing task.

 The integrated writing task is 20 mins long and is a written response to a short passage and lecture you’ll be asked to read/listen to. For example in this writing task, candidates are called on to write about how the points in the passage they have read conflict with those outlined in the audio they have listened to.

Meanwhile, the independent writing task is 30 mins long and requires you to plan and write an essay in response to a given topic. The question will be quite open-ended in nature, to allow you to demonstrate your English skills as fully as possible. An example of the kind of question you might have is:

‘Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “Always telling the truth is the most important consideration in any relationship.” Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.’



The speaking section takes just 20 mins to complete but can sometimes be the hardest as candidates are put on the spot with not as much time to think about their response. However you only have to speak for about 45 secs in response to each question so you don’t need to prepare something in advance. You should speak to appear “off-the-cuff” and spontaneous with appropriate vocabulary (i.e. without unnecessary, convoluted words). The first 2 questions will be about a familiar topic, while the rest will be about a short reading, lecture or conversation.


How much is the TOEFL test?

The cost of a TOEFL test will depend on the location of the test centre. You can expect to pay between US$160-US$250. Keep in mind that the paper-based test is usually cheaper than the internet-based version. Find out how much a TOEFL test is near you.


How is a TOEFL exam scored?

For each section of the TOEFL exam, candidates receive a score out of 30. In addition these four individual scores, you will also receive an overall score of 120. Candidates also receive performance feedback, outlining what you can do.



Not sure if TOEFL is the test for you? Have you considered IELTSRead our guide comparing the two tests


Now that you know what the IELTS test is all about, why not start browsing undergraduatepostgraduatevocational or doctorate courses abroad? 


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About Author

TOEFL exam

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.

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