**UPDATE** As of July 26, 2023 Writing Task #2 will now be an Academic Discussion Writing Task. Therefore, the following advice will not apply to TOEFL. You can find out more at ets.org or click here and scroll to "New Writing Task." This advice does apply if you are planning to continue academic education in English and want to improve as a writer.
1. Organize your thoughts before you write.
I can always tell when students do not plan out what they will write ahead of time. I know. You are thinking, “I only have 30 minutes to write this essay. I don’t have time to plan. I have to start writing now.” No, you don’t! What happens to most students when they do this is halfway through the essay, they stop. They stare at the screen and go blank. Panic arises. They have no idea what to write. They start to repeat previous ideas. Or, they start to talk about some other topic. By this time, they've totally forgotten what the original question was and have written some other essay.
Do you want to know how to get out of this nightmare? Plan before you write.
Take 3-4 minutes and on the scrap paper provided write down in just a few words (not complete sentences):
Your Answer to the Question
The First Reason that Supports Your Answer & One Example
The Second Reason that Supports Your Answer & One Example
Now you are ready to write!
2. Follow the Structure of an Academic Essay.
Your answer to the question (or thesis) should be the last sentence of your introductory paragraph. Clear, topic sentences are needed at the beginning of your supporting paragraphs. Don’t wait to answer the question until the last paragraph. Don’t save your best idea until the end. I know in some countries this is a valid, academic structure. However in the United States, this is not the preferred style. Make it easy for your TOEFL grader to read your essay. Your TOEFL grader will look at the key places mentioned above to see if you know the structure of academic writing in English. Also, you only have 30 minutes. Get the job done!
3. Avoid Cliche.
There are certain phrases that students have used again and again in their writing. These statements are boring. Sometimes these statements don’t even work for the essay topic.
Cliche Example 1: The first reason is because
Eliminate this Cliche!
My tip: Start your topic sentence with what happens after the word "because"
Cliche Example 2: Nowadays, there is a debate going on about
Eliminate this Cliche!
My tip: Start your essay in a creative way. Start with a quotation, or a brief personal story, or even something that your mom used to say that relates to your topic in some way. Whatever you choose, make it interesting. No one wants to be bored reading the first line of an essay.
4. Use Short, Clear Sentences.
In some countries, long sentences with descriptive words are important. Some students think that they will sound smarter if they write longer sentences. However, longer sentences don’t make you look smart. Your ideas make you look smart. Use concise sentences to make your point. Short sentences also help you to avoid making grammatical mistakes. You don’t have to sound like a Nobel Prize Winning Author. You DO have to be understood by your TOEFL grader! By the way, in English, short sentences aren’t necessarily bad. Short sentences can be very powerful! Use them.
5. Examples Are the Key.
Students constantly worry about not meeting the minimum word count for their essay. One of the first questions I am asked is, “How many words does the essay have to be?” My answer is, “Pay attention to your examples and you don’t need to worry about your word count.” According to TOEFL test makers, 300 words is the minimum requirement for an effective response. It’s stressful to watch that little box at the bottom of the screen counting up your words. Why stress about word count? Instead, when you plan your response, think of some great examples from your own observations and life experience. Then, in your writing, show me how these examples work to support your topic sentence and your answer to the question. I won’t find your argument convincing until I read your examples. Your examples are the proof. Be specific with your examples and how they work and you will have no need to worry about the word count. You will surpass the minimum requirement (which is allowed) and you will have a fantastic Writing Task #2 essay!