You only have thirty minutes to write an essay that showcases your awesome English skills.
But you’re paralyzed with anxiety, thinking “what if I make a huge mistake?”
You know what’s more important than avoiding major mistakes?
Knowing the best tips, tricks and strategies for TOEFL Independent Writing section success.
Writing while being timed is not a very natural activity.
I mean, when else do you have to race against a clock to finish an essay?
This is a challenging task even for native English speakers.
Needless to say, many TOEFL takers feel that this is the most intimidating part of the exam.
We totally understand what you’re feeling, and we have a way to help.
My goal today is to give you all the information you’ll need to succeed with the TOEFL Independent Writing section.
Why Practice TOEFL Writing?
The simple answer? You want a better score.
This isn’t the only reason to practice TOEFL writing though. If you’re taking the TOEFL, it’s probably because you want to go to a university in another country.
The TOEFL is based on a lot of the things that foreign learners struggle with. Studying for the TOEFL will prepare you for university abroad. If you can get a high score on the TOEFL, it likely means you’re more prepared for the university environment where teachers will ask you to discuss or write about unfamiliar topics all the time.
Top Mistakes English Students Make on the TOEFL (and Why I Know)
As a former TOEFL rater, I read hundreds of essays per week.
I saw the same mistakes over and over again.
Mistakes do matter, so I’m going to share the most frequent ones with you before we get started.
The first one is to apologize to your rater for your English skills. We know you’re not a native speaker, so do not apologize to us. You’ll lower our expectations of the rest of your writing, which can only make things worse.
Another is to freeze up and write down almost nothing. Some ideas are better than no ideas. Don’t try to be perfect when the clock is ticking.
One more thing: remember that there’s also an Integrated Writing Section of the TOEFL which is completely different. In that section, your opinions and ideas should not be included, so make sure to study for that section separately.
10 Simple Strategies to Pass the TOEFL Independent Writing Section
There are some ways you can improve your score by using some basic strategies. Today, I’ll share them with you, along with ways that you can practice them. Some of these things will probably surprise you because they might be different from what your English teacher taught you in school — but just stay with me! I know what I’m talking about here, and I won’t guide you down the wrong path.
1. Practice timed writing before the day of the test.
Preparing an essay for English class and writing on the day of the TOEFL are completely different experiences. With an essay for class, you have tons of time to formulate your ideas and write them down carefully.
When a timer is involved, things change. You need to think fast, write fast and correct writing fast. You must practice this, especially if you aren’t good at typing on a computer keyboard. Choose a topic and set a timer for thirty minutes. Try to spend the entire 30 minutes writing, without stopping.
When the timer is finished, read your writing carefully to see how you did. How was your grammar? How many sentences could you write?
Do this several times per week. Lots of practice can really help you improve on the TOEFL. With practice, you’ll be able to think about ideas faster and type your responses out more quickly.
Eventually, you’ll want to take a complete TOEFL practice exam—it’s the only way to be fully prepared for the TOEFL. When you’re ready, take a TOEFL practice exam on BestMyTest. You’ll get a real score and a full review of your writing from a TOEFL certified teacher.
2. Think quality, not quantity.
Shorter, well-written responses are fine. Many of the responses that receive scores of 4 or 5 are only one paragraph long. On the other hand, many longer responses receive only a 2 or a 3. If you use transitions and clear language, you can fit all of your reasons and details into one smooth paragraph. That will really impress your rater.
If the response is too long, you’ll be in a rush and you won’t be able to check your grammar and vocabulary. You also might repeat yourself or include irrelevant specifics. Of course, don’t make your response so short that you can’t show off your ability to make a good argument.
3. Learn some basic sentence patterns that you can use comfortably.
TOEFL raters look at your ability to make different types of sentences. Create your own toolbox of different types of English connectors, such as “but,” “however,” and “although.” Practice writing sentences and use them in your TOEFL response. If you only use simple short sentences, your response won’t receive a high score. You don’t need to be a grammar expert, but you do need to show sentence variety.
4. Learn the common types of TOEFL prompts.
You won’t have a choice of your topic on the day of the TOEFL exam.
The topic will be a complete surprise.
However, Educational Testing Services (the makers of the TOEFL) publish sample topics on their website. If you study these, you can be more prepared.
Look for keywords that are repeated over and over in the prompts, like “prefer” or “oppose,” and make sure you understand their meanings and how to respond to the questions they’re asking.
Ask yourself: “Should I make a choice? Agree or disagree?”
Once you notice these patterns, they’re be easier to identify and respond to correctly on the day of the exam.
5. Have (or Fake) an Opinion.
Don’t say that you don’t have an opinion.
This is an argumentative essay. In many cultures, people don’t express their opinions directly — but you’ve got to do it on the TOEFL Independent Essay.
