10 Tips to Better Prepare for the TOEIC
Want some great tips on how to prepare for the TOEIC®?
Look no further. Here, you’ll find tips on what to except, where to go, how to get around tough times, and, of course, how to reach for the score you need.
1/ Evaluate your level for free
The best way to start is to download the TOEIC Examinee Handbook and try to read it up to Page 7. Stop before the printed sample test material on Page 8 (otherwise you'll end up reading a printed transcripts of the audio questions of the online sample test provided by ETS).
Then, take the sample test from the ETS site to evaluate both your listening and reading skill. Let it rest.
After a few days (not too many though), take a second test comprising of 45 TOEIC training questions that are online for free. Compare the results between these two tests. The number of questions is different between these two online practice tests, so you might have to do a bit of math before finding out... that you probably did better the second time.
Congratulations. We'll see how that's even possible in Tip 2.
If you're finding that you haven't improved between the practices, don't worry, we have techniques in Tip 3 and 4 to help everyone progress.
In any case, let's all keep up the good work, by checking all commented answers that show up once you finish the 45 TOEIC training questions test, as they will explain why, for each question:
One other great free source of information when preparing for the test is the TOEIC Test Facebook Page. Every week, they publish a tip on preparing for the test, together with sample questions, and comments.
2. Use "Practice Effects" to your advantage
"Practice Effects" are real and scientifically proven: the second time you do something, you become better at it. Take a test once, and take a similar one sometime later. Chances are you'll improve just because you are now familiar with the technique, even if you do nothing in between.
That’s why some US standardised tests required for admission into US Colleges such as the SAT, offset (deduct) a number of points to compensate (make up) for a student’s better score the second time he or she takes the test. It’s not because they’re just mean. On the contrary. They’re trying to be fair to the people who are taking the test for the very first time (first-timers), because studies show that scores usually improve the next time you take a test, even if you don’t do anything in between.
That’s called the "Practice Effects." The weird thing, is that it works for almost any knowledge or skill you may want to acquire. Works for throwing a ball, playing the violin, driving a car, and even kissing. My mom would add that it works for doing the dishes as well, but I claim (assert, affirm) this has yet to be verified (proven).
The great thing with the TOEIC is that you can take it as many time as you like, the previous score will not affect (have no effect on, will not influence) the latest one. But the fact that you improve the second time you take the test, no matter what you do in between, still works, and means that if you do put in some practice, you’ll even get better at it.
For those of you who don’t believe me, you can check out this research article on speech and language memory paths. But that’s just for reference purposes as it contains a lot of scientific words.
For those of you who believe in this a bit too much, and are starting to think, “well, great, all I have to do is go and take the test again, and again, until I get the score I need,” just keep in mind that it does cost time and money to take the test (around US$85 per take). A better use of those would be to invest in a good method and get it done. A good method includes a lot of written and audio questions with loads of (a lot of) commented answers.
And for those of you wondering how much practice they need, the answer is that there are no general guidelines here. The actual required amount of work is not a fixed amount, it depends on how well you did on the previous practice session. You need to be doing as many practice questions as you can. Not just an average number, the actual number that it takes for you to improve. That extra work you’ll put in will change everything.
Now that we’ve covered (seen) how practice can work magic, let’s see what we can do to make it more fun.
3. Put some fun into your practice
The more you practice the better you get. The better you practice, the easier it gets. A better practice, is one that will interest you and captivate your attention.
There’s nothing wrong with a little distraction, especially if it involves watching a TV show in English, placing tape on the lower part of your screen to hide subtitles, and trying to make out (guess) what’s happening. But be sure to pick one likely to deal with work-related plots. The Office and House of Cards feature business conversations, and actors with very clear diction (good pronunciation). Kevin Spacey’s accent in House of Cards is very close to the American male voices you’ll hear on the test (and that wasn't an easy job for Kevin, because he’s a British actor playing the role of the Vice President of the United-States.)
For more on learning English with US Modern TV Show, check out this complete FluentU post on the topic.
You could also watch this old Tex Avery cartoon called Symphony in Slang, in which a cartoon character tells the story of his life using only idioms that are literally put into animated images. So when the character says he put his foot in his mouth, you see him literally do that, but you also understand from the animation what the expression truly means (which is “to say something that is out of place or silly”).
