She reads English newspapers, books, and magazines three to four hours a day and engages in discussions in English every chance she gets, “and I’ve been doing this since high school,” she said. It doesn’t take long to realize that she’s not only good with English, she’s erudite. She reads broadly, deeply, and well. Not only does she speak the language properly, but speaks it with an eloquence that can only come from being cultivated and informed – native speaker or not. What’s truly surprising about her is that she learned to speak English fluently before she left Korea to attend graduate school in the United States.

But as much as she reads, thinks with, and engages the world through English, she’s never made a top score on the TOEFL, though she’s always scored high. (Many would say that her TOEFL score is first-rate, but she wouldn’t say that.)

“Even though I knew I was getting better with English,” she said, “I could never make the highest score on the test, though I’ve come close. I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing and talking with people in English, and when it came time to take the TOEFL, I never thought to do anything different to prepare for it. It seemed like a waste of time to take a prep course, especially since I’m a student of English anyway, so I took the test and didn’t worry about the score. The TOEFL is supposed to test how good you are with English, isn’t it?”

Evidently, the admissions officers at the selective university in the American Midwest where she applied looked at more than her TOEFL score when they considered her candidacy, for she is a graduate student there now.

Many students believe that a high TOEFL score is the ticket to an American graduate school, which they also believe is the gateway to an attractive job, so they pay good money to enroll in test review courses in which they perform drills to become proficient test-takers, if only for the day of the test. Yet despite all of the money, time, and effort students put into these preparation courses, more than a few of them still have difficulty reading English, and more often than not, their real speaking skills – as opposed to testable skills – aren’t good.

To become fluent with English, one must read, write, and engage in learned discussions with others eager to do the same. Mastering English – like mastering anything – is slow and never-ending work that seldom moves in a straight line.

And so it is with our graduate student. “I’ll never learn all that I want to know,” she said. “Going to grad school in suburban Chicago for the last couple of years, it dawned on me that I don’t know even a scrap of what I want to know. But learning about things that I never knew before is always exciting.”

The TOEFL is a thorough test of English ability in that it tests all the skills of a person’s competence with the language. It’s not an easy test to take for anybody and even well educated native speakers would have trouble making a top score on the test. Most students who have taken the TOEFL say that it’s as much an endurance trial as it is a test of English, and with the four hours of intense reading, listening, speaking, and writing allotted to the students to complete the test, you can see why.

Yet as comprehensive as the TOEFL is, like all standardized tests, it has its limits, which makes it predictable (if only just a little) and with suitable materials and instruction, many students prepare for it in hopes of raising their scores. In the months leading up to the day of the test, these students concentrate their efforts only on testable material. So rather than read English newspapers – such as the Korea Times – and converse with others in English, they bulk up on memorizing test questions and nothing else, in the belief that this will get them the best results when they take the test.

But just being a good test-taker isn’t enough to guarantee a high TOEFL score, for the TOEFL favors the student who is fluent with English, one who reads, writes, listens to, and speaks English every day. So the question comes down to this: how do you prepare yourself so that you’re ready to take the TOEFL? The best way to prepare is to be a student the test favors – one like our graduate student.

Lyman McLallen taught at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul for the last nine years. He is a graduate of the Orchard School in Indianapolis, Indiana.