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Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for PhD Students

Written by Ben Taylor

The TOEFL is one of the most popular and established options for students who need to prove their language skills in a PhD application, with around 30 million people taking the test in the past 50 years. It originated in America but the TOEFL is widely accepted by universities and education providers around the world.

This page will give you an overview of the TOEFL for PhD students, covering essential information on the exam format, test locations, scores and fees.

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What is the TOEFL?

First launched in the 1960s, the TOEFL is currently administered by a non-profit organisation in Princeton, New Jersey called Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The exam has two formats:

  • The TOEFL internet-based test (iBT)
  • The TOEFL paper-delivered test (not to be confused with the paper-based test, which is no longer administered)

The most common version of the test is the TOEFL iBT, which is taken by around 97% of candidates at thousands of TOEFL centres across the globe. Meanwhile, the paper-delivered TOEFL is only available in locations where internet access is rare. The content of the two tests is the same.

TOEFL test centres and dates can be found on the ETS website.

Do I need to take the TOEFL for a PhD?

Universities and grad schools usually have varying policies when it comes to deciding whether a doctoral candidate needs to provide an English language qualification score.

Generally speaking, if you’ve completed university-level studies in a majority English-speaking country you won’t need to provide a TOEFL score when applying for a PhD. Institutions sometimes have different ideas of what constitutes a majority English-speaking nation, but these are the most common:

  • UK
  • Ireland
  • USA
  • Canada (not including French-language studies)
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
Length of test 3 hours
Number of students 35 million test takers to date
Grade scale 0-120
Test locations More than 4,500 test centres in over 165 countries
Typical cost USD $200
Established 1964

How does the TOEFL work?

There are four sections in the TOEFL, measuring your listening, reading, writing and speaking skills. The TOEFL takes an integrated approach to these skills, meaning that you might be assessed on more than one element during a single section.

Taking 180 minutes to complete, this is how a TOEFL exam is structured:

  • Reading – You’ll answer multiple choice questions on three or four excerpts from academic texts. This section lasts for between 54 and 72 minutes.
  • Listening – You’ll answer multiple choice questions about the content of audio recordings from various settings (usually lectures and discussions). This section is between 41 and 57 minutes long.
  • Speaking – This section uses a computer microphone to record your thoughts on a certain subject. You’ll also answer questions about the previous two parts of the TOEFL (this is part of the test’s integrated structure). The duration of this session is around 17 minutes.
  • Writing – In 50 minutes you’ll write two essays in response to the reading and listening tasks.

There’s also a 10-minute break between the listening and speaking sections.

Each section is graded out of 30, with the TOEFL as a whole given an overall score out of 130.

TOEFL iBT scores can be viewed around 10 days after taking the test, while ETS will post the results of a paper-delivered test around five weeks after the exam.

What TOEFL grade do I need for a PhD?

Usually you’ll need to achieve a TOEFL score of around 90 to be accepted onto a PhD programme, with no less than 20 in each section. This grade is generally the same as the language requirements for a Masters.

Bear in mind that required TOEFL scores can vary quite widely by university and discipline. If you’re applying for a PhD in a subject that requires a high degree of literacy (English Literature, for example), you may need a score of at least 100.

Who recognises the TOEFL?

The TOEFL is recognised by more than 10,000 universities, colleges and education providers in over 130 different countries across the world.

It’s the most common English language qualification in the USA but it’s also widely accepted in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Where and when can I take the TOEFL?

You can take the TOEFL at one of the many authorised test centres in a well-established and wide network across the world. This network encompasses more than 4,500 locations in over 165 countries – this is the full list of TOEFL centres. The TOEFL is offered around 50 times a year at these locations.

Although the TOEFL can be taken as many times as you like, it can only be taken once in any 12-day period.

Online TOEFL

In 2020, ETS introduced the TOEFL iBT Home Edition in response to the COVID-19 situation. It's a fully-online version of the traditional TOEFL exam that can be taken from the comfort of your own home. Available worldwide (with the exception of mainland China and Iran), the TOEFL iBT Home Edition can be taken 24 hours a day, four days a week.

Find out more about the TOEFL iBT Home Edition.

How much does the TOEFL cost?

The registration fee for the TOEFL depends on the country you’re taking the test in. These are a few examples of the fees that you can expect to pay:

  • France – $255
  • India – $180
  • Nigeria – $195
  • USA – $205

PhD language requirements

Want to find out more about the language requirements for a PhD? Check out our guide to English language tests for PhD study.

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Last Updated: 22 November 2022