TOEFL Independent Essay Mistake: Unsupported Claims

In the TOEFL Independent Essay, many test-takers fail to support their claims. This is a common mistake that can really hurt your TOEFL Writing score.

Whenever you give an opinion or make a claim about something, make sure that you have answered any obvious questions the reader might have. If the ideas in your TOEFL Independent Writing Essay raise any unanswered questions, your essay will be incomplete and confusing. In this article, we’ll look at two examples of TOEFL essays that don’t support all their claims, and I’ll give you some tips and tricks for avoiding similar mistakes in your own TOEFL Indepdent Writing responses.

Below, I’m going to show you my first example TOEFL Independent Writing response. This will be an esepcially extreme example of what not to do. The essay will be full of incomplete arguments and unsupported claims. Read the essay once through and see if you can find all the writing problems. What are the claims that the writer is making? Which claims are not supported? Why are the arguments incomplete? (And then, for a full example essay for the same example prompt, see Rachel’s sample TOEFL essay.)

Example 1; A TOEFL Independent Essay that is VERY Poorly Supported (CLICK TO EXPAND)

Question (taken from Kate’s TOEFL Writing Task Examples):

  • Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?
    Modern life is easier than life in the past.
    Use specific details and examples to support your answer.

Answer (full of unsupported claims):

  • Note:  As you read, try to find all the unsupported claims on your own. After you read, scroll down to see my comments on the unsupported claims in each paragraph.

Modern innovations have greatly reshaped the world. Things aren’t the same as they were in our parents’ time or grandparents’ time.

Nowadays, electronics make things a lot easier. We can communicate more quickly and do many other things in a simpler, more convenient way. I am glad to live in the electronic age. It makes my life easier in so many ways and allows me to do a lot more things. Electric and mobile devices help me do my studies, my work, and my housework much more easily. My parents and other people in the older generations often comment about how lucky I am to grow up in this time, and how much easier their lives are too, because of “smart” devices and the Internet.

Modern travel technology is better too. It’s so much easier to go places faster. I travel the city by bus, and modern forms of travel let me get to other countries much more quickly too. New forms of travel have truly opened up a global world, making trade more connected and allowing people to move goods to other countries and hemispheres.

I am glad I live in these present times, where it’s easier to work, travel, go to school, plan vacations, and communicate with relatives. So I very much agree that modern life is easier than it was in the past. Changes in electronics, travel, and communications have put us all in a golden age of convenience.

Guide to the Unsupported Claims in this first Example Essay

To identify unsupported claims in an essay, it helps to look at the essay paragraph by paragraph. Each paragraph in a TOEFL Independent Essay should be a complete set of thoughts. In this kind of academic writing, a paragraph should have one clear topic and be fully supported by the other sentences.

It is also useful to think of unsupported claims in terms of unanswered questions. Any claim you make in your writing will raise some obvious questions. I will now list the unanswered questions from each of the four paragraphs in the example essay.

Paragraph 1 Unanswered Questions:

  • How have modern innovations reshaped the world?
  • What kinds of modern innovations have reshaped the world?
  • In what specific ways is the world different today, compared to the world that older generations experienced?

Paragraph 2 Unanswered Questions:

  • What specific electronic devices make life easier?
  • What are some examples of ways that modern electronics allow people to do more things?
  • What are some examples of the way electronic devices help people with studies, work and housework?
  • What is a “smart” device?
  • What is the relationship between the Internet, electronics, modern life, and easier living?
  • What are “smart” devices and how do they make life easier?

Paragraph 3 Unanswered Questions: 

  • What are some examples of modern travel technology, besides the bus?
  • Why is it important to be able to travel to other countries faster?
  • How does faster international travel make life easier?
  • Why does globalism and world trade make life easier?
  • What specific modern travel technologies aid globalism?

Paragraph 4 Unanswered Questions:

  • How has planning vacations and communicating with relatives become easier in modern times?
  • What changes have happened in modern communications technology?
  • How does modern communication technology make life easier?

The Takeaway for Example 1

This essay sure is a mess, isn’t it? To address every unanswered question in the essay, you would need to make the essay much longer. The missing supporting details are probably longer than the original essay itself.

Fortunately, there’s an easier way: If you write an essay that’s full of unsupported claims, you can simply rewrite the essay altogether. Replace complex, hard to support claims with claims that are easier to support. Think of claims you can make that have obvious supports. And if the easiest arguments don’t reflect your true opinion, use them anyway. The TOEFL Independent Writing Task isn’t about your true opinion. It’s about constructing a complete argument within the time limits on the exam.

Example 2: A Writing Task 2 Essay that is Somewhat Poorly Supported (CLICK TO EXPAND)

In the previous part of this post, I showed you a really bad example essay for TOEFL Independent Writing. The essay above had unsupported claims and incomplete ideas in every paragraph.

That essay was an extreme example. It’s more common for test-takers to write an essay that’s mostly good, but has one or two ideas that are very poorly supported. This can cause an otherwise well-written essay to get a low TOEFL score.

Below, we’ll look at a more “normal” example of unsupported claims in TOEFL Independent Writing. The essay I’m about to show you is fairly well written. However, the ideas in the second paragraph are poorly supported. The paragraph’s claims raise unanswered questions; the argument in the paragraph is incomplete.

Read the essay for yourself. See if you can figure out what’s wrong. At the bottom of this post, I’ll give an explanation of these mistakes and how to fix them.

An Otherwise Good TOEFL Independent Writing Response, With A Few Unsupported Claims

Question (taken from Kate’s TOEFL Writing Task Examples)

  • Some students prefer to study many different subjects at once, while others prefer to focus on one topic at a time. Would you rather take a semester of classes in different subjects or a semester of classes in the same subject? Explain your choice, using specific reasons and examples.

Answer (with unsupported claims in the second paragraph)

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of a modern liberal arts education is diversity. Students at universities and community colleges alike are asked to meet “general education” requirements where they study many different subjects and not just the subject of their chosen field. Usually, this means studying several different subjects at the same time. In my opinion, this isn’t the best approach. I think it’s better to study just one subject each semester. If you are studying two or more very different subjects at the same time, each subject will be a distraction from the other subject.

For example, suppose that one semester, a student takes an advanced college math course and an introductory art class so that they can learn how to paint. Advanced math and art techniques are both sophisticated, challenging subjects. The only way to master either subject is to think about it all the time. But when you’re thinking about art, you can’t think about math. And when you’re in math class, visual design is irrelevant. So the two subjects compete, and it’s hard to study either one sufficiently.

On the other hand, if you focus a semester’s worth of classes on just one subject, you can really master that subject. Imagine taking advanced algebra, geometry, statistics, and logic all in one semester. You’ll use a lot of the same math skills in every class, just in different ways. At the end of the semester, you could have a very deep understanding of math. A similar effect could happen if you spent one semester taking classes in painting, drawing, graphic design, and art history. By focusing only on different aspects of art for a term, you have a good chance of deeply understanding art by the end of the semester.

Explanation of the Problems in the Essay’s Second Paragraph

In TOEFL Integrated Writing, unsupported claims are a matter of unanswered questions. When you make a claim in this kind of essay, the reader — or the TOEFL scorer — will have questions about why your claim is true. A well-written essay will answer the most obvious questions for any claim the author makes.

Poorly written essays often miss these questions and make claims that lack good supporting details. Now, the essay above isn’t completely bad writing. But the second paragraph raises a lot of unanswered questions. Its claims are confusing because they aren’t backed up by supporting details. Let’s look at the unanswered questions in paragraph 2.

Paragraph 2 Unanswered Questions:

  • Why do you need to think about math or art all the time in order to master these subjects?
  • Why isn’t it possible to think about math and art at the same time?
  • There is an obvious argument that math and art are connected because math includes geometry and proportion, principles that are also used in visual design. Why does the author feel that this isn’t the case and that math and art have no real connection to each other?

The Best Way to Support Your Claims in TOEFL Independent Writing

If you were going to revise the above two essays, you could provide answers to each of the three questions above. This would make the second paragraph a lot longer. Or you might need to insert an additional paragraph of explanation after the second paragraph.

However, I recommend a different solution: If you have a paragraph full of incomplete arguments, rewrite the paragraph with different arguments.

Claims often go unsupported because they are too extreme or too complex. It seems extreme to say that you must think about something math or art all the time in order to learn. How do you justify that? You probably can’t support that claim. It’s unlikely that must you think about something 100% of the time when you study it. And it’s likely that you have taken classes and learned from them without thinking about the subject matter all the time.

It’s better to say that both math and art require students to spend a lot of time in thought and study. This statement is less extreme and thus easier to support. Here, supporting details are obvious. The writer can talk about how time-consuming math homework is or how long it takes to create a single painting.

Another reason students fail to support their claims is because their claims are too complicated. The second paragraph of the example essay makes a complex dual claim. The writer talks about how time-consuming math and art study are, while also claiming that the two subjects are not closely related. It’s better to choose just one of these arguments. This makes it easier to fully support the paragraph’s claims.

If I were going to revise this essay, I would get rid of the claims about how time-consuming math and art are. Some students can probably master these subjects quickly, while others would need to spend more time. So fully supporting this claim could be tricky. I would keep the argument that math and art are different. This argument fits in well with the rest of the essay. This is because the third and final paragraph talks about the benefits of taking a semester of closely-related classes.

I hope this has helped! For more example TOEFL essays and more tips and tricks for TOEFL Writing, visit Magoosh’s complete guide to TOEFL Writing samples. Then, using those examples, try writing your own essays based on our blog’s roundup of free TOEFL Writing topics.

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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!