How Limiting Beliefs Block Your TOEFL iBT Score… And How to Fix It

What do you do if you’re telling yourself these kinds of messages about your ability to succeed at TOEFL iBT?

  • “It’s not possible.” 
  • “I can’t do it.”
  • “I’m not good enough / smart enough / young enough / fast enough / _____ enough.”
  • “The conditions of the test (for note-taking, speaking in a room of people, having only 15 seconds to prepare, etc) make it impossible to succeed.”
  • “The test is unfair.”
  • “The scoring is a conspiracy.”
  • “They want too much from non-native speakers on this test. It’s too difficult.”
  • “I don’t deserve the score.”
  • “If I ask for help with _____, I’m weak / stupid / ___.”
  • “My progress isn’t happening the way I imagined, so that is proof that _______.”
  • “Because I’m a non-native speaker, it’s not possible for me.”  OR  “I’ll never be as good as ______.”
  • “Because I failed ___ times in the past, that means the future will always be exactly the same.”
  • “It’s not worth trying anymore.”

In the list above, you saw some examples of Limiting Beliefs that I’ve heard from students during hundreds of lessons, emails and text messages since I started tutoring for TOEFL iBT back in 2010. 

This is not a complete collection of all the Limiting Beliefs that I’ve heard, but it includes the most common ones. 

I’ve never met anyone who had all of those Limiting Beliefs… but it is common for non-native speakers and foreign-trained healthcare professionals to have a unique collection of 3 or 4 that they passionately believe.

What are "Limiting Beliefs"?

“Limiting Beliefs” are the things that you tell yourself about why you are not succeeding.

Limiting Beliefs are the reasons, excuses or arguments that you use to justify your situation. 

We typically cannot “see” them because they feel so true (especially when people around us say them to us). 

Who has Limiting Beliefs?

Everyone. Seriously, everyone. 

We all have Limiting Beliefs about one thing or another about our ability to reach particular goals. 

In the TOEFL iBT industry, Limiting Beliefs show up as certain kinds of messages like you heard in the list before. 

If you’ve been stuck with TOEFL for too long, it’s important to begin identifying what your Limiting Beliefs are… and then update them with Expansive Beliefs that support your growth.

You might be surprised to know that even people who get 26+ on TOEFL iBT Speaking or 24+ on TOEFL iBT Writing after a long history of failure… Even those people used to have some Limiting Beliefs.


What separates people who finish TOEFL from the ones who stay stuck?

It’s their willingness to replace Limiting Beliefs with Expansive Beliefs. 

The Only 2 Choices for Dealing with "Limiting Beliefs"

Limiting Beliefs usually seem to pop up out of the blue. 

You can probably remember at least one time when you were studying for TOEFL (or taking a real test) and suddenly, you started feeling bad about yourself and you began to doubt your potential.

If you focused on that feeling, it might have grown into more extreme symptoms of anxiety like shaking hands, difficulty breathing or finding your words, or physically feeling sick. Or, it might have felt like a wet blanket of depression: “I can’t. There’s just no point trying. I’ll never be good enough”

That sudden change in your mood and physical state was probably caused by a Limiting Belief. Maybe one on the list above, or maybe a different one.

When you find yourself caught with a Limiting Belief, you really have only 2 choices… and no, sorry my friend, you cannot choose both. 


Choice 1: 

Continue to feed the Limiting Belief with energy, time and attention. 


Choice 2: 

Starve the Limiting Belief by replacing it with an Expansive Belief

The Result of Feeding Limiting Beliefs

When and if students experience Limiting Beliefs not only inside their own minds, hearts and bodies, but also from 1 or more people around them (like friends, family or teachers), that will create an environment of anti-success and anti-growth. 

That environment can be mildly anti-growth or strongly anti-growth. But it’s still anti-growth.

In my opinion, it is especially bad when a teacher ignores or agrees with students’ Limiting Beliefs because it reinforces the idea that change or growth is impossible. As a result, the student is stuck between a life goal that they desperately want and deserve, and conflicting messages that block progress.  

How I React to Students' Limiting Beliefs

In class, when I hear a student express a Limiting Belief, I pause our discussion of the class topic. 

I start asking questions so that the student can “see” the Limiting Belief. 

This means that “TOEFL class” suddenly turns in a non-traditional direction, away from English for TOEFL iBT, and towards coaching and mindset work.

If this makes you uncomfortable, then I am not the teacher for you and you should keep looking for someone else. 

