Very recently, a Magoosher asked me a very good question: can you make jokes in TOEFL Writing or Speaking?
First off, it’s important to remember that joking is very informal. The TOEFL measures your abilities in academic English, which is more formal. So if you are heavy on the jokes, you may lose points for sounding too informal or not academic enough. This is something you should especially think about in TOEFL Writing. Both academic and non-academic writing in English are generally more formal than speech. Because of this, I suggest avoiding jokes in written TOEFL responses.
On the other hand, TOEFL Speaking leaves room for jokes on some— but not all— of its questions. You can’t really make jokes on Speaking Tasks 3-6, because those tasks ask you to summarize information or give other very specific responses that don’t allow for jokes or personal comments. But you can joke in the first two Independent Speaking questions. In fact, if making a few jokes as you on the Independent Speaking answers helps you speak more comfortably and naturally, jokes can be a good thing. Naturalness of speech is something TOEFL raters look for.
The trick is to make sure that your jokes help answer the question, rather than going off-topic. Let’s look at some of the “dos” and “don’ts” of TOEFL Speaking humor. I’ll give a sample question below, followed by the first part of a sample answer, with a joke in it.
Sample question: Some people have one career throughout their lives. Other people do different kinds of work at different points in their lives. What do you think is better? Explain why.
Partial sample answer: All I could think when I read this question is “People still have careers? In this economy?!” Joking aside, I think it’s best to do different kinds of work. I like the variety and flexibility of working different jobs…
The joke in this sample answer is kind of funny. However, it’s a little off topic. The question is about the work choices people make and have. But the joke is about the economy, and right after the joke is told, the answer moves on to something else. This approach to joking is a distraction from the question, and could your TOEFL score.
This revision, on the other hand, is better:
Partial sample answer (revised): I think it’s best to do different kinds of work throughout your life. This is a good thing too. In this modern economy, nobody stays in one place too long. Soon, careers will be something you hear about in history class and look at in museums, next to the dinosaurs. To adapt to changing times, I try to do as many different kinds of work as I can…
In this second version, the joke is basically the same: careers don’t exist anymore. But notice the differences. The first sentence is a direct answer to the question, so that there is not an immediate opening joke that seems “off topic.” The second sentence then transitions to the joke by saying “this is a good thing too.” The third and fourth sentences are the joke. Then the fifth sentence builds on the joke with a more serious part of the answer, explaining that it’s good to change with the times and be willing to work many different jobs.
Hopefully this helps anyone out there who wants to relax a little on the TOEFL. Feel free to use jokes on the Independent Speaking questions. If you keep the jokes well-connected to the question and your answer, you may just make a TOEFL scorer smile.