Planning Your TOEFL Essay

Assuming you spend the first few moments brainstorming mentally, you’ll need to spend some time writing a plan for what content you actually want to include. The goal of planning is to narrow down your focus, choose the strongest arguments, and decide how to structure your essay so that once you start writing, the words and ideas will flow naturally.

On the TOEFL, you’ll probably use about two minutes to plan your essay. That’s not much time, so it’s a good idea to practice both untimed and timed essay planning. The former will refine your skills (like the ideal-condition brainstorming I wrote about in a previous post) so that good essay planning will become an automatic process; the latter will help you learn how much you really need to plan in order to create an effective essay so you don’t waste time.


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Essay structure

Most essays have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Typically, there is one paragraph each for the introduction and conclusion, and a minimum of three paragraphs in the body. On the TOEFL, however, you probably won’t have time for a five-paragraph essay unless you have superhuman writing skills. We highly recommend using two body paragraphs for the independent essay (for a total of four paragraphs) and one or two body paragraphs for the integrated essay, possibly skipping the conclusion, too (for a total of two or three paragraphs).


The planning stage

Now that you’ve decided on the basic structure of your essay, let’s talk about planning what you’re actually going to write. First, pick the best ideas from your brainstorm. You’ll want two—one for each body paragraph. They will both relate to the same main idea (which you’ll write about in the introduction paragraph). On the computer—not on your note paper—write your thesis and arguments quickly. They don’t have to be full, perfect sentences—just write the ideas as quickly as you can. Include any background information and details that you can think of at the same time.

After you have two main ideas and some small details or thoughts, you should have enough of a framework to start writing! Above the notes, start your actual writing, using full sentences and careful grammar.


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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+!

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6 Responses to Planning Your TOEFL Essay

  1. Karla colmenarez August 18, 2018 at 7:25 am #

    However having all your idea on mind. How we can work with timing? In orden write as fast as we can and buy time to continue for the following integrate essay.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 23, 2018 at 9:24 am #

      Hi Karla,

      The best way to improve and write the essay more quickly is to practice as much as possible! In order to improve your speed, you must first improve your skills and confidence. You should have a clear plan to brainstorm, structure and write each essay, and know exactly what you need to need for success in each question. You can see our TOEFL Writing Tips and Writing PDF ebooks to help you learn these important details. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t necessarily rush through one essay to get to the other. Rather, you should make a plan to be able to write 2 strong essays in the time allotted. This is something that requires practice and dedication. Good luck 🙂

  2. Atittaya August 18, 2018 at 1:38 pm #

    Such a great article! Thank you for sharing all the tips and advice. It’s really useful. Wish me luck for my test ^^

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 23, 2018 at 9:24 am #

      We’re glad you found our content helpful! Good luck!

  3. Matilda okpachui November 5, 2019 at 2:04 am #

    The independent writing requires 300-350 words. Having an essay of 495 words with 5 paragrahs In total ,1 for introduction, 3 for the body and 1 for conclusion, is this too much or just right

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 7, 2020 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Matilda,

      If you can write a strong, well-thought-out and grammatically correct 495-word essay in the time allotted for the independent essay, then go for it! It’s important to note, however, that students sometimes sacrifice quality for quantity. If writing more words means that you are writing too quickly, make silly mistakes and don’t have time to edit and review your essay, then you should stick to the smaller word count.

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