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Common Writing Difficulties

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

In this post, I’m going to write about some of the problems I see frequently in student essays. I hope that you’ll be able to look out for these pitfalls in your own essays so you don’t make the same mistakes!


Basic punctuation rules

The basics can cause trouble if they’re not correct. Names and the first words in sentences begin with a capital letter; very few other words do. Don’t capitalize words that aren’t names. “I” has to be capitalized, of course, but other pronouns do not. All sentences end with either a question mark, a period, or an exclamation point. Although these are some of the first facts we learn when we study writing, it’s easy to forget about them when working on a high-stakes essay. And while it’s true that a few small typos aren’t likely to affect your score, consistently ignoring basic rules of mechanics can. So take extra care when proof-reading your essay to be sure that you’re following all the little rules.

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Slow typing

You could write three practice essays every day for a month (disclaimer: writing three essays every day is probably not the best use of your study time) and still have trouble on the TOEFL writing section if you’re not comfortable with a QWERTY keyboard. It seems sensible to spend all of your study time improving your English, but all the English knowledge in the world won’t help you if you can’t get your essay typed and edited within the time limit. So if you already know how to touch-type in your native language, then start practicing with an English keyboard. If you don’t type well in any language, then check out your computer, the Internet, or a local library to find a self-study program. Just practicing for 5 or 10 minutes a day will put you in a much better position on test day.


Using incomplete sentences

I’ve written about how to make a sentence and how not to make a sentence (part 1 and part 2) before. Writing sentence fragments and run-on sentences are some of the most common problems  in TOEFL practice essays. Using ungrammatical sentences confuses the reader, slows him/her down, and makes it much harder to understand your argument. If what makes a complete sentence is different in English than in your native language, it’s a great idea to do a lot of reading to become more used to how sentences in English really work. Grammar books are a great aid, of course, but nothing is a better teacher than real world experience. Keep reading!


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10 Responses to Common Writing Difficulties

  1. Jagga Dakou September 4, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    I wanted to know how different is TOEFL essay from GRE essay. I mean, if you get around 3.5 on GRE essay, what will be your score on TOEFL? Can, we linearly scale between the two tests? i.e. at 3-4 on GRE essay scales to 15-20 on TOEFL essay.

    Also, in the speaking section, do they deduct marks for accent. Since, here in Italy, we have an Italian-ish accent of English.

    Do, they provide subtitles in the Listening section?

    Lastly, the relative difficulty level of GRE RCs and TOEFL RCs.

    Thank You in advance

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas September 8, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

      Good questions. It’s not so easy to compare the TOEFL and GRE essays, though, because the graders are looking at different things. Your English level might be very good, but your analysis and logic might be weak, for example. In that case, you might get a low score on the GRE’s writing section, but a very high score on TOEFL writing. But at the same time, if you are able to get above a 4 on the GRE, you will almost definitely do well on the TOEFL writing section. So sometimes it’s closely connected, and sometimes not. It depends on what your strengths and weaknesses are within your writing.

      Keep in mind that there’s one essay on the GRE that is unlike anything on the TOEFL (the argument task) and there’s on essay on the TOEFL that’s unrelated to the GRE (the integrated task).

      In the speaking section, accent is absolutely important. You need to be understood by native speakers. The stronger your accent, the harder you are to understand. You will always have at least a little bit of accent, but your goal should be to have as little as possible.

      As for the listening, there are no subtitles, no. You have to hear the answers.

      And finally, GRE reading comprehension is much harder than TOEFL reading. The best way to find out the difficulty level is to try some TOEFL reading yourself. That will give you a clear picture of what to expect. 🙂

      • Goodnews November 24, 2017 at 12:00 am #

        I want to sign for one month.Then write the test before January and submit the test score for admission at the University of Toronto before 5th of January which is the deadline.

        • David Recine
          David Recine November 24, 2017 at 4:51 pm #

          I just saw your signup for Magoosh TOEFL Premium, Goodnews! 🙂 Welcome, and feel free to click the “help” tab in your account and ask us questions if you need anything.

  2. Samim Azizi September 24, 2014 at 12:42 am #


    Thank you very much for you blog, I have a question please tell me the difference of ” ; ” and ” , ” I mean when we should use them in sentences.

  3. Rumaisa Khan February 4, 2016 at 6:42 am #


    I am having difficulty in an integrated part of writing section. During listening i cant take notes and if I take notes it gets impossible for me to listen to the lecture. Any suggestions?

    • David Recine
      David Recine February 4, 2016 at 8:39 pm #

      Hi Rumaisa,

      “Over note-taking” can definitely be a problem when you listen. The trick is to know exactly what to listen for, and write down only the most important points. In the case of Integrated Writing, the only things you need to note are the ways in which the professor challenges the main points in the reading. So it may help to briefly jot down the main ideas from the passage. Then listen carefully to the professor, and ONLY take notes on what the professor says when he or she contradicts one of the passage’s main ideas.

  4. Cleber amorim September 18, 2018 at 5:22 pm #

    Anyone can help me? I am with difficult ?😞

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 21, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

      Hi Cleber,

      If you have specific questions, we can try to answer them for you! Sometimes it takes us a while to answer questions on our blog, but we always eventually respond 🙂

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