TOEFL Tuesday: The WORST Mistake in TOEFL Writing

Let’s talk about the worst mistake I see in people’s essays when they are preparing for the TOEFL. This is a large, obvious mistake, and it’s completely avoidable, so every time I see it, I feel terrible for the person who wrote the essay. If only they knew this advice, they would score higher!

The mistake is simple: copying the text in your integrated essay. If you use in your essay a phrase or sentence copied from the text that you read, you will lose points. To be clear, I don’t mean individual words, generally, although using a synonym is often a good idea, if possible. The real problem is when test-takers use phrases of 3, 4, or even more words.

It’s Obvious

The person who will read your TOEFL essay knows the text that you read. They will be able to see that text, and they will be able to see that you simply copied what you read. Every time I see this in a student’s essay, I wonder if the student thought I wouldn’t notice. It’s almost always very noticeable, not only because I know the text, but also because there is suddenly a phrase or sentence that looks like it was written by a native speaker, surrounded by sentences that are written by a non-native.

But again, more importantly, the grader already knows the text. They can see clearly what is copied and what is your own words.

It’s Big

A grammar mistake or a vocabulary mistake can affect just one word, or sometimes more, but it is restricted to a small impact. Copying, on the other hand, can mean a full sentence is all problematic. Even worse, when students make this mistake, it’s usually not just once. Usually, they do it several times in an essay. That means this one mistake can lead to a large part of an essay hurting your score. It’s better to make a couple mistakes in trying to paraphase using your own words than it is to copy and have the whole sentence hurt you.

It’s Avoidable

This is why the mistake of copying is so sad to see: you can choose not to do it. Grammar mistakes happen; vocabulary mistakes happen. There are many types of mistakes that are only partly under your control. But copying is completely your choice. Just don’t do it!

And that’s actually a good thing. Simply by watching this video or reading this advice, you have learned something that can help you avoid a low score on your TOEFL. Use your own words, and you’ll score higher!

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  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.