Jane Birkenhead, October 10 2022

Who to Trust for TOEFL Preparation Advice

There’s a lot of advice available about how to prepare for the TOEFL exam, and it can be over-whelming. There are hundreds of YouTube channels, groups and posts to wade through and that's before you even consider preparation books and practice tests. 

You've probably been told many times to be careful about using this advice. But how can you sort out the good from the bad when you're stressed, have no time and just want to get through the exam as quickly as possible?

When I first published this information in one of my newsletters, I divided the categories into Who You Can Trust and Who You Shouldn't Trust. But, as you'll see when you read my explanations, it's not the case that you should 100% trust or 100% not trust a particular source of information. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one.

You should be discerning and understand where the information comes from, then you'll be much better placed to make a decision about using it.

Here’s my guide to help you make sense of it all. 


This is the company that makes the TOEFL exam so anything it produces can be trusted. This includes all apps, courses, preparation books and practice tests. 

The EdAgree website is also run by ETS. You can use this website to accurately assess your speaking and writing using the same e-raters that are used in the real exam. But be careful as some of the questions are NOT TOEFL style questions.

ETS doesn’t make a lot of resources available, which is frustrating, but if you need to check anything about the exam, you should always start with ETS. 

TOEFL Teachers

Many TOEFL teachers provide free advice and study materials and some teachers are incredibly generous about this.

Before you decide to use these resources, do some investigating. Consider the teacher’s reputation, their experience of teaching TOEFL and what their previous students say about them. These things are normally easy to research. 

Also, you should understand when they’re giving their opinion (for example, explaining different ways to answer a speaking question), and when they’re giving facts about the exam (for example, describing the timing for the writing section). 

It's important to know this because many teachers' posts (mine included) are an interpretation of the exam requirements. Different teachers will have different interpretations of what works and what doesn't. They'll base this on their own experience of advising students and of doing the exam. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, and that's what makes studying for TOEFL so challenging.

Teaching TOEFL requires specialist knowledge and it takes a lot of experience to become really good at it. General English teachers will not usually have enough understanding of the exam to be able to help TOEFL students. 

You can identify general English teachers by the way they post lots of grammar and vocabulary tips but nothing specifically related to TOEFL or to exam strategy.

TPO Websites (for practice questions)

These websites have questions that are a similar standard to the real exam so you can trust them to give you accurate practice. Look out for typos though as there are a few.

Other Academic Publishers

Publishing companies, such as Barron’s and Collins, produce TOEFL preparation books. You can trust their material. But be careful as some of these resources haven't been updated for years and don't follow the new style exam (which was introduced in 2019). They may have longer reading and listening sections, and they may contain old style speaking and writing questions.

These resources are still good quality though, and will help you to improve your English skills as well as giving you some tips about exam strategy. Use them for skills-building practice rather than exam-style practice.

Former Students

It seems to be the trend right now that students who have just passed the exam write long posts explaining their experience and offering advice. This is sweet but it can also be misleading. It can be nice and motivating to read about their experiences, especially if you can relate to their struggles and it's lovely to read about a happy ending but be careful about the advice in these posts. Former students are not language teachers and so they can only describe what worked for them.

Your language proficiency at the point that you start studying for TOEFL is the biggest factor in your TOEFL success and how long your preparation will take. You don't know where these students started so be cautious.

If posts mention any of these things then please ignore them.

1. Do all the TPOs. 

This is really bad advice. If you have time to do all the TPOs then you're probably not using them effectively. A teacher can help you to use them for skills-building as well as exam style practice.

2. Learn long lists of academic vocabulary. 

This is the worst way to learn vocabulary. Lists of vocabulary won't help you to use those words in real situations.

3. Rely on one technique or strategy and nothing else.

This is also bad advice. Everyone's learning style is different and what has worked for someone else may not suit you at all. Adapt and find strategies that work for your particular circumstances.

4. Don't pay for lessons. 

Well I'm a TOEFL teacher so of course I've got an opinion about this! But I have worked with many, many students who've told me they wished they'd started lessons and got professional advice sooner. 

If you have a high language proficiency and you're organized and motivated, you can study TOEFL by yourself. But for most people, this isn't the situation and they need help. That's why there are TOEFL tutors.

Random posts from other people

There are always posts about someone’s friend who scored 110 by watching YouTube videos for 2 hours the night before the exam. Unless that person is a fluent English speaker, these stories are nonsense and are best ignored.

So, as you can see, the immediate availability of so much advice has advantages and disadvantages. It's just like anything else that’s available for free. Do some research and be discerning about who you trust.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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