19 Feb 2017

TOEFL Writing Overview

The TOEFL writing section is the final section of the test (thankfully). After approximately 2 1/2 grueling hours of intense concentration and single-minded focus, you are now confronted with a section that asks you to write two essays in approximately 1 hour. The first essay is integrated, which means you have to read a short excerpt, then you listen to a professor discuss something on the same topic, and then you identify how the two items are related in 20 minutes. The second essay is a straight forward but stupid question which you have 30 minutes to write a 4 or 5 paragraph essay in response. This section is not anyone’s idea of fun.


Each individual essay is scored from 0-5 in 0.5 increments. Getting a 0 on either essay is really, really difficult. You have to really want it. On the other hand, getting a 5 is not as difficult as it seems, because a 5 merely means you understood what the TOEFL wants to see in an essay, and you make sure you have all of those components. Like the speaking, the grading is based on a complicated set of rubrics, which can be found here: https://www.ets.org/Media/Tests/TOEFL/pdf/Writing_Rubrics.pdf . Before taking the test, be sure to read this page, as the closer your essays are to their published guidelines, the higher your score is likely to be.

So, how do you improve your writing? Like the other sections, the only thing you can do is practice. However, unlike the other sections (even the speaking), practicing writing poses an entirely different dilemma. Specifically, who is going to correct it? In terms of structure, self-editing really does work. You can make sure you have an introduction, a topic sentence, a clear conclusion, and all the other hallmarks of an essay. But clarity of expression, grammar, and idiomatic language usage are an entirely different can of worms. But you can’t ask your professors or teachers to check it for you.


Often times, when an educator reads an essay, she will provide feedback on the thought behind the essay as well as what could be better, what could make your essay more convincing, or what additional layers of thought could be added to make it more…educated. The TOEFL doesn’t care about that stuff. The TOEFL cares about clarity of expression, not depth. So while a teacher may ask “Why didn’t you use Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an example,” the TOEFL questions don’t lend themselves to academic examples. The integrated essay requires no opinion whatsoever, just a paraphrase of the written and spoken pieces. The independent essay asks a question like this: Is it better to live in a small town or a big city. Provide specific reasons and examples to support your opinion. Hamlet doesn’t fit in that essay. Anywhere.

So what can you do? One option is to use various online services which offer essay correction, but for a price (usually pretty substantial). Although there are many out there, YPrep isn’t comfortable endorsing any of them. The only one we can confidently endorse is the service from the TOEFL itself: https://toeflpractice.ets.org/cart.aspx?program=TFP This will cost $26/test, but it’s an “official” test that is actually officially scored, to give you an unofficial result.

An alternative is to submit an essay to us at [email protected]. Use the prompt given above: Is it better to live in a small town or a big city. Provide specific reasons and examples to support your opinion. Time yourself for 30 minutes, and we will provide some feedback including how to improve your essay and what your estimated score would be. We look forward to hearing from you.

And now, a sloth.