The TOEFL writing section, also known as the TOEFL essay section, is the last section of the test.
It comes after all the difficult steps of the TOEFL reading, listening and speaking tests. Showing that you know how to write well in English is crucial for your final test score.
The TOEFL writing section measures your ability to come up with a structured essay with clear arguments, while also checking your knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary.
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What You Should Expect from the TOEFL Writing Section
The writing section consists of two writing tasks.
The first task combines elements of listening and reading. You may be asked to listen to a lecture excerpt or a recording of a conversation, or you may need to read a short text. Taking notes during listening and reading is allowed. After listening or reading, you must then answer a question based on the content.
The second task is an opinion essay, where you are asked to offer your thoughts on a general question. You will have a total of 50 minutes to complete both writing tasks.
Writing for either TOEFL task is certainly not easy!
Coming up with things to write with a timer on is often difficult and stressful. You need solid essay writing skills, and you need good general English writing skills. For the first task, your reading and listening skills need to be excellent. Last but not least, good English grammar is just as important for a good essay as vocabulary.
The writing section of TOEFL is challenging, true, but there is good news. You can practice and improve your writing skills even if you never thought you were good at writing! Read on for useful tips and tricks on how to excel at writing great TOEFL essays that will help you earn a top score of 5.
What Does a Perfect TOEFL Essay Look Like?
Before you begin improving your writing skills, you need to know how tostructure an essay properly.
Knowing how to write an essay will help you to present your thoughts in the most logical way possible.
Generally, a good TOEFL essay has four or five paragraphs.
The first paragraph clearly states the main idea or main argument of the essay. This main idea is also known as the thesis, and it should be part of every paragraph in your essay. The whole essay needs to relate directly to this thesis.
Then, the next two or three paragraphs after the first paragraph should elaborate on the thesis and explain your arguments very clearly. You should have many ideas, thoughts and examples to support your thesis in these paragraphs.
Finally, the last paragraph is a conclusion which restates the thesis and summarizes the arguments you presented in the essay. You will summarize everything here and make a big conclusion about your main idea. You must show how everything ties together and is related.
Now, how exactly do you divide your essay ideas into paragraphs?
A general rule is to try and dedicate one paragraph to one idea or one argument. You should not try to explain more than one idea in each paragraph. Be very focused, and take time to make each paragraph very clear. This way, your essay will follow a format that looks like this:
- Paragraph #1: Thesis (main idea)
- Paragraph #2: First argument to support the idea
- Paragraph #3: Second argument to support the idea
- Paragraph #4: Third argument to support the idea, a different perspective on your thesis or an opposing idea.
- Paragraph #5: Conclusion (thesis restated)
Unlike the list above, your essay should not look like a collection of bullet points. Rather, you must write full sentences and full paragraphs. There also needs to be clear and smooth progress from one idea to another (good text flow).
Using conjunctive adverbs like “however,” “furthermore” and “nonetheless” is one of the easiest ways to introduce more flow to your essay. Subordinating conjunctions (“although,” “while”) will be helpful here too.
What will also assist you immensely is having a clear thesis to argue. It really is vital for you to decide exactly what you want to say before you start saying it.
It does not matter if your idea of thesis is very simple. In fact, it should not be too complicated, because you may run out of time trying to cover all your ideas if the main thesis is very complicated.
Having a simple, clear thesis will allow you to focus on ways to support it. Then you can pay more attention to using good grammar and vocabulary and presenting your arguments in a structured way throughout the essay.
Why Good Grammar Is Important for the Writing Section
Yes, you may hate studying grammar, but it is of the essence in the writing section!
These two essays are the only part of the test where your grammar knowledge is measured directly.
Speaking does measure your grammar to a lesser extent, but writing is the one section where poor grammar will most directly impact the quality of your essay and your overall score. (Interestingly enough, there used to be a separate grammar section in older versions of TOEFL, but this is no longer the case.)
When it comes to grammar usage on TOEFL, being correct is the most important. You may use complex verb tenses and clauses, but only do so if you are absolutely sure you are using them right. It is better to correctly use simple grammar than to incorrectly use complicated grammar.
