Three Tips TOEFL Test-Takers Often Forget

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Today, in the English Language Program at California State University, San Bernardino, all the teachers and I had a common midterm grading session in which we read and scored TOEFL independent style personal experience essays using similar rubrics that ETS uses. Some essays, of course, scored higher or lower than others. After reading and scoring 120 essays today, I have three suggestions that you can think about if you want to score higher than 24/30 pts. on the writing section of the TOEFL iBT.
All the students today were responding to the following writing prompt:

What are the most important qualities of a good roommate? Use specific reasons and examples to support your point of view.

Tip 1: Sharply-Focused Thesis Statement

Many of the essays we read today did not have sharply-focused thesis statements. For example, in one paper the student wrote, “It is important to be a good roommate to others you are living with.” In another paper, the student wrote, “There are several crucial qualities of a good roommate. I will explain them in the rest of this paper.” In both cases, these two students were not specific enough in the thesis to frame the arguments that they would soon make, so, the more specific you can be in the thesis, the easier it will be to organize your paper.

Think of your thesis as a blueprint or forecast sentence, around which you frame the topic sentences in the body paragraphs of your essay. For example, notice the specificity and focus in the following thesis:

Although many qualities are important for good roommates, being honest, respectful, and responsible are three attributes that will help any person live in harmony with others.

Tip 2: Arguable Topic Sentence

Like the thesis, the topic sentences framing your body paragraphs should be arguable so that they are assertions. However, about 57/120 of the essays we read contained factual not arguable topic sentences. Therefore, unfortunately, the essays read more like explanatory essays rather than argumentative ones. Notice how the following three topic sentences are more factual than argumentative:

Roommates are always honest in their apartments when they are living with others.

A person living with others has respect.

Roommates have responsibility to pay bills and share chores.

Since the following three topic sentences are factual and since these sentences were prominently placed in the beginning of the body paragraphs, the rest of those paragraphs had more explanatory, non-argumentative tones. Notice in the next three examples, how each sentence is framed more as an argument.

One important quality of a good roommate is that s/he must be honest with others.

In addition, a good roommate should be respectful to others.

Finally, to live in harmony, roommates should be responsible.

By using “must” and “should” in these sentences, the writer has created a more arguable tone, around which he/she must now provide relevant supporting details in each of these paragraphs.

Tip 3: Developed Body Paragraph

If you try to use too many examples in a single paragraph, you will not have enough time or energy to fully support your ideas. Therefore, it is best if you use 1-2 examples in each of your body paragraphs. Only 6/120 essays they we read had the depth and progression of thought to score high. As a result, most students’ body paragraphs were not specific enough and covered too many different ideas. For example, notice the shallow nature of the following paragraph:

In addition, a good roommate should be respectful to others. He, in other words, should be nice and not do annoying things. Being respectful will make it easy for him to live in peace with others in the apartment. It is not good if there is fighting with others, and if roommates are respectful, they will get along much better. I once had a roommate who was not respectful, and we did not live together for very long. I now live with someone who is respectful, and things are much better for me now. As a result, being respectful is definitely an important characteristic in a roommate.

Unfortunately, the above 112 word paragraph has no examples to elaborate on why being respectful is an important quality. For example, the writer could have given an example of an annoying thing that a roommate had done and then expanded on that idea. For example, if the above paragraph were rewritten with more development, it could look like this:

In addition, a good roommate should be respectful to others. To illustrate, last year I lived in an apartment with Takahiro while I was in the English Language Program at California State University, San Bernardino. One night while I was writing a 5 page paper for my Level 5 Academic Writing class, Taka came home after studying in the library. Without consulting me, he invited a whole bunch of friends over, and they started listening to loud music. All of this commotion made it difficult for me to concentrate on my paper. I wish that he had respected me enough to at least ask me beforehand if it had been OK for him to invite his friends over before he did. His lack of respect for me made it difficult for us to live together, so next time I will make sure I choose to live with a roommate who is respectful.

On the other hand, the 144 word revised paragraph focuses on only on one example and spends 100+ words elaborating on that idea, thereby giving the paragraph the depth and complexity of thought needed to score high.

In Conclusion

After reading this article, ask yourself the following question: “Do you want TOEFL iBT human raters to give you a high score on the independent writing task?” As a result, make sure that you follow the three tips I outlined in this lesson, and you will be much happier the next time you get your TOEFL results.

Michael Buckhoff, mbuckhoff@aol.com

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