TOEFL: Reflection and Advice

With the past couple of months being extremely hectic, I finally decided to stop procrastinating, schedule the TOEFL exam 7 days prior to NSDI paper submission. So, how'd it go ? Pretty decent given my preparation I'd say. While I see a lot of criticisms(well deserved) over standardized tests like these that play a role in the grad school admission process, TOEFL does test some important skills. I do believe TOEFL does look for language skills in order to survive and communicate as an academic in the world of academia and the format of the test alongside the questions justify the rubric TOEFL looks for. I never once felt that these questions are something a researcher would never face in their life(still exaggerated though).

Just to be clear, the topics come from a wide array of topics that most people are disinterested in. On an average day, self-confidence while speaking and writing is instilled partly due to the experience and prior domain expertise, which reduces the stress of communicating about new topics. But, I also believe strong communication on topics we were just introduced to is a big part of learning - I imagine this comes handy when introducing your own research to other's who aren't necessarily familiar with your work, or often times with the entire field thus making clear language an important skill(believe it or not, the number of times this has happened to me over a span of few months is insane).

There is no denying that this exam is discriminatory of underrepresented and non-native English speakers(myself included), but the harsh reality is that the scientific and the extended community whom academics interact with largely occurs in English, making TOEFL a necessary albeit imperfect hoop to pass through. But I genuinely hope alternate solutions come up to encourage language skills as opposed to directly testing for them.

Before moving onto my recommendation on the what and how to study, a peculiar observation about the recommended way of attempting TOEFL is to think in an "American way", something that struck me as quite odd. Growing up, my English has been influenced both by American(pop culture) and British(Indian ICSE curriculum largely promotes British words and phrases) styles, making this suggestion all the more confusing.


  1. TST Prep and their YT Channel
  2. The official sample questions for each of the section by ETS

That's all that is required in my opinion. These  helped me quite a lot and I owe my scores to them. I received 111- R:30, L:28, S:25, W:28 (Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing) and I'm quite satisfied with my scores. But I have to credit my stint at MSR along with some of my habits I've picked up in this time that attribute to some of these scores. With quick paper reading, podcasts and audiobook being a large part of my night routine for the past 2 years, attempting TOEFL was made simpler, albeit I need to improve upon my speaking skills I presume based on the scores.

Feel free to reach out to me at incase you need any further advice regarding TOEFL.

Vaibhav Balloli

Vaibhav Balloli

Ph.D. student at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor, MI, USA