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Using Examples in the TOEFL Essays

You may have noticed by now that the strength of your essay, particularly in the independent task, comes partly from the quality of your examples. The type of example that’s best suited to your essay will depend on the topic. Let’s talk about some common sources of examples you can use to support your essay thesis.


Personal experience

Probably 80% of independent essay arguments come from personal experience, because it’s your own experiences that typically shape your opinions. You can draw on your friends’ stories and your family, in addition to those things you’ve personally done or seen. Personal experience arguments are particularly useful in questions that deal with education, raising children, and general lifestyle like questions like these:

– You have been told that the dormitory rooms at your university must be shared by two students. Would you rather have the university assign a roommate to share a room with you, or would you rather choose your own roommate? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

– Some people prefer to live in places that have the same weather or climate all year long. Others like to live in areas where the weather changes several times a year. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.


Famous person or event

You can also draw examples from well-known stories and personalities, whether they be historical or fictional. If you choose for a fictional or literary example, make it clear that although it’s fictional, it demonstrates something that is applicable to real life. This is a great tactic for questions of national interest and for ones like these:

– If you were asked to send one thing representing your country to an international exhibition, what would you choose? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.

– If you could go back to some time and place in the past, when and where would you go? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.


Knowledge of the subject

You don’t need to have any prior knowledge to answer your TOEFL essay questions, but if you do know something about the topic you’re given, you may want to draw on that knowledge. This is likely to be a more successful tactic than personal experiences or famous events when your question deals with a social or political issue like one of these:

– Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Technology has made the world a better place to live. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.

– A gift (such as a camera, a soccer ball, or an animal) can contribute to a child’s development. What gift would you give to help a child develop? Why? Use reasons and specific examples to support your choice.

Using examples well

Simply having a good example isn’t enough. You have to use it well in your writing. That means connecting the concrete example to the more abstract ideas—your opinion or the reasons for that opinion. Say, for instance, I answer the question above about technology.

Here’s my main idea:

Technology has improved our lives.

And then I give you a reason why I think that:

It has made long-distance communication better.

Now, I can easily bring up a specific example to support that reason:

For instance, I live many hundreds of miles away from my parents, but I talk to them by video chat every month.

All of that is great, but I need to make the connections between the parts. The most important thing I need to do is explain my example. Here are a couple of sentences that would help:

The technology behind the video chat is very new. Twenty years ago, before we had that technology, I wouldn’t have been able to see my parents’ faces so often. That change in technology has allowed me to communicate better with people I love even though I’m very far away. 

Notice how this makes a clear connection between the specific example of video chat and the general idea of technological changes improving my life.

And of course, transition words (such as “for example,” and “for instance”) and referencing your previous sentences (such as “That change in technology”) are very, very important for writing smoothly. Be sure to link your thoughts together!

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