About the TOEFL Writing for an Academic Discussion task

The question simulates a discussion board on a university website. You’ll see a question posted by a professor, and two student responses. Your job is to read everything and then write your own response. 

You have ten minutes to read everything and write your response.  According to ETS, you should write “at least” 100 words.  I recommend writing about 120 words.

A word counter will be displayed on the screen as you write.  You can see the question and responses as you write.

I have a bunch of sample questions you can practice with.

Question Styles

Sometimes the question requires you to state a preference between two similar things. For example, you might be asked if you think it is better for university attendance to be optional or if it should be mandatory. 

Other times, you are asked a “yes or no” question.  For example, you might be asked whether or not social media influencers have a major impact on society. 

Finally, you might be asked something totally open-ended.  For example, you might be asked to state what the biggest impact the Internet has had on society.

Check out my big collection of samples to see some of each!

 

Sample Question: Yes or No

Your professor is teaching a class on marketing. Write a post responding to the professor’s question.  In your response, you should:

  • express and support your personal opinion
  • make a contribution to the discussion in your own words

An effective response will contain at least 100 words.

Professor: Hello class!  Next week we will be discussing the impact of social media influencers on consumer behavior. With the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube, we’ve seen the emergence of a new type of celebrity: the social media influencer. These influencers have large followings and can sway consumer behavior by endorsing products or services. Here’s a question for the discussion board:

Do social media influencers have a major impact on consumers?  Why or why not?

Jack: I think social media influencers have a significant impact. When young people start admiring these influencers and trust their recommendations, they are more likely to buy products or services that they endorse. However, I also think there are some concerns about the authenticity of these endorsements, as some influencers may promote products that they don’t actually use or believe in.

 

Emily: I’m not convinced that social media influencers have a significant impact on consumer behavior. While they may have large followings, most people are smart enough to make their own purchasing decisions based on their needs and preferences. Plus, there are so many influencers out there promoting different products that it can be hard to know who to trust.

Sample Answer 1

Here’s a possible response to the above question.  It directly addresses the responses given by the other students.  As you can see, it elaborates on and challenges the arguments they made.  Some test-takers find this approach easiest.

This is a challenging topic, but I think that social media influencers aren’t as significant as some people suggest.  I strongly agree with Emily’s idea that people are too smart to be influenced by them.  I’d add that twenty years ago a charismatic person might have convinced us to buy something we didn’t really need, but I think that doesn’t happen so much nowadays.  That’s because we can thoroughly research whatever we are interested in using blogs, consumer magazines and social media.  We can use these sources of information to find products that exactly suit our needs, so we aren’t swayed by the exaggerated claims of social media influencers. While Jack raised the relevant point that young people are especially vulnerable,  he didn’t mention that parents these days take the time to educate their kids and monitor their internet use.  As a result, young people aren’t likely to make rash decisions about what to buy.

Sample Answer 2

Here’s a slightly different approach to the question.  It mostly ignores the responses given by the other students.  Instead, I just focused on my response.  Some test-takers like this approach.

While I appreciate the points mentioned by Jack and Emily, I think that social media stars aren’t particularly influential nowadays.  Nowadays consumer behavior is affected by many different things, not just what we see on the Internet.  Twenty years ago a charismatic person might have convinced us to buy something we didn’t really need, but I don’t think that happens so often today.  Remember that the choices people make are also impacted by their peers, by their family members and even by traditional advertising, so the Internet isn’t a dominant force in their lives. Some people may feel that influencers are more powerful than ever, but I think their impact is actually declining.

Both of my answers includes a few key features:

  • A very clear thesis statement at the beginning which makes my opinion totally clear.
  • Coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions.
  • Some challenging vocabulary choices like “dominant” and “mass media.”

 

Sample Question: State a Preference

Your professor is teaching a class on political science. Write a post responding to the professor’s question.  In your response, you should

  • express and support your personal opinion
  • make a contribution to the discussion in your own words

An effective response will contain at least 100 words. You have ten minutes to write.

 

Professor: Today we’re going to talk about the debate between economic growth and protecting the environment. Economic growth creates new jobs and gives people money they can use to improve their lives. On the other hand, if we protect the environment it can be enjoyed both by ourselves and future generations. If you had to choose between prioritizing economic growth or protecting the environment, which one would you choose.  Why?

Alex: I would prioritize the environment. We only have one planet and if we don’t take care of it, we won’t have pleasant lives in the future. Economic growth can be important, but not at the expense of the environment. I think we need to shift towards more environmentally-friendly economic practices, such as investing in renewable energy and promoting environmentally-friendly technologies.  We’ll all live much healthier lives if the world around us is clean.

Maggie: While I agree with Alex that environmental sustainability is important, I think that economic growth is the only way to solve many of the social and economic problems we face. We need a strong economy to create jobs, reduce poverty, and improve standards of living.  Not only that, but when companies grow stronger and more profitable, they can develop new technologies that solve our environmental problems.

Sample Answer 1

This is a challenging topic, but I think we should prioritize the environment at this time. I strongly agree with Alex’s idea that our lives will be unpleasant if we focus entirely on economic growth. I would add that if the environment is damaged by industrial development we’ll all be more likely to suffer from serious ailments like cancer and lung disease. These sorts of illnesses can be a real strain on our medical systems.  Maggie raised the relevant point that it’s possible that profitable companies will someday solve all of our problems using new technology, but she doesn’t mention that they might arrive far too late to be of use.  For example, it could take decades for an innovative company to create a clean energy source, but people are suffering from environmental catastrophes right now.

Sample Answer 2

While I appreciate the points mentioned by both Maggie and Alex, I think that we should mainly focus on economic growth.  This is because our lives will become unpleasant if the economy slows down.  We all have bills to pay and those require us to earn an income. Remember that many people have families to take care of, so they need to earn a regular income.  That is only possible if the economy continues to grow at the same rate year after year. Some people may feel that preserving the environment is more important than maintaining our current standard of living, but I tend to disagree. My main focus is on the quality of life that people enjoy at this exact moment, not the lives that future generations will lead.

 

Sample Question: Open-Ended

Your professor is teaching a class on business. Write a post responding to the professor’s question.  In your response, you should

  • express and support your personal opinion
  • make a contribution to the discussion in your own words

An effective response will contain at least 100 words.

Professor: Next week, we’re going to spend a lot of time in class discussing the positive and negative ways in which companies affect the world around us.  Before we start talking about that in class, I want to hear what you think about the topic.  So here’s a question for the message board: In your opinion, what is the best way for a company to have a positive impact on society?

 

Sarah: I believe that companies should focus on making their operations more socially and environmentally friendly. While charitable giving can be beneficial, it doesn’t address the root causes of serious social and environmental problems. By doing business in more responsible ways, companies can have a more meaningful and lasting impact on society.  Moreover, if they attract positive attention from consumers they could inspire other companies to do the same.  That’s the only way we can really solve today’s problems.

John: While those are very good points, I think that companies should focus on charitable giving. Philanthropy can provide immediate relief to those in need and contribute to the overall well-being of society right away.  It could take years or decades for business changes to have a positive impact on society, and most people just can’t wait that long.  

Sample Answer 1

This is a challenging topic, but I think donating to charity is the best way for companies to make the world better. I strongly agree with John’s idea that charitable donations are a way to quickly address the serious problems that we are facing.  I’d add that some of these problems – like homelessness and food insecurity – are more serious than they have ever been, so companies certainly have a role to play. Even a small donation can save someone’s life. Sarah raised the relevant point that philanthropy might help businesses to attract new customers, but she didn’t mention that nowadays people’s purchasing decisions are mostly based on cost. Many people prefer to buy the cheapest products available, even if they are sold by unethical companies. Because the economy is in such rough shape, they just can’t afford to think about the reputation of a business when they are shopping.

Sample Answer 2

While I appreciate the points mentioned by both Sarah and John, I think that companies should focus on paying their employees higher salaries.  We all know that nowadays people around the world are struggling just to keep their heads above water. Everyone is also aware that inflation is out of control, so even basic necessities are quite expensive. Remember that children from poor households don’t always live up to their potential, so business executives ought to help them by paying their parents higher wages. Some people may feel that this approach doesn’t address long-term concerns like climate change, but I think that poverty is accelerating and could be an even bigger concern in the future.

 

The Formula for Success

Here’s what I recommend: 120 words + one subordinating conjunction + three coordinating conjunctions (two unique).

A subordinating conjunction is something like “while” or “when.”  A coordinating conjunction is something like “but” or “so.” Note that “and” isn’t so helpful on the TOEFL.  Don’t count it as one of the three.

When combined with perfect grammar and an on-topic answer, this seems to generate a perfect 5.0 score from the TOEFL e-rater almost every time.  Try it yourself!  Fancy vocabulary doesn’t seem necessary to get a high score, so stick with stuff you know.  The sample answers (above) and the templates (below) I provide use this formula.

Answer Templates

Here’s a template I used a few times.  It focuses on expanding on and challenging the points mentioned by the other students.

  • This is a challenging topic, but I think that [respond directly to the question].
  • I strongly agree with [student]’s idea that [mention one point made by the student]. 
  • I’d add that [expand on the point with your own idea].
  • While [other student] raised the relevant point that [mention one point made by the other student], he/she didn’t mention that [challenge that point].
  • For example [elaborate on your challenge with your own ideas].

 

Here’s the other template I used.  It focuses on giving an entirely new answer and ignoring the other student responses.

  • While I appreciate the points mentioned by both STUDENT 1 and STUDENT 2, I think that
  • [elaborate on your idea for a few sentences]
  • Remember that [elaborate on your point], so [elaborate on your point].
  • Some people may feel that [mention a potential challenge], but [respond to this challenge].

 

Don’t use these templates word for word.  Change them a bit to suit your writing style.

Scoring

The official scoring rubrics for the top two levels look like this:

The scoring criteria seem pretty straightforward.  You must make an argument and elaborate on it using examples or details.  You must use a variety of grammatical forms (here called “syntactic structures”) and idiomatic (natural) word choice.  Note that “idiomatic” does not refer to the use of colloquial idioms.  Don’t bother with those.  It just means natural English that looks like what a native speaker produces.

The rubric seems to suggest that grammar is quite important here.  It almost looks like correct grammar is even more important than in the old independent writing task, but that remains to be seen.

Get the full rubric over here.

Practice Questions

I’ve got a ton of practice questions (with sample answers) over here.  ETS has also published a bunch of them on their TestReady platform.

Need Help?

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