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Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) – a Guide for Postgraduates

Written by Ben Taylor

The TOEFL is one of the world’s most popular English language tests for prospective Masters students, having been taken by around 35 million people over its 50-year history. Although the TOEFL’s origins are in America – and it’s perhaps the most widely accepted English proficiency test in North America – it’s recognised by universities and education providers across the world.

This page covers essential information on the TOEFL, including exam format, grades and typical fees.

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What is the TOEFL?

First developed in 1964, the TOEFL is currently administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS), an American organisation based in Princeton, New Jersey.

The exam comes in two formats: the TOEFL internet-based test (iBT) and the TOEFL paper-delivered test. The paper-delivered version is not to be confused with the paper-based test (PBT), which is no longer administered.

The TOEFL iBT is the most common format of the test, and is taken by around 97% of TOEFL users. It’s delivered via computers at thousands of authorised TOEFL centres across the world.

By contrast, the paper-delivered TOEFL is only available in locations where internet access isn’t widely available. The content of the test is based on the iBT – the only thing that differs is the way the exam is taken, and the paper-delivered version will have the same validity. You can see which type of test is delivered in your country by checking the ETS website.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
Length of test 3 hours
Number of students 35 million test takers to date
Grade scale 0-120
Test locations More than 4,500 test centres in over 165 countries
Typical cost USD $200
Established 1964

How does the TOEFL work?

Like most other English language tests, the TOEFL measures your skills in listening, reading, writing and speaking. Although there are four different sections to the exam, they take an integrated approach, which means you could be tested on more than one skill during a single exercise. This method is one of the things that sets the TOEFL apart from IELTS.

The TOEFL takes place over the course of a 180-minute session (three hours):

  • Reading – This section involves answering questions about three or four passages from academic texts. It should take between 54 and 72 minutes.
  • Listening – You’ll listen to audio recordings from several different settings (lectures and discussions mainly) and answer questions about their content. Most voices are North American, but you can expect to hear other kinds of English accent too. This section takes between 41 and 57 minutes.
  • Speaking – Talking into a computer mic, you’ll express your thoughts on a set topic. You’ll also answer questions based on the reading and listening papers (an example of the TOEFL’s integrated approach). This tasks usually takes 17 minutes.
  • Writing – You’ll be given 50 minutes to write two essay responses based on the reading and listening tasks and asked to demonstrate your ability to express an opinion in writing.

You’ll also take a 10-minute break between the listening and speaking sections, which makes the above exam structure seem slightly less daunting!

The reading and listening parts of the TOEFL are comprised of multiple choice questions.

Each section of the TOEFL is marked out of 30, and the test as a whole is given a cumulative grade of up to 120.

You’ll be able to view your TOEFL iBT results online approximately 10 days after taking the test. If you took the paper-delivered version of the test, ETS will post your score to you and up to four institutions around five weeks after taking the exam.

What TOEFL grade do I need?

English language requirements differ from university to university and from programme to programme. As a general rule, you should expect to have achieved 90 overall with a minimum of 20 for each component of the TOEFL.

Some postgraduate programmes that require a high degree of literacy – English Literature, for example – will have stricter English language requirements, and you might need a score of at least 100. Other courses, meanwhile, will accept an overall score of 80.

In any case, it’s best to confirm with your prospective institution that you meet their requirements before beginning your application.

Who recognises the TOEFL?

The TOEFL is one of the most widely accepted English language tests in the world. It’s recognised by over 10,000 universities, colleges and education providers across more than 130 different countries.

Although the TOEFL is an American exam, it’s accepted by many institutions from the rest of the English-speaking world, including British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand institutions.

Where and when can I take the TOEFL?

There’s a well-established and wide network of authorised test centres across the world where you can take the TOEFL. There are over 4,500 locations in more than 165 countries – view the full list of TOEFL centres here. It’s offered more than 50 times a year at these locations.

You can take the TOEFL as many times as you’d like, but you can only take it once in any 12-day period.

Online TOEFL

ETS introduced a fully online version of its language exam in response to the coronavirus pandemic, known as the TOEFL iBT Home Edition. This test is available worldwide, with the exception of mainland China and Iran, and can be taken 24 hours a day, four days a week. Find out more about the TOEFL iBT Home Edition.

How much does the TOEFL cost?

The TOEFL registration fee varies country by country, but you should expect to pay between USD $180 and USD $200.

Other English language tests

Want to know more about the alternatives to the TOEFL? Our guide to English language tests covers IELTS, Cambridge Assessment English exams and PTE Academic.

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Last updated: 22 November 2022