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TOEFL Independent Writing Tips: Support Your Claims

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

toefl independent writing tips

When I give my students TOEFL Independent Writing tips, I usually focus on building a complete argument. Often students fail to fully support their claims. This is a common mistake and it’s a costly one. When your ideas are unsupported, it can really hurt your score. And without good supporting details, your essay can be really confusing.

Below, I’m going to show you an example TOEFL Independent Writing response. This will be an example of what not to do. The essay will be full of incomplete arguments and unsupported claims. Read the essay once through and see if you can find all the writing problems. What are the claims that the writer is making? Which claims are not supported? Why are the arguments incomplete?

TOEFL Independent Writing Tips: How to not Support Your Claims

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

  • 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.

Answer (full of unsupported claims):

  • Note:  As you read, try to find all the unsupported claims on your own. After you read, scroll down to see my comments on the unsupported claims in each paragraph.

Modern innovations have greatly reshaped the world. Things aren’t the same as they were in our parents’ time or grandparents’ time.

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Nowadays, electronics make things a lot easier. We can communicate more quickly and do many other things in a simpler, more convenient way. I am glad to live in the electronic age. It makes my life easier in so many ways and allows me to do a lot more things. Electric and mobile devices help me do my studies, my work, and my housework much more easily. My parents and other people in the older generations often comment about how lucky I am to grow up in this time, and how much easier their lives are too, because of “smart” devices and the Internet.

Modern travel technology is better too. It’s so much easier to go places faster. I travel the city by bus, and modern forms of travel let me get to other countries much more quickly too. New forms of travel have truly opened up a global world, making trade more connected and allowing people to move goods to other countries and hemispheres.

I am glad I live in these present times, where it’s easier to work, travel, go to school, plan vacations, and communicate with relatives. So I very much agree that modern life is easier than it was in the past. Changes in electronics, travel, and communications have put us all in a golden age of convenience.

Guide to the Unsupported Claims in the Example Essay

To identify unsupported claims in an essay, it helps to look at the essay paragraph by paragraph. Each paragraph in a TOEFL Independent Essay should be a complete set of thoughts. In this kind of academic writing, a paragraph should have one clear topic and be fully supported by the other sentences.

It is also useful to think of unsupported claims in terms of unanswered questions. Any claim you make in your writing will raise some obvious questions. I will now list the unanswered questions from each of the four paragraphs in the example essay.

Paragraph 1 Unanswered Questions:

  • How have modern innovations reshaped the world?
  • What kinds of modern innovations have reshaped the world?
  • In what specific ways is the world different today, compared to the world that older generations experienced?

Paragraph 2 Unanswered Questions:

  • What specific electronic devices make life easier?
  • What are some examples of ways that modern electronics allow people to do more things?
  • What are some examples of the way electronic devices help people with studies, work and housework?
  • What is a “smart” device?
  • What is the relationship between the Internet, electronics, modern life, and easier living?
  • What are “smart” devices and how do they make life easier?

Paragraph 3 Unanswered Questions: 

  • What are some examples of modern travel technology, besides the bus?
  • Why is it important to be able to travel to other countries faster?
  • How does faster international travel make life easier?
  • Why does globalism and world trade make life easier?
  • What specific modern travel technologies aid globalism?

Paragraph 4 Unanswered Questions:

  • How has planning vacations and communicating with relatives become easier in modern times?
  • What changes have happened in modern communications technology?
  • How does modern communication technology make life easier?

The Takeaway

This essay sure is a mess, isn’t it? To address every unanswered question in the essay, you would need to make the essay much longer. The missing supporting details are probably longer than the original essay itself.

Fortunately, there’s an easier way: If you write an essay that’s full of unsupported claims, you can simply rewrite the essay altogether. Replace complex, hard to support claims with claims that are easier to support. Think of claims you can make that have obvious supports. And if the easiest arguments don’t reflect your true opinion, use them anyway. The TOEFL Independent Writing Task isn’t about your true opinion. It’s about constructing a complete argument within the time limits on the exam.

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2 Responses to TOEFL Independent Writing Tips: Support Your Claims

  1. Nirajan October 12, 2016 at 4:25 am #

    Can we take a safe midway by neither agreeing nor disagreeing or in other words, by both partially agreeing and partially not agreeing, the same way like it is done in GRE issue writing (taking a safe midway)?

    Answer to this question would be a great help.

    Another question is: does a significantly extra word count negatively affect the score even if all the words contribute to nothing irrelevant, repetition (or more strengthens the writing)? Is there anything like you must be able to write effectively within or around specified word count?


    • David Recine
      David Recine October 18, 2016 at 9:29 am #

      Great questions, Nirajan!

      To answer your first question: Yes, you can take a middle position in TOEFL Independent writing, just as you would on the GRE. However, you probably shouldn’t. This isn’t a strict requirement on the TOEFL, and taking this more GRE-like approach won’t earn you any points. What it will do is make your answer more complicated, and thus harder to orgnaize and complete within the time limit for the task.

      In answer to your second question, there are no strict rules for word count. According to ETS’s own statistics, Writing Task 2 responses that are around 300 words long tend to have the best scores. But you can certainly go over that word count if the extra words are all relevant. And essays of somewhat less than 300 words can also score well, if they satisfy all of the requirements on the official TOEFL Writing rubric.

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