Here’s how the TOEFL Independent Essay works:

  • It is the second writing question on the TOEFL
  • You will be given 30 minutes to respond to a short question
  • The question will ask you to state your opinion on a topic likely related to education, work or life in modern society.  
  • Most students should write between 380 and 400 words.

Styles of Questions

There are three main styles of TOEFL independent essay questions in 2019.  They look like this:

Agree/Disagree Style

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Children should be required to follow strict rules set by their parents. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer. Do not use memorized examples.

Multiple Choice Style

Everyone faces challenges they have difficulty overcoming. These challenges are often related to our school life, our family life or our academic life. What do you think is the best way to deal with a problem that is difficult to solve?

  • asking someone with more experience for help
  • finding more information about the problem using the Internet
  • discussing the issue with a close friend
  • taking a long time to think about the problem

Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer. Make sure to use your own words. Do not use memorized examples.

Preference Style

There are many different styles of classes at schools nowadays. Some students prefer classes where they interact with their teacher and with other students in debates and group assignments. Others prefer classes where they just listen to their teacher speak.

Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer. Make sure to use your own words. Do not use memorized examples.

Note that the multiple choice and preference type questions are very long these days. Older guides to the test give very short example questions.  Don’t be surprised if you get a long question!

Note also that none of the following question types are used these days in the TOEFL independent essay: giving advice, compare and contrast, give the characteristics of X, describe a thing.  

The warning to “not use memorized examples” refers to ETS’s new efforts to crack down on plagiarism and memorized essays used by hundreds of students at the same time.  It is still okay to use templates and it is still okay to use personal examples.


How to Write the Essay

To show you how to write the essay, I will use the sample preference question mentioned above.

Writing an Introduction

The first part of your TOEFL independent essay must always be the introductory paragraph.  Follow this template:

  • Sentence One: The “Hook”
    This is an interesting sentence that introduces the general theme or topic of the essay.
  • Sentence Two: The Main Point
    This is your main argument and direct answer to the question. Start with “Personally, I believe…
  • Sentence Three: The Transition
    Just say: “I feel this way for two reasons, which I will explore in the following essay.”

If you follow this template, your introduction will look something like this:

There are many different learning styles, and it is important that we find classes that match our academic preferences. Personally, I believe that it is extremely beneficial to take classes which are very interactive. I feel this way for two reasons, which I will explore in the following essay.

There are a few things to keep in mind as you write your introduction:

  • Don’t copy from the question prompt when you write your hook.
  • Don’t waste time stating the opposite of your thesis (“Some people might think…”)
  • Don’t copy anything word for word from the prompt.

Writing Body Paragraphs

Next you must write two body paragraphs that state your supporting arguments and examples. Use this template for your first body paragraph:

  • Sentence One: A Topic Sentence
    This summarizes your first supporting reason. Begin with “First of all…“.
  • Sentences Two to Four: The Explanation
    Explain what you mean, without talking directly about a personal experience.
  • Sentence Five: The Transition
    Just use: “My personal experience is a compelling example of this.
  • Sentence Six to End: The Personal Example
    An example from your life that illustrates this argument. Make it longer than the explanation part.

This leads to a paragraph like this:

First of all, classes that include a lot of discussions develop our communication skills. Our long-term success depends on our ability to persuade others to accept our ideas and proposals, so it is critically important to seize opportunities to talk to a variety of people. If we do not practice this skill, we will never develop it. My personal experience is a compelling example of this. About ten years ago, I enrolled in a history class. At that time I had already taken many classes at university, but I was still very shy around strangers. However, after nine months of participating in debates, discussions and presentations in that class I came out of my shell and became a very confident public speaker. As a result, when I began my career following my graduation I excelled in group work and was seen by my supervisors as a natural leader. For this reason, I was quickly promoted within my company. I have been very successful at my workplace, and I owe it all to that wonderful class.

Use a similar template for your second body paragraph:

  • Sentence One: A Topic Sentence
    This summarizes your second supporting reason. Begin with “Secondly…“.
  • Sentences Two to Four: The Explanation
    Explain what you mean, without talking directly about personal experience. Shorten if necessary.
  • Sentence Five: The Transition
    Just use: “For instance,
  • Sentence Five to End: The Personal Example
    An example from your life (or someone else’s life) that illustrates this argument. Make it longer that the explanation part.

That would result in a paragraph looking something like this:

Secondly, classes that are very interactive help us to form connections with our classmates, and these can lead to future opportunities.  When we regularly converse with our peers, we get to know their personalities. Consequently, we can even become very close friends with them. In contrast, when students just sit and passively listen to their professor, they are unlikely to get to know each other. For instance, when my brother was in college he took an information technology class that required a lot of group work. He spent two months that semester working on a programming project with two other students and during that time they all became very close. In fact, a year later they felt comfortable enough to actually form a company together. It has been six years since they founded that business and it is still very profitable.

There are a few things to keep in mind as you write the body of your TOEFL independent essay:

  • Use a mix of simple and compound sentences
  • Emphasize the example. It is the easiest part to write, so make it about 60% (or more) of each body paragraph
  • Avoid very short sentences (less than seven words) and very long sentences (more than 60 sentences)
  • Don’t start sentences with coordinating conjunctions
  • Use a variety of discourse phrases 

Writing a Conclusion

Conclusions are easy. You just need to repeat your thesis and your two supporting arguments.  Try this short template:

  • Sentence One: Restate the Thesis
    Paraphrase your thesis. Begin with “In conclusion, I am of the opinion that…“.
  • Sentence Two: Restate the Two Reasons
    Just use: “This is because ______, and _______.

That will produce something that looks like this:

In conclusion, I am of the opinion that it is a great idea to take classes where students actually talk to each other and their professor.  This is because they help us develop valuable skills and abilities, and because they help us form important social connections.

Here’s what you should keep in mind:

  • Paraphrase yourself. Don’t copy and paste from above when you restate your ideas in the conclusion
  • Don’t introduce new ideas in the conclusion

Final Thoughts

That’s how you write a strong TOEFL independent essay.  There are a final few points that are worth mentioning here, of course:

  • Aim for about 380 to 400 words. Write a bit more if need a really high score
  • Use two minutes to plan before you start writing and save two minutes for proofreading when you finish
  • Practice does not make perfect; proper practice makes perfect.  Sign up for essay evaluation.

Further Reading

We maintain a large collection of   complete sample essays, written using the above techniques.

You may wish to continue by reading our guide to the integrated essay.

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