I receive a lot of messages from students who are having the same struggle with TOEFL Independent Writing. Students often find it hard to know just where to begin with these essays—they feel like the Independent essay questions are too broad and vague. (I also hear the same frustrations from students who are practicing similar writing for the IELTS and GRE!)
While this question format may seem confusing or frustrating at first, the broadness of the Independent Writing Task is actually a good thing. These broad topics help make the test fairer. In fact, you will be expected to use the vague nature of the questions to your advantage.
As you build your TOEFL Independent Writing skills, it’s important to understand exactly why Writing Task 2 questions are so broad. TOEFL Writing is designed to test your writing skills only. The exam does not test your ability to do actual research on highly specific topics, like you would in an actual university course. It *can’t* test your ability to do research or learn about unfamiliar topics, because you don’t have access to the Internet, the library, etc. while you take the exam.
Instead, what TOEFL Independent Writing tests is your ability to take knowledge you already have and use it in a well-written essay. To apply your own specific knowledge to the broad topics in Issue questions, you need to narrow down the topic and make it more manageable. These general questions could be answered in a lot of different ways. It’s up to you to choose a specific focus in your answer. And you don’t need to think too hard as you make this choice—just select a subtopic you know a lot about and can write about comfortably. Then run with it!
To give you an idea of how this “narrowing” approach might work, let’s look at a possible TOEFL Independent Writing question. (I’ve actually adapted this from a practice GRE Writing question— GRE and TOEFL really do have similar independent writing prompts.)
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? In modern times, people care too much about outward appearances, and don’t care enough about the truth behind the things they see.
Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
This truly is a very general question. There are so many different things you could say about this, and so many examples of appearances versus reality in the world today. To narrow down this topic in your practice writing, it’s best to choose a stance (agree or disagree), and then choose one really good example to support your opinion.
For instance, you could write about advertising. Your opening could be something like “I agree that in modern times, people often value appearance more than truth. This is especially the case in advertising, where images can get people to buy almost anything.” This introduction could be followed with examples from advertisements you’ve seen, by companies you’re familiar with. And maybe some statements about successful ad campaigns you know about. You could give examples of famous ad campaigns where people bought something because of the image in the ad and not because of any truth about the product they were paying for.
There are many other aspects of modern society where you could argue that appearances are more powerful than facts— online dating, political elections, Hollywood movies (especially movies based on true stories), etc…. There are tons of topics that you can pick in response to these kinds of broad Independent Writing questions. The real trick is to choose a topic you’re familiar with and comfortable writing about.
To practice narrowing down broader Independent Writing questions, find a nice long list of questions in this style. We have one here. Look through the questions. Figure out how to quickly choose a position or side to write about. Then practice choosing a specific, narrow example to support your position on these broad topics.