TOEFL Tuesday: Writing – Can I Argue Both Sides?

There are two essays on the TOEFL. On the first, you’ll have to summarize a lecture and text. On that essay, your opinion doesn’t matter. But on the second essay, you’ll have to pick a side. There will be an “A” and a “B,” or maybe just a “yes” or a “no,” and you’ll choose which you agree with. It’s often very tempting to agree a little bit with both. After all, the world is complex, and few decisions are so simple that you don’t at all agree with the opposite side. In real life, we have to consider the benefits and disadvantages of both sides when we make decision.
But the TOEFL isn’t the real world.

The short answer is no, you shouldn’t argue both sides.




Clarity is king on the TOEFL. It is, after all, a test of communication. You want your thoughts to be perfectly clear, so that the grader knows exactly what you think. If you can’t explain your thinking clearly, then it seems you don’t have a good command of the English language. And when you make your thinking more complicated, that makes communication more difficult, too. But because the TOEFL isn’t a test of your thinking skills—like the GRE is, for example—there’s no good reason to make your thoughts more complex. It only endangers the clarity of your essay.

We can see the clarity issue particularly well if we consider the simplest way to make a clear point: your essay’s structure.


The simplest independent TOEFL essay looks like this:

  • Intro, including the main idea
  • First body paragraph, including one reason and details
  • Second body paragaph, including another reason and details
  • Conclusion

In that structure, there is a clear relationship between all of the main points. In comparison, when students talk about both sides, the result often looks like this:

  • Intro, including the main idea
  • First body paragraph, including one reason and details
  • Second body paragaph, including another reason that contradicts the main idea.
  • Conclusion

In this structure, the essay grader will understand your main point through the first two paragraphs, but then the third paragraph will confuse them. Unless you are very careful about your phrasing, the second body paragraph will not connect clearly to your main point.

At that point, the grader may wonder “what is the main idea, again?”

The Risk

You might think you are above this. You might think that you can make this type of mixed-opinion essay work well. And you might be right, because it’s absolutely possible to make this work. But consider this: it won’t help you, but it might hurt you. It’s equally possible to write a great essay that argues only one side, and that runs no risk of confusing the reader if you don’t transition well.

If you do go against this advice and choose to talk about both sides, make sure that the other side is just a few words—one or two sentences. And even then, within that paragraph, you should have a connection back to the side that you mostly agree with, your main point. Don’t talk about the two sides equally, because if you do, you simply don’t answer the question; the TOEFL asks you to choose a side, and that’s what you should do.

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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.