If it’s new for you to have an opinion and express it strongly, practice. When you read something or listen to something, think: “Do I agree or disagree? Do I support or oppose this decision?”
Have coffee with another ESL student and practice discussing current events. Talking about your opinions will make it easier to write about them. On the day of the TOEFL, choose the side you can argue best, even if it’s not your true opinion. If you don’t have an opinion on the TOEFL topic, invent one!
6. Brainstorm before you start your response.
It’s good to make a little plan before you start writing your TOEFL response. Don’t immediately start writing.
Instead, take 1-3 minutes to decide what you’ll write about and think about some reasons and examples. Again, usually you’ll have to choose between two opposite arguments. That means it’s useful to quickly brainstorm both sides and see which one you have the most reasons and details for, even if you truly think differently.
7. Write a basic thesis statement.
This is the first thing your rater will see, so you should make a clear and grammatically-correct sentence that states the main idea of your response. You don’t need an introductory paragraph, but you should definitely write a thesis statement. This can be borrowed mostly from the prompt itself.
For example, if your prompt says, “In some countries, teenagers have jobs while they are still students. Do you think this is a good idea?” I can write “I think it’s a good idea for teenagers to have jobs while they are still students” or “I don’t think it’s a good idea for teenagers to have jobs while they are still students.” Simply take the words from the original prompt and create a strong opinion sentence. The rest of your essay will be built around this sentence which strongly and clearly states your opinion on the topic.
As you’re looking at sample TOEFL prompts, practice writing a thesis statement like this for each one.
On the day of the exam, your topic will probably be different from any sample topics you’ve looked at. Even so, the topics will probably be very similar overall. You don’t need to have much specific knowledge on any topic to succeed. It should be easy to write the thesis statement if you’ve already studied and practiced how to write.
8. Give specific reasons and details.
Every TOEFL prompt asks for specific reasons and details.
One reason a response receives a higher or lower score is because of the number of reasons and examples they can give.
To get the highest scores, you’ll need three different, well-written reasons along with specific details. When you do your timed practices at home, be sure to practice doing this.
Many students have trouble thinking of specific examples, but it’s an important part of good writing. You can also practice brainstorming or planning reasons even if you don’t write a complete response. You shouldn’t use statistics because you won’t be able to research during the exam. Instead, practice using experiences or facts from your general knowledge to support your thesis statements.
9. Stay on topic.
Unfortunately, you can’t choose or change your topic. Write only about the topic that’s given to you by the exam.
Keep in mind: TOEFL raters are always looking for pre-made essays. Some students will memorize essays before the TOEFL exam and use them instead of writing on their own. Therefore, one of the lowest scores students can receive is for missing the topic. Writing about a different topic is an easy way to get a low score. I don’t recommend trying to memorize an essay.
Honest, dedicated practice is much more useful and effective.
If there are unfamiliar words in the prompt, use context to guess their meanings. Try your best to write about the exact topic given to you. Don’t include sentences that don’t connect to your thesis statement — these irrelevant sentences will lower your score.
10. Edit your response if you have time.
Even native speakers make small mistakes in their writing, but if we read our essays again we can find our mistakes. Try to save the last 1-3 minutes for fixing your errors. Of course, the more grammar you learn the better you’ll become at fixing and avoiding errors as you write, but anyone can identify small mistakes in typing (typos) that would bring the score down.
That’s all we’ve got for now. Just keep practicing until next time, and good luck!
And One More Thing…
If you’re looking for more ways to practice for the TOEFL, try FluentU.
It’s a really useful study tool, but it’s also a lot of fun.
FluentU lets you learn real English. It teaches you with popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials.
If you want to watch it, FluentU’s probably got it.
FluentU makes it simple to watch native English videos. It has interactive captions. Tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
FluentU lets you learn engaging content with world famous celebrities.
Tap on the word “brought,” and you would see this:
FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.
Videos become English lessons. With FluentU’s questions, you can always see more examples for the word you’re learning. This way, you’re not just practicing listening. You’re also learning the grammar and vocabulary in the videos. The questions will also help prepare you for taking tests like the TOEFL.
FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.
The most interesting part? FluentU knows the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends you examples and videos based on those words. You have a 100% personalized experience. This means you know exactly what you need to work on, and can study more efficiently.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.
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While the TOEFL is generally a very different type of test from the GRE, the GMAT, and the SAT, there are a few similarities, and the writing section is one of them. As with most standardized tests, the TOEFL asks you to write an essay. Well, it asks for two essays, actually—one is about a reading and a lecture (which you’ll summarize), and the second is more open-ended. Let’s look at the TOEFL writing topics that you might see for that second TOEFL essay, the “independent task.”
