Most Common TOEFL Writing Section Mistakes

TOEFL test takers have said, hands down, the Writing Section is the most stressful part of the exam. In order to improve your TOEFL Writing score, it is important to know where most students go wrong. Here are the 3 most common mistakes, and ways to avoid them, on the TOEFL Writing Section.

Mistake #1 – Being hasty
The first big mistake that test takers make on the Writing Section is that they don’t spend a few minutes planning and preparing what they are going to write before they start writing. It is important to know what each of the writing tasks will be asking, and how to prepare and outline your response before you start.

The TOEFL Integrated Writing task is based on two passages, a reading passage and a listening passage. The author of the reading passage will discuss a particular topic, and then provide 3 main points, each lined out in a paragraph, that gives more details or supporting information on the topic. Next you will have listening passage. The lecturer is always going to talk about the same topic as the author. The lecturer is almost always at odds or in disagreement with the author of the reading passage. You have to identify and write about the lecturer’s 3 main counterpoints, and how they contradict or disprove the author’s main points in your essay with specific supporting details.

In order to be able to write about all of this in just 20 minutes, after only hearing the listening passage once, it is critical to take notes. First, while reading the passage, quickly identify and write down the topic and the author’s three main points. The reading passage will appear again after the listening, but because the lecturer in the listening is going to give 3 direct counterpoints to the author’s main points, writing down the author’s points will help you to anticipate what the lecturer will say. Also try to note at least one supporting detail the lecturer gives for each of his or her counterpoints.

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On the TOEFL Independent Writing task, you will be given a question relating to topic which asks for your opinion. Often these questions are designed for you to pick a side of a controversial argument, state your preference between two or three conflicting options, or explain why you agree or disagree with a given statement. You have to write about your opinion on the topic, provide two supporting reasons for your opinion, and illustrate those reasons with a personal experience.

The best way to prepare for this 30-minute writing task, is to organize your answer in an outline.
On the Independent Writing, students who don’t outline tend to stray away from the question they ask or run out of time to cover everything that they need to write in the timeframe. The best way to stay focused on the question is to first outline your answer.

Mistake #2–Lacking structure
Test takers go into the Writing Section without knowing how to properly structure their essay answers. It is important to know, before going in on test day, how to structure the Integrated Writing task and the Independent Writing task.

The best way to structure the Integrated Writing essay is with four paragraphs: an introduction, and 3 body paragraphs. In the introduction, first state the topic of the two passages. Next, write what the author’s position is on the topic. Then explain what the lecturer’s position is on the topic, and that both the author and lecturer have 3 main points supporting their opinions. The next three paragraphs follow the same structure. First, write one sentence about one of the author’s main points. Then write two or three sentences about the lecturer’s counterpoint with supporting details lining back to the reading. And that’s it! You don’t need to write a conclusion.

The best way to structure the Independent Writing essay is with four paragraphs: an introduction, two body paragraphs and a conclusion. The introduction should be short, only two to four sentences. You should very clearly and passionately state your opinion on the question and your two supporting reasons. In the two body paragraphs, you need to write about each of the supporting reasons. Then you should tell a personal example or anecdote to further explain your supporting reason and finish each body paragraph with a conclusion sentence that links it to your supporting reason. Finally, give a one or two sentence conclusion paragraph summarizing your opinion and supporting reasons.

Mistake #3 – Underestimating the importance of grammar and spelling
The third biggest mistake TOEFL test takers make is using incorrect grammar structure and misspelling words on the Integrated and Independent Writing Tasks. This can be because students are often in a rush to finish this fourth and final section of the TOEFL, or because they are using sentence patterns or vocabulary they don’t fully know how to use or spell correctly. Luckily, there are two easy solutions to avoiding these pitfalls.

First, you should use grammar constructs and vocabulary you are familiar and confident with. Too many students think that they should use big words and complex sentence patterns on the TOEFL, but it is easy to lose points. Don’t write anything in your essay that will leave you questioning. It is better to get less points for simpler sentence patterns, than to lose points for incorrect complex sentence patterns. Remember there is no spell or grammar check on the TOEFL, so it is better to play it safe with words and grammar structures you know are correct.

The second way to avoid this mistake is to proofread. You should save time at the end to go back and edit each of your essays. Students always want to walk away as soon as they finish writing, but you would be surprised how many spelling errors or grammar mistakes you will catch by proofreading. You can avoid losing unnecessary points from your score if you just save a minute or two at the end of your time to read back through and edit your Independent and Integrated Writing tasks.

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