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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!

Ready For Some Practice?

If you’re ready to try out writing the independent task for yourself, take a look at our full-length TOEFL Writing test, which will also introduce you to the integrated task:
 

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