On one hand, there are a LOT of different TOEFL writing topics. You might be asked to write an essay about technology, education, media, family, or some other subject. But on the other hand, there are only a few different types of questions.
ETS does provide a list of TOEFL independent essay questions in the official guide, and it’s a good idea to look over those. But there’s an excess of information there—we want to know some more useful generalities! So let’s divide those subjects into types. (Click here to jump ahead to the first of those three types!)
A Note on Practicing TOEFL Writing Topics
If you practice writing the essay before test day (a good idea!), then you can use an essay prompt from the ETS list mentioned above. This is a great option.
For more customized practice, sign up for Magoosh’s 7-day free trial, select “Practice –> Custom Practice –> Writing Section”, and then try one of our premium TOEFL Writing prompts. You can also choose to only practice the independent task, if that’s what you want to focus on. The trial lasts 7 days and you don’t need a credit card to sign up.
Here’s what that looks like:
Let’s talk about the TOEFL “independent task” writing topic types I mentioned above!
TOEFL Writing Topic Type 1: Choose a Side
This is by far the most common type of independent writing question. These TOEFL prompts ask you to choose A or B then explain your decision. There are a couple of different approaches to writing this type of essay, but the simplest form is the “five paragraph essay.” Usually this is actually only four paragraphs, because you don’t have that much time—the test only gives you 30 minutes to complete your independent essay.
So if you choose A, you might write an essay that looks like this:
- Body 1
- Reason 1 and examples of why A is better
- Short contrast with B
- Body 2
- Reason 2 and examples of why A is better
- Short contrast with B
- Why this is significant in the real world
Of course, there are other ways to write an essay, but it’s a good idea to use a relatively simple structure for clarity. This is more true for the TOEFL than it is for essays on other tests, like the GRE, because the TOEFL is really a test of communication and how well you can write in English.
Here are some examples of the “choose a side” writing topics:
“Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Parents are the best teachers. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”
“Some people like to travel with a companion. Other people prefer to travel alone. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.”
“Some people believe that the Earth is being harmed (damaged) by human activity. Others feel that human activity makes the Earth a better place to live. What is your opinion? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”
“It has recently been announced that a large shopping center may be built in your neighborhood. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer”
There are a few common phrases which you will see in these essay topics, so they’re easy to spot — those phrases are bold in the examples above.
You might also get a slightly more complicated version of the “choose a side” prompt that asks you to compare sides, like this one:
“When people move to another country, some of them decide to follow the customs of the new country. Others prefer to keep their own customs. Compare these two choices. Which one do you prefer? Support your answer with specific details.”
In that case, you could still use the structure I showed above, but you would emphasize the contrasts with “B” and write a bit more about them.
Writing Topic Type 2: View Both Sides
This is actually very similar to the “choose a side” type of essay subject, but it’s a little bit more complicated because you have to think from two different standpoints. Thankfully, it’s also not as common.
Here are a few examples:
“The government has announced that it plans to build a new university. Some people think that your community would be a good place to locate the university. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a new university in your community. Use specific details in your discussion.”
“Some young children spend a great amount of their time practicing sports. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”
There are a couple of different ways you might structure an essay like, but the simplest one may be the best.
- General statements about issue
- Body 1
- Body 2
- Disadvantages and examples
- Why this is significant in the real world
Writing Topic Type 3: Describe or Explain
In a way, this is the most difficult type of independent essay question because it doesn’t give you an A or B situation. Instead, you have to think of your own subject from a very big pool of possibilities.
“What discovery in the last 100 years has been most beneficial for people in your country? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.”
“The 21st century has begun. What changes do you think this new century will bring? Use examples and details in your answer.”
“What change would make your hometown more appealing to people your age? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.”
“If you could study a subject that you have never had the opportunity to study, what would you choose? Explain your choice, using specific reasons and details.”
“If you could invent something new, what product would you develop? Use specific details to explain why this invention is needed.”
Because these writing topics don’t give you a yes–no or A–B choice, it’s easy to get stuck in the planning phase. (By the way, planning is incredibly important for writing any standardized test essay; don’t skip it!)
The structure doesn’t have to be very different, though. Here’s a rough idea of how you might organize a descriptive essay:
- Body 1
- Body 2
- Body 3
- Why this is significant in the real world
Notice I added one more body paragraph. Because there’s no “other side” to deal with, you have more time to explain the one topic you chose. So why not use that time for another paragraph!
This Is Only Half of TOEFL Writing
Remember that the independent essay is only half of the TOEFL writing section. There’s also the integrated task. We’ll look at the topics of integrated tasks in another post!
Ready For Some Practice?
If you’re ready to try out writing the independent task for yourself, try a customized practice session in Magoosh TOEFL’s free trial or take a look at our full-length TOEFL Writing test, which will also introduce you to the integrated task: