I wanted to be like Michael Jordan and I wasn’t alone.

When I was a boy, all my friends admired him. He even inspired a commercial with the catch phrase “I wanna be like Mike.” He looked like a superhero out on the court. It seemed, to me, that he had this innate ability to do great things. I, on the other hand, always felt destined for mediocrity. I felt like I was only “okay” at everything, including basketball. I didn’t excel in my studies, in sports or in my relationships with friends. I took the success of others at face value.

A friend of mine, Kevin, always aced his exams. I assumed he had an innate talent for taking tests. If Michael Jordan could dunk a ball from the free throw line, it was because he was born with that ability, I thought. I didn’t see the hundreds and thousands of hours of toil and struggle these people went through before they reached their goals, I only saw their achievement.

Did you know Michael Jordan was cut from his varsity basketball team?

Or that my good friend, Kevin, spent weeks preparing for every exam?

What both Michael Jordan and Kevin had in common was the idea of focused practice over time. They zeroed in on one particular skill and worked to get better at it. And for you, not just as a TOEFL taker, but as a language learner, that’s what it’s going to take to succeed: focused and deliberate practice over time.

Focused and deliberate practice over time is what it takes to succeed. 

However, many students don’t want to put in the effort. Most of them are looking for a shortcut to the best possible score, which leads me to the first common problem.

1. Students try to find a shortcut to success.

Unfortunately, in language acquisition there is no shortcut to success, there’s only focused practice over time. When you prepare for the TOEFL speaking section, it’s important for you to identify your weaknesses and deliberately work on improving those particular skills every day. Perhaps you need to improve your knowledge of conditional sentences in grammar, or you have to learn the academic structure you’re expected to organize your response around. Whatever it is, focus on improving that one particular skill.

The next common problem might surprise you.

2. Students memorize a script.

One of the shortcuts many students try is to memorize a script to recite on exam day. And actually, this isn’t necessarily a mistake. I think it’s a good idea, especially for students just starting out, to memorize a script to help them prepare for the exam and become more familiar with the structure they’re expected to use on exam day. However, if students want to score above a 20 on the Speaking section, they will eventually have to move away from the script and perform from their own ideas. The problem with scripts is that they sound like scripts. Start with a script, and then, eventually, ditch it.

The problem with scripts is that they sound like scripts. 

This next problem is unforgivable.

3. Students don’t take notes.

It’s ridiculous how few of my students take notes. Most feel that note-taking distracts their focus. Well, I have some bad news. In college, you have to listen and take notes at the same time for 90 minutes, so, get used to it. There’s no other way to say it really, but you’re going to have to get used to taking notes during the exam. It’s a skill that’ll help you throughout your academic career. For more help on how to take notes during the speaking section, refer to TOEFL Resources.

The next big problem students make is in their study habits.

4. Students don’t record themselves when they practice.

You hate the sound of your own voice. I know. Everyone hates the sound of their own voice. The first time I heard my voice recorded and played back I thought to myself, “Who is that stranger?” It doesn’t matter how you feel about your own voice, what matters is that the TOEFL graders are going to judge you based on your voice. You need to get used to the fact that what you hear is not what other people hear. Record your voice, analyze your response, identify your weaknesses and make a plan on how to improve upon them.

You need to get used to the fact that what you hear is not what other people hear. 

The last, and most common problem I find with my TOEFL students is…

5. Students try to fix everything at once.

Everyone is going to be at a different level of English fluency. Some will only have one or two weaknesses to work on while others will have many. The most important thing is for you to work on your weaknesses in a specific and methodical way. Don’t try to fix all of your mistakes at once. It can get overwhelming. Languages are vast. You will discover new things you hadn’t known before on a daily basis. The most important thing for you to do is to identify what you need to work on and improve upon it.

Are there any other problems I missed? Do you have better advice to help students overcome these obstacles? Leave your ideas in the comments section below.

Stay lucky.

-Josh

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Stop answering questions, start answering themes

I wanted to be like Michael Jordan and I wasn’t alone.

