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Note-Taking Tips for TOEFL Conversations

Conversations vs. Lectures on the TOEFL

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

When you compare conversations to lectures, there are a couple of advantages. Conversations are usually much shorter (just a few minutes long). The subject matter may be academic or non-academic, so you’re more likely to get a topic that you already know something about. And best of all, if you miss something one speaker says, the other speaker’s response will probably give you a clue as to what you missed. Whereas in lectures it’s important to understand as many words as possible, the conversations reward people who may not get every word, but who are good at interpreting implied information, idioms, and tone of  voice.

On the other hand, you have very little time to figure out what’s going on, as the structure of a conversation moves very quickly and doesn’t usually return to a point made at the beginning. What’s more, the greater emphasis informal language requires you to know a different vocabulary set than the rest of the lectures and readings of the TOEFL require.

Taking Notes on Conversations

Taking notes on a conversation may seem very easy in comparison to your practice lectures, since it’s almost possible to write every detail. You may even be tempted to do just that, simply because you can. But as I said above, conversations are less about explicit content than implied content. If you’re writing furiously throughout the recording, you’ll miss important nuances that are bound to be in the questions.

Below I’ve given an example one style of note-taking. Below that, I’ll describe another style that may be helpful (you might also want to take a look at our TOEFL Note-Taking post and this TOEFL Tuesday video for more helpful tips).

The notes below are on the practice recording found in ETS QuickPrep Volume 3. Listen to that conversation as you look through the notes below. Then try taking notes using each of these methods in turn, so you can choose and adapt one so it works best for you.

People: student, registrar

S. bring form–4 dip.

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R. (checks PC). grad OK…?  warn on rec.

R. required—cred. need plan. Sent letters b4, don’t now.

S. met chair. prof said okay.

R. PC = reliable.

S. bas. courses. no int. chair: field work = int. clssmates for req.s. Him for xtra

R. But not int. course

S. No grad?

R. Don’t worry. tell chair talk to reg. Do soon. wait = can’t help.


Notice that there are few full words (and definitely no sentences!) in those notes. If they’re hard to understand then that’s good. Nobody needs to understand them except you, and you only need to understand them for a few minutes.

In fact, I made the notes above long compared to what you might write during your actual TOEFL. Be sure you don’t spend the whole time writing. Remember that you need to listen enough to understand the bigger ideas and implications.

The Other Method

I promised another style, too: the truth is that it’s pretty similar to what’s above. Only instead, of writing in one column, alternating between R. and S., you will write in two columns. On the left side will be one speaker, and on the right side will be the other. This helps you keep straight who said what without always including the speakers identity at the beginning of the line.

Some test-takers have trouble doing the two column approach, though, and prefer to just keep it organized in one up-and-down column. That’s fine. But I’d suggest that you try both during your practice sessions, so that you can find out which is more efficient for you!

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