TOEFL Writing Section Tips

  • Don't waste precious time obsessing over introductions and conclusions, keep them brief and focus mainly on your body paragraphs
  • Devote a small amount of time to brainstorm and plan your essay, 3-5 minutes maximum
  • Remember that in addition to details and examples, you will also be graded on organization and coherence
  • Practice at home by doing quick five minute outlines of TOEFL writing topics

Facing the TOEFL Integrated Writing Section

The integrated writing section on the TOEFL is approached with apprehension by students worldwide. How can I possibly understand the lecture? How do I link the reading and the listening? How am I going to finish this essay in 20 minutes?

Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of the integrated writing section and break down some myths that might surface around this topic.

Aspect #1: Reading vs. Listening: Which one matters the most?

Many students are often thrown off by this question. After all, isn’t it an equal divide in terms of both the reading and the listening? Well – almost. To be quite honest, the prompt for the integrated writing will always go as follows:
“Summarize the lecture, making sure to cast doubt (or compliment) points made in the reading.”
Remember – this means your primary task is to summarize the lecture, bringing in information from the reading when it’s relevant and worthy to do so. All in all, the lecture tends to make up the bulk of your essay, as it’s what you’re summarizing. The reading is brought in only when it makes sense to do so. So, I would say the integrated essay, in terms of a breakdown of actual information, goes as follows:
Lecture: 60%
Reading: 40%

Again, always make sure to refer back to the directions. “Summarize the lecture” is always the first three words of the integrated writing task prompt.

Aspect #2: Point by Point vs. Block Format

Which way is the best to write your TOEFL essay? Well, there are two ways to do so: point by point and block. What are the differences? Let’s see:

Point-by-point structures the essay according to points, or specific facts and details taken from both the reading and the listening. For example: you make one statement about the lecture and provide either a point of similarity or contradiction to that point from the reading in the first paragraph. The same for the second paragraph, the third, etc… This is an essay structured around shared information.
Block format is a bit easier in that it structures half of your essay about the lecture and half about the reading. The details, or specific bits of knowledge from each are not juxtaposed against one another as in the point-by-point.

Which is better, you may ask? Here’s our advice: If you have a relatively good grasp of both the content of the lecture and the reading – go for point by point. If you are unclear about both the reading and the listening and you are hesitant to attempt to structure such an essay – block format is viable.

Words of wisdom: Block format is a last resort. Strive for an integrated essay that’s point by point; the mark of an advanced writer!

Aspect #3: How should my Essay be Structured?

Technically, your essay should be anywhere from 150 – 225 words. That totals to about two long paragraphs, or three moderately short ones. Do you need an introduction? Absolutely. But, it is best to keep it brief. A common way to begin the integrated essay is: “Both the reading and the listening talk about ______.” Give us a general idea of what the topic is before we get into points of similarity or contradiction.

A conclusion is a nice addition, but only if you have time. This essay is roughly half the length or two thirds the length of your independent essay, so a conclusion several sentences long is not all that realistic in twenty minutes. If you have time and are not sacrificing seconds from the editing stage, feel free to include a general concluding sentence restating what you said in your introduction with more specifics. However, if you’re running out of time and want to make sure and leave two minutes to edit – simply end your integrated essay with your final point of similarity or contradiction.

Above all – draw connections from the reading and the listening whenever possible.

Outlining Your TOEFL Independent Essay

As many TOEFL-bound students may know, ETS gives 30 minutes to plan, write and edit the independent essay. Sometimes, test-takers jump right into the writing portion of the essay and forgo the "planning stage" altogether. Planning, or outlining your independent essay, is crucial to giving you the basic information to write your essay effectively. How do you outline an essay? It involves the following steps.
Brainstorming involves you writing down all the possible ideas, stream-of-consciousness that enter your mind in regards to the given topic. Take a look at the following example of brainstorming on an independent writing TOEFL topic.

  • Topic: Do you believe students should be required to wear school uniforms? Why or why not? Use details and examples in your explanation.

    • Brainstorming (2-3 minutes)

      • disagree
      • inhibits creativity
      • middle school: black pants, white shirt, uncomfortable
      • hated wearing uniforms as a child
      • university – no uniforms
      • more fun with sense of style – discovery
      • open environment/accepting
      • freedom of choice good for education

The above was written in about 2 minutes on the given topic in regards to wearing school uniforms. Again, this step is called brainstorming and is free association with the given topic. After the brainstorming stage, you should go directly to the outlining stage, which should take a little less time.
Outlining requires you to take information from the brainstorming stage and organize it into the skeleton of your essay. This outline will be the blueprint, so to speak, for your independent TOEFL essay.

  • Outline (1-2 minutes)

    • thesis: disagree with uniforms
    • 1st point: inhibits creativity (personal example from middle school and how my creativity suffered due to a strict uniform policy)
    • In general, students were not as happy and often times, their artwork was dismal and depressing because they were not allowed to experiment with color in their wardrobe
    • 2nd point: increases an open mind (personal example: during university, there was no dress code and this made people more accepting of others and their sense of style). In general, this was good for education and allowed us to approach one another with an open mind.

Having the above outline will come in handy when actually sitting at your keyboard and typing out a 300-400-word essay. Not only does the outline help you work faster, but it also helps the overall organization of your essay. Remember – in addition to supporting points and examples, TOEFL writing section graders also judge organization and coherence.

Practice at home by outlining essays from various TOEFL independent writing topics. You’ll be surprised how easy it can be to do in 5 minutes and how useful it will prove itself during your test!