Tag: toefl

TOEFL Stress

TOEFL Stress

TOEFL sucks.

I hate teaching about it just as much as students hate taking it. TOEFL is stupid, as I’ve covered before. But let’s take a moment to breakdown how TOEFL is crafted to be as stressful as possible. As one of my clients gears up to take down the TOEFL this Saturday, this is basically what I’m drilling in this final week:

Shock + Timing + Energy = (TOEFL) Stress


One of the best ways to fight an enemy is with a surprise attack. TOEFL totally expects to catch you off guard.

If you’ve never taken the TOEFL before, of course you’re going to experience some level of uncertainty. But you know what? That really isn’t any excuse.

There’s plenty of free practice tests out there that you can take. Actually, you should take. Remember: TOEFL isn’t an accurate way to gauge English ability. TOEFL is a stupid test. And in order to get better at taking a stupid test, you need to be used to taking lots of stupid tests.

What the test covers isn’t really all that surprising (i.e. reading, listening, speaking, and writing). But after taking it, I hear things like:

  • Wow, I didn’t know I’d have to read so much.
  • Wow, I didn’t know I’d have to listen to so much.
  • Wow, I didn’t know I’d have to speak so much.
  • Wow, I didn’t know I’d have to write so much.

TOEFL is stupid, but don’t be an idiot!

You’re going to have to tackle a lot of long tasks in a short amount of time. And if you’re not reading that much (or ever) in your daily life, it’s going to be tough. If you’re not talking in English that much (or ever) in your daily life, it’s going to be tough. If you’re never listening or writing, you can’t be surprised this shit is going to be hard.

Speaking of time management…


When you get homework or assignments in school, you deal with deadlines. But the TOEFL is very demanding of how you use your time, on that day, in that given moment.

The biggest mistake I see with students is their lack of time management.

For one, whenever they practice the TOEFL, they go at a leisurely pace. Oh, I’m doing the practice test— but they take as much time as they want. You’re not practicing in terms of the test. Writing the “perfect” essay in two days doesn’t mean shit for how you’re going to write on the day of test.

You need to not only practice, but practice in the same style of the test.

Second, students don’t utilize time management nearly enough. You need to set the timer. You need to watch the clock. And then, you need to make sure you’re not wasting too much time on any one section or question. For instance, you cannot take 10 minutes to read the passage. You cannot take 2 minutes to think of what to say in the speaking section.

You cannot waste any time feeling sorry for yourself or think “Oh, I should’ve studied more”.

And to top it off, after you’ve been shocked and freaked out by the time…


The TOEFL test really is a marathon. It’s so freaking long, it hopes you don’t survive.

TOEFL iBT Test Sections

Section Time Limit Questions Tasks
Reading 60–80 minutes 36–56 questions Read 3 or 4 passages from academic texts and answer questions.
Listening 60–90 minutes 34–51 questions Listen to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations, then answer questions.
Break 10 minutes
Speaking 20 minutes 6 tasks Express an opinion on a familiar topic; speak based on reading and listening tasks.
Writing 50 minutes 2 tasks Write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks; support an opinion in writing.

That’s anywhere from 3.5 – 4 hours! In other words, a test is longer than any Transformers or Marvel movie, and just as long as any Lord of the Rings films!

It’s like jogging around the block and thinking you’re ready to run a 5K.

After you get familiar with practicing each individual section, you need to practice the sections back to back to back to back.

And you know what else? The shock and time management is energy draining in itself, sure. But, students often sabotage their stamina further by staying up all night to cram and skipping breakfast.

TL;DR TOEFL is hard, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot by falling for these stress traps.


Stupid TOEFL Tips

Stupid TOEFL Tips

TOEFL is stupid. TOEFL is stupid because standardized testing is stupid. It’s not an accurate way to gauge a person’s English ability, but for now and many years to come it will remain a necessary evil.

If you’re going to be taking the TOEFL soon (hopefully, you’re giving yourself at least 2 months to prep), here are some tips:

Take Practice Tests

If you’ve never taken the TOEFL before, it’s going to feel overwhelming. It takes a long ass time, and each section is designed to wear you out.

A lot of people will mistake their everyday English ability to be sufficient for the test, but no. The way you talk to your friends isn’t the way you talk on the test. The way you post a Facebook status isn’t the way you write on the test. The material that you read and listen to aren’t the same as checking Twitter and hearing the audio on a YouTube clip.

This is a different kind of beast. Be sure you familiarize yourself with each section: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Time Yourself

You have to keep your eyes on the clock like a hawk. Some people will practice each section diligently, but they keep the time frame open-ended. On the test, you don’t have that kind of leisure.

It’s 20 minutes to write an essay. It’s only 15-30 seconds to think of a response before speaking. You have to get used to that time crunch.

Otherwise, if you only practice in ideal circumstances, you’re going to be left in the dust.

Identify Key Points

During the TOEFL, you’ll have to deal with hybrid questions. They’re the ones where you have to read an article, listen to a related piece of audio, and summarize.

Sometimes the summary is verbal. Sometimes it’s written. Either way, you’ll want to jot down the gist as you go.

Often, this material will be real dense and loaded with information to distract your focus. You usually won’t have to recall specific numbers and dates. You will need to figure out if the two materials support or argue against each other.

