In Episode 3 of The TOEFL Podcast, Paul Austin of TOEFL Speaking Teacher and Marina Mogilko of LinguaTrip discuss their experiences with the TOEFL, and in teaching students to ace the popular and difficult exam.

Check out this episode!

Paul: Hi, TOEFL speaking students and welcome back to the TOEFL podcast. Today we have a very special guest for you, her name is Marina and she is from Lingua Trip. And Marina helps students, her startup helps students connect, to go ahead and learn English in the United States and the United Kingdom and part of her process is helping students prepare, get ready for the TOEFL exams. So, we brought her on today to give you some interesting insights and tips and advice on how you can best prepare for the TOEFL exam. So, thank you, Marina, for joining us.
Marina: Thank you, Paul, for inviting me, I am very excited to talk to you today.
P.: Yeah, it´s gonna be lots of fun. So, you are calling from St. Petersburg, Russia, correct?
M.: Exactly.
P.: And so, are you from St. Petersburg originally?
M.: Yes.
P.: Ok, so, you know, tell us a little bit about, you know, your TOEFL experience, why did you take the TOEFL and what was that process like for you.
M.: Sure. I took my TOEFL in January 2015 and that was a part of my admission´s process. So, I was applying to American Universities to get my MBA or Master´s degree, depending on the University and every single University required me to pass TOEFL because basically I am an international student and I don´t have experience of studying abroad, so anyone like me would need to pass TOEFL and the scores were pretty high. So, I had to, in my top university I had to get a 104 and I was kind of nervous as well because I´ve never passed TOEFL, I´ve never passed IELTS, it was my first experience in passing an exam, bit it went pretty well and I scored 117 out of 120, which pretty good, I guess.
P.: It´s pretty good, and we were talking about that, I don´t think you can score much higher without being a native speaker born in the United States also in the United Kingdom, in fact. I know, some teachers who teach the TOEFL and you know from America, you know, get a lower score.
M.: Oh, thank you.
P.: So, definitely it´s impressive. Now, you know, you said you were concerned about taking a TOEFL, what was nervous, you know, why were you concerned about that?
M.: I think the main thing I was concerned about was a speaking part actually because it´s not really natural, so it doesn´t really happen in real life when somebody comes up to you and asks like, “Why don´t you like rock music? Give me two examples”. Like this never happens in real life and there were topics that I would never ever discussed with my friends or family, and then I would also have to provide two reasons to, you know, to justify my opinion. And when I first sampled a speaking part, I thought I would never pass it, as well I am pretty good in English and I don´t have any difficulty in speaking but then, when they ask me some random question and I just come up with the ideas, and they give us you know like 15 seconds to think of the answer, which has to last a minute, I mean in the first two questions, so, that was really overwhelming and I thought I would never ever pass speaking part.
And what I did I just asked my friends to come up with random questions, and what I did, two weeks I was talking with them about those random things, why I don´t like rock music or why I don´t like science fiction and bla.. bla.. bla..
P.: And that worked up pretty well for you then, did it go well on the test then, on the Question Types 1 and 2?
M.: Yeah, it went pretty well and there is also one thing that happened to me on the test I did not know about. People, who were sitting next to me they started speaking like two minutes earlier and when I came to the class after break, I could hear what they were talking about. So, I could hear the first question and the answers because TOEFL test is all the same for people in the classroom, I could actually, you know, I had two-three minutes left from my break so I´ve set down and wrote my answer to the first question because I´ve heard my neighbors answering it already, which was really helpful.
P.: So, that´s an interesting tip and that´s actually one that I haven´t heard before.
M.: Oh, Really?
P.: So, I mean none of my students have mentioned it before but basically what you are saying is sometimes it might be helpful come back into the room maybe two or three minutes earlier, see if you can hear those questions.
M.: Yeah, you can actually hear the first and the second one, so very useful.
P.: That is a very useful tip. So, how about the rest of the questions on the TOEFL speaking section? Three to six, how that goes for you?
