The Most Common TOEFL Essay Mistakes (Independent Task)

Here are what I believe the most common mistakes students make in the TOEFL writing section (independent essay).  This is based on years of teaching TOEFL preparation and noticing how all of my students make the same mistakes.  I've also written a list for the integrated essay.

Before the Test

1.  Using Bad Practice Questions

This is more of a problem when preparing for the integrated essay (type 1), but some students still make the mistake of using terrible practice questions when studying for the independent essay.  This is an easy problem to avoid, as ETS has made available 155 practice topics that you can work from.  Use only these questions!

2.  Not Studying Templates

The fastest way to improve your score is to memorize some essay templates.  When students hire me to tutor them in writing, the first thing I do is teach them some good templates.  You don’t have to pay me for this, though, as I provide templates for free on my site.  I even have a few videos that demonstrate how to use them.  Trust me – a good template can be used when answering every possible independent question.  I guarantee it!

3.  Not Getting Feedback

You probably know 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, you need to get feedback on your practice essays.  Answering dozens 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.  You know, of course, that I can do that for you.


During the Test

1.  Writing too Much

Some students have the terrible idea that they need to write more than five hundred words to get a good score.  This is nonsense.  Please be aware that you don’t need to write much more than four hundred words to get a good score.  A student of mine once achieved thirty points in the writing section with just a 375 word essay.  Remember that a short essay with few mistakes will score higher than a long essay with many mistakes.  Read some of our complete sample essays to see just how strong a 400 word essay can be.  

2.  Writing Three Body Paragraphs

This is an extension of the above point.  Some students think that they need to write three body paragraphs.  This is not a good idea, however.  Writing three body paragraphs will result in short paragraphs and poorly developed ideas.  It is better to write two well-developed and detailed paragraphs than to write three short and poorly-detailed paragraphs.  Just remember your overall goal of about 400 words.

3.  Not Using Personal Examples

Supporting your reasons with personal examples is a great way to get a higher score.  You don’t necessary need to, but most students find that writing personal examples is a lot easier than writing general statements and claims.  Personal examples usually involve verb tenses and sentence structures that ESL students have practiced a lot in class.

4.  Writing Bad Topic Sentences

The first sentence of your body paragraph is called the “topic sentence.”  Your topic sentences need to be more than just a statement of fact.  Rather, they should include some kind of argument or opinion.  Here’s a bad topic sentence:

(The question is “Would you rather live in the city or the country?”)

“First of all, cities have better schools than rural areas.”

That’s bad because it doesn’t do anything more than state a fact about cities.  A better topic sentence might be:

“First of all, cities have better schools than rural areas and I plan to have children in the future.”

This is better because it includes a reason why that fact is important.  The rest of your paragraph would be all about why the schools are better and their importance to you.

5.  Not using “as a result.”

I strongly believe that “as a result” is the best phrase in the English language.  Really!  Almost all of your TOEFL essays will involve descriptions of cause and effect which ought to use “as a result.”  This means that you can forget about using “thus” and “therefore,” especially at the beginning of sentences.  For example, you should not say:

“I studied really hard all year.  Thus I got a good score.” 

You should say:

“I studied really hard all year.  As a result, I got a good score.”

The latter sounds much more natural in written English.

6.  Not Saving Time for Proofreading

Before your half hour 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.  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 a 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 a rich guy, 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!