How to Study for the GRE and the TOEFL (At the Same Time!)

by • February 28, 2014

Guest post by Chris Lele

Looking to go to grad school? Then you could be one of the hundred thousand students who are not only faced with a daunting test (the much dreaded GRE), but also another pretty daunting test, the TOEFL.

But I’m not here to dash your grad school dreams; I’m here to tell you that many of the skills that you will develop for the GRE, will transfer to the TOEFL. Indeed, the TOEFL will seem downright easy!

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a look at the following question. You have to determine which one of three words fits in the blank. There are three blanks and therefore three answers. Good luck!

Advocates of anti-smoking campaigns are (i) _____________ the fact that the number of smokers per capita has (ii) _____________ since the 1970’s, perhaps aware that, lest this trend reverse itself, a message based on dire predictions is likely to be more (iii) __________ than one rooted in reality.

Blank (i)

(A)  quick to cite

(B)  reluctant to acknowledge

(C)   indifferent to

Blank (ii)

(D)  remained unchanged

(E)  been rapidly ballooning

(F)   been steadily decreasing 

Blank (iii)

(G)  harmful

(H)  disingenuous

(I)    efficacious

This question is known as a Triple-Blank Text Completion, a question type you will only find on the GRE (told you it was a tough test!). The thing is if you can navigate through the complex sentence structure and difficult vocabulary and get the correct answer on a GRE Text Completion, much of what the TOEFL will throw at you in terms of reading comprehension and vocabulary is going to seem like a cakewalk.

Even if this Triple-Blank Text Completion made your eyes glaze over and your palms sweat, by practicing similar GRE questions and improving your vocabulary, you will get better at the GRE—and, by extension, the TOEFL.

By the way, the answers for the question above are (B), (F), and (I).

Some Background

More than one million students take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) each year, and close to one million take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). These are both significant numbers, but what may be even more surprising than the number of test takers is the significant overlap between the two tests—surprising because the TOEFL is for those who do not use English as a primary language, whereas the GRE is one of the most grueling tests of the English language (even if you are a native English speaker).

But both tests are used for higher education admissions in the U.S., hence the overlap in test takers. Many such test takers are already worried about whether they have enough time to invest in studying for both tests. Some, understandably, study for the two tests at different times. However, the content of the two tests, despite the difference in difficulty, does overlap somewhat. So studying for one will actually help studying for the other.

The Overlap

As I mentioned, if you’ve been practicing GRE reading passages, the TOEFL passages are going to seem pretty easy. The language is more straightforward and the answer choices aren’t meant to trap you. That doesn’t mean you should not do any TOEFL reading passages. The tests are different enough as far as reading comprehension goes, and so it is a good idea to practice plenty of TOEFL reading passages. Indeed taking a few TOEFL practice tests during your GRE prep will be helpful.

At the same time, knowing words like disingenuous and efficacious aren’t going to help you on the TOEFL. The reality is that some GRE vocab words are too advanced to ever show up on the TOEFL. However, many words that you learn while studying for the GRE may show up on the TOEFL. Take a look at the triple-blank Text Completion. The words reluctant, dire, and indifferent are fair game on the TOEFL. However, make sure that while prepping for the GRE, you use TOEFL-specific word lists to make sure that you develop your English vocabulary at an intermediate level (“intermediate” is actually a good example of such a word).

Next, there is the essay. Writing a well-organized, persuasive essay will help you on both tests. By becoming better at grammar and at using that grammar, you will be better poised to do well on both segments of writing. In other words, the overlap between essays is pretty strong. However, the essay prompts on the GRE are going to be a little more sophisticated and require more thought. So even if you never take a TOEFL practice test, by becoming strong at the GRE essays, you will do well with almost anything TOEFL can throw at you. Finally, your English grammar must be impeccable on both essays. Of course developing all these writing skills will definitely help you at the college level.

The Non-overlap

There is no math on the TOEFL (but you probably already knew that!). And, on the GRE, there is no spoken component (but you probably knew that too!). So make sure that you spend a lot of time focusing on GRE quant (especially if the program you are applying to requires high GRE scores for math). Also, make sure to focus a lot on the spoken component. You don’t want to stand out as an excellent candidate GRE-wise, but have a shockingly low TOEFL scores for speaking.

A Balancing Act

The key to successfully navigating both tests is to make sure you spend enough time on each. The best way to determine if you not spending sufficient time on one test is to notice your practice test scores. You should be taking a practice test for each exam at least every 10 days. If these aren’t going up, then reassess how much time you are putting into each exam, and whether you have enough time to prepare for success on both the TOEFL and the GRE.

Takeaway

If you are a student looking to apply to graduate school in the U.S., and your primary language is not English, you will have to take both the GRE and the TOEFL. As unappetizing as that sounds, the tests overlap in the knowledge they test. By focusing mainly on the GRE, much of the TOEFL will be easier, from reading passages to creating an engaging, well-written essay.

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This post was written by Chris Lele, resident GRE expert at Magoosh, a leader in GRE prep. For more advice on taking the GRE, check out Magoosh’s GRE blog.

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