University Life and the TOEFL

Because important parts of the TOEFL exam involve an understanding of social and academic life at university, it can be an advantage to cover some of these questions so you can better and more quickly grasp the context of the situations and thus focus more completely on the content, especially in the listening and speaking sections.

It is very important to see that going to university is an important moment in the lives of young Americans.  For many, this is the first step to becoming independent adults as it involves leaving home and living away from the family.  Of course, this independence can be both an opportunity and a problem.  Among the opportunities is an active social life. University students can join clubs and orgnaizations which foster their interests in areas as diverse as sports, languages or culture.  Thus, a conversation in the listening section could involve one student trying to convince another to join an organization by talking about its benefits, or two students working to organize the details of a club activity.  Among the problems, we can find students who are having difficulties adjusting to the higher academic pressure of university classes, or are simply trying to balance social and academic demands.  Again, the idea of going over these possibilities is that the more quickly you understand the general situation, the more quickly you can focus on the details.

Related to this issue is the degree of independence each student is seeking, especially in the area of living arrangements.  Conversations in both the listening and speaking sections may center on the advantages and disadvantages of living in the dorm, the university residence on campus (the physical space occupied by the university) where life is more controlled with rules and there are things outside of the students control such as his or her roommate, the person the student shares a room with.  The dorm option may be contrasted with living off campus, usually in an apartment shared with friends in which a student may live without the restrictions and inconveneiences of the dorm.  However, this increased independence means a greater degree of resposnsibility both in terms of the basics of living (cooking and cleaning) and finances (paying for rent and transportation).  In both situations, there may be conflict with the other people about the rules and norms of living together and the details of these conflicts can appear in a listening or speaking task.

As indicated above, finances are a major concern for many students and how they handle difficulties with money may be the focus of a task.  Let’s take a look at some basic vocabulary in this area which will then allow a more detailed explanation.  The first term is tuition, that is the money charged by the university to students.  As university tuition is often quite expensive, students often need to apply for financial aid (a discount on the tuition),  a student loan (money borrowed from a bank to pay tuition) or particiaption in a work/study program (a university job for those students who have a financial need). Each of these have their own requirements to be able to participate and TOEFL tasks often focus on these requirements (good grades, a certain level of financial need) and how a student may or may not be able to fulfil them.  Other costs associated with university life include activity fees (money to fund the activities of the clubs and organizations mentioned above) and a meal plan (the money and conditions involved with using the university cafeterias).

Closely related to  finances and a nice bridge to a discussion about acadmic issues is the fact that students often must take part-time jobs to help with these expenses, and a typical topic of discussion between students that could appear on the TOEFL is the pros and cons of particular jobs and how they might fit into a student’s academic schedule and life.

Within the academic life of a student, one of the important areas found on TOEFL tasks is the assignment, that is the work that a professor asks a student to do.  Two typical assignments are:  a paper (a written report on a subject), and a presentation (an oral report on a topic).  Of course, closely related to these are traditional evaluations like an exam or a quiz (a mini-exam).  Speaking and listening tasks may center on the requirements for the assignments such as how many pages for a paper, how much time for a presentation, or the content of the assignment, exam or quiz.  Students often visit the professor’s office (during his or her office hours) seeking clarification of an assignment or requesting an extension of a deadline, that is the date when an assignment must be completed and given to the professor.  In this conversation, students will offer their reasons for requesting the extension and the professor may accept the reasons and grant the extension or decide that the student must complete the assignment on the original date.  During the TOEFL test, you must focus on whether the professor accepts the request and if so, what the conditions of the new deadline are.

In addition to the grades given for the assignements, tests and quizzes, a final factor that enters into a student’s grade can be participation, or the subjective evaluation of how often and how well a student asks questions and shares observations and opinions in class.  Included in the participation grade may be the student’s attendence, so if a student misses a certain number of classes, his or her grade may be negatively affected despite the fact the grades on the assignments, exams and quizzes are quite high.

As a quick review, let’s take a look at the grading scale most often used in universities in the United States.  Exams are most often scored between 0 and 100% .  Approximately, scores between 90 and 100 represent a grade of A, between 80 and 90 a B, 70-80 a C, 60-70 a D and below 60 an F or fail (in popular student terminology the verb is to flunk).  Papers are evaluated on this letter scale.  Another way of expressing this is using a scale of 0.0-4.0 with an A having the value of 4.0, a B 3.0, a C 2.0, a D 1.0 and F 0.0.  The average of these numerical grades is referred to as the GPA  or grade point average.  Many of the opportunities at the university may depend on a student having a minimum GPA, usually around 2.5 or 3.0 and these terms can often be found when students are discussing requirements with professors or counselors, university staff whose job is to advise students about academic and career issues.

On the first day of class, professors give students in a class a copy of their syllabus. This document is a summary of the professor’s assignments, schedule, grading system, attendance policy and other practical information about the course.  Often when a student expresses confusion about these issues in a meeting with a professor, the professor refers to the syllabus to clarify the class policy.

The final area in a student’s academic life to be covered is the student’s major.  By major, we mean the concentration of studies that a student chooses to focus on. Typical Majors may include History, Engineering, English Literature and Biology although the list is quite long. Not all of a student’s classes are within his or her major but the majority are. Universities usually don’t require students to declare a major at the beginning of their time at the university in order to allow them to try a number of classes in different areas but after a year or two, the student must make a decision about their major.  The considerations that go into this decision involve the students interests, the work opportunites that are seen for graduates with that major, and the prerequisites of the major.  By prerequisites, I am referring to the classes and GPA that may be necessary to have before a person can be accepted in the major.  Conversation on TOEFL tasks may involve a student weighing various factors with a classmate, professor or counselor to help decide which major is best for him or her.

This subject of university life as it relates to the TOEFL exam is quite extensive and can’t be possibly covered in one blog entry.  My intention is to make you familiar with the most typical contexts in order to make it easier to focus on details.  Although I have included some key vocabulary, if you like more extensive vocabulary lists I would recommend the following: