Most Common TOEFL Essay Mistakes (Integrated Task)

It seems that many of my TOEFL students make the same mistakes in the writing section of the test. That's no surprise, since they are answering the same two writing types.  Here's what I think are the top ten mistakes that they make in the integrated writing question (I've also written a list for the independent question):

Before the test

1.  Using Bad Practice Questions

This is a major problem when preparing for the integrated essay.  Not many students know this, but the integrated practice questions contained in even the most recent edition of Barron’s TOEFL are horrible.  The rest of the book is pretty good, but the integrated questions are not similar to the real test in any way.  This is also the case with the most recent Cambridge guide to the TOEFL and the new Kaplan's book.  Yes... they are all terrible.

For decent practice questions, stick with the Official Test Collection (Vol I and II) from ETS.

2.  Not Studying Templates

The quickest way to improve your score is to memorize some essay templates.  When I start tutoring students in writing, the first thing I do is teach them how to use some good templates.  My preferred templates are all available for free on my site.  I have even prepared a few videos that demonstrate how to use them.  Trust me – a good template can be used when answering every possible integrated question!

Using these templates, you should write a total of 280-300 words.

3.  Studying “Supporting” Question Types

At one point, ETS included questions where the lecture supported the argument made in the reading passage.  As of today (March, 2017) this is no longer the case.  You are most likely to get a casting doubt question on the real test.  Don’t waste your time studying supporting questions.

4.  Not Getting Feedback on Practice Essays

You are probably aware of the English saying “practice makes perfect.”  A great teacher of mine once told me that this saying was incorrect.  It should be “proper practice makes perfect.”  When preparing for the TOEFL writing section, it is important to get feedback on your practice essays.  Answering hundreds of practice questions is great, but if you make the same mistakes every single time, your score won’t improve.  Find someone to proofread and evaluate your work.  And know, of course, that I can provide that service for you.

During the Test

1.  Taking Unfocused Notes During the Reading

If you are studying with good practice questions, you already know how the lecture and reading are structured.  The reading begins with a paragraph that summarizes the author’s main argument, and then has three paragraphs, each of which summarizes one supporting point.

The lecture has a mirror structure.  It begins with a short “paragraph” that states the opposite point of the reading, and then includes three “body paragraphs,” each of which contains a counterpoint to the reading’s points.  Remember that these counterpoints are in the same order as the points in the reading.

For your note-taking, all you need to record is the provided counterpoint and one supporting detail to go along with it.  You are only going to be writing two sentences about each counterpoint, so don’t worry about taking notes about everything that is said.

See my guide to the integrated essay for more on this.

2.  Not Writing Enough about the Reading

Remember that if you follow my templates, you should write two sentences about the reading in each body paragraph.  It is okay to write just one sentence, but try your best to write more.

3.  Wasting Time on a Conclusion

Don’t waste time on a conclusion, because you don’t need one.  It is fine to write one if you have plenty of time, but it might be a better idea to spend that time on proofreading your work (see number four, below)

4.  Not using Transitional Phrases

Don’t be scared about using phrases like “the author claims that…” or “the professor points out that…” in front of every point or detail you mention from either of the sources.  These never look bad.  It is impossible to use them too much.

5.  Not Saving Time for Proofreading

Before your twenty minutes runs out, you should spend at least two minutes proofreading your work.  So many of the essays I evaluate for students contain massive amounts of spelling errors and typos.  You probably won’t be able to fix too many grammar mistakes during your proofreading stage, but I guarantee that you will be able to self-correct at least few spelling mistakes.  I always tell my students that good proofreading skills will earn them an extra point on test day.

After the Test

1.  Requesting a Re-Score

Re-scoring is often a waste of money.  If you are wealthy, go ahead and make the request.  Just remember that you MIGHT get one more point in the writing section.  You are almost certainly NOT going to get two points.  Three points or more?  Forget it!  The same goes for the speaking section, by the way.