Yesterday, I got my results from the TOEFL iBT, but first things first. TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language and is administered by the Educational Testing Service. iBT stands for Internet based Test: answers are submitted to ETS via the Internet and are not evaluated at the test center.
I had to take the quite expensive ($240) test that wants to measure my academic English language skills, because it is mandatory for my applications to US PhD programs. The test consists of three parts: Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing. In my opinion, the test is well created and fairly well suited to evaluate one's English skills within the limitations that a computer-based test has. One can earn up to 30 points in each section and thus the total score (the sum) is on a 0-120 scale.
Unlike with the GRE most universities which I am applying to have got minimum cut-off scores but they vary greatly. Applicants for the Stanford CS PhD program, for example, need a minimum score of 113 while Berkeley only requires 68. Because I think that my applications might not be considered if I had not got the minimum TOEFL score, I wanted to get a score that allows me to apply to every university, i.e. 113. On the other hand I think that a TOEFL score that is much higher than the minimum is nice but will not play a big role in the application.
Although I'd consider my English skills as quite good, a 113 out of 120 is something not so easy to archive. I talked to friends who have already struggled to get a score of 70. Hence, I started to improve my vocabulary already 2 month before the test, ca. 15 minutes a day, using the software phase-6. You can find plenty good vocabulary lists for the TOEFL in the web and I programmed a small script that gathers translations and audio files for pronunciation from dict.cc and leo.org and generates a file that can be read by phase-6.
As my writing score in the GRE was awful, I recognized that I had to put some effort into practicing writing non-mathematic texts. For the speaking section I also had to learn - I call it - "speaking just to be speaking". When you give your spoken answers to the test questions, you have got only one chance and I think it is crucial to speak continuously all the time allotted. Of course, what you speak should be related to the question, but raters will focus more on your language and your pronunciation and don't care if it makes perfect sense what you are saying. Thus I had to learn to take with a pinch of salt, what was not easy for me.
At the end, I spend almost a whole week practicing for the TOEFL test, but it was definitely worth it: I reached my expectations and scored 113 out of 120!