M.: Those are easier because, if I remember correctly, in the third question you would talk about some stuff connected with your student´s life, like living in the dorm or attending lectures and this is something you would talk about in real life. So, it´s not really something random. So, my… I had most fears about the first and the second question but the other questions were OK because you have, you know, the topic you have to discuss, sometimes you have a text, so it makes life easier.
P.: And so what did you do to prepare for those at home, to three to six, you´ve just said you go through a few practice questions or you did you have to do something more complex?
M.: What I did, I downloaded a nap, actually program, a desktop program by Kaplan, they had 8 sections, 8 speaking sections and I just did them in a row. I set down and in a whole day, I was doing speaking and I did 8 speaking tests that day.
P.: Wow! So, that´s a lot of commitment. Now, why did you have to do 8 speaking tests in a day, like how long did you have to prepare for the TOEFL once you find out that you are taking it?
M.: I only had 10 days, which was a little too fast because, well I only found out about the applying to universities at the end of October and then I had to select the universities and I had to pass GMAT and GMAT I think 5 times harder than TOEFL, that´s why I dedicated all of my time to preparing for GMAT. My GMAT was on Christmas Eve and then we have new Year´s Day in Russia which kind of one of the biggest holidays in Russia, so I took four days off preparation and then in 1st January I started to prepare for TOEFL and my TOEFL was on January 10.
P.: And this is pretty common I think for TOEFL test takers, I don´t think you are the only one who this is happening to.
M.: Yeah, I think TOEFL really tests your knowledge of English not like your ability to take TOEFL unlike GMAT tests your ability to take GMAT. And with TOEFL if you are advanced or upper intermediate in your English you just need to get acquainted with the task and make sure you´re prepared well for the speaking part.
P.: And so, you know, if someone has two weeks or ten days like you had to, you know, to prepare pretty much for entire TOEFL exam, what would you recommend what they to do for that?
M.: I would recommend they do a practice test first, so download any TOEFL prep book, TOEFL prep app, do a normal test and see how it goes because for the reading and for the listening part you would get your results straight away, so you would see whether you are scoring the score you need or you scoring lower than you need. And then for speaking and writing, I would give and advice hiring somebody like a native speaker who is doing something related to TOEFL, who can check your answers, who can point out the mistakes, otherwise you wouldn´t have any other way to check if you are right or wrong in your speaking and writing sections.
P: Yeah, and getting that personalized feedback I think is really important and I am glad you´ve mentioned that, because you know, a lot of students, they make the assumption that because maybe the reading and listening section are easier, maybe even for some students you know the writing section as well, they make the assumption, OK, maybe the speaking won´t be so bad. And they go to a test, they try to take it, and then they come to the realization that was a lot more difficult.
M.: Yeah, yeah, also thought my writing section was the best, for example during the test I had enough time to re-check it and you know, I wrote more words that actually requires, that is just the kind of things you what to do to score maximum in the writing section, but then, when the results came out, I scored 26 out of 30 so that´s the only section where I had lower score, not perfect. I think you would never know why they give you the wrong score or the low score, sometimes because the idea is not that developed, you know, maybe some minor mistakes but I was pretty sure I did very well, so…
P.: I am glad you brought that up because you brought a really good point, which is, you know, you are skilled enough at the English language, like we were talking before, you are basically at a native level and so you had that basis, that foundation where you could spend 10 days and you could do quite well, you know, on the TOEFL test which is excellent, which is great, that shows you are putting a lot of work through your entire life to get to that point, it was a little bit easier. But some students, you know, they stuck in the position, where they take the TOEFL, you know, three times, five times, seven times, ten times and I think this goes back to your point that it´s important sometimes to hire a native speaker with TOEFL experience for speaking and writing sections because those people will take the test will take the TOEFL again and again and again. And with the rubric they get back from ETS for the writing and speaking section those are very general rubrics, right?
