10 min

Passing the TOEFL on the Second Try: Error Analysis

StudyFree mentor Lidiya Magdanova took the TOEFL test twice. Having failed to obtain the desired score on the first attempt, she decided to prepare better and try again.

Her second attempt was successful. Lydia’s score was good enough to get into the Queen Mary University of London on a Chevening scholarship. In this article, she analyzes what went wrong the first time, shares her preparation strategy and gives tips for those who are going to take the TOEFL.

My Reason for Taking the TOEFL

In 2018, I won the German Chancellor Fellowship for prospective leaders and moved to Berlin to implement my youth policy project. Then I decided to apply for a master's degree in the UK. To do that, I needed a language certificate to prove my English proficiency.

In the academic world, the most popular English tests are IELTS and TOEFL. The key difference between them is the variant of English. The TOEFL uses American English, while IELTS is based on British English.

It was my conscious decision to choose TOEFL, and there were several reasons for that. First, unlike IELTS, it is a fully computer-based test where you don't have to write anything by hand. I find it easier to type and edit text on the computer. With IELTS, the computer-based format is not always available.

Secondly, you do not communicate with the examiner in the TOEFL Speaking section. Instead, you dictate your answers to the microphone. Your response is recorded and then sent to a scoring center. This is a good option for those who tend to get nervous when talking to examiners.

Thirdly, I hear speakers in the IELTS Listening section can have different accents. In TOEFL, you always get the standard American accent.

When preparing for the TOEFL already, I realized the IELTS has its advantages too. For example, the Internet offers much more study material for IELTS as it is more common. Besides, I've been told that you have a better chance to get a high score in IELTS because often if the examiner is in two minds, they are likely to give a grade in your favor. In TOEFL, the grading system is designed so that you get exactly the score you deserve.

I registered for the TOEFL through the official website. One attempt costs $250. I had to wait about a week for the results.

My First Attempt

When I decided to take the test for the first time, I had a low level of English — about B1. I bought a TOEFL preparation course on YouTube, completed an intensive offline course, and studied with a tutor. It took me only two or three months to prepare.

The first time I took the TOEFL was before the pandemic, so I did it in a test center with 15-20 other students. Hearing them banging on their keyboards and recording their responses was very distracting.

I had trouble with all the sections then — Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. I wasn't confident about my results, especially in Writing and Reading. I had this general feeling that I hadn’t done a good job.

I scored 91 out of 120. With this score, I could be admitted to some universities that were not the top ones. I really wanted to get into one of the universities in London, though. The threshold score there generally starts at 100. I realized that my level of English back then was not enough to pass with such a good score.

I wasn’t frustrated about my failure. After all, getting 91 with a B1 is a great result. It was clear that I just needed more time, effort, and practice to improve my level and do more thorough preparation for the test.

Improving My Skills 

Soon, I went on maternity leave and moved to another apartment, so it took almost a year and a half for me to go for another try. Looking back, my advice is not to delay the second attempt, if possible. It would be more effective if you just go on with your preparation and try again in a couple of months.

I started actively preparing for my second attempt three months after I had a baby. Even though I didn’t have much free time and was sleep-deprived, I believed that there would be no better time to do that.

When you are working hard for an exam, there is nothing like the support of your family. On weekends, my husband would take care of the house and the baby as much as he could so that I had extra time to study. Without his help, I would not have been able to achieve my goal.

To get 90 scores or above, I needed to improve my English. Whenever I had a free minute, I listened to podcasts, watched videos and movies, etc.

Moreover, I studied with two tutors for three months. The first one helped me with the Speaking section. The second tutor specialized in TOEFL and practiced Writing with me. I also bought an additional preparation course from her.

Successful Second Attempt

This time, I decided to take the TOEFL Home Edition. I wanted complete silence to be able to focus and not be afraid of being interrupted by a doorbell or any other noise, so I took the test in my husband's office.

The results for Reading and Listening are now shown right after you finish the test. I found out that I scored 29 out of 30 for Listening and 28 out of 30 for Reading. In the previous time, my scores for those sections were 22 and 23 respectively. I was jumping for joy!

I waited a week for the total score. I was confident that my overall result would be above 110. However, when I received the scores for Writing and Speaking, I got surprised and upset. My score for Speaking was 22, which was even one point less than on my first attempt. A part of me had expected this: I spoke very little English in my everyday life because of the lockdown and maternity leave.

The most upsetting thing was the low score for the Writing section. This time, I put a lot of time and effort into preparing for it, so I expected a better result. I’m sure I had improved my writing skills since the first attempt and I did the tasks well. I even had the time to check my answers. However, the examiners gave me a score of 23 for Writing, which was the same result as a year and a half before. At first, I thought of requesting a rescore, but then I gave up this idea.

Even though I had expected to get a higher score, my second TOEFL attempt was still a success. I got a total of 103, which was good enough to get into the university I pursued.

I was awarded a UK government Chevening scholarship, and I am now studying in Management at the Queen Mary University of London business school.

My TOEFL Preparation Tips 

  1. The earlier, the better. Start preparing in advance and don't get any illusions about the speed of progress and comprehension, especially if your starting level is low. It's hard to leapfrog within a short period of time, such as a month, for example.
  2. Take advantage of other people's experience, knowledge, and expertise, even if you have to pay for them. This will make your preparation journey much shorter. When preparing for an exam, I aim for speed and quality, which are hard to achieve without well-qualified individual tutoring. This kind of help costs money.

So it’s up to you to decide whether you go slow on your own and don’t make the progress you want, or use the help of a good tutor or training course.

  1. Read in English whenever you have time. When I had no energy to get into an academic text, I just opened the Daily Mail to read the most popular news which was at least interesting. As a result, I got 28 out of 30 for Reading, although the texts were very difficult.
  2. Keep listening to materials in English. I listened to podcasts and TED talks when going for a walk with the baby even though I would rather chat with a friend. Setting the right priorities paid off: I got 29 out of 30 for Listening.
  3. Watch movies in English. Check out the Puzzle Movies app. I found it great for practicing listening comprehension and memorizing new words.
  4. Opt for the Home Edition. The home environment and complete silence make it much easier to focus.
  5. If possible, take the exam before major life changes. In my case, it was moving to another place and having a baby. Preparing for an exam is not easy. If you have other important areas to invest your energy into, the process will drag on significantly.
  6. Don't spend the day before the exam cramming for the test. Give your brain a rest. You need to get enough sleep and have a good meal before the test. Take a snack with you, such as a banana, nuts, and water. During the break, it's good to do a little exercise.

By Lidiya Magdanova