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.”

The little library in my neighborhood got rid of its entire collection of English books… and replaced it with an entirely new collection.  What a strange occurrence.  I had to walk to the next city over to get a copy of the first book on today’s list.

Guns Germs and SteelAnyways, that book was Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” (available on Amazon, and in the Open Library).  This book attempts to explain why events happens in certain places on earth, but not on others. This means it deals a lot with what I’ve called here “early human history,” which happens to be a favorite topic of the people who write the reading section of the TOEFL. Actually, I suppose Diamond’s book is on the shelf of all of the ETS item writers. It truly is just page after page after page of “TOEFL style” stuff.  Even the reading level and vocabulary usage seem to be quite similar to the TOEFL.  The best part, though, is that the book presents arguments instead of just describing things.  Seriously, if you only buy one book mentioned in my columns, get this one.

Jerusalem by Colin ThubronNext, I read Colin Thubron’s “Jerusalem” (out of print now, but available in the Open Library)  I’ve mentioned a few of his other travel books here.  They are probably too challenging to be of use to TOEFL test-takers, but I like to mention them here as I’m slowly working my way through Thubron’s complete bibliography of travel books.  This one marks the end of Thubron’s trilogy of books on middle eastern locales.  If you are interested in the region, you might like the book.  Just be prepared to keep Wikipedia open to look up his references, as Thubron assumes his readers already have a well-rounded education.  

Finally, I read both of the June issues of Science News. A few short articles stood out as relevant to TOEFL test-takers.  They are:

Hey, would you believe that I’ve been writing this column for a whole year?  Don’t worry… I’m not going to stop anytime soon.  Keep checking in every month for the remaining 88 parts!


The TOEFL is a somewhat misunderstood test. There is a lot of incorrect information about it online, and in print. I suppose this is because most major American publishers have retreated from the world of TOEFL, and a lot of the online companies that emerged with the creation of the iBT in 2005 have let their products wither away. This means that online TOEFL prep is still a sort of “wild west” where myths and legends run wild!

With that said, here are the top seven TOEFL myths that still drive me bonkers.

Myth One: There is a penalty for writing more than the suggested word count

Regular readers of this blog will be tired of me constantly ranting about this myth, so I will keep this one short.  You can write as much as you want! There is no penalty for writing long essays.

Proof: Official Guide, page 199.

Myth Two: The TOEFL is Easier in Some Countries

This is the weirdest myth I hear.  Some people are convinced that the TOEFL is easier in certain countries. This has existed since before the IBT was introduced. People still take international flights because they are duped by this myth.  Crazy, right?

Proof: Honestly, I don’t have any.  But use your brain, people.

Myth Three: The Unscored Listening and Reading Content is Experimental

A lot of people still believe that the unscored listening and reading content on the test is experimental content, or questions that will appear on the test in the future. In fact, the opposite is true.  This content is old stuff, and is used to carry out a process called “score equating” that ensures that the difficulty of the test is the same every week.

Proof: TOEFL Research Insight Series, Volume 3

Myth Four: The Human Rater and E-Rater Have Equal Weight

This is an enduring myth, but I don’t believe ETS has ever stated anything of the sort. Actually, they have stated that “human ratings for the integrated task currently receive twice the weight of machine scores.”  Keep that in mind.

Proof:  Andre Rupp, 2019

Myth Five:  Students Ought to Mention the Lecture First in Writing Task One

This one drives me bananas.  A lot of teachers insist that every body paragraph in the first essay task ought to mention the lecture details before the reading details.  This is based on an overly-zealous close reading of the question prompt.  Fortunately, this isn’t mandatory.  A quick look at the various “high scoring responses” published in the three ETS books reveals that students can present the details in whatever order they prefer.

Proof:  The sample essays in the Official Guide to the TOEFL and the Official iBT Tests book.

Myth Six:  The Lecture Sometimes Supports the Reading in Writing Task One

Look, anything is possible.  ETS could change the test at any time. You should be prepared for anything.  But they’ve published four tests in the Official Guide, ten tests in the Official iBT Tests books, two on the website and maybe a couple more in deprecated products.  And 50 more tests through New Oriental in China.  And a few more in Korea via Digital Chosun.  That’s like 70+ tests.  The lecture opposes the reading in all of them. Some people might call the “problem/solution” style questions supporting essays… but that’s a stretch.

Proof:  All of those tests!

Myth Seven: Each Reading Passage Always has Ten Questions

Okay, now we’re getting into “who cares” territory, but this is another myth! A lot of people think there will always be ten questions per reading passage and panic when they only get nine.  Or, worse yet, they assume that a passage with nine questions is an “experimental” set and skip it. Avoid problems on test by being aware that sometimes (especially when a fill-in-the-table question is used in the set) there will be only nine reading questions. That’s totally normal.

