How to take notes to successfully pass the TOEFL

TOEFL consists of four sections, each of which tests one of the basic language skills (reading, listening, speaking and writing). But in addition to pumping these skills, expanding vocabulary and improving grammar, for a successful passing of the test, it is necessary to work on the so-called supplementary skills, namely the ability to make notes, paraphrase, summarize.

Why take notes in the TOEFL?

In three of the four parts of the test, it is advisable to take notes:

  • All the questions in the Listening section appear only after listening to the lecture, so it is important to take notes to remember the main idea and details. Even if you have a phenomenal memory and you are sure that you will remember everything from the lecture, notes are still worth taking. Passing the test is a stressful situation, memory can fail.
  • In Speaking and Writing Integrated you have to read the text and/or listen to the audio recording. Note-taking will help to fix important information and details, analyze the relationship between listened to and read, and will also serve as a basis for the answer.

Basic information on notes

  1. Paper and pencil will be issued at the test center. If there is not enough, you can ask for more, but all the already written sheets will be taken away and replaced with new ones, so we recommend replacing the paper before Speaking, if a lot was written during Listening. All sheets of paper must be returned at the end of the test and you can not tear them.
  2. It is important to learn how to highlight the main information. Don’t try to write down everything you hear. On the test, the task is not to finish all the details. Write down only the main idea and supporting points. For example, while listening to a historical lecture about a famous battle, write down information about the main characters (for example, attackers, defeaters, civilians), actions (attacking, defeating, surrendering) and sequence. There is no need to write down the general’s marital status unless it plays a major role in the events.
  3. Try to catch the relationship between events and phenomena and follow the pauses and intonation of the speaker. The main thing is to listen carefully to the text and try to understand it as much as possible, the test tests not how much you remembered, but how much you understood.
  4. To develop the skill of note-taking it is important to learn how to take notes quickly. To do this:
  • do not write sentences completely, fix keywords.
  • do not write words completely, use abbreviations, abbreviations and signs. For example, Public Relations — PR, w/ — with, w/o — without. Write only the beginning of the word (fut.- future), the beginning of the word and the last letter (different – diff-t, difference – diff-ce) or only consonant letters (department – dpt).

Examples of symbols that can be used include:

SymbolWhat does it mean?
 Words and, also, as well, moreover, with, together, include and others
The words minus, without and others.
=Words be, become, look, equals, the same and others
The words approximately, similar and others.
The words increase, rise, go higher, jump, improve, become more popular and others.
The words decrease, fall, go lower, dive, ruin, become unpopular and others.
The words become, change, transform, affect, result in, move and others.
  • don’t write articles.
  • no service words (is, are, was, were), replace them with a dash.
  • do not think about spelling, the main thing is to quickly write down the word, then you will remember how it is spelled correctly.

    5. There are several styles of note-taking and for each task you need to choose the right one.
  1. Column/charting method 
  1. Outline method 
  1. Mindmap method 
  1. Pyramid method
  1. Flow chart method 

Tips for taking notes while the Listening part is running

In the Listening section you will hear three or four lectures and two or three conversations between two speakers.

During the audition, you can use any style of note-taking, depending on the type of lecture.

At the very beginning, information is always given about what will be considered: the stages of the process, problems and their solutions, types of something, approaches, biographical data, and so on. For example, at the beginning of a lecture, a professor might say:

«The nineteenth century was the time that saw what we call “realism” develop in the European theater. Uh, to understand this, though, we first need to look at an earlier form of drama known as the “well-made play”».

Hearing this, you can assume what will be said about the development processes and you can use the style of taking notes flow chart and write down information about each of the stages or make a diagram with arrows.

Always remember to write main idea, major points and important details. You can even draw a piece of paper under these subheadings in advance. In a lecture, there are always signal phrases indicating this. For example, the words first, next, now, another. They do not need to be written down, but they will help to highlight the details.

While listening to the dialog, the column method is more useful. Divide the piece of paper into two parts, one for each speaker. That way you won’t get confused about the details and who says what.

Tips for taking notes while running the Speaking part

The first task in the Speaking part is an independent speaking task, in which you will have 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to speak. Use the preparation time to write only the keywords of the answer (there is not enough time for more). For example, the task:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Children should help their parents with household chores as soon as they are old enough. Use details and examples in your response.

Here’s what your notes might look like:


  • teach valuable skills
  • change to bond w/ parent

Tasks two and three are already “integrated speaking tasks”, where you need to read and listen, then answer the question. Preparation time is 30 seconds. Here we advise you to divide the sheet of paper into two parts and find out the relationship between what you read and what you heard. Possible relationships include cause/effect, compare/contrast, and steps in the process. Try to catch words that point to these relationships. On the right, on a piece of paper, write the main ideas from the passage and key ideas, on the left – information that complements or opposes what was written.

Reading notesListening notes
Main topic: Main points: Main topic: Main points: 

Consider a concrete example. Below is an excerpt of the text, notes to it, and a sample conversation based on the notes.

It is common knowledge that forecasting is an attempt by meteorologists to determine what weather will be like in the future. Hindcasting is the opposite of forecasting, an attempt to determine what weather was like in the past.
Meteorologists wish that records of weather had been kept in full for at least a few millennia, but it has been only in the last century that detailed records of the weather have been kept. Thus, meteorologists need to hindcast the weather, and they do so by using all sorts of information from other fields as diverse as archeology, botany, geology, literature, and art. These pieces of information from other fields that are used as a basis for drawing conclusions about what the weather must have been like at some point in the past are called proxies.


And here are the transcript audio recordings, notes on the recording and a sample response:

Now, let me talk about how hindcasting, which was used in one particular situation. This situation has to do with the weather in seventeenth-century Holland. It appears, from proxies in paintings from the time by numerous artists, that the weather in Holland in the seventeenth century was much colder than it is today. Seventeenth-century paintings show really cold winter landscapes with huge snow drifts and ice skaters skating on frozen canals. Since it’s unusual today for snow to drift as high as it is in the paintings and for the canals to freeze over so that skaters can skate across them as they are in the paintings, these paintings appear to serve as proxies that demonstrate that the weather when the paintings were created in the seventeenth century was much colder than it is today.

Assignment 4 – lecture. Do all the same things as in the Listening part while listening to a lecture.

Tips for taking notes while running the Writing part

In the Writing part, you will have two tasks:

  • Integrated writing task (20 minutes) – you need to read a short excerpt and listen to a short lecture, then write a response based on what you heard. Use the same tips as for Speaking question 2-3.
  • Independent writing task (30 minutes) – there is no need to write notes on paper, you can immediately print the outline on the computer in the answer field.

To get a good result on the TOEFL, be sure to practice taking notes correctly, because during the test there will be no time to stop and think.

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