While the TOEFL is generally a very different type of test from the GRE, the GMAT, and the SAT, there are a few similarities, and the writing section is one of them. As with most standardized tests, the TOEFL asks you to write an essay. Well, it asks for two essays, actually—one is about a reading and a lecture (which you’ll summarize), and the second is more open-ended. Let’s look at the TOEFL writing topics that you might see for that second TOEFL essay, the “independent task.”
On one hand, there are a LOT of different TOEFL writing topics. You might be asked to write an essay about technology, education, media, family, or some other subject. But on the other hand, there are only a few different types of questions.
ETS does provide a list of TOEFL independent essay questions in the official guide, and it’s a good idea to look over those. But there’s an excess of information there—we want to know some more useful generalities! So let’s divide those subjects into types. (Click here to jump ahead to the first of those three types!)
A Note on Practicing TOEFL Writing Topics
If you practice writing the essay before test day (a good idea!), then you can use an essay prompt from the ETS list mentioned above. This is a great option.
For more customized practice, sign up for Magoosh’s 7-day free trial, select “Practice –> Custom Practice –> Writing Section”, and then try one of our premium TOEFL Writing prompts. You can also choose to only practice the independent task, if that’s what you want to focus on. The trial lasts 7 days and you don’t need a credit card to sign up.
Here’s what that looks like:
Let’s talk about the TOEFL “independent task” writing topic types I mentioned above!
TOEFL Writing Topic Type 1: Choose a Side
This is by far the most common type of independent writing question. These TOEFL prompts ask you to choose A or B then explain your decision. There are a couple of different approaches to writing this type of essay, but the simplest form is the “five paragraph essay.” Usually this is actually only four paragraphs, because you don’t have that much time—the test only gives you 30 minutes to complete your independent essay.
So if you choose A, you might write an essay that looks like this:
- Body 1
- Reason 1 and examples of why A is better
- Short contrast with B
- Body 2
- Reason 2 and examples of why A is better
- Short contrast with B
- Why this is significant in the real world
Of course, there are other ways to write an essay, but it’s a good idea to use a relatively simple structure for clarity. This is more true for the TOEFL than it is for essays on other tests, like the GRE, because the TOEFL is really a test of communication and how well you can write in English.
Here are some examples of the “choose a side” writing topics:
“Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Parents are the best teachers. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”
“Some people like to travel with a companion. Other people prefer to travel alone. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.”
“Some people believe that the Earth is being harmed (damaged) by human activity. Others feel that human activity makes the Earth a better place to live. What is your opinion? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”
“It has recently been announced that a large shopping center may be built in your neighborhood. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer”
There are a few common phrases which you will see in these essay topics, so they’re easy to spot — those phrases are bold in the examples above.
You might also get a slightly more complicated version of the “choose a side” prompt that asks you to compare sides, like this one:
“When people move to another country, some of them decide to follow the customs of the new country. Others prefer to keep their own customs. Compare these two choices. Which one do you prefer? Support your answer with specific details.”
In that case, you could still use the structure I showed above, but you would emphasize the contrasts with “B” and write a bit more about them.
Writing Topic Type 2: View Both Sides
This is actually very similar to the “choose a side” type of essay subject, but it’s a little bit more complicated because you have to think from two different standpoints. Thankfully, it’s also not as common.
Here are a few examples:
“The government has announced that it plans to build a new university. Some people think that your community would be a good place to locate the university. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a new university in your community. Use specific details in your discussion.”
“Some young children spend a great amount of their time practicing sports. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”
There are a couple of different ways you might structure an essay like, but the simplest one may be the best.
- General statements about issue
- Body 1
- Body 2
- Disadvantages and examples
- Why this is significant in the real world
Writing Topic Type 3: Describe or Explain
In a way, this is the most difficult type of independent essay question because it doesn’t give you an A or B situation. Instead, you have to think of your own subject from a very big pool of possibilities.
“What discovery in the last 100 years has been most beneficial for people in your country? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.”
“The 21st century has begun. What changes do you think this new century will bring? Use examples and details in your answer.”
