During my decade in this industry, I’ve had countless conversations with students who are confused, frustrated and disappointed when their official score report is released by ETS. They felt they did everything they should… but the score report shows numbers that are too low.
Below is a list of reasons why your score might have fluctuated.
No, you didn’t experience ALL of the reasons below. However, here are a couple examples of how even just one reason can be enough to throw off someone’s performance.
Years ago, one of my students was sleeping on the Friday before her test when a burglar broke into her home. She was jolted out of bed, she thought he was going to attack her family, and she spent the wee hours of the morning talking with police. She somehow managed to show up for her TOEFL iBT test, but unsurprisingly, her performance that day was compromised by the adrenaline coursing through her veins and the exhaustion she felt. I wish I could say that she got her scores the next time, but trauma is a real thing. On a deep, unconscious level, she associated taking TOEFL iBT with being ripped awake in a moment of panic. Her next test wasn’t great, either because she had a very bad night of sleep, constantly remembering how they were burgled. By the third test, she was able to sleep through the night, show up, and give the performance she needed to.
A different student who I worked with for months was super smart. Like lots of my students, she didn’t complain. She was usually getting very high scores on all her homework assignments for Integrated and Independent essays… but sometimes she would have mysterious fluctuations, like she would just wake up and randomly forget everything. We would study hard and she would recover her points… But then, at the real test, her TOEFL iBT Writing scores were super low. Finally, during a conversation, she shared that she had been in a car accident and her back never healed. She typically just popped some aspirin or ibuprofen. By the 4th hour of the TOEFL iBT test, she was in agony from sitting in the chair. Her regular pain killers could not mask such significant physical pain. I recommended that she see a specialist for legitimate treatment. I can’t remember if she ended up going to an acupuncturist, a physical therapist or a chiropractor… But she got 8 or 10 treatment sessions and they helped a ton. After a few weeks, her back pain dropped from a 10 on the pain scale to a 2 on the pain scale… I had never seen her so happy. And she took her last TOEFL iBT test. After the searing nerve pain was gone, she was finally able to stay focused all the way through and demonstrate what she was capable of.
You might recognize just 1 reason, or a combination of reasons. While you read, you want to look for the ones that spark a memory in you of something that is relevant for your situation.
I suggest that you write down a list for yourself of the reasons… because when you know what caused your fluctuation, you can take the necessary steps to avoid it next time.
These are often due to stress.
- Not having a plan for how to use your note-paper, and when to request more so that you have enough to get through the whole test with your way of taking notes
- Doing something during the test that’s different from what you practiced. For example:
- Changing how you read or listen
- Changing your templates for Speaking or Writing and not using the thing you practiced at home
- Misunderstanding the prompt in Writing Independent essays or Speaking Task 1 and going off topic when you speak or write
- Not understanding the topic or vocabulary in TOEFL iBT Reading passages, Listening passages, Speaking Task 2, 3 or 4 – or the Integrated Writing reading or listening material
- Getting “unfamiliar” topics for Speaking and Writing that cause you to use grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation inaccurately
- Not having enough time to edit your essay for Integrated or Independent Writing. Submitting errors to the TOEFL Graders that you’re not aware you made.
- “The tube of toothpaste” effect. You displace your energy and focus your attention on difficult parts, achieving a breakthrough score for the first time at a real test — but simultaneously experience a drop in another area because your focus has been on other things
How You Practice
- Busy work schedules. Not having enough time to or study.
- Avoiding “difficult” or “boring” topics when you practice, and not being familiar enough with the vocabulary that you encounter at a real test
- Not practicing the right things (for example, never listening to any Australian accents but then suddenly encountering it during a TOEFL iBT Listening passage for the first time in your life)
- Not reviewing the right types of information before the exam (Reviewing the wrong thing; focusing on stuff that doesn’t help you)
- Not “warming up” in any way on test day either at home or at the test center. Waiting until the moment you’re being judged to start warming up for Speaking or Writing
- Not looking at the whole picture of your situation with TOEFL iBT (and focusing only on one small part, as if it was not connected to everything else)
- Trying to implement a new tutor’s recommendations before you had enough time to develop automatic reactions. Even though you understood what you “should” do, you might have spent time thinking about it and that slowness definitely could have caused delays that reduced your score in Speaking and/or Writing
- Combining various tutor’s templates and suggestions into a new one (combinations of advice that don’t work well together)
- Changing tutors frequently (This can disrupt your study plan and lead to conflicting plans or approaches)
- Having a learning disorder (for example, Attention Deficit Disorder [ADD], Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD], Dyslexia) and not considering this in the way you study or take the test
- Not getting enough practice thinking, writing and speaking in English in the 7-10 days before an exam. The amount that you “live” in English changes your level of fluency and speed of speaking English.