The reason why I have these conversations with my TOEFL students is because after a decade in this industry, I saw that the most incredible transformations happened after we identified these Limiting Beliefs and replaced them with Expansive ones.

 Transformations like… 

  • The stay-at-home mom with no English-speaking opportunities who developed the fluency for a 26
  • The people who needed to speak faster and suddenly developed inexplicable abilities to talk even faster and more confidently than ever before
  • The student with learning disorders like Dyslexia or ADHD who defied all expectations and got every score they needed, including 26 on TOEFL Speaking
  • The people who had stunning 10-point transformations, rocketing their TOEFL iBT Speaking score from 18 to 28
  • The people who are the first one in their group of friends who speak a certain native language and prove that people who speak that language can in fact score 26 at TOEFL Speaking
  • The people who defeated their test anxiety and strong physical reactions without medication, drugs or alcohol and ended a multi-year string of defeats at TOEFL by scoring their 26 on Speaking

All of these transformations that I’ve witnessed are the reasons why I don’t believe my students when they say “I can’t.”  I know my students can. BUT… My belief has no power if students pour water on the fire.

It is as much your responsibility to believe in yourself as it is my responsibility. 

You cannot delegate “being confident” to someone else. You must actively participate by changing the thoughts you have about yourself. 

You will not see results if you give me the task of believing in you while you constantly criticize, sabotage and block your own success. 

How My Students React to their Limiting Beliefs

Everyone falls into 1 of 2 groups. You choose for yourself which group you’re in. No one can choose it for you. Not me. Not your family. Not your friends.

The Group that Does Not Get Results with Me

For some students, my discussion about Limiting Beliefs and “positive self-talk” is a threat to habits of self-hate they grew sadly familiar and comfortable with.

They think it’s silly or pointless to discuss their improvements, achievements or accomplishments. And to them, it’s even more ridiculous to tell themselves they’re doing “a good job” because they aren’t.

In class, when I identify how they got better or what their strengths are, they cut down the success and reject it or talk extensively about how their progress did not happen.

These people are typically unwilling to discuss any possible connection between their unending self-criticism and their fear of communicating in English and their low TOEFL scores. Despite my repeated efforts to light their fire, they keep pouring water on it.

Unfortunately, these people finish 4 months in lessons with me but they do not see much measurable progress on their goals. The main difference is they are much angrier (or more depressed or even more hopeless) than they were before. Their conclusion is that lessons with me are “a waste.”

If this is you, please know that I wish you the best. I really want you to get the TOEFL scores you need, and… I am not the right teacher for you.

The Group that Gets The Best Results with Me

For other students, my blend of coaching with English for TOEFL iBT is exactly what they were missing and what they’ve been hungry for. 

When they studied for TOEFL alone or with other tutors before, these students felt their Limiting Beliefs. However, they didn’t have the tools to identify or overcome them. 

These students want to grow and become a new version of themselves. They want to stop feeling bad. To them, the past is worse than the unknown that I’m asking them to explore and step with me into. So, they are willing to have open, serious conversations about the root causes and origins of their anxiety about English, their lack of confidence in their voice, their self-judgment and the symbolism that TOEFL has for them. 

These students recognize the consequences of their Limiting Beliefs and they actively take responsibility by encouraging and supporting themselves, and embracing Expansive Beliefs. 

Because of this, they typically have breakthroughs which lead to significant increases in their TOEFL iBT scores within 4 months… much faster than if they relied on traditional study methods alone. 

What It Means For You

The reason why I share these details with you about the 2 groups of students is because you probably have a clear feeling right now about which group you would be in. 

There was a time in my life when I thought it was silly to discuss Limiting Beliefs with TOEFL students. I avoided those conversations for years in classes. So I understand that not everyone wants to have these conversations and not everyone sees the value in them.  

However, at this point in my life, it’s safe to say that I’m not a traditional teacher. I approach TOEFL iBT differently than everyone else because I blend it with this kind of coaching. 

If you're ready to remove all the obstacles...

… then I encourage you to reserve your free “Shortcut to S26” Session with me, Jaime Miller. 

When you meet with me live in Zoom, we will discuss why you feel stuck with TOEFL iBT Speaking and identify what kind of support you need so that you secure your TOEFL iBT Speaking score as quickly as possible.

Free 45-minute Lesson for TOEFL Speaking

Discover which popular Task 1 Introduction sentence is a “score-killer” and the “perfect” alternative for rapidly earning points and contributing to a high score like 26

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