TOEFL Might Just Be the Last of Many Hurdles: Jawad’s Story

“I have always asked myself why people have made borders. Is it right that because my grandfathers lived in this land, it is mine and no one else has the right to live in it? Why do people want to get away from each other and differentiate themselves from one another? For example people say: “I’m from Afghanistan”, “I’m from Saudi Arabia,” or “I’m from England” and so on. Why they don’t say “we are from this world” Let’s open our minds and think about it as if we didn’t have the word “country” that all these countries were only one, and we wouldn’t suffer from discrimination or racism.”

Jawad says his love of education developed over a lifetime of struggling to stay in school, as his family moved between Iran and Afghanistan to escape war and discrimination, and fought to afford school expenses. “Education is a gift,” he recalls of the times when he was able to attend school regularly as a child.

“In my opinion, education, from which our people were deprived through the three decades of war, is the major problem of our society. Instead, superstitions and wrong beliefs have opened their space among people. Being educated, the parents would know the fact that all humans have the rights for education and what bright future it will bring to the family. They should give their children the right to choose while they should not force them to do hard work. If they are educated, they will know the fact that how worthy education is, therefore they would send their children to school to build their future and the community.”

Jawad says he completed most of his later schooling in night schools, learning computer skills and studying English.

Since 2010, he has been applying to continue his education at a U.S. university. One of his major challenges is the cost. Jawad says he needs full financial aid, and although he was admitted to a university in 2011, he couldn’t accept the offer.

“The college provided me 13,000 USD scholarships each year for four years. The rest I had to pay (About 35000 USD each year) but I had only 3,000 USD in my personal savings account that I had been saved since long time. We have a poor family financial position here, my family couldn’t help me. I tried some foundations and charities as well but it was disappointing. Finally I refused their offer because I couldn’t afford to.”

But he also says he is having trouble reaching the level of English he needs to gain admission to schools that might give him a full scholarship. His English skills have waxed and waned as he took and abandoned jobs that required him to put those skills to work. His TOEFL results from last year were 483 – not high enough, he says, to meet the standards of many universities.

“I want to be a civil engineer or mine-exploitation engineer. That’s mostly because my country needs reconstruction which requires qualified civil engineers. My main goal is either to make my country self-sufficient of electricity through building major dams or exploit the unexploited mines of Afghanistan, The latter of which will build an economical infrastructure for Afghanistan.

Then, you become aware of how to pursue your goals. In my case, I believe my all problems—when I cut my finger [while working as a welder], when one of my best friends was killed by Taliban, and the worst situations and cases of discrimination I saw in Iran— made me aware of how difficult life is, and taught me how thankful we should be for the blessings we have.

I am sure that all of those problems I’ve come across in my lifetime were somehow constructive lessons that increased my interest and understanding of the worthiness of education and its usefulness. Had it come too easy, I wouldn’t have been as much interested in education as I am now and even worse, I might have dropped out as some rich friends and relatives of mine did so, even though they could go on.”

Jawad shared with us some of what he struggles with in improving his English, in the hopes that others will relate to his challenges, and may even have advice for other English learners like him who feel like they have plateaued. Here’s what he wrote:

When I was 18, I studied English for three years. I passed the upper intermediate level, but still was not able to speak well. I decided to teach Basic English to students, and it compelled me to speak English in class. As a result, my speaking skill improved.

I also found a job in an international organization, where I met several native English speakers – Americans, Canadians and Australians.  During the time I was working in this organization I learned a lot of things; business English words, experience in English working environment, dealing with people from different cultures, and so on. This has helped me to improve my English as well.

After my time there, I taught English for about six months until I found a job in an Italian humanitarian aid organization and had to stop teaching.

Working for four years with Italian people was not only unhelpful for my English, but I also forgot most of what I had learned. I watched a lot of English and American movies however it has not been as effective as I expected. Maybe it has been helpful for my English listening.

I struggle a lot with the following things in English:

Paragraph/sentence structure: Sometimes I get confused about how to connect sentences together and which kind of connection I should use. In English there are different kinds of adjectives, adverbs, verbs, nouns, etc., and usually I doubt whether I am using them correctly in the sentence.

I am often unsure whether the adverb I used at the beginning of paragraph is correct or not (furthermore, moreover, likewise, however, hence, therefore, etc.).

Whenever I read back a piece of my writing that I wrote, I realize that my writing is poor and very basic. I review and recheck it again and again but I don’t see any change in it compared to other writings from people at the same level.

Punctuation marks: One of my biggest challenges in writing English is where I can use punctuation marks. “Is the comma I used here correct? How many commas can I use in a sentence? I think the sentence is too long; can I end the sentence here?” are questions I often ask myself.

There are lots of punctuation marks that I don’t even know how to use:
Full stop/period, comma, semi-colon, hyphen, dash, apostrophe, exclamation mark, slash, backslash, quotation marks, underline, underscore, round brackets, square brackets, ellipsis, etc.

I understand my English vocabulary is not good enough. Usually when I read English news articles, story books, or science readings, I have to have a dictionary too. Sometimes in a single page I have to look up twenty to thirty words in the dictionary, and I get bored when I finish that page. Sometimes I fall asleep during the reading. I have this problem in writing as well.

