In a recent post, we looked at the integrated writing task for the TOEFL. While the integrated essay requires you to synthesize information from a reading with information from a lecture, the independent writing task just asks your opinion about an issue. The questions are designed to have several equally correct answers and to be accessible to people with a variety of backgrounds and levels of English. Here are some tips for taking it on.
Stick to the prompt
The independent essay questions tend to be a little uninspired, so you may be tempted to take the question in a slightly different, more adventurous direction. I hate to say this, but seriously—don’t do it. Often the question will be binary: it will ask if something is good or bad, or if a statement is true or false. This isn’t the time to proselytize about how the premise of the question is flawed, or how it ignores a much more important issue. Pick one of the options available to you or mix them together, discussing how both of them are valid, then qualifying that statement.
Most people hold opinions that aren’t entirely rational, or that are based on reasons that aren’t easy to explain quickly. If the essay prompt touches on such an area for you, remember that your opinion is really not the point. Before you start typing, consider several possible viewpoints from which the question could be addressed, and pick the one that has the clearest, most logical reasoning behind it.
Use specific examples
As much as possible, prefer concrete, real-life anecdotes to hypothetical situations. This makes your essay more interesting, your argument more compelling, and, we hope, your rater more generous. And this can be linked back to the previous tip. For example, let’s say I’m given the topic, “Should technology be taught in elementary schools?” and I choose to argue that no, it should not be. I may support that argument by writing about the negative effects of over-connectedness I see daily in my little brother. I finish my essay, turn it in, and some days later receive a score—a good score. There’s just one plot twist: I don’t have a little brother. But telling a plausible anecdote about him strengthened my argument, so I made him up. The test raters won’t know if you make up an example, and if they did know, they wouldn’t care. Use whatever examples will make your essay as clear and your argument as strong as possible.