Proof: Official Guide, Practice Test 1 (third reading).  It’s only got nine questions!

I have updated my TOEFL writing templates for 2021. In the attached video, you’ll find templates for both the independent and integrated essays.  I’ve adjusted them only slightly for this year… but I think they are a bit better than the 2020 versions.  I’ll probably make a video containing all of the 2021 speaking templates as well, so keep an eye on the channel.

Over the next few days I will adjust all of the static webpage articles so that they include the new templates.

This one’s hard to explain, so pay attention.

Access as Verb

When used as a verb, “access” it is not followed by “to.”  Just write:

  • “Thanks to the Internet, I can access information at any time.”
  • “Students can access a lot of books at the campus library.”
  • “Everyone wants to access the Internet nowadays.”

This is the most common use of the word, I think.

Access as a Noun

When used as a noun, “access” should be followed by “to.”  As in:

  • “Thanks to the Internet, students have access to a lot of information.”
  • “Students who visit the library have access to a lot of books.”
  • “Student wants access to more books.”

Don’t Write “access (v) to”

The most common error I see is when students use “access” as a verb and write “to” after it.  This will always be wrong.  Don’t write:

  • On the Internet, students can access to a lot of information at any time.”


This is a simple one.  Here’s what you need to know:

  • Don’t use “make effort.”
  • Do use “make an effort.”

This is a mistake I correct almost every day!

Here are a few samples:

  • You won’t pass the test if you don’t make an effort to learn English.
  • Joseph will likely make an effort to arrive on time.

When I checked Google News I found 213000 articles that included ” make an effort .” I did find 4850 articles that included “make effort” but they are mostly from countries outside of North America.

Well, I didn’t get invited to the EFL Magazine TOEFL Teacher Summit, but if someone asked me how to be a successful TOEFL teacher, here’s what I would say.

About Success

First, though, a few words about success.

No one has ever gotten rich teaching TOEFL, so maybe there has never been a successful TOEFL teacher. That said,  I’ve never spent a penny on advertising and my website is just a crappy WordPress template… but I’m still really busy.  Maybe that’s a kind of success.

About these Methods

Overall, this article stresses the need to be (and be known as) an expert in all things TOEFL.

Other approaches are possible, of course.  I’ll pass this article on to some other teachers and post a follow-up with their suggestions.

1. Read Everything

You have to do the research. Every month a different TOEFL tutor scolds me for suggesting that students should write more than 300 words in the second writing task.  They insist that that isn’t allowed. But the Official Guide to the TOEFL clearly states that there is no penalty for a long word count. These teachers haven’t even done the most basic research. Additionally, I still see claims like:

  • The unscored reading and listening passages are “experimental” content.
  • Personal examples should not be used in the second essay.
  • There are always 10 questions per article in the reading section.

None of these things are true, but I see them all over the Internet. Even the most cursory research  disproves them. One day I’ll make a recommended reading list, but off the top of my head you should read: the three official books, the TOEFL Insight series, all of the relevant articles from the ETS database, Carol Chapelle’s book on the validity of the test, the SpeechRater book from Rutledge, the e-rater book, and the teacher training manual from ETS.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Bottom line: The point here is that you should become a TOEFL expert. This will make you a better teacher, and will also generate word of mouth recommendations that mention your expertise.

2. Understand Grammar

Don’t be that teacher that says “that’s just more natural” whenever a student asks a question about why you made a certain correction. English has grammar and you should understand it. Know how to use the proper terminology to give explanations.  Sadly, this will require more reading.  Start with Michael Swan’s book.

You won’t be successful as a tutor if you know less about grammar than your students. I’m not saying you need to be a perfect writer.  I make grammar mistakes in all of my blog posts. I’m just saying that you need to have the ability to explain things to your students.

Bottom line:  Be a grammar expert. Grammar sucks, but it is important on the TOEFL.

3. Don’t be Annoying

Write good content and put it on the Internet in a clear and straightforward fashion. Good content that is easy to access will expose a lot of students to you and your work.

Remember that you must not annoy people with a giant pop-over advertising your newsletter.  Don’t force people to submit their email address to get your stuff. Don’t write “SEO rich” content.  No one likes that. Remember how frustrating it was last week when you were trying to find a recipe for french toast?  That’s how your readers feel when they get sucked into your e-mail funnel nonsense. Actually, they feel worse because their search for information actually matters.

Bottom Line: Quality content presented in an easy-to-digest way will let students know you are an expert.

4. Quit and Teach IELTS Instead

Hard statistics aren’t available, but most experts agree that the IELTS is a way more popular test.  My guess is that it has an 80% market share, compared to TOEFL’s 20%. If you want to make money, consider just teaching IELTS instead.

