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TOEFL Writing Topics

While the TOEFL is generally a very different type of test from the GRE, the GMAT, and the SAT, there are a few similarities, and the writing section is one of them.

As with most standardized tests, the TOEFL asks you to write an essay. Well, it asks for two essays, actually — one is about a reading and a lecture (which you’ll summarize), and the second is more open-ended.

Let’s look at the questions that you might see for that second TOEFL essay, the “independent task.”

On one hand, there are a LOT of different TOEFL writing topics. You might be asked to write an essay about technology, education, media, family, or some other subject. But on the other hand, there are only a few different types of questions.

ETS does provides a list of TOEFL independent essay questions in the official guide, and it’s a good idea to look over those. If you practice writing the essay before test day (a good idea!), then you should use an essay prompt from that list. But there’s an excess of information there—we want to know some more useful generalities! So let’s divide those subjects into types.

 

TOEFL Writing Topic Type 1: Choose a Side

This is by far the most common type of independent writing question. These TOEFL prompts ask you to choose A or B then explain your decision. There are a couple of different approaches to writing this type of essay, but the simplest form is the “five paragraph essay.” Usually this is actually only four paragraphs, because you don’t have that much time—the test only gives you 30 minutes to complete your independent essay.

So if you choose A, you might write an essay that looks like this:

  • Intro
    • A is better
  • Body 1
    • Reason 1 and examples of why A is better
    • Short contrast with B
  • Body 2
    • Reason 2 and examples of why A is better
    • Short contrast with B
  • Conclusion
    • Why this is significant in the real world

Of course, there are other ways to write an essay, but it’s a good idea to use a relatively simple structure for clarity. This is more true for the TOEFL than it is for essays on other tests, like the GRE, because the TOEFL is really a test of communication and how well you can write in English.

Here are some examples of the “choose a side” writing topics:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Parents are the best teachers. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

“Some people like to travel with a companion. Other people prefer to travel alone. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.”

Some people believe that the Earth is being harmed (damaged) by human activity. Others feel that human activity makes the Earth a better place to live. What is your opinion? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

“It has recently been announced that a large shopping center may be built in your neighborhood. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer”

There are a few common phrases which you will see in these essay topics, so they’re easy to spot — those phrases are bold in the examples above.

You might also get a slightly more complicated version of the “choose a side” prompt that asks you to compare sides, like this one:

“When people move to another country, some of them decide to follow the customs of the new country. Others prefer to keep their own customs. Compare these two choices. Which one do you prefer? Support your answer with specific details.”

In that case, you could still use the structure I showed above, but you would emphasize the contrasts with “B” and write a bit more about them.

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Writing Topic Type 2: View Both Sides

This is actually very similar to the “choose a side” type of essay subject, but it’s a little bit more complicated because you have to think from two different standpoints. Thankfully, it’s also not as common.

Here are a few examples:

“The government has announced that it plans to build a new university. Some people think that your community would be a good place to locate the university. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of establishing  a new university in your community. Use specific details in your discussion.”

“Some young children spend a great amount of their time practicing sports. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

There are a couple of different ways you might structure an essay like, but the simplest one may be the best.

  • Intro
    • General statements about issue
  • Body 1
    • Advantages and examples
  • Body 2
    • Disadvantages and examples
  • Conclusion
    • Why this is significant in the real world

 

Writing Topic Type 3: Describe or Explain

In a way, this is the most difficult type of independent essay question because it doesn’t give you an A or B situation. Instead, you have to think of your own subject from a very big pool of possibilities.

What discovery in the last 100 years has been most beneficial for people in your country? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.”

“The 21st century has begun. What changes do you think this new century will bring? Use examples and details in your answer.”

What change would make your hometown more appealing to people your age? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.”

“If you could study a subject that you have never had the opportunity to study, what would you choose? Explain your choice, using specific reasons and details.”

“If you could invent something new, what product would you develop? Use specific details to explain why this invention is needed.”

Because these writing topics don’t give you a yes–no or A–B choice, it’s easy to get stuck in the planning phase. (By the way, planning is incredibly important for writing any standardized test essay; don’t skip it!)

The structure doesn’t have to be very different, though. Here’s a rough idea of how you might organize a descriptive essay:

  • Intro
    • Your choice/subject
  • Body 1
    • Reason 1 and examples
  • Body 2
    • Reason 2 and examples
  • Body 3
    • Reason 3 and examples
  • Conclusion
    • Why this is significant in the real world

Notice I added one more body paragraph. Because there’s no “other side” to deal with, you have more time to explain the one topic you chose. So why not use that time for another paragraph!

 

This Is Only Half of TOEFL Writing

Remember that the independent essay is only half of the TOEFL writing section. There’s also the integrated task. We’ll look at the topics of integrated tasks in another post!

