I got another question from a student.  They asked:

“I have a question about the independent writing task I hope you can answer. What is the most common type of question that most test takers get in this task?  Is it multiple choice?  Advantages and Disadvantages?  Something else?”

Here’s the answer I gave:

The most common type of independent writing question is the “Agree/Disagree” style, which seems to come up about 50% of the time.  This type presents a single-sentence statement and you must state if you agree or disagree with it.

The “paired choice” question comes up about 25% of the time.  In this one, you must choose between two opposing or related options.  Like whether it is best to study in a group or to study alone.  Sometimes this takes the form of a hypothetical situation, like whether it is better for a company to donate to a museum or to donate to a children’s sports team.

The “multiple choice” question comes up about 25% of the time.  This is a lot like the paired choice, but with three options (sometimes four or five).  It is a bit tricky because with all those options the prompt can take a long time to read.

Finally, in rare cases (or maybe never) you might get a “good idea” prompt, where you are presented with a hypothetical situation, and should state whether you think it is a good idea.  For instance, you might be told that a company will forbid employees from answering emails on the weekend.

I must mention that “advantages and disadvantages” questions are not used on the test.

I heard from a student today who was confused about why their TOEFL writing score was so low.  They got 30 points in the reading section, 29 points in the listening section, 30 points in the speaking section… but just 19 points in the writing section.  I could tell just by reading their e-mail that their grammar was far above the “19 point level,” so clearly that wasn’t the cause of the low score.

So what caused their weird (and disappointing) writing score?  Here’s how I responded:

It is impossible for me to say what caused your low score, since I cannot read the essays you wrote on test day.

However, I have a few ideas:

  1. One or both of your body paragraphs in the independent essay could have been flagged as off-topic. This will result in a major penalty, even if your grammar is perfect.  This is the sort of thing that a score review might help you with.
  2. You might have written really short essays. If you follow the recommended word counts stated on the screen during the test it is hard (but not impossible) to score in the high 20s.
  3. You may have misunderstood some key lecture details in the integrated essay. Again, even with perfect grammar you can get a low score if your details are wrong.
  4. Nowadays ETS seems to be penalizing students who use made-up research or news stories to support their reasons in the independent essay.

 

These are just some of the reasons why a student with an advanced command of the English language might get a low score in the writing section. 

It is important to note that number four is a recent development.  Some students have suggested that they’ve been penalized for this, but obviously this is just speculation on their part.  That said, a recent update to the Official Guide to the TOEFL (August 2020) supports this theory.  Below is that update.

 

Hey, I finally uploaded the 2020 version of my guide to the independent TOEFL essay.  This is the fifth annual installment of this video!  In the next few days, I will update the website version to match the content here.

The new video has a slightly different template, a new sample essay and a few different ideas about grammar.  I also (finally) added an “FAQ” section to the end in order to avoid answering the same questions in the comments again and again!

I’ll create and film a video about the integrated writing task before the end of the month (I hope).

I was able to ask a few more questions at an ETS webinar. Here’s what I learned (the answers are not direct quotes):

Q: Will results come back in six calendar days or six business days now?
A: Six calendar days.

Q: How significant are pauses when students are answering questions in the speaking section?
A: They can be very significant and can affect the score a lot.

Q: Could the same human grader score all four speaking responses?
A: No.

Q: Will a new Official Guide be published in 2019?
A: No. That has not been prioritized.

Q: Could students get only NINE reading questions with a specific reading passage?
A: Yes. This will happen if a fill-in-a-table question is given.

Q: Is it okay to mention the reading first in integrated essay body paragraphs?
A: The order “does not matter.” The scoring rubric is “not that structured.”

I get this question a lot. Here’s what I think you should do:

  • Get some templates for each essay type.
  • Watch videos lectures on each question type.
  • Read as many sample essays as possible.
  • Take accurate practice tests.
  • Improve your grammar.
  • Get your practice essays graded.

Details about how to do these things are below!

Read My Guides (and Templates) for Each Writing Task

Everything I know about the writing section 

can be found in my guides to the two tasks. Here they are:

Not only will these guides show you how to write the essays, but they will tell you how the questions are structured and the patterns to look out for.

Check out My Video Series

I have also made a bunch of YouTube videos about this section. Here’s the first:

I’m making a writing course!

First, the good news: the course will be free. It will always be free.

Next, the bad news: the course isn’t finished. It will take some time to finish.

I understand that might be a bit annoying, but as you will see, I’m going to upload the course here as I build it. That means you’ll benefit at least a little bit right away, and you can also tell me what you want from the course. If some of my lessons are unclear you will have an opportunity to let me know.

