Thursday, November 8, 2007

Crackin' the TOEFL

I had dinner tonight with a really interesting student/entrepreneur who lives in Dalian and goes to school in a small town in Canada, where as a freshman he started his own successful logistics company.

He was telling me about the outrageous techniques the Chinese employ to "crack" the IELTS test, which he took last weekend.

The International English Language Testing System is what you have to pass in order to study abroad in Australia, Europe, Canada, and other English-speaking countries (the US uses the TOEFL, but American universities are increasinly accepting equivalent IELTS scores).

Understandably, this is a big deal for smart, rich Chinese kids who dream of studying in the West. So a whole science has developed around the IELTS, much like the Kaplan tricks for SATs or GREs, but like a lot of Chinese "science," it's really a potent mixture of folklore and good common sense.

For example, according to the Chinese method:

If it's a true or false question, and the question includes the word "most," the correct answer is "false."

On the listening section, if a man and a woman are engaged in a dialogue, what the woman says is always the correct answer, and what the man says is always the trick answer.

If there's a question about the number of people in an organization, the answer will never exceed 18.

If a question asks about an amount of money, the answer will never exceed four digits.

If among the answer choices there are three similar numbers (for example 150, 250, 350) and one outstanding number (5000), the correct answer will always be the middle of the three (in this case 250).

If it's a true or false question, and the question includes the word "urban," the correct answer is always "false."

My friend swore that these rules were totally 100% reliable; that IELTS operates according to a series of algorithms and clever Chinese minds had cracked them to produce these foolproof rules.

"But this doesn't make any sense." I said. "Wouldn't IELTS learn to change the patterns?"

He shrugged. "Change them however you want. We [Chinese people] will figure it out eventually anyway."

I keep thinking, either he's right and the test is totally unequipped to deal with Chinese magic-logic, or else he's wrong and is going to be very disappointed next week when he gets the test results.


Chris said...

Interesting. There is a widespread mindset among the students I've talked to (and those I've tested with) that entrance exams are little more than an obstacle to be overcome, by most any means necessary. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it might be a more honest outlook on the things than the growing idea in US education policy that tests are sacred.

I'd be curious, too, to try out some of these tricks on my Chinese reading and listening comp exercises, just to see if they spring from any homegrown biases or folklore.

Anonymous said...

TOEFL (Newbie)

TOFEL Aspirants