How to Prepare for the Writing Section of the TOEFL iBT

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To do well on the Writing section of the TOEFL, you need to know how to write well and how the test works.

  • Read. Reading books, stories, and news articles in English will help you increase your vocabulary and knowledge of sentence structures.
  • Stay on topic. Since the TOEFL is a test, your job is to write what the test asks you to – no more, no less.
  • Organize your ideas. Whether you do this in your head on in notes, create an outline of what you want to write. Know your conclusion before you start writing.
  • Support each opinion with an example/detail.
  • Proofread. Mistakes are easy to miss while you’re writing. Take some time – even if it’s just one minute before the timer goes off – to fix any grammar, word choice, and/or spelling mistakes.
  • Practice. Use the practice questions offered by ETS. Go to Prepare for the TOEFL iBT® Test and scroll down to Free Test Preparation Resources.

Timed practice is useful for all sections of the TOEFL, but especially for Writing and Speaking. Don’t cheat – only let yourself have the exact amount of time that you will have on the test.

There are two types of writing tasks on the TOEFL: the integrated and the independent.

  1. Integrated (20 minutes after listening and reading passages)
  2. Independent (30 minutes)

Any of the following will result in a zero or a low non-zero score:

  • Not writing anything
  • Repeating/copying the prompts or any part of the passages. Copying even just a few sentences from the passages is unacceptable.
  • Off-topic responses (responses that don’t actually answer the question)
  • Including personal opinions in the integrated essay

Integrated


Part 1: Reading passage (3 minutes)

You read a short essay, usually 4 paragraphs long, on an academic topic. Although this essay will be available for viewing while you write, it’s still a good idea to take notes to follow as you listen to…

Part 2: Lecture


You listen to a lecture that either supports or disagrees with the reading passage using examples and details. In my experience, disagreement is far more likely than support, but you never know.

Every argument in the reading passage will be addressed separately by the lecture – use this fact to organize your notes and your essay. When taking notes, use abbreviations and symbols where possible so that you can get more information written down more quickly.

Part 3: The Integrated Essay (20 minutes)

Your job is to analyze and write about how the lecture supported or disagreed with (the usual wording of the question is “cast doubt on”, meaning “says what is wrong with”) the reading passage. If you took notes during both Parts 1 and 2, as you should have, they might look something like the following.

Reading Lecture
Violent video games → real-life violence Inacc. [inaccurate] to say video games → violence
People who committed serious crimes played violent games Millions more ppl [people] play games, no crimes
Violent games addictive for children, change perception of reality Addiction happens with all games, not just violent, and with all media – books, movies, TV, etc.

Turn your notes, plus any additional details from the reading passage, into an essay with the following structure:

  • Introduction
    • Introduce topic
    • Define crucial terms
    • State whether the lecture supports or casts doubt on the reading
  • Body Paragraph 1
    • 1st argument of reading
    • Argument from lecture that corresponds to above
    [Repeat for Body Paragraph 2]
    [Repeat for Body Paragraph 3 if any]
  • Brief concluding statement about the main/overall message of the lecture
Sometimes, the lecture will address the arguments from the reading passage out of order. Be aware of which point from the lecture supports/refutes which point from the reading.

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The best way to learn is to practice. Pick an example topic and write an essay. Come back to get an expert's feedback on your writing and their suggestions for improving.
Integrated writing: $4
Independent writing: $5
The first essay you submit will be free courtesy of Stanford HCI.


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Sally Kim has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh. She is an experienced TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) and test preparation instructor. She has worked closely with students of many ages and proficiency levels to prepare them for the TOEFL iBT, the SAT, and school writing assignments.


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Independent


As with the independent tasks in the Speaking section, your job is to express your opinion based on a prompt. You might be asked to agree or disagree with a statement, choose between 2-3 statements or objects, or answer an open-ended question. Example prompts:

  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “Every university student should live with a roommate during their first year.”
  • Which of these inventions has had the greatest impact on humanity – the telephone, the cellular telephone, or the smartphone?
  • You have the opportunity to travel to any one foreign country. Where would you go and why?
  • Some people earn money so they can spend it. Others save most of the money they earn. Which do you think is the better approach and why?

Divide up your time. For example, you can give yourself 5 minutes for planning, 23 minutes for writing, and 2 minutes for proofreading.

In the next 3 steps we will walk you through writing an essay for the following prompt:

Q: Some people earn money so they can spend it. Others save most of the money they earn. Which do you think is the better approach and why?

Brainstorm


Q: Some people earn money so they can spend it. Others save most of the money they earn. Which do you think is the better approach and why?

Write down anything that comes to mind and create a basic outline.

  • Save: Future, children, house, retirement. Crisis – car broke down, expensive to fix?
  • Spend – enjoy life, can’t enjoy once dead, saving not always possible if not enough money?

Separate the ideas into arguments/generalizations and details/examples, and pick a side. You don’t need to pick the side that you agree with; instead, ask yourself which side you can argue for better through an essay.

Pick a side

→ Saving is better [This becomes the basis for your thesis.]

Create a list of ideas, each item in the least will become a body paragraph:

List of ideas.
  1. Bad things might happen – car breaks down, illness, death in family
  2. If children – they can’t pay for things themselves. School, clothes…
  3. Retirement – can’t work forever, can enjoy life when older (grandparents?)

Write the basis of your concluding statement:

Concluding statement.

People should use a financial planner (app or person)

Write


Write an essay with the following structure, giving at least 2 carefully thought-out arguments.

