The TOEFL Experience

English is not my first language, but after attending English-speaking schools since I was eight years old, I’ll admit that I’m the most comfortable speaking English rather than my mother tongue of Spanish. I feel most eloquent and coherent, especially in writing, when I express myself using English words. That’s why when I found out I was going to need to take an English exam to get into foreign universities and prove that I’m fluent in the language, I didn’t even bother to study for it.

I chose to take the TOEFL test for two reasons. The first, it was the only English exam available in Nicaragua. The second, I had heard it was incredibly easy for people who were accustomed to the language. So I went into the facility on a sunny Saturday morning on the 13th of April to take the exam, with my only preparation being knowledge on the general format of the test and what I knew of the language in my brain.

When it was over, I got out of the facility and proceeded to enjoy my Semana Santa for the rest of the week. I got my results back shortly after (much quicker than the SAT or AP scores) and I received a pretty good score I was satisfied with. I can assure anyone reading this and fully understanding my words that it is not an overly complex exam to get through – it’s actually quite simple.

When you go into the facility (I took it at LIA, but there are other locations available) you are given a legal document to sign by the proctor. Then you go into the room and give the proctor your ID so they can sign you in. Then they take a picture of you and you have to read a legal statement out loud confirming that you are taking the exam as yourself and whatnot. You then take a seat, read the instructions, and begin the exam. Everybody starts at different times, so you go at your own pace in a way (but you still have a time limit). You’re also given scratch paper and a pencil, and you have to put away all your personal belongings.

There are a total of four sections to the TOEFL: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. They’re set up in that exact order and they’re pretty self explanatory. In the reading, you are given three to four academic passages and asked to answer multiple choice questions on each one (similar to the SAT Reading section). In addition to this, you are given points to summarize at the end of each passage. They give you bullet points of main ideas of the text and you have to decide which are the most relevant. This is the part which I had the most issues with. The texts are academic, some of which I had a very vague and underdeveloped idea of what they were talking about. Despite this, and despite the sometimes specialized terminology that is used, the passages are not hard to understand. It’s also helpful if you’re an avid or fast reader.

For the second part, you are given some headphones with a microphone attached to them to start the listening section. You are given audios of lectures, discussions, and conversations to interpret. It’s worth noting that when it comes to the listening and speaking section, it’s heavily focused on campus experiences and academic settings. So you listen to the clips and answer multiple choice questions about it. I would recommend using the scratch paper at this point to jot down what the audios are speaking of. That being said, I completely overdid it and wrote way too many notes on this section, because the questions are focused on testing your understanding and comprehension rather than memorization specific details.

By the end of this section I had a ten minute break. I want to reiterate that you start at a different time from other people, so it’s up to you to make sure you don’t go over time if you want to leave the room for the break. Once you come back, the third section consists of speaking. You are given both texts and audio clips and asked to give a spoken response to what you read or heard. They mostly ask you about your opinion on academic situations. The hardest part of this is that you’re given a set amount of time and you can’t redo it, so you have to speak carefully. You are given about 15 seconds to plan your response and 45 to actually speak (although time may vary so don’t quote me on that). This is also the shortest section.

Next, you are given two tasks for the written part. The first, you read an article and listen to a lecture on a topic and you write a response by synthesizing and defending a position on the matter. The second, you are given a prompt where you write a response with your opinion on the issue and defend yourself. You aren’t given a word limit or a maximum but they do give you a number you should strive for; they also have tools that let you see how many words you’ve written. I’m prone to writing a lot, and I like writing essays, so this part was enjoyable for me. I was the second one to finish the whole assessment due to the mere time I spent on the writing portion. But in the end, I believe it was worth it.

So where does this leave us? I’m going to break this conclusion into the pros and cons of the test and testing conditions. When it comes to the website, it’s sub par. I don’t know when it was the last time they updated it, but it feels more like a nuisance and less like a tool that is supposed to help with understanding the test format. Especially when comparing it to the College Board website for the SAT.

In terms of testing conditions, the fact that everyone started at a different time meant that while I was still in the listening section, some people had started the speaking section. We were all in the same computer lab, and I could hear what they were saying over my headphones. I could only imagine how annoying it must’ve been to hear other people speaking during the reading section. It was distracting, to say the least.

Another thing is that I wasn’t sure how to use certain keyboard shortcuts (granted I could’ve asked the proctor so it’s my fault more than anything) so I ended up not using any apostrophes for the writing section and consequently avoiding word contractions all together. My last complaint is that the test is only valid for two years, which I think is important to know before deciding when to take it.

Moving on to the positives. The test is quite straightforward because it tests your comprehension rather than your analysis abilities. You are asked to interpret information and synthesize it rather that provide a critique of it. On the actual test itself, I found it incredibly helpful that I could see the time on the screen or hide it if I wanted to. However, I kept it on because I like to see how much time I have left. Another benefit is that it’s widely recognized by most English speaking universities, including those in the US and in Europe. Doing college research, I found that a lot of colleges accept this test, which is a definite bonus since most of us take these types of exams for university anyway. Lastly, the TOEFL is the only English speaking test available in Nicaragua, so it’s not like you have much choice in the matter anyway unless you travel. The IELTS, another popular English test that’s mostly used to apply for British universities, is not offered in here.

Overall, I would recommend anyone living here to take advantage of the accessibility and take the TOEFL. If you’ve grown up in an English speaking school, it won’t be very hard to get through and you’ll probably get a solid score – even without much practice. I would also say that, unless you’re planning to take a gap year, it’s best to take it your junior year of high school so you don’t have to worry about it on your last year when you’re applying for universities. So go ahead and register for the TOEFL. Good luck and don’t stress out!

Categories: Editorial

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