 

46 Responses to TOEFL Writing Topics

  1. Nawal April 11, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    Do you have a template for writing task 2 in TOEFL?

    Thanks

  2. saloni April 25, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    can u just tell me can i complete my prepration for toefel exam in one month by daily practicing 5 to 6 essays as per your suggestion?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas April 25, 2014 at 11:26 am #

      Hi there. I wouldn’t recommend writing 5 or 6 essays daily, no—I’m not sure where that idea came from, but that’s too many essays and not enough review! You need to spend time looking at good essays, good structures, and useful phrases, and revise your own essays to be better. Writing many essays helps, but you have to analyze them. And preparing for the TOEFL is more than just writing essays. There’s also reading, listening, and speaking. 🙂

  3. deepali May 1, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Does the essay in toefl exam come from the list given by ETS (containing 185 topics). Is it a good idea to prepare for the topics given beforehand????

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas May 2, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

      Hi Deepali,

      While it’s possible that the essay topic will come from that list, you may also get a topic from outside the list. It’s a good idea to read through it, but you definitely should not prepare for every topic on that list. That would take too long even if it was a complete list of possible topics—it would be over 90 hours of essay writing, just for one of the two essays! It’s more important to learn the general themes and write your practice essays using that list.

  4. Prashant June 27, 2014 at 7:00 am #

    Thanks for this useful info. This will surely help me to organize my essay properly.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas June 27, 2014 at 8:33 am #

      You’re welcome!

  5. vandy June 30, 2014 at 8:51 am #

    I have question regarding TOEFL ESSAY writing . I have given TOEFL test several tome to meet criteria for Pharmacy. Only problem is with my writing , i need 24 score, while i always get 22. I tried so hard and still trying. Please suggest me how i can improve my sscore.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas June 30, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

      That’s tough, Vandy! You’re so close! Well, there’s no single way to improve your writing score: there are a few different things that might help you, personally. Without knowing you much better than I can through blog comments, it would be hard for me to say. But you can definitely identify your own weak areas and what you need to work on! Here are a couple of posts that explain generally how you can practice for the test.

      I really recommend reading a lot, too. The more you read, the better you can imitate native speakers in your writing. And pay careful attention to grammar when you read! The writing part of the TOEFL is time to let your grammar skills show. 🙂

  6. renu July 23, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    Can u plz help me, how i can score in my reading section??? actually its too difficult for me and i dont know how to improve this. if you have any tips regarding READING SECTION plz help me out.

  7. Rakshya August 31, 2014 at 12:24 am #

    My toefl exam is after 2 weeks and i have not yet started to prepare for it.Would you please help me?How can i get a better score in such a less time?I need a great score. 🙁 And,now i am really in dilemma.Please,help me out!

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas September 2, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

      Hi Rakshya,

      Don’t panic! But it’s time to get to work. 🙂 First, buy a copy of the official guide. You will want that practice material. 🙂 Take a full test so you can find out your weaknesses. Then, spend the next two weeks trying to improve those weak areas (for example, speaking more fluently) by reading the relevant blog posts here at Magoosh. Keep practicing and keep reading more about how to best answer questions, and you’ll do your best on test day.

  8. deden n September 28, 2014 at 4:07 am #

    I never took the TOEFL experience before.. Well, I eager to learn english many more, so give me advice to take study hard day by day, actually my english is not bad, but sometimes i always feeling not confident to say with someone, can you show me some friends to share with me, and tell me how to speak better than now?

  9. Alessia October 25, 2014 at 2:34 am #

    Hi there. So I have a question regarding the whole choosing sides thing. Do I have to choose between options A or B or could I agree with both sides? My exam is tomorrow so it would be awesome if I could get a quick reply. Thanks!

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas October 28, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

      I’m sorry we weren’t able to get back to you sooner! I hope your test went well. 🙂 In case you’re still wondering, though, it’s best to choose a side: the prompt asks you do make a decision, and your essay will be much clearer if you choose a single side. Trying to argue both sides often makes an essay hard to follow, and that hurts your score. It’s possible to write a good essay that considers both sides, but we don’t recommend it for the TOEFL.

  10. David November 19, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    Hello Lucas,
    Can you provide some sample essays that would get a 5 on writing?
    Thanks !

  11. Diana January 20, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    Hello, my questions are about the independent task. It is possible to only have 4 paragraph essay with more then 350 words and still score very high?
    thanks in advance!!! very helpful site!!

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas January 20, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

      It’s absolutely possible to score very high with only four full paragraphs in the essay! Your grade isn’t based on the number of paragraphs, but on how completely you answer the question and how well you communicate your line of reasoning. I actually advise most students to write 4-paragraph essays so that they can fully explain two reasons in the body of the essay, rather than rushing to explain three reasons and switching topics too quickly/unnaturally.

