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Understand What Your TOEFL Question Is Asking (and don't forget it!)

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

**UPDATE** As of July 26, 2023 Writing Task #2 will now be an Academic Discussion Writing Task.

It is still very important to understand what your TOEFL Question is asking. However, in this blog post we will take a look at the independent essay that was typical prior to July 26, 2023. Therefore, the following advice will not apply specifically to TOEFL. You can find out more at 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.

Recently, the students in my writing class had some trouble answering a Writing Task #2 TOEFL Question. The problem was that they didn't quite understand the question. Therefore, their entire essay took a different direction. Some of them wrote beautiful essays, but because they didn't answer the question they received a low score.

There are two really important lessons here:

1. Understand the Question

Read it over a couple of times first before you start thinking about the answer. Be sure you did not miss a word or misinterpret a word.

The question that proved challenging for my students was the following:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

Businesses should do anything they can to make a profit. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.

Now, my students immediately starting writing about HOW businesses can make a profit. They can provide good customer service. They can offer discounts. They can get their customers to post rave reviews about their product.

These are all great ideas, but they don't answer the question.

The question is should businesses do ANYTHING they can to make a profit?

Now, doing ANYTHING really means ANYTHING. That means that businesses can lie, cheat or do something illegal just so that they can make a profit.

With this in mind, do you think businesses should still do ANYTHING to make a profit?

With this new understanding, students realized what the question was actually asking.

2. Re-read the question as you write.

When I am writing an essay, I will re-read my question 5-10 times as I write because I want to be absolutely sure that I'm answering the question fully. I may also be able to catch something that I didn't see when I first read it and be able to slightly edit my answer so that it exactly matches what the question is looking for.

I know that sometimes misinterpretation of the question is inevitable. You're stressed already in the TOEFL test experience. Plus English is your second or third or forth language and not your first language. There are bound to be some mistakes made. However, not answering the question is a mistake you want to avoid! Read and re-read your question to ensure that you provide a successful answer.

By the way, here is my answer to the question.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?

Businesses should do anything they can to make a profit. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.

Have you ever seen the people on a sidewalk twirling a sign that promotes a business? They may be dressed in a crazy costume to get your attention. Some businesses will do anything to get noticed and make a sale, but it is important to know where to draw the line. Business should not do anything they can to make a profit.

To begin, businesses cannot do whatever they want in order to make a profit because they must obey the law. Just because a business would like to increase sales, doesn’t mean they can engage in illegal and immoral activity. For instance, many businesses purchase the contact information for potential customers. They obtain phone numbers, email addresses and other information so that they can increase their marketing outreach with the goal of making more sales. However, it is illegal for a business to send emails when an individual did not specifically request to be put on their mailing list. I find it disturbing when I receive marketing emails from businesses I’ve never heard about. In fact, I will unsubscribe to their list and think poorly on the ethics of the business and never buy anything from them. Spam marketing email is not only immoral and against the law, it is also just plain annoying. Businesses must know that these practices can lead to potential customers’ irritation and thus, hurt their business. Business leaders cannot simply do whatever they want to increase their profit margins.

Furthermore, businesses cannot do whatever it takes to make the sale because this will lead to a toxic workplace and unhappy customers. Both of these negative consequences will not help the company succeed. For instance, some workplaces will offer extra monetary compensations to employees that reach certain sales goals. This incentive is meant to motivate employees to make more sales and increase company profits. Yet, this can result in a very aggressive sales pitch from the employee. Employees might come on strong to a customer and even lie about the product just to convince them to buy it. When the customer finds out that these product endorsements are false, the customer will be very disappointed and angry. In my previous workplace at a tour company, employees received commissions for selling more tours. But, customers came back angry and complained that the tour they received did not live up to all the hype. Also, it made fellow employees rivals rather than teammates. Employees would fight over a customer in an effort to be the first one to make the sale. This created a stressful work environment in which many people burned out fast. Dependable employees who grew tired of the constant fighting and high stress situation left the company only after a few months. High turnover rates and angry customers did not result in a profitable business as customers had to be refunded and new employees needed to be trained.

As opposed to doing anything they can, businesses must think carefully about the ways they can grow their profit margins. An ethical approach that is beneficial for both customers and employees will increase trust in the company. When people trust, they praise your business to everyone they meet and the business cannot help but thrive.

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