A short entry this month as I’m traveling now and am far away from my stack of unread magazines.

I’m in Labuan Bajo, by the way.  Wikipedia describes it as a “fishing town located at the western end of the large island of Flores in the Nusa Tenggara region of east Indonesia.”  It is often used by visitors as a gateway to Komodo National Park.

Here is a National Geographic article about the Komodo Dragon.  ETS loves to include content about animals on the test, so that’s a perfect bit of academic reading practice!

I’m in a small hotel in a more rural part of the town. The atmosphere here is peaceful and quiet.  Well, mostly quiet.  A few months ago kids in Indonesia discovered the old “clackers” toy so every ten minutes the silence is broken by the toy’s signature clack-clack-clack-clack.  It’s the weirdest thing.  Why clackers?  Why now?

I read a few things this month, though.

First up, I read Colin Thubron’s “To a Mountain in Tibet.”  Part travelogue, part history lesson, it describes the author’s visit to Mt. Kailas in the early 2000s.  Thubron is my favorite travel writer (as regular readers of this column already know) and this is one of his strongest and most personal works.  You can get it on Amazon

I have visited Tibet a few times.  The last was around 2012, I think.  I remember how a police car was waiting for my partner and myself when we arrived at one town with a recent history of protests.  Someone, probably the driver, had called ahead to let local officials know that some outsiders were coming.  The Chinese state is impressive, to say the least.

I also read the July 2021 issue of Scientific American.  A few things caught my attention:

This short article about new ways to grow coral cells might be a bit boring, but I’ve been snorkeling on this trip.  It’s relevant!

The month’s cover story about human evolution and why we are more dependent on water that other species is perfect!  On trips to tropical destinations like Indonesia I’m dehydrated pretty much all the time, so reading about why I have this problem is perfectly relevant.  The article is actually quite interesting, and I can imagine ETS creating a reading passage about a similar topic some day.

The issue also contains a long story about how we might solve the climate change crisis by pulling carbon from the air and sequestering it deep underground.  The article is a bit technical… but so is the TOEFL reading section.

So there you go.  Four articles and a book.  I think I’ll leave it at that.  I’ll check in again next month with more notes from the road, and a few more articles.

My last post reminded me of some advice I’ve given numerous times. Which is that if you are running a large-scale assessment, you should link your free practice material to user accounts. That way you have a never-ending faucet of useful and actionable data.

This is what Duolingo has done all along. Test watchers have noticed they way they stick new types of questions into the practice test now and then. Some of these have later gone on to appear on the actual test. Others have not.

The new 60-minute practice test is just an extension of this. I look forward to taking it.

It is somewhat surprising that the providers of legacy tests aren’t doing this already. I understand that it is easier for Duolingo to do this because most of their questions are machine generated, but if you’ve got access to decades worth of retired test forms you can just rotate through them as needed.

According to a report in the South China Morning Post, Koolearn Technology will pivot from TOEFL preparation to “live streaming e-commerce.” Like selling apples. Or a nice frozen steak.

Test watchers might recognize Koolearn (mostly owned by New Oriental) as the exclusive publisher (in China) of “Test Practice Online” (TPO) tests for the TOEFL, which they license from ETS. I am curious if that relationship will continue as the company repositions itself.


On this page, I will collect student testimonials from 2023!  If I have helped you this year, consider sending me your own testimonial!

You can sign up for help with the TOEFL over here.

January, 2023:

I got 27 in the writing section two times, and my best total score is 104. That’s thanks to your help!

-K.O, Japan

Thanks to your support, my writing score is better than ever and I got 100 for the first time!

-S.T, Japan

Your guides and templates are fantastic, your tips are very practical and helpful and I really appreciate you making them available for free. I was worried about the speaking section of the test in particular because I don’t have a lot of experience speaking English and because of my stutter, but your resources really helped me practice and build confidence and I ended up scoring a perfect 120 on the test! Thank you so much for your efforts to help TOEFL test takers.