  12. Giovanna Del Nero March 10, 2015 at 8:10 pm #

    Hello, Lucas.

    Do you think it is possible reaching the maximum score with an independent essay of four paragraphs?

    I am really having difficulties with time management and I would like to know if I have to focus on practicing to write less words AND correctly rather than just writing a longer essay.

    Thank you,

    Giovanna

  13. David Recine
    David Recine March 15, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

    Hello Giovanna,

    Very good question! According to the writing guide on the official TOEFL website (https://www.ets.org/Media/Tests/TOEFL/pdf/ibt_writing_sample_responses.pdf ), an independent essay usually needs at least 300 words to be “effective.” This means that essays of less than 300 words are less likely the maximum score. (But it’s not impossible!)

    Word count is not the same as amount of paragraphs, of course. It’s possible for someone to write a five paragraph essay that only has about 250 words, a three paragraph essay that has 400 words, and so on.

    In some cases, an essay with as little as three or even two paragraphs can receive good marks. Remember though, paragraphs help you organize your ideas and connect them to each other. More connections (rather than fewer connections) can help you create a better organized essay. TOEFL scorers like to see that.

    To make sure you earn full points (or something close to it), carefully read the official TOEFL Independent Writing Task Rubric (https://www.ets.org/Media/Tests/TOEFL/pdf/Independent_Writing_Rubrics_2008.pdf). You’ll notice that the rubric itself doesn’t grade test takers on word count or number of paragraphs. But as you practice writing based on the rubric, you’ll find that a certain word count or certain number of paragraphs allows you to reach level 5 on the rubric. Some of this depends on your own writing style.

  14. Gaurav July 30, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    My practice essays are about 315-330 words. What can I so increase the length without diluting the content of my essay?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink August 3, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

      Length isn’t really a goal—it’s more important that you clearly explain all of the main ideas, using specific details and clear connections between thoughts. If you do that well, it’s possible that 315 words is enough. 🙂 Don’t focus on length; focus on explaining fully and clearly!

  15. Pakhi September 21, 2015 at 4:14 am #

    Hi Lucas,
    The link you provided on this blog for “a list of TOEFL independent essay questions” on ETS website is not working. Can you please provide the link here? I have Toefl in 2 weeks and need it asap. Thanks!

  16. Monika October 4, 2015 at 5:02 am #

    I am mostly confused ,because some of the books are saying that it is okay to have 4 bp and some recommend have 5 bd. Which one is more acceptable on the test ?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink October 4, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

      I think by “BP” you mean body paragraphs—is that right? If it is, then nobody is correct or incorrect, really. The most important aspects of your essay are the number or shape of your paragraphs. We recommend 4 paragraphs for both essays: 1 intro and 3 body paragraphs for the integrated essay, and 1 intro, 2 body paragraphs, and one conclusion for the independent essay. But the independent essay could very easily be 5 paragraphs total, with 3 body paragraphs.

      But again, the numbers aren’t the important thing. What’s more important is that within those paragraphs, you clearly explain the main idea of that paragraph and then support the main idea with details or examples. Making a clear statement and explaining is the key for TOEFL writing. That also means using clear, conventional language. That means correct vocabulary, clear grammar, and logical transitions.

      It is possible to write too many or too few paragraphs, but only because of the EFFECT that those have—in a short paragraph, you don’t have enough room to fully explain your reasons. In a too-long paragraph, you run the risk of repeating yourself. Because TOEFL essays are short, it makes sense to use only a few paragraphs total, and focus instead on the content of those paragraphs. 🙂

  17. kelley December 3, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

    Lucas, I think you’re awesome!

    I teach Advanced English for a non-profit organization in Arkansas. One of the classes I teach is a TOEFL preparation class.

    I just thought you should know you’re awesome and appreciated.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink December 7, 2015 at 10:16 am #

      You sound pretty awesome yourself. 🙂 Thank you for the kind words, and I’m really glad to hear we’ve been helping!

  18. prak March 3, 2016 at 12:21 am #

    i need some sample integrated writing questions, where can i find it?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 1, 2016 at 9:44 pm #

      Sample Integrated Writing tasks are definitely harder to find compared to Integrated writing ones. There are some out there though.

      You’ll find two practice Integrated Writing questions in the TOEFL’s official Quick Prep practice sets, available online for free here. Unfortunately, the Integrated Writing task in Quick Prep Volume 1 has no audio— just a reading passage and a transcript of the related lecture.

