One of the hardest parts of the TOEFL?

Time management. 

Many students struggle to answer every single question in the TOEFL Reading.

And it should come as no surprise, the TOEFL Reading is tough. 

Let’s look at some of the bullet points. The TOEFL Reading:

  • Includes 40+ questions
  • Contains 2100 words (3 passages x 700 words)
  • Provides 60 minutes to complete everything

TOEFL takers wonder how they can possibly read the texts and answer the questions in such a limited amount of time.

After years of trial and error, we have come up with a fool-proof system designed to help students just like you answer every single question in the TOEFL Reading with time to spare.

We are going to go through 4 specific rules for you to follow:

By the end of this short article, you will know exactly what you have to do to ensure that you never miss a single question on the TOEFL Reading.

Prefer a PDF guide?

You can download our TOEFL Reading Time Management Guide PDF version right here.

Rule #1: Take Notes and Circle

When you take the TOEFL, you get a pencil and a piece of scrap paper.

Use it!

Your task in the TOEFL reading section is more about eliminating choices than answering questions, though most students don’t look at it this way. You need to track the choices that you eliminate. And you can do this by taking notes.

Take a look at the example below:

These notes aren’t so bad, right?

All you have to do is write down the question numbers and the choices you eliminate.

You do NOT have to write any notes about the actual content of the reading text.

Here’s how it works.

When you answer the questions in the TOEFL Reading, eliminate choices you believe are incorrect. Once you eliminate, write it down on the scrap paper. This is an easy way to narrow your focus on the remaining choices.

For example, according to my notes, in question one, I have eliminated a and c, so I crossed them out.

You do not have to do this for every question. You can see that for question three I haven’t eliminated anything, and that is because the question was easy. Feel free to do the same on questions that require less focus and strategy. Don’t waste time writing notes about questions when you know the answer.

The most important component of this note-taking system is the circled questions.

Question numbers 2, 8, and 13 are circled because I’m not confident with my answer. You see, on test day, you have a limited amount of time to answer all of the questions. There will be some questions that will take you more time to answer. Instead of wasting time thinking about how to answer, just circle the question number in your notes, select the best choice, and move on.

Do NOT skip the question.
Skipping questions will put pressure on you to allocate enough time, in the end, to go back and answer the ones you missed. Answer the question and circle it in your notes so you can pinpoint the exact questions you need to think more about after you have finished answering everything.

We will talk more about monitoring your time soon, so you know when to answer and move on, but for now, plan to have a couple of minutes at the end of the 60 minutes to go back to a couple of questions and doublecheck your answers.

Rule #2: Watch the Clock

When you work through the TOEFL Reading section, you will notice that some questions take longer than others. For example, vocabulary questions are rather simple and straightforward, so they should take you no more than 60 seconds to complete. Negative detail questions, on the other hand, could take up to 120 seconds to answer. Below is a breakdown of the maximum amount of time you can spend on a given question based on its type.

  • Vocabulary – 60 seconds
  • Detail – 90 seconds
  • Negative Detail – 120 seconds
  • Paraphrasing – 120 seconds
  • Sentence Insertion – 120 seconds
  • Inference – 90 seconds
  • Author’s Purpose – 90 seconds
  • Pronoun Reference – 60 seconds
  • Summary – 120 seconds
  • Organization – 120 seconds

Even though this time breakdown is good to keep in mind, you do NOT have to look at the clock and count down the seconds for each question. That will only waste time and distract you from focusing on the content of the question and the passage. Instead, you should think of the time in terms of 20-minute chunks.

Unless you get an extended reading section, you will have three passages, approximately 40 questions and 60 minutes to answer. You want to answer about 14 questions every 20 minutes.

Here’s a chart outlining where you should be in five-minute-intervals. This is just a rough outline, assuming there are 40 questions in the passage. 

Ideally, you want to try to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to go back to the questions you circled. If you are ever unsure of your progress in the reading section, note that on the top middle of the screen will be the question number followed by the total amount. 

Focusing on having a rough idea of the number of questions you want to answer every 5 or 10 minutes. Remember, some questions take longer to answer than others, like TOEFL Reading summary questions. Be sure have a plan for answering each question type, which you can learn more about in our TOEFL Mastery Course.