The Lessons – The Independent Essay

Here are the lessons that make up the course. Links are to those completed at this time:

  • Question types and topics
  • Basic essay templates
  • Writing a great introduction
  • Writing great body paragraphs
  • Writing a great conclusion
  • Better essays: Vocabulary strategies
  • Better essays: Discourse phrases
  • Better essays: Grammar strategies
  • Better essays: Coming up with ideas
  • Using your time wisely
  • How is the essay scored?

Resources

This course will be more rewarding if you have a copy of the Official Guide to the TOEFL. That link is to the 5th edition of the book (from 2017). You can also use the 4th edition, which is cheaper.

You might also want to pick up at least one of the two Official Test Collection books.

For additional practice tests, I recommend the ten test collection from TSTPrep. Use the coupon code “goodine10off” for a 10% discount.

Basically, the course is more rewarding if you have some real questions to practice with. The three aforementioned sources are worthwhile in this regard!

Most students have a pretty good understanding of what the two TOEFL writing questions require them to do. Everyone knows that the TOEFL independent writing question asks them to write an essay that describes their personal opinion about a given topic. Moreover, they all know that the integrated writing question asks them to compare an article about an academic topic to a lecture about the same topic. If they are smart, they even know that the lecture always opposes the reading.

But do you know that ETS (the makers of the test) use some really common patterns when designing the questions every week? That these questions have really predictable forms and structures? Today I want to talk about some of the forms that ETS uses when designing the independent essay question.

If you can learn these structures before taking the test your job might be a bit easier on test day. At the very least you will avoid being surprised by what you get. Oh, and don’t worry. I’ll talk about the integrated essay in a few days time. It is also super predictable.

Obsolete Question Styles

Before I actually describe the question styles you will get on the test, I want to talk about a few styles that aren’t actually used anymore. A problem a lot of students face is that even the Official Guide to the TOEFL mentions several styles that ETS has eliminated in recent years.

First of all, you likely won’t get a “compare and contrast” question in the independent writing section. Here’s one such question right from the Official Guide:

“Compare and contrast your life with that of your parents. Which do you think will be more satisfying for future generations.”

Yes, that is in the Official Guide (and some poorly written textbooks). However, you aren’t going to be asked to compare and contrast anything on the real test.

Next up, you won’t get a “characteristics of” question on the real test. Here’s one from the Official Guide:

“Neighbors are the people who live near us. In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a good neighbor.”

Nope! You’ll never be asked to mention the characteristics, traits of features of anything!

Third, you won’t get a “causes of” question. Here’s one of those… again, from the official guide:

“In general, people are living longer these days. Describe the causes of this phenomenon.”

That sounds like a really interesting question, but it won’t show up on the test. You will never be asked to talk about the “causes” of anything.

Okay, those are the most popular “obsolete” styles. So what will you get on the actual test?

Current Question Style #1: Agree/Disagree

The most common question type in the independent writing section is the “agree/disagree” style question. In this type you are presented with a short statement and asked if you agree or disagree with it. Here’s one:

“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.”

Here’s another:

“Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? The widespread use of the Internet today has a positive effect on society. Use details and examples to support your opinion.”

Heck, here’s one more:

“Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Sometimes it is better to not tell the truth. Use details and examples to support your opinion, dude.”

Simple, right? You are given a statement and asked if you agree or disagree with it. Just remember to actually pick a side. Don’t support both sides!

Current Question Style #2: Preference

The second most common question type is the “preference style” question. This type requires you to choose from between two opinions regarding some topic. Here’s one:

“Some people feel that high school students should be required to do volunteer work in their free time. Others think that they should spend their free time studying and preparing for classes. Which do you think is better? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

Here’s another:

“Some students prefer to study for tests alone. Others prefer to study with some of their classmates. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

Do you see what I mean? You are presented with two opinions and you must choose which one you “prefer” or “think is better.”

Current Question Style #3: Three Choices

The last question style is the “three choices” style. This one is pretty straightforward. You must choose from between three given choices. Here’s one such question:

In your opinion, which of the following strategies is the best way for a student to prepare for a successful career?

-Studying specific academic subjects
-Taking a part-time job
-Getting to know other students

Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

Here’s one more:

When a person is deciding what subject to focus on at college or university, which do you think is the best source of advice?

-their current classmates
-their teachers and professors
-their parents

Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

Final Thoughts

And that’s it. As far as I know, ETS only really uses those three question styles. If you get something different, though, please let me know. If you want to know how to actually write this essay you can check out my guide to the independent task.

You got this.