      A few other sources of Integrated Writing practice are available through ETS for a fee. Volumes one and two of Official TOEFL iBT Practice Tests contain a total of 10 Integrated Writing practice questions, as part of the 10 complete practice tests found in these two volumes. And there are 4 practice tests/4 Integrated Writing questions with audio in the Official Guide for the TOEFL. The OG also has one additional practice Integrated Writing question that is transcript only, no audio, like the one in Quick Prep Volume 1. You can purchase these and a few other TOEFL resources with Integrated Writing practice though the official materials catalog for the exam.

      It’s also worth mentioning that we have one Integrated Writing practice task (with audio) here on the Magoosh TOEFL Blog. We even have a model answer for it. And of course, you can get many additional full Integrated Writing task questions with a Magoosh TOEFL subscription.

  19. Raed April 9, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    How can write complete essay in 30 min! It is very difficult

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 11, 2016 at 8:06 am #

      It definitely is difficult, Raed. Writing is one of the biggest challenges for many test-takers, but the writing section can be beat. One key skill is prewriting. You’ll want to get very comfortable with organizing your ideas and making outlines, so that you can do it quickly. And you’ll want to do some revision to organizaiton even while you write. (I’ve posted some additional thoughts on that here.

      It also helps to strategize ways to minimize word count.Remember, ETS’s recommended length for Writing Task 1 (Integrated) is only 150 to 225 words. And their suggested length for Task 2 is 300 words. That’s really not that much. But the trick is learning to express your ideas within that word count, without having to revise and edit out extra stuff that you wrote.

      In a nutshell, you’ll master the tricky skill of writing an essay in just 30 minutes if you can do the following:

      1) Do all major prewriting in just the first few minutes.
      2) Fall within the recommended word count on the first try, with no revisions.
      3) Be able to edit for content as you write and shortly after you write.

  20. lexi May 21, 2016 at 12:11 am #

    Hi Lucas,

    I’ve been praticing TOEFL writing for a few weeks and had a native speaker review my essays for me. My reviewer’s pointed out a problem among my Independent essays which is that I don’t really choose a side sometimes on certain topics. For example, when I was asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “It is better to have broad knowledge of many academic subjects than to specialize in one specific subject”, I argued that diversification in knowledge and specialization in knowledge are simply different, sometimes overlapping, approaches to acquiring knowledge instead of being a rival to each other. My reviewer said he agrees with my essay, but he could only give me a C in regard to the criteria of the test since I didn’t really write in favor of a given side.

    So my question is that: would it really harm my TOEFL writing score if I don’t choose a side, even when the essays are well reasoned and well organized?

    Many thanks,

    Lexi

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 21, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

      That is an excellent question, Lexi. It is definitely possible to get a good score by writing an essay in this way. Not choosing a side won’t automatically hurt your TOEFL score.

      However, not choosing sides can still harm your TOEFL Writing score in another way. A more complicated opinion makes for a more complicated essay. And it’s harder to finish a more complicated essay– and do it truly well– in the time limit on the exam. Even if you can do a pretty good essay where you don’t take sides, a simpler essay where you do take sides can be written even more clearly and completely within the allotted time. Doing a simpler essay that focuses just on agreeing or disagreeing will leave you more time and energy to make good word choices, organize your ideas well, and check for mistakes at the end.

      Of course, this may mean that you’ll need to write an opinion that isn’t truly yours. But as long as you’re comfortable doing that, taking a side is the best path to the highest score possible in TOEFL Independent Writing.

  21. Sara Ferouz July 15, 2016 at 5:13 am #

    Aslam o alikum
    i just wanted to know how we can say specific sentences?
    what is specific sentences mean?
    and what is the different between specific and general sentences?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 19, 2016 at 8:58 pm #

      “Specific reasons and examples” (as they are described in TOEFL Writing topics) are pieces of evidence that reference unique ideas and evidence. Suppose, for example, that you answered this quesiton (seen in the post above): “It has recently been announced that a large shopping center may be built in your neighborhood. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer”

      If you support the plan, you don’t want your evidence for why you support a shopping center to be too general. A very general support might be “I think this would be good for the neighborhood’s economy.” This is too general, because the statement doesn’t include the reasons why the shopping center would boost the economy. So if you make a general statement like this in your written response, you need to follow it up with more specific statements such as “The shopping center will require a lot of workers, and people in my neighborhood can get jobs and spend more money in the neighborhood.” This is a specific reason. You could follow that sentence up with “For example, the shopping center’s food court will probably have a lot of jobs that younger people can qualify for.” This is a specific example.

  22. Ted July 15, 2016 at 7:44 pm #

    Thank you very much for all those useful informations! I have one question according to choise of words. Is it better to choose simple words or very professional words? Such as organization VS company, harm VS Damage etc…

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 19, 2016 at 8:48 pm #

      On the TOEFL Writing section, more “formal” academic words can help boost your score. But what’s most important is vocabulary variety— little repetition of words, and word choices that are creative and appropriate to meaning and tone.


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