I’m often asked which part of the TOEFL is most difficult for students. Of course that’s a somewhat silly question because every student is different. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. In addition, section scores aren’t really meant to be used in isolation.
That said, we can learn a few things by looking at the most recent TOEFL Test and Score Data Summary, which provides a wealth of information about test takers, including mean (average) scores in each section.
If we look at the scores for all test takers we can see that the writing section is the “most difficult” as it has lowest mean score, just 20.5. We could say that the reading section is the easiest, as the mean score is 21.2.
But don’t stop there! The data shows us a few more things:
- For students in high school, reading is the hardest section, with a mean score of 18.0
- For undergraduates reading is also the hardest section, with a mean score of 20.1
- For graduate students not applying to business schools, speaking is the hardest, with a mean score of 21.1
- For graduate students applying to business schools writing is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.0
- For people applying for professional licenses writing is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.2
There are other categories, but you’ll have to find them yourself.
We can also read about gender differences:
- For men, speaking is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.2
- For women, writing is the hardest, with a mean score of 20.6
Women do quite a lot better than men on this test. The overall differences are striking, once you dig into the data. But that’s a topic for another blog entry.
The data also classifies results by native language but since fractional scores are not included, the data is not particularly useful. However, we can learn a few things by looking at a select few languages:
- Arabic: reading (18)
- Chinese: listening, speaking and writing (all 20)
- Hindi: reading, speaking, writing (all 24)
- Japanese: speaking (17)
- Portuguese: writing (21)
- Pushtu: reading (17)
- Korean: speaking and writing (both 20)
So there ya go. Writing is, overall, the hardest section of the test. But maybe not for you.