When I first took TOEFL test I realized that my English listening comprehension is very poor, especially in long conversations or lecture talks.

In order to get rid of all these problems, I have to read and learn. I have a plan to read two English articles per day (from VOA News) to improve my reading skills. I also bought some helpful self-study grammar books (Betty Schrampfer Azar’s Fundamentals of English Grammar series), and I think they might be helpful for my English grammar.

I couldn’t find an English teacher or institute that could teach TOEFL well enough in our town. Therefore I decided to do self-study. I found a helpful book for preparing for the TOEFL test, called the Longman Preparation Course for the TOEFL Test. In this book, for each section of TOEFL test it provides several skills that they say are helpful to improving English skills. If I read all the sections correctly, I hope I will improve my English skills.

I made a studying action plan for myself for the next three months. Through this plan hopefully I will solve the problems of my English.

Jawad study plan

I prepared a plan like this plan before as well, but I don’t know … after two or three months I get bored following the plan. I think I have to read some books about how to implement a plan and never get bored.

What are your challenges in studying English? What advice do you have for Jawad or others who are struggling to improve their TOEFL score? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

VOA StudentU


  1. Dear Pallavi,

    I don’t know how to thank you for all these useful information. I appreciate very very much!

  2. Dear Jawad,
    I am very much impressed with your efforts at the same times your story was really touching. I know it is difficult to prepare in adverse conditions but you can do that. I am from India and I am also preparing for TOEFL. As I am studying by myself so I researched a lot before investing my hard earned money in preparatory materials. Here I want to tell you about some really good resources available that too at free of cost.
    For speaking section:
    Go to youtube and type Notefull and listen each & every lecture of Notefull. Its free of cost but if you want to go for the paid version then you can go for that but that is too costly around $137 for the complete course. But definitely there is no harm in using free lectures on Speaking section. Here you will find the format to deliver your answer.
    For Listening section:
    Go to nationalgeographic channel and search for videos. They are very helpful.
    In later stages, try to search some classical lectures clippings on History, Biology, Archeology, Space science, Cultures and yes don’t forget to search general conversational clippings.
    For Reading section:
    Try to inculcate habit of reading novels atleast 10 pages per day or for 45minutes. That should be uninterrupted reading time. Novels should be from classical era, business and science or fiction. It will really help you to increase your reading speed per minute.
    There is a site called as Its very helpful as they will give you timed passages which are very much similar to the actual one asked in Reading comprehension.
    For Writing Section:
    I must say that its very challenging one as you will get a random topic and you will have to describe about that. The essays will be of opinion type or general type. But here you will again could do better. Try to read atleast 2 research papers per day and the write summary of the same paper without looking at. Again, the papers or articles should be related to business, science or culture. The use to know about the exact level of your essay. Paperrater is also a free tool.

    The whole process will take around 3 months. After that go for Barron’s computer adaptive test and Kaplan’s computer adaptive test. When you will finish that then now go and take simulated TOEFL Test of TestDen. Its a bit costly($90 for 4 tests) but will definitely give you better results.
    I hope, I have helped you as the facts mentioned here are totally based on my research work and experience.
    Hope you will get good marks in TOEFL.

  3. Dear Friend,
    I really wan to commend your personal effort at improving your proficiency in English language. I also want to encourage you not to relent, keep practicing, you will surely get your desired result some day soon. Since you are from a low income family, I’ll advice that you try out some free tuition university in Europe.
    Best of luck!

  4. Dear Jawad,
    Because of your enthusiasm to learn English, I am sure that you will be fine. It is understandable to worry because learning a second language is a tough process . However, if you work hard by using your intelligence and sedulity I know that you will be perfect in English.

  5. Dear Jawad,

    As Homayoon also mentioned, lots of second language speaker of English face the same problem you do, specially in Afghanistan where you need to take care of multiple responsibilities simultaneously because of its poor economy, but let’s be honest with ourselves if we just work a little bit harder with steadiness and stamina it will definitely work for you and you will succeed. In my opinion in whatever you do, you should do it by deep interest and motivation and also do it regularly. If you follow the plan you made for a short while and put at a side then it won’t help you learn appropriately.
    so my advice is to plan and implement all your study plans with steadiness and stamina.


    Jawed from Herat, Afghanistan

  6. Dear Jawad,
    You have described the most common challenges that every Afghan student faces in their academic life. In have also taken TOEFL tests – two times – In which my scores were 510 and 533 respectively. My personal experience have thought me when you wanna improve your English up to Advance level – even better than native speakers – then you must not miss the practice for all skills you pointed out. Every single and short break in your English learning process, kills your entire efforts for learning it. English is a very sweet language and I suggest that reading empowers your ability and it makes you get the most for your efforts you pay for it. INVEST YOUR TIME FOR READING ENGLISH.

  7. I am preparing my TOEFL test too. I feel your writing is very well, I afraid that I could not writing so beautiful articles. I don’t know how to improve my English writing or speaking skill, but you can force yourself to read many articles to improve your reading skill and enlarge your vocabulary accumulation.
    Best regards!

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