Rule #3: Never Skip a Question

This was touched upon in rule #1, but it is so important that I have made it a rule of its own.

Never skip a question.

Our brains like stories. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end.
The questions in the TOEFL reading section go in sequential order, just like a story.When you skip a question, you interrupt the story. It makes the questions that come after the one you skip more difficult to answer. So, instead of skipping questions, you guesstimate.

Yes, guesstimate is a real word. You can ask Mr. Webster. Basically, you have an idea of what the answer might be, but you are not 100% certain. A guess is a blind chance, a guesstimation is made after some thought.

After you guesstimate, circle the question in your notes (like questions 2, 8 and 13 in depicted under rule #1), and move on. Keep in mind that your goal is to answer all of the questions. If you skip a question, you can only lose points.

Rule #4: Review Your Answers

Allocate a few minutes at the end of the reading section to go back and check over your answers one more time.There are four buttons in the top right corner of the test screen; click “Review” to see all the questions listed.

The review page will indicate the questions you answered and the ones you skipped. Check out an example of what the review page will look like.

On the review button page, you will find all of the questions listed out. If you did skip a question, it will be mentioned on this screen. In the last few minutes, go back to the questions circled on your scrap paper and doublecheck your answers.

Since you took notes and circled questions you wanted to review, it will be easy to jump around to specific questions from the review page.

In Conclusion

Now you know exactly what you need to do to organize your thoughts and conserve your time in the TOEFL Reading section. Here are the bullet points:

  • Use your scrap paper to take notes
  • Circle questions you need to review
  • Answer 14 questions every 20 minutes
  • Leave a few minutes at the end to review
  • Guesstimate and review later

Now that you know how to take notes for the TOEFL Reading, it’s time to practice. 

Practicing will help solidify this new information into your memory so you can actually apply it on test day.

So go ahead and download our free and complete TOEFL Practice test.

Or, if you feel like you want to learn more cool TOEFL Reading tips and tricks like this, check out our TOEFL Mastery Course.

I know this TOEFL stuff can get a bit frustrating sometimes. So don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know if you have any questions or concerns: [email protected]


Did I miss anything? Or do you have a comment?

Please add your ideas in the comments section below.

I promise to respond to every single one!


  1. Raquel

    Hey Josh! Your tips are really helpful! I’m brazilian and I made the exam one week ago and I did 71, but I need to get 79 =(. I’ll retake the test on May 4. Do you think it is possible to increase my score in this short period? Should I invest in my weaknesses (writing and speaking) or try to increase what I have been reasonably well (reading and listening)? Many tks, you are the best!!

    • Josh MacPherson

      Hi Raquel and thank you for your question. It’s a good one.

      Well, 8 points is quite a jump. It is true that some tests are harder than others so it is definitely possible to perform much better the second time around, especially after getting used to the test center, test conditions, etc.

      The fastest way to improve your score is to work with a teacher (or on your own if you must) on the speaking and writing sections. The speaking and writing provide the most opportunity for students to do well since much of the score is based on the organization of your responses and your performance on test day. If you work long and hard enough on the speaking and writing, you can find templates, even memorized portions of previous answers and use them on test day.

      The reading and listening are much harder to improve since low scores in these areas usually imply a lack of vocabulary comprehension, which is harder to fix because it is less about performance and more about comprehension.

      I hope this addresses your concerns. Thanks for the support and let me know if there’s any other way I can help.

      • Raquel


        As a miracle, I received the confirmation that my score 71 was accepted for the doctoral scholarship that I applied, so I will not have to retake the test . Next year I’ll go to Montreal, Canada (6 months) . I want to thank you again for your work and wonderful teaching. Even with an intermediate level of English, I had progress in the test because I saw all your videos on youtube (ninja and tst prep) . Thank you so much!!!

  2. Selin

    Josh, Amazing job ! I have just made these mistakes in the exam one week ago, and guess what, my other sections were amazing, however the reading part was a disaster 🙁 If I need to get one more TOEFL, than this piece of work will be a great helper!

    • Josh MacPherson

      Hi Selin and thanks for the comment (sorry this article came out a little late for you). I hope you did well and let me know if there are any other types of articles you think would be helpful for students in the future.


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