I’m writing this email to say that I passed the test with a score of 29, 28, 28, 25!  I couldn’t have done it without your help, thank you so much!


February, 2023

I just wanted to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude for all the support you’ve provided me during my test-taking journey. Between September and December 2022, I took the test about 10 times, and I’m thrilled to report that I achieved my best scores yet – a total of 98, with a writing score of 26 and a speaking score of 20. These scores have improved significantly!

Thanks to these results, I’ve been accepted into several top Ph.D. programs. I couldn’t have accomplished this without your services and all your hard work. Once again, thank you so much for everything!

K.S, Japan

March, 2023

I just saw the result, and I’m quite satisfied with it. I don’t have to take the exam again! I received higher scores than I expected in the Speaking and Writing sections, and it was all thanks to you. Thank you for all the support you made for me. You are the most professional English teacher I’ve ever met.

Y.K, Korea

Thank you very much, Mike. I finally scored 27 in writing and can start my masters course. I really appreciate that you are sharing all the wonderful materials with us. Moreover, your prompt and comprehensive feedback for my writing was very very helpful.

K.T, Korea

April 2023

I am pleased to inform you that I got admitted to Stanford Law School. My final TOEFL score is 107 (R29, L27, S24, W27).

Your support was extremely helpful. You always motivated me to study English. Thank you very much for your enthusiastic support.


I just wanted to let you know that I got all of my scores back: R25, L30, S29 and W24!!!!!!!!! Thank you so much for your help, now I have what I need to apply for my master’s degree! So again thank you thank you thank you!!!! 🙂 I am so happy!!!


I am so excited to announce to you that I will head to Columbia next year.  Undoubtedly, your help has been really useful given that this school requires 105+ for TOEFL. Thank you again for your support with this – awful – speaking test. I am very proud to have been your student. 


May 2023

Thank you for your help! I just got my Toefl score and I achieved a 110 in total and a 25 in writing. Thank you so much!

-R.Q, Germany

I recently passed the TOEFL exam. I scored 108 (30 / 26 / 23 / 29). So my writing score is almost perfect, and I believe that such success is mostly attributed to your help. Thank you very much.

-A.N., Russia

June, 2023

Thanks to Michael, I was able to get 25 in writing and 92 overall on my TOEFL score. This summer, I will be studying at MPP at the University of California, San Diego. I really appreciate your help.

-K.K., Japan

Just want to share a good news with you. I took exam a week ago and got results today. I got 30 out of 30 on speaking section. Just want to thank you for your help. Your feedback really made a difference!


Recently, I received the results of my TOEFL from June 10th, and my Writing score was 24. I had been stuck at 20 or 21 for a while, so this was surprising for me. I appreciate your support. I couldn’t have achieved this score without you!

-A.K., Japan

July, 2023

I wanted to express my heartfelt gratitude for the incredible TOEFL resources you have made available on your website.Recently, I took the TOEFL exam and I’m thrilled to inform you that I achieved a score of 115

Your free essay writing resource played a significant role in my success, and I found the templates on your website to be a true godsend. Moreover, I also utilized your speaking templates, which proved to be extremely valuable. I cannot thank you enough for providing such an invaluable resource

I understand that creating and sharing these resources without any cost or obligation is not a common practice, and it’s a true testament to your generosity and dedication. Your efforts have made a tremendous impact on my performance. With your guidance, I scored a 28 on the writing section and a perfect 30 on the speaking section.

Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your exceptional resources. Your selflessness and commitment to helping students like me are truly commendable. I am deeply grateful for your contributions.


I would like to thank you for your help in getting my best score in writing.

-M.S, Japan

 Thanks to your support, my TOEFL score improved as below!

   ・Jul 9: 107 (R30 L26 S22 W29)

・Jul 22: 106 (R30 L29 S21 W26)

I am very grateful for your perfect support.

A.I, Japan

August 2023

I finally did it! I passed the test!!! I wanted to thank you for your support and advice. It was a great pleasure working with you!