And, meanwhile, the Duolingo is chipping away at both tests.  Not to mention the growing importance of the CAEL.

Bottom Line: You can make more money doing something else.

5. Remember who Takes the TOEFL

If you stick with the TOEFL, remember who is actually taking the TOEFL.  Test-takers are mostly: Chinese + Koreans + Japanese + Pharmacists in the USA.  For the first three categories that 80/20 split is probably reversed.  And the last one is 100% TOEFL. If you want to be successful teaching TOEFL you should figure out those markets.

Bottom Line: Understand your market.

6. Remember that Blogs Still Exist

Word of mouth by way of blog posts can really help your business. This might sound strange to some readers, since blogs died off in the United States more than a decade ago.  But they are still really popular in non-English markets. I’m not kidding!  This is especially true in the aforementioned big three TOEFL countries: China, Korea and Japan. When students from those countries contact me out of the blue I ask how they learned about me, and the response is generally that they read some international student’s blog.

This compares favorably to the trend of getting students to post endorsements on Facebook.  I see a lot of great comments about teachers on the big TOEFL Facebook groups, but those lovely comments all sink down into the algorithm’s black hole within 48 hours. Never to be seen again.

Bottom Line:  Word of Mouth, Damn it!

7.  Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

If your schedule permits, I recommend that you do 30 minutes or an hour of pro bono work each day.  This might mean answering questions on Facebook, or Reddit or even Quora (LOL). This may help to establish your expert credentials, but it will also help you keep up with what students are thinking, and what they need. The latter is quite important but often overlooked – student needs change as time passes, based on the available resources. Emerging ed-tech really changes what students can do on their own, and what they need a teacher for. It is likely that many students nowadays need specialists rather than generalists. 

Bottom Line: Keep up with the changing world.

8.  Don’t Place Your Faith in the Algorithm

It was once possible to rely on Facebook and YouTube for a steady stream of clients. That is still an option, but it is more difficult than in the past. Those spaces are a lot more crowded now, and the demands of the algorithm for constant content can be a bit overwhelming.  If you rely too much on those streams you might burn out.  That’s why point 6 (word of mouth on other people’s blogs) is relevant.  You should also try to maintain  quality static content of your own (I mean building a frigging website). Getting eyeballs that way is a bit more manageable than dealing with the feed-the-beast aspect of social media.


Anyhow, I realize now that this is all “big picture” stuff.  It doesn’t really go into the nitty-gritty of day to day teaching, technology use, scheduling, marketing, etc.  Hopefully I’ll have a few words to share about those things in the future.

It can be difficult to use “near” and “nearby” properly.  I fix mistakes with these two words in TOEFL essays almost every day!  Here’s a quick guide:

  1. Use “near” as a preposition that states the proximity of something to something else.  Like this: “There is a beach near my house.”  This means that there is a beach close to my house.
  2. Use “nearby” before a noun (as an adjective) or after a noun (as an adverb) to say that something is close: “The beach is nearby.” And: “We can meet at a nearby beach.
  3.  Never use nearby as a preposition to describe the closeness of something to something else.  Never say: “There is a beach nearby my house.”


Those are the main usage notes that TOEFL essay writers need.  Of course, a few more things are worth mentioning.  They are:

  1. It is okay to use “near to” as a prepositional phrase.  As in:  “There is a beach near to my house.”  
  2. To make matters more complicated, we often use “near” as an adverb to talk about where we do actions.  As in: “We live near the beach.”
  3. For those keeping track at home, this is covered in Michael Swan’s book in entries 415 and 531.  Maybe I’ll e-mail Swan and suggest a special “near vs nearby” entry in the “word problems” section.  It is a common enough error.

Great news!  This year,  Dr. Pamela Sharpe (author of Barron’s TOEFL iBT  ) will again provide scholarships to help students cover the cost of taking the TOEFL test. Dr. Sharpe has offered this scholarship for decades, and last year she awarded scholarships of $200 to seven students, including several readers of this blog.

Like last year, the relevant details are:

  1.  The scholarship is open to students from all countries.
  2.  Students should have taken the test at least once before and be preparing to take it again to earn a higher score.
  3.  To apply, students must write an essay on the following topic – “What is the best way to prepare for the TOEFL?” and include at least three suggestions.
  4. The essays (along with contact information) should be e-mailed to in September.
  5. The scholarships will be awarded in October, and students will be contacted by e-mail.

I really want to draw your attention to the last point. You should wait until September to send your essays. Instead of sending your essay right away, use August to think about your work.  Try to be thoughtful and persuasive.  Really demonstrate that you have a serious plan to prepare for the TOEFL.

More information is available on Dr. Sharpe’s personal website.  Scroll down to the second scholarship listed there.