  • Introduction
    • Introduce topic in 2-3 sentences
    • People disagree on how to handle their money. Some people are inclined to save as much as possible and live below their means, while others […]

    • Thesis statement (statement of your opinion)
    • In my opinion, it is better to save money during one’s working years even if it is tempting to spend more.

  • Body Paragraph 1
    • Transition phrase:
    • First…first of all…my first reason for believing this is that…

    • 1st reason for your opinion
    • …people who have a large amount saved in their bank accounts are better equipped to deal with unexpected life events.

    • Detail/example** to support your opinion
    • Although steps can be taken to minimize the chances of accidents, illnesses, or equipment failures, no one can really predict when they will strike. This became especially evident to me when my parents’ car, which had been reliable for 3 years, suddenly had an engine failure […]

    [Repeat for Body Paragraph 2]
    [Repeat for Body Paragraph 3 if any]
  • Conclusion
    • Transition/concluding phrase:
    • In sum…to summarize…to conclude…

    • Restate (Don’t repeat) thesis statement:
    • ...saving as much of one’s income as possible is more prudent than spending most of it…

    • Briefly recap (Don’t repeat) arguments:
    • …particularly because saving prepares people better for…

    • Make a short concluding statement (Related suggestion or next logical idea – no new information):
    • Those who find saving difficult should consider using resources such as […]

**If you can’t think of an appropriate personal experience to use as an example, it’s okay to make something up; just make sure it is believable. For example, a made-up story about an Olympic gold medalist who overcame a serious injury is not believable, since such a major event in a famous person’s life would be known to the public if it were real.

Proofread


Proofreading is the final step and it applies to both the integrated and independent essay.

Examine your essay for small and large mistakes. Some suggestions:

  1. Subject-verb agreement: This is a common type of error among speakers of English as a second language. Did you forget to add an –s to pluralize a noun (*The three little pig)? Did you accidentally add an –s that doesn’t belong (*They thinks)?
  2. Spelling: Is everything spelled correctly to the best of your knowledge? Did you mix up words that sound the same (write with right, allude with elude)? Even native speakers make this kind of mistake, especially when they are under pressure to write quickly.
  3. Are there any incomplete sentences in your writing? You might have written Due to these reasons. and forgotten to finish the sentence by telling the reader what happened due to those reasons.
  4. Could any part of your essay be unclear to a reader? Pay special attention to pronouns. My father and my grandfather both lived in the cottage that he built is ambiguous because it’s not clear whether he refers to the father or the grandfather.

Get Help


How to troubleshoot your essay.

Take a look at this introductory paragraph from a sample independent essay.

Q: You have the opportunity to travel to any one foreign country. Where would you go and why?

Travel is expensive. Time is expensive as well. So students cannot imagine freely traveling abroad. There are many countries I would like to visit. If I could travel to only one of them, I would choose Australia for some reasons.

What stylistic problems can you see in this paragraph?

Travel is expensive. Time is expensive as well. So students cannot imagine freely traveling abroad. (1) These ideas should be connected in the text using compound or complex sentences to show the relationships between them. Leaving them unconnected makes this portion look like a list.There are many countries I would like to visit. (2) To illustrate your point better, give a few examples of the many. If I could travel to only one of them, (3) Add a transition at the beginning of this sentence to show the contrast between it and the previous sentence. I would choose Australia for some (4) “Some” is vague; use a more illustrative phrase like “a few” or “several,” or just give the number. “Some reasons” could also give the impression that you’re not sure of your reasons, since the phrase “for some reason” is used in that context. reasons.

General comments: If you feel confident in using “big”/academic words, use them instead of simple ones. Also, find alternatives to simple sentences (Subject + Verb + Object) where possible.

Improved version:

With rising fuel prices and increasing numbers of commitments, it is difficult for a student to imagine traveling abroad freely. There are many countries I would like to visit, such as England, France, Thailand, and Australia. However, if I could travel to only one of them, I would choose Australia for a few reasons.

Get feedback on your writing

Have an expert read your essay and give you similiar suggestions on how to improve:
Integrated writing: $4
Independent writing: $5
If you need more in-person help, submit a request to have a 30 minute Skype training session with our expert. Email us at ink@cs.stanford.edu to schedule a time. Cost: $10/session
The first essay you submit will be free courtesy of Stanford HCI until Sep 10th.


submit

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Questions? Email us at: ink@cs.stanford.edu

Usr
Sally Kim has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh. She is an experienced TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) and test preparation instructor. She has worked closely with students of many ages and proficiency levels to prepare them for the TOEFL iBT, the SAT, and school writing assignments.


The Stanford HCI group has recruited this expert and interviewed them.
Read about the Stanford HCI guarantee.

More example paragraphs from the essay:

Body Paragraph 1: My primary reason for choosing Australia is that it is vastly different from where I live. As someone who has lived all her life in Northeast Asia, I have never experienced the Southern Hemisphere. Christmas, for example, has always been cold. My understanding from reading about Australia is that it has not only warm Christmases, but also different cultural traditions surrounding Christmas, which are partly due to the climate. To see how differences in climate affect the way of life would be fascinating, not to mention helpful for the future when I will go overseas for my undergraduate studies.

Conclusion: To summarize, Australia tops the list of foreign countries I would travel to if I had the chance. The impact of going into the unknown, practicing living life in a foreign language, and encountering nature cannot be overstated. To others considering similar opportunities, I would suggest that they go as far outside their comfort zones as possible – in my case, that means a different hemisphere.