- Having a fight with a family member before your test, and still feeling the effect of it while you take your test
- Worrying that other people around you can hear what you’re saying when you speak your 4 responses
- Feeling bad about yourself / low confidence
- Being interrupted by a test administrator
- Not getting enough note-paper at the right time to make it easy for you to keep going
- Being distracted by or feeling anxious about things at the test center outside your control like
- Noise from people who were talking around you
- A technical issue with the computer (for example, maybe the volume doesn’t work, there could be a microphone error, broken keyboard, etc)
- Not being able to take notes the way you need to (for example, left-handed test takers who take the at-home test are required to write with a Dry Erase marker. Unless they create a special method of writing, they will discover their left hand erases the words they’re writing while they write.
- Not getting a good night of sleep the night before your test (or the days before). Remember, “sleep deficit” accumulates over time. One good night of sleep is rarely enough to overcome a serious deficit.
- Being sick
- Feeling physical pain (example: back pain, migraine, cramps, nausea, soreness)
- Experiencing extreme anxiety at the test center (adrenaline jump, heart racing, shaking hands, nausea or dry mouth) beyond what you can control. This anxiety tends to accumulate, so the feeling of it can grow and get worse if you don’t do something about it.
- Moving (packing everything up in boxes; losing access to study materials or not being able to find your materials)
- Taking a vacation
- Not being able to quickly or easily review your study materials. If you have too many pages of notes or too many notebooks… or if you do not have a reminder to occasionally clean out old notes and consolidate tips into shorter, current lists (ultimately, reducing the “clutter” so you have a streamlined, efficient list of what to study), you may find yourself overwhelmed and fragmented.
- Experiencing something very scary or bad soon before the test (car accident, a break in or some other kind of traumatizing incident)
- Issues with your vision (ability to see) or eyesight
What can you do about it?
If you remember something that happened which isn’t on my list above, but you feel that was a reason for you, write it down!
By identifying the reasons, you are identifying the cause. When you know the cause, you have control. It’s not a mystery anymore. You have the power to change your actions so that you produce a different result next time.
There are almost always steps that you can take to make yourself more prepared. For example…
- Deal with your physical issues. Don’t expect yourself to power through the TOEFL iBT test when your body is in physical pain. If you have aches or nerve pain, get treatment for it. Also, many women benefit from scheduling a TOEFL iBT test when they’re not dealing with PMS or menstruation symptoms.
- Practice blocking distractions. I always tell my students to do 3 or 4 realistic, full-length tests in busy environments like a cafe (Starbucks or Panera’s) so they can develop the ability to focus and block distractions. How many have you done so far?
- Give yourself the time you need to improve. Change your work schedule to make time to study. Ask for specific help and support from your family. Change how you’re warming up and practicing to get those extra points.
- Avoid arguments. If you know that you’re more prone to arguing with family because of the increased stress around the date of your TOEFL iBT test, you can have a conversation with your family 7-10 days before. It’s helpful to notify everyone so you have the supportive environment that keeps you on track.
- Advocate for yourself. This might be going through the formal process with ETS to get the accommodation that you deserve for your learning disability, or it might be practicing the conversation you should have with the test administrator on Test Day to introduce yourself to them and guarantee that no one “forgets” about you… so they are watching for the moment you will raise your hand, so they see you and you promptly get the extra note-paper you need to continue taking the test smoothly.
What's your plan?
- How many of the 4 sections are you seeing fluctuations?
- How many reasons did you write down?
- What actions can you take to avoid those problems next time?
You may need to approach your challenges one at a time, rather than trying to deal with all of them simultaneously.
I’m sharing the video below because it covers the idea of “Project Management” and that’s essential to consider, no matter if you just need another point on your TOEFL iBT Speaking test, or if you’re trying to make your performance on all 4 tests stable.