There is not necessarily a need to use complex grammar in your essays, since arguments and examples may be laid out in Simple Past or Simple Present.
You may use gerund and simple conditional forms, but keeping it simple applies not only to your thesis, but to your grammar too. Play it safe and simplify if you are unsure.
Here are some essential grammar elements you might want to pay attention to and rely on in your essays:
- Simple present and simple past: This is obligatory for you to get right. Know the correct verb endings, revise the irregular verb forms and practice catching small but alarming mistakes like “”People says” (“people” is plural so it should be “people say”).
- Master the difference between present perfect and past perfect: Is it “I have been doing” or “I had been doing”? Both are correct forms of present perfect and past perfect, respectively, but you would use one or the other depending on context. Make sure you understand how.
- Gerund and conditional tenses: These will enrich your essay, showing the grader that you are capable of using more complex clauses and expressing yourself in a variety of ways.
- Minimize the use of passive voice: This will also help you with presenting your argument (for example, “British scientists have discovered” sounds stronger and more authoritative than “It has been discovered”).
Why Good Vocabulary Is Your Best Friend
You have probably experienced the frightening situation where you know exactly what you want to say, but do not know how to say it. We have all been there (and wished for a dictionary on hand to consult).
Acquiring good vocabulary of a wide range of words and phrases to express your ideas and thoughts is probably the most important part of preparing to write good TOEFL essays. The richer your vocabulary, the better! When you know more vocabulary, you will have more ways to express your ideas.
Playing it safe is an acceptable strategy with grammar forms, but this does not work well with vocabulary. Relying on generic, basic words will leave you with a flat, uninteresting essay that will not earn the top mark of 5 points even if its grammar and structure are good. So how do you avoid that?
Once you begin practicing writing essays in preparation for the test, you will notice the vocabulary you rely on the most.
Make a list of the English words that you use most often. How many times per essay do you use words like “agree/disagree,” “think,” “say,” “people,” “many,” etc.? These are simple words that may not have many substitutions. However, it is essential for you to have some alternatives. Studying synonyms is one of the easiest ways to expand your vocabulary, useful even beyond passing TOEFL.
To study synonyms, make a list of your most commonly used words and learn a few of their synonyms with the help of online dictionaries and resources available (like Synonym Finder or this simple thesaurus). Learn two or three ways of saying “to do,” “to say” and “to think.” Find alternatives to adjectives like “good,” “bad,” “beautiful” and “nice.” Attempt to substitute “people,” “company,” “students” and “country” with appropriate equivalents. You will notice improvements in your writing in no time.
Another very important point to work on when it comes to vocabulary is identifying words you may be using incorrectly. For example, these could be verbs or adjectives that sound similar:
- compliment and complement
- acquire and inquire
- gregarious and egregious
- whet and wet
- master and muster
There also might be words whose meanings you are unsure of but may end up using in hopes of sounding “fancy” or more advanced. Do not fall in that trap! In preparation, learn the correct meanings of words you like and practice putting these words in context. When in doubt, rephrase the sentence and do not use any vocabulary you are not familiar with.
How to Practice for the TOEFL Writing Section
The more writing practice you do for TOEFL, the easier essay writing will come to you. You will get used to identifying your main arguments, structuring your essay correctly and logically and employing diverse vocabulary and grammar.
If you need additional support and guidance, you can take a course online to improve your English writing skills. Inklyo has a great selection of books and courses that instruct ESL students in the art of English writing. The books and courses cover specific topics such as letter writing, essay writing and resume writing, so you can pick the topics that are most helpful for the TOEFL essay.
Writing a lot of essays will also help you feel more prepared when the test day comes, lowering your stress level. You will be able to focus on the actual task without being too nervous.
Another way to get rid of nervousness is to take practice TOEFL exams. After taking a full practice TOEFL exam, you will know exactly what to expect on the actual TOEFL exam day.
And when you are writing an essay, remember that it is not what you argue, but how you argue it that is important for the TOEFL writing section. The grader will not penalize you for your opinions. She is more interested in seeing a well-written, well-argued essay with good grammar usage and a few complex words thrown in here and there.