To make the best of your fun practice time, make sure you pick a show you’ve already watched, so that you can practice with a just a little bit of context. Once you get comfortable, and what I mean by that is, once you’re able to make out (determine) the meaning of conversations on your favorite US TV Show, without subtitles, you can move on to listening to a US or British radio station, and try to figure out the topic on the spot (right away). There are many radio stations you can pick from, as explained in the FluentU post about learning English through the radio.
This will bring you closer to the real conditions of the Listening part of the test (no image, just sound).
4. Look for the most appropriate proposition, more than for a right answer.
So what’s the difference between a right answer and the best possible answer?
The best possible answer is the one supported by facts stated in the exam material. The goal is NOT to guess the right answer, but to determine the one that presents the better fit based on what you've heard, read, or seen. We'll call that "the context."
So how does that work?
Often, the test will ask you to infer something from a conversation or chain of documents.
The verb "to infer" means, "to deduce, to derive, to draw conclusions based on facts and reasoning" (not opinions). To infer is different than guessing.
Guessing is not forbidden on the TOEIC. If you're out of time, that's what you'll do, and it's fine. There won't be any points taken off for doing that.
But guessing will take you outside the limits of the context. Inferring, will allow the context to give you indications as to what the most appropriate proposition would be.
So when the TOEIC asks you what you can infer from a conversation, it actually wants you to find at least two valid clues in the text or in the conversation that support your conclusion.
Let's look at this extreme example:
You hear a conversation between two coworkers discussing their schedule, complaining about long hours, and saying they want to quit (leave) their current job, and find a better opportunity. Nothing more, nothing less.
The test then asks you what you can infer from the conversation, and gives you four propositions to chose from.
One of the proposition is written this way: "long hours may A-ffect (have influence over) your overall work productivity (how well you work)."
And at first this looks okay. There's nothing wrong with that statement. It's probably true in most cases. The verb "to A-ffect" is even used correctly (as we'll verify in tip 6). It looks like an answer that could be right.
But the conversation recap above doesn't mention the effect of long hours over performance (how well (or badly) a worker performs at his or her job). So the proposition, while a true statement, is not the most appropriate answer based on the the context (in this case the conversation recap).
This is why the safest approach is to ask the text, and in the case of the audio part, your notes, if they have indications to support your conviction that a proposition is the most appropriate one.
A great way to practice doing this is to ask yourself why each of the other answers are not as good as the better one. We’ll try to do that with Joey and Chandler in the next Tip, as we discover (find out) how understanding the difference between inferring and guessing can save your score.
5. When unsure, don't panic, look for clues
So remember how I said would never leave you high and dry? Let’s find out what I meant by that.
In Friends’ episode 6 (Season 2) “The one where Joey moves out,” Joey and Chandler, who have been roommates for years, have a fight. Joey, who can now afford to live alone in a bigger place, tells Chandler he is about to rent another apartment. Chandler doesn't seem too happy about it. Joey notices it and, though he is decided to go through with it (to pursue), he’s worried that his moving out will leave Chandler without a roommate. Here’s the dialog (the conversation) between them:
“JOEY: ‘Hey, are you cool with this. I mean, I don't want to leave you high and dry.’
CHANDLER: ‘No, I've never been lower or wetter. I'll be fine. I'll just turn your bedroom into a game room.’”
When Chandler answers “I’ve never been lower or wetter,” he’s taking the actual meaning of the words for granted as a play on words (much like Tex Avery did in the cartoon we mentioned in Tip 3). But that’s not what the expression truly means.
To determine what it means, first let’s take look at what we can infer (deduce) from that short summary of the episode and from the conversation. To do that, let’s just focus on the text and on the dialog, and try and forget what we know about Joey and Chandler. So which of the following propositions can be safely inferred from the text and the dialog above?
(3) is not appropriate because there’s nothing in the text, nor in the dialog, that suggests Joey is packing at this point.
(4) may become true in the next episodes, but if you stick to the content at hand, there’s nothing that says Chandler is already thinking about looking for another roommate. In fact, Chandler is saying he’ll turn Joey’s room into a game room.
(5) Although you could imagine that living alone and in a bigger apartment can help improve your love life, that would just be a guess, because the text doesn't mention Joey’s many girlfriends. Can you see why this proposition 5 is a "fake" good answer? Joey is always going to get more dates. This is true, this is right (in the TV show) and yet, this is not the most appropriate deduction we can make from the text and the instructions.
So what are the clues that support (2) --"Joey is concerned because he is leaving Chandler without a roommate" -- being a winner?
The text mentions that Joey is worried, which is a synonym of (is similar to) “to be concerned.” Plus, in the dialog (talk, conversation), Joey asks Chandler if he’s cool with Joey's moving out.
So from this example, we can infer (deduce) -- and not guess -- three things:
6. Watch out for words that sound or are spelled almost alike
The TOEIC has a mind of its own. It will place traps and propose answers that are designed to lure you.
What’s a lure? It’s a kind of trick that creates an illusion to turn your attention away from the most appropriate answer.
So when the TOEIC gives you a proposition that says: "long hours may E-ffect your overall work productivity," it wants you to detect that that there's a similar sounding verb, to A-ffect, that would be more appropriate to describe the influence that long hours may have over the quality of someone's work product.
One is to get used to these similar sounding words before the test. You can start with a written list of similar sounding words, and then move one to a list of business terms that comes with a recording of the pronunciation for each word.
TOEIC is easier to take when you're familiar with a bunch of work-related words, but, if you are in hurry, you can try to locate a list of recurrent words (words that come up more often than the others on the test) and focus on those. This list includes the frequency rate of appearance of the words (P. 169), which gives you the odds (chances) of a particular word showing up in a test session.
The other one is to rely on words you are sure you’ve understood correctly, to determine the overall topic, and then deduce (infer) from the context what that word could mean.
For instance, if you are dealing with a conversation at a restaurant, chances are you will not be hearing the waiter ask if anyone wants to have dry sand (desert) rather than apple pie for deSSSSSSSSSSSSSSert. It’s always better to have two S to eat for dessert. The dry and hot desert only has one, because the other died of thirst.
7. Give your dictionary a nice break, and your ears, an intensive workout
The TOEIC is timed. Even if you were allowed to bring a dictionary, there just wouldn't be enough time for you to nervously (anxiously) look up every word you’re not sure about.
Instead, you need to get ready to determine the meaning of an unknown word using the surrounding or underlying context, without any outside help, and to be able to trust your instincts (as you would if you were listening to a phone conversation).
Like I did earlier in this post, the TOEIC creature will put words or idioms on your path that won't be ringing any bells (won't remind you of anything), but that you may end up understanding anyway, with a little bit of help from the context.
As in the FluentU post on how to teach yourself English, we think it’s best to use a dictionary as little as you can, and in any case, less and less frequently, as you get closer to the date of the test.
With no body language or sign to guide you through the reactions you hear, you’ll need to focus on two elements: the tone, and the tenses used by the speakers. The tone is different from the accent.
An accent will identify a person from a particular region. Remember, the "I" in TOEIC stands for International, meaning the audio part will feature voices with mild American, Australian, British, and Canadian accent. What I mean by "mild" is that ETS has never been known for asking a Texas cowboy to lend his voice to the TOEIC. The accents do vary, but the ETS makes sure there are no extremes.
A tone will be used to express questions, affirmations, or negations.
Identifying the tone requires practice, but a good thing to know is that the persons hired to record the questions do have instructions to enunciate (say) their part with a tone that emphasizes (points to, underlines) the meaning of what they’re saying. These are among the many clues the TOEIC creature leaves behind.
Another hint can be found in tenses or changes in tenses. They indicate that something has happened or is going to happen, and the testers are going to want to make sure you pick up on that (catch, detect it). So, you need to write down as soon as you get an indication (clue) on the time (look out for words or expressions like yesterday, last week, within a month, tomorrow, in a couple of days, soon, shortly, it won't be long).
8. Train for fast conversational speed
Okay, now that we know how to prepare for the exam, one last thing we need to do, is prepare for the conditions in which you'll be taking it.
Because the test is timed, and because no replays of the audio parts are allowed, you’ll have to take notes as you hear the speech, to make sure you pick up essential stuff.
No use trying to transcribe (note down) the talk word for word as you’re hearing it. It can’t be done, even by natives. Instead, mark down as many key words as you understand. Try to make out the location, the context, the time and dates, the names, and the tenses (or changes in tenses).
This takes time. We need to be patient and train ourselves to hear conversations in English with different accents (American, Canadian, British and Australian) .