When I was a boy, all my friends admired him. He even inspired a commercial with the catch phrase “I wanna be like Mike.” He looked like a superhero out on the court. It seemed, to me, that he had this innate ability to do great things. I, on the other hand, always felt destined for mediocrity. I felt like I was only “okay” at everything, including basketball. I didn’t excel in my studies, in sports or in my relationships with friends. I took the success of others at face value.

A friend of mine, Kevin, always aced his exams. I assumed he had an innate talent for taking tests. If Michael Jordan could dunk a ball from the free throw line, it was because he was born with that ability, I thought. I didn’t see the hundreds and thousands of hours of toil and struggle these people went through before they reached their goals, I only saw their achievement.

Did you know Michael Jordan was cut from his varsity basketball team?

Or that my good friend, Kevin, spent weeks preparing for every exam?

What both Michael Jordan and Kevin had in common was the idea of focused practice over time. They zeroed in on one particular skill and worked to get better at it. And for you, not just as a TOEFL taker, but as a language learner, that’s what it’s going to take to succeed: focused and deliberate practice over time.

Focused and deliberate practice over time is what it takes to succeed. 

However, many students don’t want to put in the effort. Most of them are looking for a shortcut to the best possible score, which leads me to the first common problem.

1. Students try to find a shortcut to success.

Unfortunately, in language acquisition there is no shortcut to success, there’s only focused practice over time. When you prepare for the TOEFL speaking section, it’s important for you to identify your weaknesses and deliberately work on improving those particular skills every day. Perhaps you need to improve your knowledge of conditional sentences in grammar, or you have to learn the academic structure you’re expected to organize your response around. Whatever it is, focus on improving that one particular skill.

The next common problem might surprise you.

2. Students memorize a script.

One of the shortcuts many students try is to memorize a script to recite on exam day. And actually, this isn’t necessarily a mistake. I think it’s a good idea, especially for students just starting out, to memorize a script to help them prepare for the exam and become more familiar with the structure they’re expected to use on exam day. However, if students want to score above a 20 on the Speaking section, they will eventually have to move away from the script and perform from their own ideas. The problem with scripts is that they sound like scripts. Start with a script, and then, eventually, ditch it.

The problem with scripts is that they sound like scripts. 

This next problem is unforgivable.

3. Students don’t take notes.

It’s ridiculous how few of my students take notes. Most feel that note-taking distracts their focus. Well, I have some bad news. In college, you have to listen and take notes at the same time for 90 minutes, so, get used to it. There’s no other way to say it really, but you’re going to have to get used to taking notes during the exam. It’s a skill that’ll help you throughout your academic career. For more help on how to take notes during the speaking section, refer to TOEFL Resources.

The next big problem students make is in their study habits.

4. Students don’t record themselves when they practice.

You hate the sound of your own voice. I know. Everyone hates the sound of their own voice. The first time I heard my voice recorded and played back I thought to myself, “Who is that stranger?” It doesn’t matter how you feel about your own voice, what matters is that the TOEFL graders are going to judge you based on your voice. You need to get used to the fact that what you hear is not what other people hear. Record your voice, analyze your response, identify your weaknesses and make a plan on how to improve upon them.

You need to get used to the fact that what you hear is not what other people hear. 

The last, and most common problem I find with my TOEFL students is…

5. Students try to fix everything at once.

Everyone is going to be at a different level of English fluency. Some will only have one or two weaknesses to work on while others will have many. The most important thing is for you to work on your weaknesses in a specific and methodical way. Don’t try to fix all of your mistakes at once. It can get overwhelming. Languages are vast. You will discover new things you hadn’t known before on a daily basis. The most important thing for you to do is to identify what you need to work on and improve upon it.

Are there any other problems I missed? Do you have better advice to help students overcome these obstacles? Leave your ideas in the comments section below.

Stay lucky.

-Josh

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TOEFL Speaking Evaluation

What you need to know about yourself

Before the TOEFL exam, and even before you start preparing for it, the best thing to do is learn what your weaknesses are.

For this, we offer you the TOEFL Speaking Evaluation, a service that is designed to help you learn what your weak points are, so you can work on them.

TOTAL VALUE: $679

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