-E.M, Pharmacist 

I really appreciate the help you have given me for the past few weeks, it has definitely helped me with my scores and I had a great time working with you!

-G.K. Korea

I gave my TOEFL exam last week and scored 111 total with 29 points in the writing section. I wanted to thank you for correcting my essays. It helped me a lot with my preparations. 


November 2023

After meeting with Michael, I was able to immediately increase my writing and speaking scores from 22 and 19 to 25 and 22. His solid experience with the TOEFL exam provided valuable insights into the techniques. I am deeply grateful for your contributions.

-H.K, Turkey

I got the result today and my score was 103 (R28 L26 S23 W26). My writing score was much higher than the first TOEFL and I do appreciate your feedback.

-M.S, Japan

I am writing to express my sincere gratitude for the tremendous support and assistance you provided me with. I recently took my TOEFL test and achieved a score of 25 in the speaking section.


January 2024

Your templates and tips on speaking faster were very useful, and you emphasized their importance, which not many people do. Speed was my main issue, and it was amazing to see the difference it made.


Without your persistent help, it would have been hard to achieve this score, especially in writing!


March 2024

After your last review, I continued to take the TOEFL test until February and my score was finally 92 (R28, L23, S17, W24)(Best score: R28, L25, S17, W25).  My writing score reached 25, which I wanted to get! I believe that your reviews and lessons were essential to my admission.   Thank you very much for your strong and kind support!

-A.U., Japan

April 2024

I would like to share my happiness with you as I finally passed the TOEFL exam with a total score of 94 and you were helpful in an amazing way. I appreciate your comments which have transformed my writing to achieve 22 . Thank you so much , I will definitely recommend you to my friends.


I just received my scores (28/29/29/29). Thank you so much for you help! Your tips gave me enough confidence to push through this difficult test!


May 2024

Thank you for your help. I finally got 26 in writing with an overall score of 107. Your help was great.

-S.K, Dentist

I just want to share some good news with you, I got R29 / L26 / S23 / W25 on my last TOEFL test, and that’s enough for me. Many thanks for your help! You really offer effective training. An expert like you will never be replaced by AI models!

-G.S, China

I just saw my TOEFL result. I PASSED!!!!!!,  Reading 23; Listening 27; Speaking 27 ; Writing 24. Thank you so much for the tutorials, free vouchers, links and encouragement.

-T.P, Pharmacist

Today, I received my TOEFL score! R:30 L:28 S:23 W:28 Overall:109

Thanks to your evaluations and advice, I have achieved my goal in TOEFL!!! Your advice was always very strict but helpful and I really appreciate you. My writing score was 17 in my first TOEFL, but I made a lot of progress in 10 months!! Mike, thank you so much!!!

-T.A, Japan


The other day, I woke up to TWO emails from random strangers letting me know that their TOEFL scores were cancelled due to something resembling an accusation of plagiarism. The emails themselves weren’t strange – I get weird emails all the time since I am the only a few people writing about the minutiae of standardized language tests online.

What’s fascinating is that back in the day (say, 2021 and earlier) I would get ONE such report each year. Now I get multiple reports of score cancellations due to plagiarism each month. Sometimes multiple reports in a single week.

I don’t have access to the data, but I suspect something is different than before.

In each case, the test-taker gets the exact same un-specific notification:

“In the quality control process, the ETS Writing staff noticed that your response(s) to the integrated/independent Writing task did not reflect a response to the assigned task. This was noticeable since the responses for which you receive a score should be your own original and independent work. Further reviews determined that a portion of your Writing response(s) contains ideas, language and/or examples found in other test taker responses or from published sources.”

No further information is provided, even when specifically requested.

In all but one case, the students have denied (to me) committing actions along these lines.

There have been suggestions that AI is used to detect plagiarism nowadays, but I haven’t gotten a confirmation of that.

I don’t know if any of this matters, but it might be interesting to test-watchers.

Students often misuse “in contrast” and “on the contrary.”  This article will explain how they can be used correctly.

