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TOEFL Independent Essay Mistake: Unsupported Claims

In the TOEFL Independent Essay, many test-takers fail to support their claims. This is a common mistake that can really hurt your TOEFL Writing score.

Whenever you give an opinion or make a claim about something, make sure that you have answered any obvious questions the reader might have. If the ideas in your TOEFL Independent Writing Essay raise any unanswered questions, your essay will be incomplete and confusing.

In a previous post, I showed you a really bad example essay for TOEFL Independent Writing. This essay had unsupported claims and incomplete ideas in every paragraph.

That essay was an extreme example. It’s more common for test-takers to write an essay that’s mostly good, but has one or two ideas that are very poorly supported. This can cause an otherwise well-written essay to get a low TOEFL score.

In this post, we’ll look at a more “normal” example of unsupported claims in TOEFL Independent Writing. The essay I’m about to show you is fairly well written. However, the ideas in the second paragraph are poorly supported. The paragraph’s claims raise unanswered questions; the argument in the paragraph is incomplete.

Read the essay for yourself. See if you can figure out what’s wrong. At the bottom of this post, I’ll give an explanation of these mistakes and how to fix them.

An Otherwise Good TOEFL Independent Writing Response, With A Few Unsupported Claims

Question (taken from Kate’s TOEFL Writing Task Examples)

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  • Some students prefer to study many different subjects at once, while others prefer to focus on one topic at a time. Would you rather take a semester of classes in different subjects or a semester of classes in the same subject? Explain your choice, using specific reasons and examples.

Answer (with unsupported claims in the second paragraph)

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of a modern liberal arts education is diversity. Students at universities and community colleges alike are asked to meet “general education” requirements where they study many different subjects and not just the subject of their chosen field. Usually, this means studying several different subjects at the same time. In my opinion, this isn’t the best approach. I think it’s better to study just one subject each semester. If you are studying two or more very different subjects at the same time, each subject will be a distraction from the other subject.

For example, suppose that one semester, a student takes an advanced college math course and an introductory art class so that they can learn how to paint. Advanced math and art techniques are both sophisticated, challenging subjects. The only way to master either subject is to think about it all the time. But when you’re thinking about art, you can’t think about math. And when you’re in math class, visual design is irrelevant. So the two subjects compete, and it’s hard to study either one sufficiently.

On the other hand, if you focus a semester’s worth of classes on just one subject, you can really master that subject. Imagine taking advanced algebra, geometry, statistics, and logic all in one semester. You’ll use a lot of the same math skills in every class, just in different ways. At the end of the semester, you could have a very deep understanding of math. A similar effect could happen if you spent one semester taking classes in painting, drawing, graphic design, and art history. By focusing only on different aspects of art for a term, you have a good chance of deeply understanding art by the end of the semester.

Explanation of the Problems in the Essay’s Second Paragraph

In TOEFL Integrated Writing, unsupported claims are a matter of unanswered questions. When you make a claim in this kind of essay, the reader — or the TOEFL scorer — will have questions about why your claim is true. A well-written essay will answer the most obvious questions for any claim the author makes.

Poorly written essays often miss these questions and make claims that lack good supporting details. Now, the essay above isn’t completely bad writing. But the second paragraph raises a lot of unanswered questions. Its claims are confusing because they aren’t backed up by supporting details. Let’s look at the unanswered questions in paragraph 2.

Paragraph 2 Unanswered Questions:

  • Why do you need to think about math or art all the time in order to master these subjects?
  • Why isn’t it possible to think about math and art at the same time?
  • There is an obvious argument that math and art are connected because math includes geometry and proportion, principles that are also used in visual design. Why does the author feel that this isn’t the case and that math and art have no real connection to each other?

How to Correct Incomplete Arguments in TOEFL Independent Writing

If you were going to revise this essay, you could provide answers to each of the three questions above. This would make the second paragraph a lot longer. Or you might need to insert an additional paragraph of explanation after the second paragraph.

However, I recommend a different solution: If you have a paragraph full of incomplete arguments, rewrite the paragraph with different arguments.

Claims often go unsupported because they are too extreme or too complex. It seems extreme to say that you must think about something math or art all the time in order to learn. How do you justify that? You probably can’t support that claim. It’s unlikely that must you think about something 100% of the time when you study it. And it’s likely that you have taken classes and learned from them without thinking about the subject matter all the time.

It’s better to say that both math and art require students to spend a lot of time in thought and study. This statement is less extreme and thus easier to support. Here, supporting details are obvious. The writer can talk about how time-consuming math homework is or how long it takes to create a single painting.

Another reason students fail to support their claims is because their claims are too complicated. The second paragraph of the example essay makes a complex dual claim. The writer talks about how time-consuming math and art study are, while also claiming that the two subjects are not closely related. It’s better to choose just one of these arguments. This makes it easier to fully support the paragraph’s claims.

If I were going to revise this essay, I would get rid of the claims about how time-consuming math and art are. Some students can probably master these subjects quickly, while others would need to spend more time. So fully supporting this claim could be tricky. I would keep the argument that math and art are different. This argument fits in well with the rest of the essay. This is because the third and final paragraph talks about the benefits of taking a semester of closely-related classes.

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