Breaking from the GMAT to Prepare for the TOEFL

Are you a non-native English speaker? Chances are you’ve spent the past months swimming in a sea of GMAT questions and now your gears have to shift to the TOEFL. Unless you are a TOEFL teacher yourself or you’re retaking the test, you probably have no opinion about TOEFL books. And unless you know are in a TOEFL class or have a friend who studied a lot for the test, you might not know how to choose a book.

Should you trust the amazon.com reviews? If people say the reading is too difficult, does that mean it’s actually good practice? Is it important to have a CD with computer practice tests? Is the Official TOEFL Guide the best just because it’s official? What is important in a book?

Well, The answers to those questions, in order: Only a little, rarely, yes, no, and it really depends. That last question is the trickiest one, and that’s what we’ll talk about here.

Learning About the Test

Some students really only need to learn about the format of the TOEFL and some test-taking strategies. If you have spoken English regularly (not just in a class) for many years, you probably fit in this category. If GMAT Verbal was a breeze, the TOEFL likely won’t be so bad.

To find out about the structure of the test, learn how hard the TOEFL is, and get practice taking it, there is no better resource than the official books from ETS. They give the best representation of the test.

But you might also want to learn more about test-taking strategy. For this, other resources become important. You want a book that has a lot of answers and explanations. Ideally, each reading and listening question should have a very long section of explanation. The wrong answers should be explained. Every speaking and writing task should have a few different sample answers and analyses for those samples.

There should be information on how to take good notes, how much time to spend reading each passage, what keywords are important to notice when listening, how much time you should spend speaking about examples, how to format your essays, and many other small topics, too. Cambridge, among other books, does this pretty well. You may have acquired a lot of this over this course of preparing for the GMAT. Use these skills–they’ll help.

For a student in this situation, grammar and vocabulary aren’t as important, so don’t worry if you don’t see many word lists or grammar exercises. Your TOEFL book might be very different from your other English textbooks, and that’s okay.

Improving Your English

Your TOEFL scores are a measurement of more than just your TOEFL practice. They show your total English experience. If you have only studied English in high school or college classes, never lived in an English-speaking country, and don’t have English speaking friends or family, then you might need to improve your English in general. Your GMAT experience helps here, but you’ll quickly learn it’s not exactly the same test of language as the TOEFL.

That means learning more than just the structure of the test and question strategies. It means using English as much as possible, improving your vocabulary, and correcting grammar mistakes. The most important of those three is using English. You need as much experience as possible in all skills (reading, listening, speaking, and writing), especially if you have not practiced speaking and writing essays in the past.

And no TOEFL book includes the type of natural practice you need to really get better. That improvement requires frequent conversation with native speakers. There is no better way to improve your speaking and listening than that.

But if you are in this group–students who are trying to make general English improvement over a long time and learn about the TOEFL–some books are definitely better than others. The Official Guide is not enough. It teaches you about the test, but doesn’t help improve your English very much.

A good book for this type of student would give a lot of reading practice, grammar lessons, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of vocabulary words with exercises, and more. I have, sadly, not yet found the perfect book for this. Just like I’m sure you’ve discovered with the GMAT books out there, there simply isn’t one that is perfect. But if you are looking at reviews on the internet in a store looking at books, look for those three pieces: reading, vocabulary, and grammar.

And here’s where you’ve really got to change your study habits from your GMAT prepartions: make sure you get that speaking and listening practice, too!

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