M.: Exactly
P. Like “you did not do this, you did not do this, but you did this,” because they need to send these rubrics to thousands of people every time they take TOEFL. And so understanding I think, you know, the nuances, the little details that are different makes a huge difference in going from maybe a speaking score 23 to 24 up to 26 or 27 or maybe a writing score of 22-23 up to 25-26. Understanding what is specific to you, what you are struggling with I think is a really good reason to hire a native speaker. Because like you said, you got your feedback back from ETS and you were like «while my writing section I thought was the best, yet this rubric which is very generic and doesn´t give me any details.
M. Exactly
P.: So, I think that´s a very good point. Now, for the reading and listening sections for the students, you know, maybe they don´t have the same level like you, maybe they more like intermediate, maybe upper intermediate, what would be the best way to do well on the reading and listening section when they prepare?
M.: I think switching on all of your senses, I mean I was really distracted during preparation. So, when I was preparing for TOEFL I would never score 30 out of 30, but I scored 30 of 30 in the exam. Because I was really very attentive, I was trying to, you know, to check everything to make sure everything is correct but also I would advise you, because TOEFL room could be really noisy, I had a lot of neighbors asking questions, when they already started a test, and it´s a very good advice when you are sitting at home preparing, switch on the news on the television or something you don´t really like, something really distracting because you have to be ready for those conditions and this is my kind of advice. And also do any, you know, all those textbooks, even TOEFL textbooks or just random English textbooks which have this reading part, read the text and answer the questions. So, maybe do a lot of reading, answer the questions after the chapter.
P.: And maybe go back and see which one you´ve got right, which one you´ve got wrong and make adjustments from there.
M.: Yeah, exactly. And during TOEFL also make sure that you have, you know, three minutes at the end of the reading section to go back and check our answers because I did that and I found three or four mistakes in my reading section and that was really useful.
P.: So, I wanna dig into that a little bit more if you know, if they need to leave three minutes at the end of the reading passage, how should they approach the rest of those 17 minutes, when they are answering, you know, the 12 or 13 questions of the reading passage.
M.: I don´t know, I mean you have to finish the whole reading part, but leave three minutes and then go back to the first questions and make sure you check everything, just you know, read it quickly and read all the questions again.
P.: You are just saying like one minute per passage of those three passages in total and maybe leave about a minute at the end to double check each passage to make sure that you have the answer that you want.
M.: Yes. Exactly. Because in the first ten minutes of the test you will have people entering the classroom and asking questions, you know, putting their bags and that would be really distracting. And then in the middle of the test, when you are finishing you reading part it would be quieter and you would be more relaxed so you can go back and check the answers again.
P.: Can we that same advice apply to the listening section then?
M.: I don´t think you can go back in the listening section, can you?
P.: You can, you can. You definitely can, so and that´s why I wanted to clarify if you can go back in the listening section, so you know, for the listening section it is a receptive skill just as a reading section. But it also requires a slightly different approach. Would you have any advice in terms what students could do to really do as good as possible on the listening section?
M.: I would advise to write everything down, especially small details, like if they have a number, like they would say there were 23 students in the classroom, write that down because there would be questions concerning slight details and also make sure that you are not missing any parts of conversations because otherwise, you would miss, you know, very important information. So, I tried to write everything down and I think my notes helped me at those times because I wrote down that specific numbers or dates or facts that I would otherwise forget.
P.: And how did you balance that with making sure you could still understand the overall meaning of the listening passage? Did you try to, you know, write down the really fine details but then also listen to the overachieved message because, for example, some students complain about how they were so focused on taking notes and as many as possible, that seemed to lose the big message of the entire listening passage. Did you have to deal with that challenge at all?
M.: I don´t think so, but I think I´ve applied the skill of, you know, scripting lectures when you sit in the lecture you have to make a script. I did pretty much the same. So no, I don´t think I had that problem.
P.: Can you explain that process, when you were scripting a lecture?
