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TOEFL Exam: 5 Tips to Help Your Students Increase Their Independent Writing Scores

 This article covers:
  • What is TOEFL iBT? How to Prepare for the TOEFL exam?
  • How to improve TOEFL independent writing scores
  • How is the TOEFL independent writing section scored? What is a good TOEFL score?
  • What essay structure should be used for the TOEFL essay?
  • How long should the TOEFL essay be?

If your students are planning to study abroad, they may be asked to submit English language proficiency test scores. There are three main tests available: TOEFL, PTE, and IELTS. TOEFL is widely accepted around the world and remains very popular with students, universities, and colleges.

TOEFL is a standardized test of academic English language proficiency. TOEFL is offered by ETS and is available in two versions: TOEFL Essentials and TOEFL iBT. TOEFL iBT test was designed to evaluate English communication for academic contexts, making it very popular with students.

Essay Question

At the end of the TOEFL iBT test, there is an independent writing question. Your students will be given a question about education, work, or some other aspect of life in the modern world. They’ll have 30 minutes to write an essay that describes how they feel about the given topic.

Their essay will be scored four ways. First, they’ll be scored on how well they address the topic. Next, they’ll be evaluated on how they organized their arguments and the complexity of their vocabulary. Finally, the number of grammar errors your student made will be checked.

Writing essays isn’t easy for everyone, so this task can be a real challenge. But there are a few things that you can recommend to your students to help increase their score.

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Tips to Increase Your Student’s Writing Score

1. Use a Traditional Structure

Your student’s essay should have a traditional structure. This means writing an introduction, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Sometimes this structure is called a “hamburger” essay.

Hamburger essay image from the University of Waterloo
Hamburger essay illustration from the University of Waterloo's Writing and Communication Centre.

This technique aims to make things clear and easy for the person who rates your student’s essay. Remind your students that a clear introduction will help the person rating their test to find their main point or thesis. Good body paragraphs will also make their supporting arguments very clear. Finally, a solid conclusion will remind the test grader of their key points.

A simple and consistent structure can help improve your student’s score by making it easier for the person rating their test to find what they are looking for and follow your student’s logic.

People working together

2. Use Personal Examples

Students looking to increase their TOEFL score should include personal examples in their body paragraphs. This means using short stories from their own life to support their argument in their essay’s body paragraphs.

For example, let’s say your student’s argument is that working on school assignments in groups is better than working alone. In that case, they could write about a time they had a really important group project in high school. They could detail what they had to do, the people they worked with, and the score they got on the assignment.

As another example, maybe their argument is that travelling in their own country is better than travelling to an international destination. They could then tell a story about a family trip they took as a child, including as many interesting details as they can remember.

Remind your students that their personal examples don’t need to be real. If they can’t think of something from their own life, it’s okay to make something up.

Personal examples are also not mandatory. However, most students find it easier to write about their own life than more abstract concepts. Students who use personal examples in their essays often make fewer grammar mistakes and write longer essays.

Interested in more study abroad resources for your students? Find what you need to know with our guides for studying in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia!

Writing in a book

3. Write a Bit More

It’s also important to remind your student that there is no word limit for their essay. The TOEFL instructions outline that an effective response is “typically 300 words.” But there is no penalty for writing more than that.

If your student’s target score is quite high, encourage them to write 350 to 400 words. A longer essay will give them more space to demonstrate the range of their vocabulary. It will also give them more room to use advanced grammatical structures, which could improve their score.

Curious what a good score looks like? Learn more about the test score system for TOEFL and other English language tests.

Student writing a test

4. Show Off Their Vocabulary

To achieve a high score in the TOEFL exam, your student will need to show off their English vocabulary. They should try to avoid repeating key words more than three or four times throughout their essay. If they notice a word appearing in their essay again and again, they should try to think of a synonym to use instead. Even if the replacement word has a slightly different meaning, it’s better to be bold.

Your student should also avoid using plain adjectives like “good” and “bad.” It’s better to discuss a “knowledgeable teacher” in their personal example rather than a “good teacher.” In the same way, it’s better to refer to a “terrible problem” than a “big problem.”

Transitional phrases

5. Use Transitional Phrases

TOEFL exam evaluators will expect your student to connect their ideas using transitional phrases. Some examples of transitional phrases are:

  • As a result
  • However
  • Therefore
  • In addition
  • In contrast

Generally, transitional phrases can easily be placed at the very beginning of a sentence. Transitional phrases can increase the persuasiveness of your student’s arguments by linking ideas and showing connections.

For instance, a section like this:

“I formed a group with several of my classmates and met them in the library. I heard a lot of ideas that were totally new to me.”

Can be transformed into something more persuasive:

“I formed a group with several of my classmates and met them in the library. As a result, I heard a lot of ideas that were totally new to me.”

Or, your student can turn something like this:

“Steven helped me review some challenging math formulas. I ended up with a great score on the test.”

Into this:

“Seven helped me review some challenging math formulas. Therefore, I ended up with a great score on the test.”

One word may not seem like a big difference, but it will improve your student’s essays. Encourage them to practice using these phrases and including them in their essay on test day.

Discover more tips to help your students prepare and succeed in their TOEFL Exam: