It’s the end of September, and you know what that means – some book and article recommendations!  If you are new to the blog, you might want to check out the master index of articles.  I recommend starting with the newer articles as they are less likely to have dead links.

We’ll start today with some short articles.  This month I read the July issue of “Science News” and spotted a few interesting stories, including:

I also found a few longer articles in the June issue of National Geographic.  They include:

A Week at the AirportI also read a few books!  First up, I read Alain de Botton’s “A Week at the Airport,” which is a very short book (barely longer than a magazine article) about a week he spent living at London’s Heathrow Airport. The book mixes his observations of the everyday goings-on of the airport with the philosophical musing’s he’s known for.  It isn’t exactly “TOEFL English” but it is a fun read if you are looking for non-fiction to keep your reading skills sharp.  You can find it at the Open Library or on Amazon.

Journey into CyprusMeanwhile, I’ve continued to stay home and enjoy travels only in the literary sense.  I read Colin Thubron’s Journey Into Cyprus.  Again, I warn you that his stuff is hard to read, but he remains my favorite living travel writer, so I’ll keep mentioning his books in this column!  This one describes a 900 kilometer walk he took through the country just before the partition of the country.  While this is the fourth of Thubron’s books I’ve mentioned here, I think it is his first perfect travel book, and the first written in the style he is known for today.  You can find it at the Open Library or on Amazon.

That’s all for this month.  But I’ve already found some fun stuff to mention at the end of October.  Stay tuned.

There is a wonderful article on the Duolingo English Test blog about about how they are attempting to improve the test-taker experience (TTX).  It is a very enlightening read, and I encourage all of their competitors to check it out.

Much has been written about how Duolingo’s success is a result of the cost and length of their test.  And while those are certainly the main factors, not much has been written about how the rest of their TTX has attracted students.

I actually spent an hour working on a case study that directly compared aspects of Duolingo’s TTX to the experiences provided by ETS and IDP.  I had screenshots and everything.  But I deleted all of that work, since I don’t want to offend anyone.  Instead, I will offer a few quick suggestions about how any test-maker can easily emulate some of Duolingo’s successes.

So.  Here’s my advice for all of the other companies.  Duolingo does all of these things already.

  • Make all of your information accessible within one or two clicks from the test’s home page.  Not five or six clicks.
  • Don’t use 68 static pages to provide information when 6 will suffice.  Don’t bury important information in a bunch of PDFs.
  • Provide a beautiful FAQ page that quickly answers the questions that are asked every day. This will not only improve the TTX, but will reduce calls to your support number by a huge amount.
  • Make it possible for students to create an account, register and pay for their test in less than five minutes.
  • Provide a free practice test that is different every time the student takes it.  Or, in the case of TOEFL and IELTS, provide at least a few dozen variations.
  • If your test uses automated scoring, implement that in your free practice test.
  • Eliminate all other charges. Don’t charge for score reports to be sent, don’t charge for prep materials, don’t charge for practice tests. There should be one single possible transaction – registration for the test.  Give everything else away for free.  How much money are you making from book sales in 2021 anyways?
  • If your test is taken at home, the price should be the same in every country (except for local sales taxes).  Don’t charge $190 to take the test from my bedroom in country X, and $320 to take it from my bedroom in country Y.
  • When designing a website, use UX practices from 2021, not 2008.

I understand that it may be impossible for Duolingo’s competitors to offer a 60 minute test that costs $49.95.  Perhaps they will never be competitive on price and length.  But they can all make modern websites.  They can all make a proper FAQ.  They can all provide dynamic practice tests. And so on.  They can all compete on these aspects of the TTX, and can do so right away.  The fact that they have not done these things boggles the mind.

Again, I do not wish to offend. But I am available for consultations.  And I am very, very cheap.


If the thought of applying to a university causes you stress, rest assured that you are not alone. 

It all seems to rest on this one moment—the big decision. Get into the “right” university and your future is secure; fail to get in and life is over. Right? Well, not exactly; but it sure can feel that way.

First, take a deep breath. Please hear me when I tell you that your journey won’t be over with admissions, and your success won’t be defined by that small moment. Whether you succeed or fail to get into the university of your dreams, your progress will be defined by effort and growth.  You still have to get through your studies—think about graduate school, think about your profession, think about your career progression. 

The tests you face and the growth required of you will never stop. See this journey as a marathon rather than a sprint.

Second, let me tell you that getting into a university is probably both easier and harder than you think. 

University admissions teams want to accept you. Their job, quite literally, is to find strong applicants and convince them to come to their university. You simply need to give them strong reasons to say, “Yes!” Of course, if you have your heart set on a top-ranked university, chances are that you will be competing with thousands of other students who share your ambition, and there will be too many students looking at too few seats. In that situation, the admissions team typically will be quite strict when it comes to test scores and grades. Why? Their first goal will be to reduce the pile of applications, and test scores are an easy tool. If you fall below a certain level, then the door may not be open for you—unless there is some extraordinary factor like that novel you published or the advanced robot you sold to NASA.

It helps to think of test scores in this way. They either open a door, or they don’t. Typically, test scores are NOT what will get you through that door.

(Editor’s note: This blog post came out of a long discussion I had with some friends from EdAgree about thinking beyond the TOEFL when it comes to getting into a university. International students have a lot more to think about than just their standardized test scores, and I hope this post highlights some of those things for you.)


So what do you need to do to GET IN? How can you maximize your chances for admissions?  How can you stand out from the crowd of applicants who are standing outside that open door?

Here are five straightforward strategies that I have advised students to pursue over the past couple of decades working with aspiring undergraduates.

1 – Show that you are really interested in a university that you target

This may be the most convincing and least understood of the factors that lead to university admissions success.  If you can show that the university actually matters to you—that there is a convincing reason for you to favor the university—then the admissions team will quickly pick you over other qualified candidates who don’t have such a connection.

What can you do to provide this evidence? Well, first, it should be true. Most students apply to Harvard or Stanford simply because they are “top” universities. How many students know about the research into early Cambrian fossils in South China out of Harvard? How many students who aspire to high-energy particle studies know about the Stanford Linear Accelerator? Further, how many students have reached out to professors in those programs?

You need to do everything that you can to provide evidence that a particular university and a particular program really matter to you. Why is the program special to you?

Remember the point above—admissions teams want to identify prospective qualified students who will attend their programs.  If you are qualified and you have a valid reason to choose a given university above others, then you move to the top of the pile of applications.

Continue reading “University Admissions – Open the Door; Then Walk Through!!!”

This is a really interesting story.  Pearson is going to shorten their English test! According to the PIE News:

The length of the PTE Academic test will be reduced from three to two hours from November 16, which Pearson says will offer candidates an improved experience but will not affect the accuracy of the English language proficiency exam.

Currently, the PTE takes three hours to complete.

They will also start offering a home version of the test.  Proctoring will be handled in-house via Pearson’s OnVUE service.

This is an interesting approach. Pearson’s decision to simply shorten its main test contrasts with ETS’s decision to create a totally new test (the “TOEFL Essentials” test).

I wonder if Pearson’s decision will encourage ETS to shorten the main TOEFL test (now three hours) or the British Council to shorten the IELTS (now 2hrs 45 minutes).  I wonder, also, if ETS might be encouraged to develop its own in-house proctoring solution.  That might improve the overall test taker experience.

We’ve learned a few things over the past 18 months.  They include:

  • Universities are okay with a really short test (the Duolingo Test is just one hour)
  • Universities are okay if tests do not use live human proctors (the Duolingo Test doesn’t have any)
  • Universities are okay if spoken and written responses are judged entirely by AI (the Duolingo and PTE tests don’t use them)

 I wonder if ETS will choose to take advantage of these trends.  The TOEFL Essentials test is obviously much shorter than their main TOEFL test, but it still uses human proctors (which add some pre-test time) and human graders (which add cost).  If I close my eyes and think really hard, I can imagine a two hour TOEFL iBT that is short, cheap and a bit more user-friendly.  I’ll write about that in a future blog post. 

This is a new kind of error.  I see it in essays almost every day.  For some reason, it seems a lot more common nowadays.  Weird.

“Even if” 

“Even if” refers to a possible situation.  The meaning is close to “whether or not.”


“Even if we work hard, we will fail.” 

This means that we might work hard or we might not work hard.  In either case, we will fail.


“Even if the government shuts down the factory, global warming will continue.”

This means that the government might shut down the factory.  Or it might not shut down the factory.  In either case, global warming will continue.

“Even Though”

“Even though” refers to a situation that is true.  The meaning is close to “despite the fact.”


“Even though we worked hard, we failed.”

This means that we worked hard and we failed.


“Even though we work hard, we fail.”

This means that we always work hard and we always fail.


“Even though the government shut down the factory, global warming continued.”

This means that the government shut down the factory, and global warming continued.


“Even though the government will shut down the factory, global warming will continue.”

This means that the government will shut down the factory, and global warming will continue.

Personal examples in TOEFL essays are often about friendships and relationships, so I often see sentences using “maintain relationships” and “keep relationships.”

How can students use these phrases properly?

Maintain Relationships

This is the easiest one to use.  It means to do what is necessary to continue in the relationship.  Use it like this:

“It is important for us to maintain relationships with our old friends.”

“It can be challenging to maintain relationships with our friends when we go away to college.”

Keep Relationships

This one is a bit harder.  It should include a pronoun and an adjective.  Like this:

“It is important to keep our relationships strong.”

“Everyone should work hard to keep their relationships healthy.”

You can use “keep relationships” alone, but that has a meaning closer to “retain relationships” which sometimes sounds awkward, and isn’t usually the intended meaning.

Easiest Use

Honestly, it is probably easiest to just use “Maintain” all the time.  You can replace the above sentences with:

“It is important to maintain strong relationships.”

“Everyone should work hard to maintain healthy relationships.”


I think the above rules also apply to the word “friendships.”