Updated May 12, 2022

I get a lot of questions about TOEFL vocabulary and what words should be used in the independent TOEFL essay. Vocabulary is tricky, but there are four golden rules I always give my students.

TOEFL Vocabulary Rule One: Do Not Repeat Words

You should not repeat words too many times.  I think you may reduce your score if you repeat a word more than two or three times in the same essay.  If you are writing an essay about children, don’t repeat the word “children” ten times.  Use synonyms like “young people” or “youths” or “teenagers” or “adolescents.”  Sometimes it will be impossible to avoid this problem, but do your best.

TOEFL Vocabulary Rule Two: Don’t Repeat Words from the Question

According to ETS publications, you will not get vocabulary credit for using words that appear in the question prompt.  This means that you should avoid leaning too heavily on them in your essay.  If the question prompt is about “coworkers,”  you should write your essay about “colleagues.” You don’t have to completely avoid repeating words from the prompt, but keep this golden rule in mind as a general guideline.

TOEFL Vocabulary Rule Three: Avoid Vague Words… Be Specific!

According to ETS publications, each TOEFL essay prompt is assigned a list of “high scoring” words that students will be rewarded for using in their essays.  Basically, these are words that were commonly used in essays that received high scores the last time the prompt was used.  You have no way of knowing what these words are, but by expanding the range of your vocabulary, you are more likely to “hit” them.  Moreover, you should try to avoid using boring and vague words like:

  • Thing
  • Good
  • Bad
  • Big
  • Small
  • Nice

These words will never be on the list, so you should replace them with something more specific to the topic you are writing about.

Since the essay questions often revolve around the same kinds of topics, it will be easier to meet this requirement if you have looked at some targeted vocabulary lists.  For example:

I don’t think you should waste too much time studying vocabulary lists, but it could be worthwhile to spend a few hours going over the above words.

TOEFL Vocabulary Rule Four: Use Transitional Words

You need to use discourse words.  These are also referred to as “Transitional Words” by many teachers.  They include things like:

  • Firstly
  • Secondly
  • Moreover
  • Therefore
  • As a result
  • For this reason
  • Consequently
  • In addition
  • In contrast

There are many more of these (link). Basically, they serve to link ideas together in a sophisticated way.  The e-rater is programmed to look for these.  Moreover, the human rater will probably reward you for using them.  If you don’t use these you risk getting a low score, even if your grammar is otherwise strong.

Final Thoughts

That’s about it for vocabulary.  Keep in mind that this is a general guide.  You will also get points for using “hard” words, but sadly the acquisition of “hard words” takes years and there are no shortcuts.  In contrast, the above tips might help you increase your score in a shorter amount of time.




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