Read and Listen A Lot

Most of the people who get screwed on the reading and listening sections are people who don’t read or listen on a regular basis. Sure, they read texts. Yeah, they listen to a conversation. But both of those aren’t substantial enough to prep your focus for the test.

We’re talking about 3 minutes or less to read a 2 page article. We’re talking about being able to handle a 5 minute monologue that you can follow along and understand in one shot.

When practicing, you should be reading longer articles. You should be listening to longer piece of audio.

Sound Comfortable Speaking

The people grading the exam don’t know you, so that means they can’t give you the benefit of the doubt.

When you’re speaking, if you’re too focused on what the “right answer” is, you’ll lose. Instead, you need to focus on what you “sound” like.

No matter how terrified or unsure you feel on the inside, you need to speak where it sounds like you’re comfortable speaking English. That’ll go a long way.

On the flipside, you can have the right answer, have the right grammar and vocab, yet sound weak without attention to the delivery. You need to sound human.


And there you have it! These are the exact steps I use to drill the TOEFL. Remember that when you’re tackling the TOEFL, you’re not working on real English skills. So when you do pass the TOEFL, don’t think you’ve developed and achieved real English skills.

English Lesson: “Simple Past” vs “Present Perfect”

English Lesson: “Simple Past” vs “Present Perfect”

“Do you have any easy, simple ways to tell the difference between ‘simple past’ and ‘present perfect’?” – Thiago

No, no I don’t, especially when it comes to academic English. Most of the time, grammar focused questions are brought up because people need help with standardized tests like the TOEFL or TOEIC.

The best thing you can do to prepare for a standardized test is to take practice tests.

You need to become familiar with the format and style of questions they’ll ask you on that kind of test. The frustrating thing is, there’s people who do amazing on the tests but can’t speak English at all. On the same token, you’ll have people who are GREAT at actually using English, but fail again and again when taking their test.

Their self-esteem gets destroyed. They start to think they don’t have any language ability at all. That’s the classroom bubble for you– and one of the reasons why I’ve removed myself from that kind of environment.

So let’s focus on how to tie this into real life applicable skills.

Simple Past

When most people learn English verb conjugations, they learn them like this:

  1. talk
  2. am talking
  3. talked
  4. have talked

That third version, talked, is what we call the “simple past”. For a lot of the verbs out there, we can just add “-ed”. But be careful, there’s plenty of irregular verbs that you’ll have to memorize like drove, ate, spoke.

  • I talked to Sam last month.
  • I drove to the mall.
  • She already ate.
  • We spoke often.

In each of these sentences, they’re simple facts. Most often they’ll be answering a question. But even if they’re not a response, they’re very simple statements that don’t tell us too much.

They’re not really good for conversation. Here’s how they might look in a dialogue:

  • A: Hey, what’s new with you?
  • B: Not much really. I talked to Sam last month.
  • A: Oh that’s cool. Well, what’d you do yesterday?
  • B: I drove to the mall.
  • A: …
  • B: …
  • A: Um, you want to get something to eat? You can bring your girlfriend if you want.
  • B: She already ate.

All of the grammar above is correct. All the English is technically “perfect”, but it’s not good conversation.

When you stick with short and simple answers, you force the other person to carry the conversation. This isn’t very fun for them. They probably won’t talk to you much longer or ever again.

Present Perfect

Let’s look at our conjugation list again:

  1. talk
  2. am talking
  3. talked
  4. have talked

The fourth version, have talked, is what we call the “present perfect”. We’ll make it by adding “have” in front of the simple past.

So now for the big question: what’s the difference? You should think of present perfect in terms of the overall experience. It’s easier if we look at them side by side to compare:

  • Jon taught in Japan. (simple past)
  • Jon has taught in several schools– some in Japan, some in the US, and some online. (present perfect)

In the simple past version, it’s a short statement that’s a matter of fact. In the second statement, we get a little more insight into Jon. It’s much easier to continue the conversation when we have that information and detail.

  • I saw a movie yesterday. (simple past)
  • I’ve seen so many movies like this one. (present perfect)

If someone says the first sentence, I can try to continue the conversation. It’ll probably be boring, step-by-step small talk (i.e. What movie? Where did you see it? How was it?). But if someone says the second sentence, I can get a little bit more of their personality. Maybe they feel this movie is unoriginal, but you loved it.

  • She wrote a thank you letter. (simple past)
  • She’s written a thank you letter for every person who came to her party. (present perfect)

I think you get it by now. One has a simple fact. The other is going to give us insight. Remember, this is the key to continuing a conversation. This is the way to learn present perfect for speaking.

Don’t force yourself to always use present perfect. When someone asks you a question and you respond, native speakers will use simple past too. The only problem is when someone only sticks to using one verb form.

If you’re interested in learning more conversational English like this, connect with Jon to sign up for online private English coaching or face-to-face sessions in Boston. We’ll work on making you sound like a native speaker.

How to Pronounce “People”

How to Pronounce “People”

Pronunciation Practice: “People”

Upon recommendation, I’m going to start archiving all the videos I’ve done on Instagram here. For the latest words, be sure to follow me on Instagram (@DoctorBlackJack)

If you found this helpful, don’t forget to check out the Pronunciation Practice Master List

Jon Dao – The Conversation Coach
Improving Your English Fluency