Engineering Manager | Trail Runner | Stockholm, Sweden


I was reluctant to write about how the TOEFL was before receiving the actual results. I have always prided myself in having exceptionally good English for a non-native, with a tint of an accent people never failed to point out. As a result anything less than a pretty high score on the test would have meant a failure, whereas a decent enough score wouldn’t have indicated anything but meeting the lowest standards. A lose-lose situation really.

A score of 115 is not great but will have to suffice. As Norbi joked I probably doubled Japan’s country statistic for a solid decade.

Anyway, my test took place at a test center close Shin-Osaka station. Kudos to the GPS in the iPhone I found it without complications, which is something considering the sheer size of the station.  (At Shin-Osaka the shinkansen crosses tracks with the regular JR lines.)

I half-expected foreigners to handle the operations, but of course the test center was a purely Japanese-run facility. One of the girls doing the pre-test paperwork tried to converse with me in English but I had to stop her. She would have been easier to understand for me if she spoke Cantonese with a lisp. At least they had some instructions printed in English, not that those contained anything new.

Maybe it’s an arrogance on my side, but I expected an international language test to be concluded in the target language from start to finish.

But I digress. TOEFL IBT, the newest internet-based test, is done entirely using a computer. As you could deduct from my results posted earlier it consists of four sections: reading, listening, speaking and writing. Each section is worth 30 points, with a grand total of 120. Obviously the sections themselves are graded differently and then the points are interpolated to the 0-30 range.

The test started with calibrating the microphone and headphones. The headphones were necessary for the listening and speaking parts and the microphone was used to record the examinees’ replies during the speaking sections. No examiner was present, evaluation is done at the TOEFL center somewhere in the United States.

The calibration was fun in a way. To adjust the mic levels to every individual’s voice a test question is asked: describe the city you live in. To my great astonishment almost everyone around me – instead of actually talking about their hometown – kept repeating the phrase: describe the city you live in, describe the city…

Yeah I could hear them all right. We were placed in booths but not even the headphones managed to completely filter out the outside noises, that is other examinees talking.

At least during the reading the place was silent enough. Some kind of a Java-based software was used to display the questions and the answers. Quite intuitive and easy to use, but I suppose someone who rarely uses computers might be frightened by it. Nevertheless this is the information age. If you can’t use a scrollbar you might as well stop dreaming about university. (Don’t forget, the main goal of TOEFL is to measure your knowledge of English to use in a typical North-American university environment.)

I clicked through the reading part quite fast. Reading has three sub-sections, 20, 40 and 40 minutes, containing 1, 2 and 2 texts respectively. Most questions took only a moment to answer, and the biggest issue I had to face was when more than one answer seemed plausible. Taking less time than available I had a head start for listening.

Listening was messier. Conversations and lectures were played, about either campus life or general university subjects. I could take notes while listening to them. However, everything was played only once, just like in real life. The questions themselves weren’t hard, but it was easy enough to skip over that particular piece of information. The fact that I started to get bored with the whole shebang didn’t help either.

Examinees could take a fifteen minute break between the listening and speaking sections so I stretched my legs a bit. I was the first to finish, even though we haven’t all started at the same time.

Speaking without anyone there to speak to was weird. I skype and teamspeak a lot, granted. Nevertheless the lack of human contact was distracting. Speaking has really short reply times – mostly only a few minutes – so I couldn’t unleash all my verbal mastery. Most of the time I was struggling to squeeze in as much information as I could during those minute speaking sessions.

Luckily for me other people only started speaking when I was almost finished with my section. It was quite bothersome listening to all that Engrish thrown around.

Finally during writing I was in my element. If blogging’s good for anything it helps me write just about anything anytime in coherent sentences. I was very fast to finish too, giving me time to read though and polish my work. I spent the last minutes looking for synonyms and more sophisticated ways to express things. The results really reflect this attempt at perfection.

All in all, it was a tiring and at times a rather boring experience. And even though I am not entirely satisfied with my results, most universities require a score in the low nineties for Master’s and something around a hundred for a PhD course. I should be fine. At least I still know something I like.