M.: Like you are trying to write everything down and maybe make a lot of contractions, you know and make sure you write all the details down. You cannot have the things like “the teacher said” you can just put down the facts and that´s it.
P.: Ok, Ok, and also good being aware of how you taking notes using the notes using the abbreviations as well as contractions. Maybe, this is what I tell some students, “You know, don´t write down articles or prepositions”,
M.: Yes, yes,
P.: Stick to the verbs or the nouns and the adjectives.
M.: And also use letters, like you have a teacher and students talking, use T and S, you would definitely get what is going on.
P.: That´s another great piece of advice. So, let´s finish up. I just have one more question for you. If you could tell the students who are preparing for the TOEFL, you know, either students who have yet to take the TOEFL or the students who are still trying to earn their goal score, if you had to give one really good piece of advice, what would that advice be?
M.: I think, you know, many people think, «Hey, I would go and take this TOEFL and see how much I can get and then decide whether I should go to the university or not. This is a really bad strategy because you don´t have a motivation to score something higher because you don´t know where this is leading you. But when you have, you know, certain universities or job you want to apply and you need a TOEFL score, then you have a really high motivation to score a high score and just make sure you have your deadlines, for example for universities and you have the scores you need to get and only then go and take your TOEFL. Also there so many opportunities to take TOEFL at home like downloading apps and using different textbooks. So, don´t do something other people do like taking TOEFL 2 or 3 times because this only adds stress and you can do everything for free at home. So just make sure you are scoring the right score during practice test at home and only then go and do the real test.
P.: And I think those are two really good pieces of advice. I mean I´ve heard so many students, just like you mention, you know, they don´t have that “why” established before they take a TOEFL, why are they taking TOEFL, what is a very specific reason, because then, you know, once you answer that question, “why”, then that determines everything else you need to do.
M.: Yeah, Exactly.
P.: And that´s so important because that determine how you study, what score you need.
M.: Yeah, how much time you dedicate too.
P.: Exactly. Exactly. And your other point is great as well. I think that´s the point I just briefly want to talk about. A lot of students will make the mistake of, you know, like I know some students who have taken the TOEFL 20 times.
M.: Oh, Wow! That´s a lot of money.
P.: Exactly, it´s a lot of money and at the same time they are willing to spend money and trying to get lucky to get the score they want, but they are unwilling to invest that money maybe in customized help. So, I think what you are talking about is, you know, only at the very most you should take TOEFL two or three times. You know, if you are doing any more than that, then you need to find professional help, who teach you, a course, something so that you don´t continue to throw money because like you said, you can do a lot of preparation at home, there is no reason to have to pay ETS two hundred dollars and trying to be lucky.
M.: That´s true.
P.: So, tell us, Marina, a little more just where people can find you online, whether on YouTube or on the Internet and tell also a little bit about Lingua Trip because I did not get a chance to explain that.
M.: Yeah, sure. So, you can find me on YouTube, I have a channel in English and you can find me by typing either Lingua Marina or Marina Mogilko and then I am also on Facebook and if you speak Russian, I have a Russian channel as well also on YouTube. And then, LingvaTrip is my start up, we basically send people to learn languages where they are spoken, for example, if you learn English and you want to get a high TOEFL score, I would advise spending like two-three weeks in the United States or the UK and setting with English in general with native speakers and getting a sense what´s real language like. And what we do is we connect you with the right school, we find you accommodation, help you with an exam.
P.: Perfect. Perfect. So, what I gonna do is to make sure I include all the links in the show notes for this podcast, so if you guys are listening and you wanna go, you know, I would recommend, you know, going to Marina´s YouTube channel at the very list and I also be sure to check out LingvaTrip.
M.: Yeah, thank you. Thank you so much. I also have a lot of videos from the States there.
P.: oh, like the places where you went in the States?
M.: Yes, exactly, yeah…
P.: Cool, very cool! So I should definitely check it as well.
Marina, thank you again for joining us, it was really a pleasure to have you here.
M.: Thank you so much for inviting.
P.: You are welcome.