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Evaluating TOEFL Essays: Sample Essay Grading

In the last post, we took a look at a sample TOEFL essay based on the independent task prompt:

  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?
    Modern life is easier than life in the past. 
    Use specific details and examples to support your answer.

(For more prompts, take a look at Kate’s post on TOEFL Writing Task Examples!)

Today, let’s dissect this essay. Specifically, we’ll be taking a look at what the author did well and points upon which the author could have improved. For quick reference, here’s the essay again:


Sample Essay

I definitely agree that modern life is easier than life in the past. The increased use of technology, rising standards of living, and improved healthcare have combined to make our lifestyles, at least in the first world, luxurious compared to lifestyles of the past. By examining three specific examples—personal computers, The Lion in Winter, and vaccines—this essay will demonstrate that this improvement has, indeed, taken place.

In the first place, technological advances have created new ways to take care of mundane tasks quickly and easily. For example, the majority of Americans now have their own personal computers. This is an amazing advance: with computers, we can complete tasks, from banking to ordering groceries, that would have taken hours even a few decades ago. Word processing is common, making the spread of information much easier to achieve, and education is available to all for free through online courses and information that would have been all but unattainable for many up until the end of the twentieth century. The sheer amount of access that we have to services and knowledge through these machines has made life extraordinarily easier.

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Secondly, our standard of life has changed through advances in engineering, architecture, travel, and even textiles. Looking at a film like The Lion in Winter, while by no means historically perfect, does show how even everyday things were more difficult almost a thousand years ago. Set in the 1100s, the film shows King Henry II having to break ice from his water bowl to get water to wash his face—something that hot and cold running taps have long since saved us from. The queen has to travel to see her husband by a long boat journey, which would be almost unthinkable today. Finally, the entire royal family, even though they are royal, is wrapped in encumbering furs. Looking at what was once the highest standard of living, compared to the average first world standard of living today, we can see how much easier progress has made our lives.

Finally, we no longer live in fear of many common diseases that once crippled or maimed large populations, making their lives much harder. For example, polio used to strike many people, in some cases making it difficult for them to walk, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used a wheelchair. The invention of that vaccine in the 1950s, as well as numerous other vaccines, has created a situation in which we no longer have to suffer unnecessarily. This is most certainly an improvement over the past.

In conclusion, life today is definitely easier than life in the past. Though it is easy to read stories of nobles and kings of history and romanticize them, their lives were almost certainly more uncomfortable than our lives are. Nevertheless, there are many places in the world where laptops, modern conveniences, and vaccines are rarely found; I hope that current generations will work together to make life easier for everyone, now that it is possible to do so.


Essay Evaluation

Now, let’s go through a few important points. First of all, remember that the TOEFL essay is scored holistically, meaning that you don’t get a certain number of points off your score (or added on) for the absence or presence of different items. Rather, the scorers grade it against a rubric, seeing which points from the rubric best describe your essay.

First of all, a thesis statement: we want this to be immediate and direct. By immediate, I mean that it should show up within the first few sentences of your essay. Here, the author does this: right away, she writes “I definitely agree that modern life is easier than life in the past.” Remember, we don’t have to be terribly nuanced about this. Sure, you can argue that it’s easier in some ways and harder in others—but you’ll have an easier time just taking one position and sticking to it, as you don’t have a huge amount of time to write this essay! It might be a prettier essay if this author eased into the subject by providing an example or a quote to start with, but this works pretty well in the introduction.

Which leads us to another point…an introduction and a conclusion. This author has them! They’re pretty brief—given more time, it would be nice to have a quick recap of the points she’s made here, but they do exist. This makes the structure easier to understand and helps the scorers to see right away that you understood the task and have addressed it, fully and completely.

Next, the examples. These are of primary importance! The examples here are relatively simple, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel (so to speak). Notice that this author picks examples from different areas: society, a movie, and history. The FDR example could maybe be fleshed out a little more and elaborated on to make this more specific and slightly stronger, but generally, these examples do make the author’s point.

What about the language? It’s pretty strong here. The author varies her sentence structure; take a look at the conclusion for an example of this. She uses transition words (“in conclusion”), although these are sometimes simple. Finally, she also shows off her vocabulary (“encumbering,” “romanticize”), demonstrating that she has an advanced grasp of English.

Is this a perfect essay? Not by a long shot. But is it a high-scoring TOEFL essay? You bet.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below!


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One Response to Evaluating TOEFL Essays: Sample Essay Grading

  1. robbie March 5, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    your article and evaluation have been very helpful …thanks loads ! 🙂

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