In this post, I’m going to write about some of the problems I see frequently in student essays. I hope that you’ll be able to look out for these pitfalls in your own essays so you don’t make the same mistakes!
Basic punctuation rules
The basics can cause trouble if they’re not correct. Names and the first words in sentences begin with a capital letter; very few other words do. Don’t capitalize words that aren’t names. “I” has to be capitalized, of course, but other pronouns do not. All sentences end with either a question mark, a period, or an exclamation point. Although these are some of the first facts we learn when we study writing, it’s easy to forget about them when working on a high-stakes essay. And while it’s true that a few small typos aren’t likely to affect your score, consistently ignoring basic rules of mechanics can. So take extra care when proof-reading your essay to be sure that you’re following all the little rules.
You could write three practice essays every day for a month (disclaimer: writing three essays every day is probably not the best use of your study time) and still have trouble on the TOEFL writing section if you’re not comfortable with a QWERTY keyboard. It seems sensible to spend all of your study time improving your English, but all the English knowledge in the world won’t help you if you can’t get your essay typed and edited within the time limit. So if you already know how to touch-type in your native language, then start practicing with an English keyboard. If you don’t type well in any language, then check out your computer, the Internet, or a local library to find a self-study program. Just practicing for 5 or 10 minutes a day will put you in a much better position on test day.
Using incomplete sentences
I’ve written about how to make a sentence and how not to make a sentence (part 1 and part 2) before. Writing sentence fragments and run-on sentences are some of the most common problems in TOEFL practice essays. Using ungrammatical sentences confuses the reader, slows him/her down, and makes it much harder to understand your argument. If what makes a complete sentence is different in English than in your native language, it’s a great idea to do a lot of reading to become more used to how sentences in English really work. Grammar books are a great aid, of course, but nothing is a better teacher than real world experience. Keep reading!