Kate Hardin

The TOEFL Essay Structure

According to ETS, you should aim for between 150 and 250 words on each of your essays. This is a ridiculously small amount of space to take a position, defend it, and summarize adequately, but that’s the task you’re given.


The TOEFL Essay Structure Overview

You probably already know that an essay has three parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. You probably learned this format by writing five-paragraph essays, which have one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraph. Although this isn’t a bad system (it’s ubiquitous for a reason), you really don’t have space for five paragraphs in a TOEFL essay; if you tried to squeeze that much into the suggested word limit, each paragraph would be only two or three sentences long, and you would have to move on to a new point well before you had made the first one fully.


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Don’t over-think it

The TOEFL essay prompts are designed to have multiple correct answers. Usually there will be two or three obvious ones, and then countless less obvious answers that add on to the original question in some way. I like to pick a not-so-obvious position to defend: it’s more fun for me to write, it makes an easy question more of an intellectual challenge, and I like to imagine that the essay raters enjoy it (I’m an optimist). But if you choose to take a complex position, be sure that you can defend it in the space given. If you’re not sure, it’s way better to bore yourself for 20 minutes writing about an easier position than to inadequately answer the question. Remember, the raters don’t care about creativity; they want clean mechanics and good composition.


Say it three times

Maybe you’ve heard the saying about essay structure: “Say what you want to say, then say it, then say what you said.” Although this can feel redundant from the writer’s perspective, the absence of a clear introduction and conclusion will make your essay feel incomplete, and your reader will feel unsatisfied when s/he puts it down. Of course, you don’t want to repeat the exact same phrase or sentence three times, and you don’t want to sacrifice the grammaticality of your essay just to create variety. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk more about the mechanics of graceful restatement and how you can make your point and leave your reader feeling satisfied.


Bonus: You can also listen to all of this information in this video:



  • 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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