In Contrast

This is the easy one.  Use “in contrast” to compare two dissimilar things or statements.  Like:

Harold likes cats.  In contrast, Simon likes dogs.


The Hulk uses his strength to solve problems.  In contrast, Bruce Banner uses his intelligence.


Most people prefer to study in groups.  In contrast, I like to study alone.

“In contrast” functions a lot like “however” in these cases.  To my eye, “however” is probably more natural. 

On the Contrary

This one is tricky.  “On the contrary” is not used to compare two things or statements.  Instead, it is used to emphasize an aspect of a single thing or statement.  We use “on the contrary” to express something like “actually, here’s what is true.”  Like:

I’m not tired.  On the contrary, I’m full of energy.


Harold didn’t fail his test.  On the contrary, he got the highest score in the class.”


Thor isn’t weak.  On the contrary, he is extremely strong.

Do you see what I did there?  I stated something which isn’t true.  I then emphasized my point by using “on the contrary” and stating that something else is  true.

By Contrast

Many people use “by contrast” instead of “in contrast.”  Some people might argue that there is some difference between these two phrases.  I don’t think there is.  I think they can be used interchangeably.  

Over the past month, I’ve gotten many reports of GRE scores being put “on hold” lately.  This is also described as scores going into “administrative review.”  It seems to affect GRE tests taken both at test centers and at home.  It may be connected to recent media reports of cheating on standardized tests.  There are quite a few people on social media complaining about score delays right now.

Your scores might be put on hold due to suspected cheating, or some technical problem during the at-home GRE.  Most of the time the scores are released in the end.  Sometimes they are cancelled and you must take the test again.

Reports indicate that it sometimes takes up to five weeks for the score review process to conclude.  Many people have are worried about missing application deadlines because of this problem.

To talk to someone at ETS about your case, you can contact the ETS Office of Testing Security.  You can call  them at the following numbers:

  • 1-800-750-6991 (in the USA and Canada)
  • +1-609-406-5430 (all other locations)

They answer the phone from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday.  When connected, you should be calm and explain your deadlines.  Note that you may have to wait on hold for some time.

You can also email them, but that might take longer. If you want to try, their email address is: TSReturns@ets.org  or communicatetestsecurity@ets.org

I do not recommend using the regular GRE customer support phone number for this problem, but if you want it here it is.

As a last resort, you could try publically tweeting at ETS.  Some people have reported success doing that.  Others have gotten results after filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, though you might need a VPN for that if you are outside of the USA.


Remember:  I’m not an employee of ETS. I’m just a guy on the Internet.

One of the biggest struggles that students have had with standardized testing in the pandemic era is meeting application deadlines.

Test-takers often feel lost at sea when deadlines are looming, but test companies need extra time to review the validity of their scores.  This problem comes to a head in the winter, of course.

As a tutor and as someone who writes about this stuff, it can be quite frustrating for me to read reports of missed deadlines and academic careers put on hold when, to some extent, it seems like these problems could be avoided through additional staffing.

Last year I wrote about this problem in a very snarky way (even by my standards).  I was angry.

This year I’ll just let the test-takers speak for themselves. Below are a selection of Tweets from just this past week about missed and looming deadlines.  Note that these are only the Tweets that mention deadlines; I didn’t include complaints about late scores without mentions of deadlines.

I included one comment from Reddit at the end since it seemed insightful.

And one lonely Redditor:

I took the GRE on November 4th and my scores are still under administrative review, which seems to be pretty common based on what I’ve seen here and on Twitter. I’ve left at least three voicemails, sent like ten emails, and DMed ETS on Facebook and Twitter, but nobody will respond to me/give me any useful information. This was my second time taking the GRE and I had apps due 12/1. I emailed with the schools to let them know the situation and also sent them my old scores, but these newer ones were much better, and the old scores didn’t arrive until after 12/1. It seems like the “administrative review” issue is worse this year than before, does anyone else have any insight into wtf is going on at ETS?

I’m really hoping that if this is a super common problem this year, my app won’t get dinged for the lower scores, ugh.