I read about a dozen TOEFL essays every day. I guess that means I’ve read about thirty thousand TOEFL essays in my life, not to mention all of the ones published in popular TOEFL textbooks and on websites. Students all over the world make the same mistakes in their essays. Interestingly, both high-level and low-level students seem to make the same mistakes in their work.
Here are the ten most frequent mistakes I see in TOEFL essays.
One: Using Bad Practice Questions
Okay, so this isn’t actually a mistake in a TOEFL essay, but it is pretty serious. In order for your TOEFL preparation to be meaningful, you need to practice with questions that look like what you will get on the real test. Sadly, a lot of popular TOEFL books have bad writing questions. Even the Official Guide to the TOEFL has a few questions that are inaccurate! So what should a student do? Well, I’ve got a collection of 50 good questions you can use. If you use all 50 of those just send me an email. I’ll make a couple more for you. If you go looking for questions elsewhere, please remember that the TOEFL no longer asks open-ended questions, it no longer asks you to “compare and contrast” anything, and it doesn’t ask you to “describe” something. For detailed descriptions of the common question types, please check out my guide to the independent writing task.
Two: Not Studying Grammar
I know, this isn’t a mistake in a TOEFL essay either. However, I really want to stress that it is important for students to study grammar. Again and again students ask me how they can improve their writing score after I send them an essay evaluation. Ninety percent of the time, my answer is to reduce the number of grammar mistakes they make. Usually, that is the only thing they can do to improve their score. Studying grammar sucks, but it helps. I really do think that students should spend as much time studying grammar as they do writing practice essays! Try using a good grammar book like English Grammar in Use.
Three: Writing Too Much
Stop writing so much! Every day I get an essay that is 500 words long. Once a week I get an essay that is 600 words long. Sometimes I get essays even longer than that! Those essays are almost always a mess. They are full of mistakes because the students worked way too fast and didn’t have time to think about their grammar and vocabulary choices. I generally recommend about 400 words for students who want to get a high score. That is enough to get a perfect score. Actually, a few years ago ETS did a study of 14,000 essays given a score of “high” on the test, and it turned out that the average length of those essays was 401 words. Really! (source)
Four: Misreading the Instructions (and Writing Too Little)
On the other hand, some students look at the instructions on the screen and notice that the test says “typically, an effective essay will contain a minimum of 300 words.” These students think that they must not write more than 300 words! They think there is a word limit! That is not the case. You can (and should) write more than 300 words. Note the word “minimum” in the instructions. That means the lowest possible amount you should write. It sure doesn’t mean there is a limit!
Five: Trying too Hard to Use “Advanced” Vocabulary and Sentences
Some students try too hard to use fancy vocabulary that they haven’t mastered. That results in awkward sentences that are full of mistakes. Trust me, you don’t need those sorts of words. I strongly recommend that you stick with words that you are familiar with and are totally comfortable using. Remember that most of your vocabulary “score” comes from the range of words that you use (a wide range is good, even if it is made up of fairly typical words). You also get points for using words that are connected to the specific prompt, and sequences of words that are commonly used together in academic writing in English. Neither of those things depend on the use of obscure words. Indeed, using really fancy words will probably lower those “scores.”
Six: Overthinking the Opening “Hook”
Some students tend to really overthink the opening line of the essay. This problem has become really common in the last year. For some reason, students think they need to start with something really interesting that draws the attention of the reader. As a result, they waste precious time here. Honestly, this line is not that important. Spend no more than a minute on your hook. Just write something quick and boring and grammatically correct that introduces the general theme of the essay. If the essay is about classes at a university try something like “It is critically important that students enjoy all of their classes.” That’s about all you need. Don’t obsess over this single line. You don’t actually need to “hook” anyone. I’m going to delete that word from my entire website when I next update it. I realize I’m probably the cause of this problem. Sorry, guys.
Seven: Not Using Personal Examples
In my guide I recommend that personal examples make up sixty percent of each body paragraph. I recommend this because personal examples are easy to write! Most students will make fewer grammatical errors if they include long personal examples. Make things easy for yourself and include those examples!
Eight: Worrying too Much about the Human Rater
Speaking of examples (and arguments) please remember that your arguments don’t have to be very good. Seriously. You don’t need a compelling argument in your essay. You don’t need to be interesting. It is okay to be boring. It is okay to lie. There is nothing in the scoring rubric about that. Your argument just needs to be on-topic. From what I’ve heard, the human raters usually just spend about 90 seconds checking each essay. They earn barely more than minimum wage and they check essays all day long. Don’t worry about impressing them with an interesting argument and fascinating personal examples. Honestly, I think that boring essays are easier to write and contain fewer grammatical errors.
Nine: Too Much Copy and Paste
Don’t copy and paste from the prompt when you write your thesis statement. Don’t write “I agree with the statement that COPY AND PASTE, BABY.” You need to paraphrase that a bit. Likewise, don’t copy and paste from yourself if you repeat your supporting arguments at the end of the essay. State those ideas using slightly different words.
Ten: Not Saving Time to Proofread
Save two minutes to check your essay for mistakes. It will pay off, I promise. Just make sure to practice this skill. Once you become a good proofreader you will ALWAYS find mistakes in your essays. You know, every time I write a sample essay for my website, it is full of mistakes. Even I need to proofread!
Okay, that’s it! The ten most common TOEFL writing mistakes! Actually, let’s be bold and end on a bonus rule…
Eleven: Not Reading my Guide
Hey, just read my guide to the independent essay. It has everything you need to know. If you just read the guide (and watch the embedded video) you won’t need to hire me as a teacher or essay evaluator. You can put me out of business! That might be sad, but I’m getting too old for this nonsense anyways.
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