Brainstorming for the TOEFL Essay

Brainstorming is an essential part of the essay planning process. It can help you pick a topic to write about, choose which side to support in a persuasive essay, and come up with supporting details for that side.  You may think of brainstorming as a group of people, such as TV script writers, sitting around a table, bouncing ideas around. And while brainstorming in a group is a great way to open all the doors and possibilities you have, brainstorming on paper by yourself can also get your creativity flowing.

There are a couple of rules to remember when brainstorming. First and most importantly, there are no bad ideas. You should at least consider everything that pops into your head, even if it doesn’t support the side you plan to take or doesn’t seem like a strong example. If it seems like something you could write a paragraph about, write it down, because it keeps your mind moving forward rather than stagnating. Second, keep your brainstorming topic broad. Don’t choose your opinion at this point; consider every angle and possible argument. You can choose your side later, when you start to actually plan your essay. For now, you just want to generate as many ideas as possible, putting the most interesting ones on paper.


Practicing brainstorming

I recommend that you practice brainstorming in what I call an ideal-conditions essay. Instead of sticking to the 20-30 minute time limit of the TOEFL, give yourself as much time as you need. Spend two or three minutes brainstorming, then five or ten minutes planning, then write for half an hour or so, then reread, edit, and refine until the essay is as good as you think it can get. Although timed practice is essential, writing in ideal conditions will help cement proper grammar and mechanics and will help you see what you’re really capable of.  Below I’ve written about a couple of brainstorming techniques you may find useful. I recommend you try all of them at least once so that you can see which one works best for you. It may be that different brainstorming styles work best for certain types of essays, and this is a great thing to know as you practice. So grab a stack of blank paper, and get started!


Mind map

If you’re a visual learner, mind mapping will probably be a great brainstorming technique for you. Draw a circle in the middle of your paper and write your prompt in it. Then draw lines coming out of the circle, like a sun. At the end of each line, write a statement or argument that relates to the central prompt. Draw lines coming off of each of these statements, and write supporting details and examples on those lines. Continue doing this until you’ve exhausted all the possibilities you can think of for the topic.



Free-writing is a great technique if you draw a blank—that is, if you have no idea what to write about. Even in the middle of writing practice essays, a mini-free-writing session can help you recover from writer’s block. To free-write, write your prompt or central question in a document, then start writing whatever you think about. Keep typing at all times—if you don’t know what to write, then write about how you don’t know what to write. If your mind wanders, then write that your mind has wandered, then try to get back on track. It will probably feel stupid and unproductive at first, but there’s a reason that some teachers call free-writing “writing the mind alive”: after a few minutes of free-writing, you’ll find that your ideas are much clearer, it’s easier for you to focus on the topic, and you’ll have at least a couple of solid arguments and examples written down, which, for the TOEFL, is all you need.


In your head

On your actual TOEFL essays, you won’t want to spend time brainstorming then planning as two separate stages. Instead, it’s better to combine them. There are two ways to do that. First, you might simply spend ~30 seconds or a minute thinking about the topic before you write down a plan. Imagine this like a free-writing exercise without the writing: you want to think as freely and as randomly as possible. There’s no bad idea.

The other way to do this is to start writing immediately as you brainstorm, then cross off (or erase) the ideas that you aren’t going to use. In that method, the crossing off is the “planning” step.


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  • Kate Hardin

    Kate has 6 years of experience in teaching foreign language. She graduated from Sewanee in 2012, where she studied and taught German, and recently returned from a year spent teaching English in a northern Russian university. Follow Kate on Google+!