“What change would make your hometown more appealing to people your age? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.”
“If you could study a subject that you have never had the opportunity to study, what would you choose? Explain your choice, using specific reasons and details.”
“If you could invent something new, what product would you develop? Use specific details to explain why this invention is needed.”
Because these writing topics don’t give you a yes–no or A–B choice, it’s easy to get stuck in the planning phase. (By the way, planning is incredibly important for writing any standardized test essay; don’t skip it!)
The structure doesn’t have to be very different, though. Here’s a rough idea of how you might organize a descriptive essay:
- Body 1
- Body 2
- Body 3
- Why this is significant in the real world
Notice I added one more body paragraph. Because there’s no “other side” to deal with, you have more time to explain the one topic you chose. So why not use that time for another paragraph!
This Is Only Half of TOEFL Writing
Remember that the independent essay is only half of the TOEFL writing section. There’s also the integrated task. We’ll look at the topics of integrated tasks in another post!
Ready For Some Practice?
If you’re ready to try out writing the independent task for yourself, try a customized practice session in Magoosh TOEFL’s free trial or take a look at our full-length TOEFL Writing test, which will also introduce you to the integrated task:
Writing is the last section you’ll complete on the TOEFL. You’re so close to finishing, yet you still have two essays to write before you can celebrate completing the exam. In order to finish the test on a high note, you’ll need to be prepared for this section.
In this guide, we explain the ins and outs of the Writing section and the materials you need to do well. We then go over all the best TOEFL Writing practice resources available, including free and official practice Writing topics. We’ll end with final tips to keep in mind in order to ace the TOEFL Writing section.
Overview of TOEFL Writing
The TOEFL Writing section is 50 minutes long (broken into two parts) and contains two tasks: Integrated Writing and Independent Writing. You’ll type both essays on the computer.
The Integrated Writing task requires you to use listening, reading, and writing skills. For this task, you will have three minutes to read a short passage, then you will listen to a short (approximately two-minute long) audio clip of a speaker discussing the same topic the written passage covers. You will have 20 minutes to plan and write a response that references both of these sources. You won’t discuss your own opinion.
For the Independent Writing task, you’ll receive a question on a particular topic or issue. You’ll have 30 minutes to plan and write a response to that topic that explains your opinion on it. You’ll need to give reasons that support your decision.
Each essay will receive a score from 0-5. The sum will then be scaled to a score from 0-30, which is your official Writing score. The Writing section makes up 25% of your total TOEFL score (from 0-120).
What You’ll Need to Be Prepared for the TOEFL Writing Section
As you likely expect, you’ll spend most of your time on the TOEFL Writing section, well, writing. However, you’ll also need to have solid reading and listening skills for the Integrated task. Since the Writing section requires multiple skills, you’ll need multiple study tools in order to be completely prepared. Some of the most important things you’ll need to prepare for TOEFL Writing include:
- Complete practice Writing sections
- Individual practice questions or TOEFL Writing topics
- Opportunities to practice your writing skills
- Opportunities to practice your listening skills
In the next section, we’ll go over the best TOEFL Writing practice tests and questions.
The Best TOEFL Writing Practice Materials
This section contains links to the top practice materials to use while preparing for TOEFL Writing. What makes a practice material the best?
- First, the practice questions must be similar in content and format to the real TOEFL Writing section to give you the best preparation for the real exam.
- Second, it’s a major plus if the practice questions come with answer explanations that help you understand how to answer an essay prompt well.
- Finally, prep materials that include useful tips and strategies for answering Writing questions are useful because they give you advice on how to raise your score on this section.
Official Prep Materials
Official resources are the best to use since you can be confident they’ll be very similar to the real TOEFL Writing section. The topics will be much more realistic in format and content.
Below are all the official TOEFL Writing practice materials available, both free and paid resources. ETS doesn’t provide just Writing questions, so each of these resources also have practice resources for the other sections of the TOEFL. Be sure to include at least some of these materials in your studying. The next section has more tips on how to make the most of official practice resources.
