TOEFL for MBA Applicants

By Jon Hodge, Ph.D.
Professor of English Literature at Babson College
Owner of Strictly English, TOEFL Specialists

In addition to taking the GMAT, international Business School Applicants will most likely be required to take the iBT TOEFL (Internet-Based Test of English as a Foreign Language). In preparation for this exam, here are six helpful tips that you should know.


It is better to prepare for, and to take, the TOEFL before preparing for the GMAT. This is because TOEFL preparation gives you many of the basic language skills that will be necessary for the GMAT. For example, TOEFL questions deploy parallel structure at the level of intermediate English while GMAT questions present parallel structure constructions at the level of advanced English.

Sometimes people think that if they master the more difficult language of the GMAT, they will not have to study separately for the TOEFL. They believe their “advanced” GMAT skills will cover both the GMAT and the TOEFL. Unfortunately, this is not true. In reality, students who use GMAT strategies tend to “over-think” the TOEFL. Typical problems that result from over-thinking are:

  • Your essay’s logic is too complicated which makes your English more difficult to understand.
  • You choose the wrong multiple choice answers because you miss the “simplicity” of the answer.

Strictly English students who study for the GMAT before the TOEFL typically take 1/3 longer to achieve their target scores on both exams compared to students who studied for the TOEFL first.

TWO: Don't "Cram"

Language learning can only be accelerated up to a certain point. Although living in an English-speaking country for two years will improve a person’s knowledge of English faster than if that person takes a night class in his/her country once a week, no one can learn a language well enough to achieve a respectable TOEFL score in less than a month. TOEFL preparation will always be more than just test preparation. Since language learning will also be a part of the process, it demands significantly more time.

Strictly English students typically study for two to eight months to prepare for the TOEFL, depending on the score they need and the level of English they have before beginning classes.

THREE: Language Level

Many people think that to achieve the TOEFL score they desire, they need advanced English. This is not completely true. Test takers do need advanced listening and reading comprehension skills, but they only need intermediate speaking and writing abilities to score a perfect 120. This is because the TOEFL is more interested in perfect English than it is in complex English. Sloppy advanced English will score lower than perfect intermediate English.

The question then becomes this: what makes English intermediate versus advanced? Advanced English uses dependent clauses, unfamiliar vocabulary, and idiomatic language while intermediate English uses independent clauses, common vocabulary, and virtually no idioms. Compare the following:

  • Advanced English: Many argue that high school students, especially those in public schools, should be encouraged—indeed, required—to dip their feet into the august and venerating exploration of The Arts.
  • Intermediate English: Teachers and parents agree that public school students should be required to take art class.

Many will say that the advanced English “sounds better.” Arguably, it does. However, the TOEFL is not a test of “better sounding” English; it is a test of clear communication. More importantly, the likelihood of making mistakes when writing advanced English is much greater.

Strictly English students who write perfect intermediate English score higher than those who write sloppier advanced English. The TOEFL does not care how beautiful their English is; it only cares about the accuracy of their writing.

FOUR: Keep it Simple

In addition to using simple English, TOEFL test takers should also focus on simple ideas. TOEFL essays are less "intellectual" than GMAT essays. The TOEFL essay’s logic does not have to be sophisticated or complicated. Test takers do not receive extra points for original or interesting ideas. The TOEFL is a test of English more than a test of original thinking. In fact, Strictly English has demonstrated that the TOEFL will award scores of 26 or above on writing that presents basic ideas as long as the essays have been written in perfect intermediate English.

FIVE: Content

Because the TOEFL is primarily designed to evaluate how well an undergraduate university student will be able to understand his/her liberal arts classes, the test has a wide range of topics, from the hard sciences (chemistry, physics, biology, etc.) to the humanities (history, literature, psychology, etc). Unfortunately, there are very few reading passages or lectures on business. Therefore, prepare for the TOEFL by studying all of these various topics and by becoming familiar with the vocabulary and basic ideas of each discipline. Again, this takes time and cannot really be "crammed". People preparing for the TOEFL can read about these topics in their own language first, and then begin reading about the same topics in English.

SIX: Vocabulary

There are many ways to study vocabulary, but Strictly English has found that learning the etymology of roots, prefixes, and suffixes is probably the best way to improve vocabulary quickly. Once a root has been learned, that one root may give you knowledge of five to ten additional related words. For example, having learned that the root “pend” means to hang, it becomes easier to guess the meaning of: depend, impending, suspend, pendulum, pendulous, pendant, pendent. Strictly English students have a much higher rate of guessing a word’s meaning after they have mastered the list of ROOTS, PREFIXES, and SUFFIXES on our website’s reading page.

There is a lot more to know about TOEFL, so please contact Strictly English if you have any questions about the test itself or about preparing for the test.