To start getting used to different accents at a normal pace, you can check out the website of this Australian company, Transcribeme! which provides audio samples of different English accents. They take any audio piece, break it out into one-minute length excerpts, and dispatch them to transcribers around the world for them to write down what they hear and produce a transcript. The company has set out a number of audio transcription tests aimed at assessing (evaluating, checking) a person’s ability to transcribe. You can take these tests just for fun, and for free, if you wish. Because you can play the conversation or speech as much as you want during the test, it won’t be like the actual conditions of the exam, but it’s a great training for your ear, and it will help you get accustomed to (acquainted, familiar with, used to) different accents.
Another great way to help your ears get acquainted with conversational speed is the Bloomberg live radio. Not because it’s particularly fun, though at times it may be, but because the hosts usually have a very clear diction. They pronounce each word very distinctly (especially Tom Keene). Also, the ads are played over and over again, and they usually contain business-related words that are likely (susceptible) to end up in your test. The people listening to Bloomberg are busy and very interested in knowing the time. You'll often hear a time announcement saying, "it's 58 past the hour, now." Don't be scared, it's just a countdown to the hour (how many minutes left before another hour begins). Check the time on your computer as you hear this. After a while, you won't need to. What you'll hear will be enough for you to know what time it is without looking. That will help you during the audio part of the TOEIC, which is always interested in knowing how well you can understand times and dates.
If you’re a bit lost in the beginning, start with videos of the interviews and chronicles that you can replay, and don't hesitate to open the transcript link below the replay. More and more online media streaming providers are including a transcript of what was said during the video for hearing-impaired viewers.
9. Know the spoken instructions before the test
On the Listening portion of the test, you’ll be hearing instructions before a group of questions is played. These instructions do not vary a big deal from one audio question to another. Knowing them beforehand (before the date of the test) means you won’t need to concentrate (focus) on them during the test. You can then use that extra tiny bit of time to glance (take a quick look) at the written questions relating to the audio part, so that you know exactly what you need to focus on your attention on in the speech (a date, a sales' figure, a position in a company).
Here are the recurrent spoken instructions for the Listening comprehension part:
“You will hear ten short talks given by a single speaker. For each short talk, read the three questions and the four answer choices that follow each question. Select the most appropriate answer. Mark your answer by circling (A), (B), (C), or (D). You will hear each short talk only once.”
“Questions 71 through 73 refer to the following report/talk/conversation.”
Then, the conversation or speech begins. The speaker will not be the same as the person telling the instructions. This change of speaker will signal (alert, warn, let you know) when you need to start taking notes.
There’s always going to be a question that will more or less be asking what the extract was all about. But the others are usually more specific, so you need to take notes, especially when you hear dates, numbers, figures, places, locations, positions in a company, or professions, come up in the conversation.
Easier said than done, I know. You’ll have to be so familiar with (used to) the instructions, that you won’t need to actively listen to them. With time, you’ll get there.
But even the most prepared test-takers and greatest listeners need to anticipate that the sound during the test may not be as limpid (pristine, clear) as the one coming out from home computers.
The ETS Examinee handbook does continue to refer to audio-cassettes (page 2). I won't be explaining what those were, because it would give you clues as to my age, and that's not relevant for the TOEIC. Let's just say audio-cassettes are older than the Mario brothers.
10. Prepare for poor sound and extreme temperatures
You may not turn out to be the unlucky fellow who gets the faulty earplugs (the earplug that doesn't work), or lower sound than expected. But just in case, as you get closer to the date of the exam, you may want to lower the sound of the practice questions and of your favorite radio station. That way, if the sound is low on the actual test, you can still survive it. It won’t be easy, but at least you’ll be prepared for it.
I did not leave you high dry, but the ETS center might very well leave you lower and wetter, this time literally, depending on where and when you take the test. The air conditioning system may not be working in accordance to your liking. In other words, you may be very cold, or very hot, during the exam, so you need to be wearing layers that you can peel off. Now, that may sound like a just a comfort issue. Yet, your energy will be better employed at getting through the test in a timely fashion, than at compensating for a drop in temperature.
I took the TOEFL in the heart of a cold Parisian winter. The boiler was out of service, it was snowing outside, and we all wore our coats, gloves, and scarfs throughout the exam. Also, if you are planning on taking the exam in the heart of a steamy summer, wear layers as well, as you may end up taking the test in a cold air-conditioned room.
So folks, that’s the end of this post this time. Almost. We’ve seen a lot of new words, and I’ve tried to repeat them throughout the post in different contexts like a crazy person, but that's simply because these words will eventually come up on the test. So you'll find a flashcard to review them at the very end of this post.
But first, here's a recap of five essential facts to know about the TOEIC: