Sunday, July 8

How to Get a High Score on the TOEIC

I don’t like the idea of a piece of paper telling me how good or bad I am, this is why I had postponed taking the TOEIC test. But last month, I finally tried it...

To those who are not familiar with it, TOEIC stands for Test Of English for International Communication. It’s one of the leading English proficiency standardized tests, along with TOEFL and IELTS. Roughly, TOEIC measures your English communication skills for the workplace, while TOEFL and IELTS measure the same in an academic setting, for entrance to universities abroad.

IELTS is also preferred by professionals such as doctors and nurses in many English-speaking countries, and offers a General Training Version which has a wider scope.

It was my first time to take the TOEIC last month. And I must say it was an interesting experience. The whole test lasted over 2 hours, but I left the testing room 30 minutes before the end. I thought I didn’t want to review my answers in the Reading Part.

The report of my score was delivered a week later. And I got… (drumroll please) 980/ 990.

The TOEIC test is composed of two sections: the Listening and the Reading Part. I got all perfect scores in the whole Listening section:

but to my great regret, I made some mistakes in the Reading Part:

I thought if I had made mistakes in the Listening Part, I would’ve accepted them without a thought. Because there was no way you could review your answers there. But I kept on thinking: I should’ve stayed the remaining 30 minutes to go over my answers in the Reading Part.

How frustrating!  ;-D

In any case, it was a very valuable experience for me. And now I can offer a few practical tips to my readers about how to take the TOEIC test.

Here are a few suggestions:

1.       The TOEIC is not your average, everyday kind of test. If you expect to just walk in, sit in the test and perform effortlessly, you might get the surprise of your life.

The thing is, you could actually be good at English, but if you’re not used to or familiar with the format of the test and what manner of questions you’re going to receive, don’t think you’ll get the score that you want. Preparation is vital; practice is ideal.  

2.       If it’s your first time to take the test, I strongly advise that you glance over the form of the biographical questions that will be given ahead of the actual test. Just so you know what to expect. It looks like this:

and will be accompanied by listening prompts.

To your average non-native speaker and English learner, this is a daunting task. The sheer appearance of the form waiting to be filled out and the sound of overhead speakers seemingly starting the test already are pretty intimidating. Especially because most friends (or books) wouldn’t warn you about a part that’s not even included in the test proper.

But consider this: a test-taker has been strung up days before the test -- more out of anticipation than the act of taking the test itself -- and it isn’t far-fetched for a person to lose his cool and carry the confusion over to the beginning or even half of the Listening Section, the first part of the test. Another extraneous condition that will still affect some people’s real performance and score.

3.       The whole test will last for exactly two hours (minus the biographical questions at the beginning). This is good news and bad news.

It’s good because 2 hours is equivalent to just watching a flick in the cinema. You don’t need to make a fuss over it. If you normally sleep at 1 or 2 am, then it’s better to just stick to your schedule and not to try any freaking-out, strenuous rituals.

It’s bad because, especially in the Listening Part, you’re supposed to keep your concentration in the whole duration of the test. I mean, yes, it isn’t that long, but believe me when I say paying attention to every detail during the 45-minute Listening Test requires determination.

Especially for those who have considerable skill in English, how to gather TOEIC information is in fact opposite to our natural tendency in our everyday lives. It’s very normal for us to ignore and even block out bits and pieces of things as long as we understand the general idea (then probably just ask for clarification), but in the TOEIC Listening everything would be like “water under the bridge” – to mix metaphors.

This means that once the Listening selection has played one time and you happened to be daydreaming or just thinking about something else for the fraction of a second, that’s the end of it. No matter how hard you try, you have to make do with a wavering answer.

In short, endure the whole duration of the test: 45 minutes for Listening and 75 minutes for Reading. Just look forward to the end of the 2-hour period, but don’t let your guard down at any point within the test.

*Note: The same goes for the Reading section because how you extract assumptions and correlations is quite different from how you would when you’re doing other things.

4.       I don’t know about those books (especially Korean) that suggest jumping to another part of the test while you’re still doing questions in one part. For one, the test procedure in some countries doesn’t allow such a “strategy” and, two, I think this can actually bring more harm than good.

The time allotted for the Listening section is only for the Listening section. And the time allotted for the Reading section is for that section.

You might be able to gain a little time by stealing it from another part of the test, but that’s really small compared to the risk of actually mixing everything up and getting confused. For example, if you lose the pace and miss something really important in the Listening questions.

I understand why some test-takers try to do this. They feel that they simply don’t have enough time to finish the Reading section. But the way I experienced it, the whole 75 minutes allotted for the Reading section is enough, as long as you learn how to budget your time.

In fact, I finished answering all the Reading questions in half that time. And I could’ve had plenty of time for review.

The sad reality is that, if you’re constantly finding that you’re running out of time in the Reading section, it just means that there’s something wrong with your reading technique, or the way you read for information. Either this or your grammar is still not enough for some of the other questions.

Make sure that you’re practicing skimming and scanning and never give in to the temptation of reading more than you need. Also, don’t jump back and forth between one article and another e-mail if you can’t make sense of one. This is the worst, most time-costing habit to keep. When you’re doing the right thing, you will notice that you do have enough time for the Reading section, and that you don’t really need to take any time away from the Listening Part.

5.       In some parts of the Listening half, especially Parts 3 and 4, reading the test questions and multiple choice options in advance greatly increases your chances of picking up the needed answer. Obviously, it decreases the risk of you missing the beat to catch a vital bit of information or detail. So spend your time wisely, if austerely, in preparation for the coming Listening dialogue or monologue.

This works in a similar way to Part 1 when you look ahead at the pictures and think of possible statements to describe them.

6.       Lastly, everybody does eventually get a high score. The TOEIC allows an unlimited number of tries to take the test.

Of course we're all aiming to get the highest possible score in the fewest times, but if you can’t get it just yet, keep on improving yourself and working on your weak points. Every time you finish a TOEIC test, a report of your performance will be sent to your address (if you arrange for it) and you can see there the parts that you need to develop.

Practicing yourself with a lot of simulations that mimic the actual pace and time limits of the test is also really helpful.



UPDATE: I got 990 on the TOEIC on my second try, exactly a month after this post. 

If you'd like to read about it, here's the link: 

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