TOEFL iBT Sampler
The TOEFL iBT Sampler is a program you can download with official practice questions, and it’s a great free and official resource to use. In addition to other TOEFL sections, it includes a complete TOEFL iBT Writing practice section (two tasks). Sample answers for both tasks are included so you can get an idea of what a good essay looks like. Unfortunately, the Sampler only works with Windows; you can’t download it with a Mac.
TOEFL iBT Sample Questions
This PDF is another free and official resource. In addition to other question types, it includes two Writing tasks: one TOEFL Integrated Writing practice question and one Independent Writing practice question. Each sample TOEFL Writing topic is followed by a sample essay as well as an in-depth score explanation, which is a great tool for studiers.
TOEFL iBT Quick Prep
The Quick Prep contains four different volumes, each of which contains one or two Writing prompts. The first volume is the best for TOEFL iBT Writing practice, since it contains two tasks (the others each only contain one) and also has an in-depth explanation of what your essays should include. The other three volumes only contain the essay rubrics without any advice on how to answer the specific essay prompt given.
TOEFL Practice Online (TPO) Tests
TPO tests are retired TOEFL exams now offered for test prep. They give the closest experience to the real TOEFL, and, because of that, they aren’t cheap. You’ll have to pay $45 for each complete TOEFL you buy (you can’t just buy individual TOEFL iBT Writing practice sections).
Your exam will be automatically graded after you finish it, although I was not particularly impressed with how the Writing section was graded when I took it. For the actual TOEFL, two human graders and a computer program review your essays and assign grades to each one. For this exam, a computer grades your Writing section within less than a minute of you completing the exam, and there is no explanation of how that grade was determined.
This is a useful resource, but if you don’t want to spend that much money on a practice test, it’s completely possible to do well just using the above practice resources.
Official TOEFL Prep Books
There are several official TOEFL prep books for sale by ETS. The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test, in addition to explaining the types of questions on the test, contains numerous practice questions and three full-length exams. This is also the only official prep book that includes sample essays of varying scores along with scoring explanations, which can be a big help if you’re trying to guess what score your essays would get.
There’s also the Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volumes 1 and 2. Each of these books contains five unique practice tests, available on paper and the computer. However, no sample responses are given for Writing questions, which make them a less useful resource compared to The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test.
Unofficial Prep Materials
You have to be more careful when using unofficial prep resources since not all of them are reliable. Some are high-quality and very similar to the TOEFL, others are not. For the Writing section in particular, because it’s so easy to make up essay prompts, there are many sites that claim to offer TOEFL Writing practice when their practice questions are actually low-quality. Below are some of the top unofficial prep resources out there. All of them (except the prep books, if you buy them) are free.
This site contains one TOEFL Integrated Writing practice task and five Independent Writing practice tasks. All six TOEFL Writing topics are similar to the real test, and the Integrated task as well as one of the Independent tasks have sample responses you can compare your answers to. At the bottom of the web page is a checklist of things your essays should include to help give you a guideline of what you should be aiming for when you write.
Magoosh offers one TOEFL Integrated Writing practice task. That’s not a lot of practice, but it is a high-quality question that includes a sample response. Magoosh also offers three complete TOEFLs, so you can use those Writing questions as well.
Good Luck TOEFL
This site has a huge number (several hundred) of Independent Writing tasks, separated into five different categories depending on question type. Some of the questions are more simplistic than you’ll see on the real TOEFL, and there’s no scoring information or sample responses, but there are a good source if you need more TOEFL Writing topics to write about.
Beat the Test
This site contains 155 Independent Writing tasks. Like Good Luck TOEFL, some of these TOEFL Writing topics are easier than you’ll find on the TOEFL, and there are no sample responses included, but they do give you the opportunity to practice writing.
Unofficial Prep Books
Prep books, even unofficial ones, often are a great resource for practice questions. Most books include sample Writing questions, along with scoring explanations, and then contain one or more complete practice TOEFLs at the end of the book. You can learn all about the best TOEFL prep books by reading our guide.
Other TOEFL Writing Practice Materials
There are other ways to practice besides just answering sample Writing questions. TOEFL Writing is designed to measure how strong your English writing skills are, so, any practice you get writing English will help you with this section, even if you’re not directly answering practice exam questions. There are many ways to get writing practice; several of them are described below.
Duolingo is a popular free language-learning site. Users answer different types of questions, including writing questions. You can’t choose to only answer writing questions, so this isn’t the best resource for targeted writing practice, but it’s a good way to strengthen your overall English skills.
For advanced English learners, many of Duolingo’s beginning problem sets will likely be too easy, but you can take a quiz to figure out where in the program you should start.
Finally, you can also practice writing about topics that have nothing to do with the TOEFL. As long as you’re writing in English, you’re getting good practice. Writing about something that interests you can also encourage you to write more. Some ideas for free writing include:
- Keeping a journal
- Getting an English-speaking pen pal
- Starting a blog about a topic that interests you
How to Get the Most Out of Your TOEFL Writing Practice
Now that you’re an expert on the best practice resources for TOEFL Writing, the next step is to put those materials to use in the most effective way in order to see results on test day. Follow these four tips in order to get the most out of your practice.
Practice Writing in English Regularly
The most important thing you can do to practice for the Writing section of the TOEFL is to practice writing English regularly. If you can practice every day, that would be ideal, but at the very least you should aim to practice writing 1,000 words in English a week.
Remember, this writing practice doesn’t only have to consist of answering TOEFL Speaking questions; any free writing, even just jotting down what you did that day in your diary, counts as writing practice.
Make Use of Official Materials
As mentioned above, official TOEFL resources have the best practice questions out there, so you want to make the most of them. Spread these questions throughout your TOEFL studying; don’t use them all up at the beginning or save them all for the end. You want to be regularly seeing these questions as you prepare.
Also, when you answer official practice questions, make sure you set enough time aside to devote your full attention to them. Practice them in a quiet room with no distractions, and carefully compare your responses to the sample responses. These aren’t the questions to practice when you have a few minutes to spare and need some quick practice while scrolling through your phone.
Time Yourself When Writing Practice Essays
When you are writing practice essays, you should also time yourself. Give yourself 20 minutes to plan and write each Integrated Writing task and 30 minutes for each Independent Writing task.
Timing yourself when you write will help you be better prepared for test day because you’ll have practice planning and writing essays within a limited time frame. When you first begin writing practice essays, it can be easy to spend too much time preparing and run out of time before you finish writing. Taking timed practice essays will help you avoid this. You should also count how many words each of your essays contain after you’ve finished writing them. Integrated tasks should be 150-225 words and Independent tasks should be at least 300 words.
Review Your Practice Essays
After you write each TOEFL practice essay, you should also review it and think about how well it answered the question. This is easier to do if the practice question comes with sample answers that you can compare your answer to, but you should do this step for all practice essays you write, even if they don’t come with any answer explanation. You can also assign your essays a score or have a tutor or friend who’s also studying for the TOEFL score your essay.
It’s tempting to take a break from TOEFL studying as soon as you’ve finished your essays, but it’s important to do this step because it will get you thinking about what great essays look like and how yours can be improved. The ETS provides the rubric it uses to grade TOEFL writing tasks which you can use to evaluate your essays.
Conclusion: Getting the Most Out of Your TOEFL Writing Practice
In order to write two awesome essays for the TOEFL Writing section, you’ll likely have to put in some practice. Once you know what to expect from this section and how you’ll be graded, use a variety of official and unofficial practice resources during your studying.
As you’re preparing for the Writing section, you should also practice writing in English regularly, use official resources wisely, time yourself when writing practice essays, and review your essays after you write them.
Looking for more information on the TOEFL Writing section? Learn all the tips you need to know in order to ace TOEFL Writing!
What score should you be aiming to get on the TOEFL?Learn what a good TOEFL score is based on the schools you’re interested in attending.
Looking for a great TOEFL prep book? A good prep book can be the most important study tool you use, and we have information on all the best TOEFL prep books you should consider.