Preparing Yourself for Success on the TOEFL Independent Essay

For students who need to take the TOEFL, the first step is clear: take a practice test. Once you have your practice test results, students can and should set up a study plan and schedule their official exam. Regardless of score, almost all students have the same initial reaction to seeing their practice test results: how can I increase my score in the fastest time possible? While there is no perfect solution to this because building one’s vocabulary and improving proficiency in any language takes time, pacing is one of the key factors for achieving your goal score. For the independent essay, students have 30 minutes to write a well-developed essay on a topic of that is knowledge and experience-based. Of course, you want to familiarize yourself with the most common types of questions, topics, and scoring, but with something as open-ended as the independent essay, how do you best utilize those 30 minutes of time on test day? Use this pacing guide to help make the most of your time— and your writing score.

Spend the first 2 minutes brainstorming

Because many students feel writing under timed circumstances is difficult, most begin writing immediately after reading the essay prompt. What comes as a shock to many students is learning that this is actually a big mistake. The first 2 minutes of your writing time should not be spent composing your essay at all. Instead, you want to spend the first 90-120 seconds of your time brainstorming— coming up with all your ideas for your essay. Jot down words and phrases that outline your position on the essay prompt, 2 or 3 main reasons why you feel that way, and 1 supporting reason or example for each main reason.

This has a number of benefits, as it will allow you to more easily compose your thesis statement and topic sentences when you begin writing and prevents you from running out of ideas halfway through your essay. Come up with ideas before test day for the most common types of questions and practicing limiting your brainstorming time to 2 minutes or less.

Take 5 minutes to write an introduction with a thesis

Now that you know what you will write about, it is time to write your introduction paragraph. The introduction paragraph is the most important paragraph that you write because it is the first impression that you make. For that reason, you want to make sure that you get started on the right foot. A strong introduction paragraph should be about 4 sentences long. Start with the most general sentence and make each new sentence more and more specific. End the introduction with your thesis statement, the one sentence that tells the reader your answer to the essay prompt and outlines your main reasons for why you feel this way. Spend about 5 minutes composing your introduction paragraph. Even if you do not have enough time to write an entire independent essay every day, schedule time daily to practice brainstorming and writing your intro. For students who practice this routinely, you may even be able to get this time down further to as little as 3 minutes. If at the end you have extra time, you can always go back in order to improve word choice and sentence structure in this area as it is key to creating the right tone for your essay.

Budget 6 or 7 minutes per body paragraph

By following this pacing guide, you will have roughly 20 minutes to compose your body paragraphs. Ideally, you want to write 2 or 3 well-developed body paragraphs, one for each of your main reasons for selecting the side you have picked. You have already figured out what you will write about as well as at least one example when you created your brainstorm earlier. Use a transition word or phrase to start each topic sentence, the sentence that tells the reader the main idea of that particular paragraph. Introduce and develop your supporting reason or deliver the story that features your example for about three sentences in the middle, and wrap up the body paragraph with a concluding sentence that reiterates how your supporting reason or example clearly demonstrated what you had indicated in your topic sentence. Sticking to this formula will help you stick to the proper pace.

Set aside no more than 3 minutes for your conclusion

Your essay can and should have a conclusion, but there is no reason to devote the majority of your time or effort to this section of the test. Keep the conclusion short and sweet. Two or three sentences is just fine. Start with an academic transition word, like ultimately, and then repeat your thesis statement using different sentence structure and vocabulary. You want to remind the reader of the most important ideas of your essay without sounding like you copy and pasted a sentence from earlier in the essay. You can practice doing this effectively within a 3-minute time limit by practicing paraphrasing sentences from your introduction. If you can make this even shorter, do so. If there is one place where you need to sacrifice some time, it should be on the conclusion paragraph.

Save your final 2 minutes for proofreading and editing

Spend the last 2 minutes of your time proofreading your essay to catch and correct easily identifiable errors. It is okay if your essay has some mistakes in terms of grammar or spelling. It is important to minimize these errors and to ensure that they do not interfere with meaning because these are the top reasons why people lose points. Look for errors with subject-verb agreement, sentence fragments, and common spelling mistakes. Practice locating and fixing these problems fast using grammar books or websites like so you can find them quickly in your own essay. Don’t skip this step. Students are often tempted to overlook the proofreading stage because it comes last, but ETS does make good grammar and clarity a priority when scoring. Do you have extra time? Go back and see where you can use synonyms and more academic language to further improve your essay.

The Key Takeaway

Pacing yourself on the independent essay ensures that you spend those 30 minutes where they matter most, so follow the times outlined above to move towards your TOEFL writing goal score.


Author Bio: This article was written by Danielle Johnson. Danielle has been teaching and tutoring ESL, ELA, and test prep for nearly a decade. She wanted to help even more students reach their TOEFL goal scores, so she founded Test Obsessed, a website dedicated to helping students perform their best on the TOEFL.