Ten Awesome Tips for the Writing Section of the TOEFL® Test

We know it can feel impossible to write two complete essays in under an hour!

But, today we have some awesome TOEFL writing tips that will help you feel cool and confident on test day. 

The first five tips are for the TOEFL integrated writing question, task number one. The last five tips are for the TOEFL independent writing question, task number two.

TASK 1 (The Integrated Writing Task)

TIP #1: Read, then Listen

Task one provides you with two passages, a reading passage and a listening passage. The reading passage will appear first. You will have three minutes to read the passage and take notes. After that, the reading passage will disappear and then the listening passage will play for two or three minutes. Then you have 20 minutes to write your essay answer.

Here is a breakdown of task one:

Integrated Writing: Task Breakdown

Question Structure Content
1st The writing section instructions will be read aloud. You can skip this introduction.
2nd You will be given an academic passage to read. This passage will contain between 250-300 words. When the clock starts, you will have three minutes to read the passage. After that, the passage disappears and an audio lecture starts. However, the reading passage will return when it's time to write.
3rd A lecture that addresses the content of the reading will start to play. The lecture will last for two to three minutes.
4th After the passage finishes, you will be asked a question. The question is almost always something like: "Summarize the points in the lecture, being sure to explain how they challenge specific points made in the reading"
5th The clock starts. You will have approximately 20 minutes to write an essay of at least 250 words. You must answer the question and report on the most important points from both the reading and listening.

It is important to read the reading passage first because the professor in the listening passage is going to directly contradict the author in the reading passage. Therefore, if you sleep on the reading passage, when the lecture begins, you may miss some vital information that you must include in your writing.

Let’s look at an example from TST Prep’s TOEFL Test #13 that you can download for free here to practice before test day.

Here’s the reading passage:

The shrimping industry relies on trawls to catch shrimp. Trawls are huge nets that are dragged behind boats in order to catch shrimp. Other animals, like sea turtles, are often caught inside these nets and soon die without sufficient oxygen. To help reduce the number of accidental deaths to sea turtles, engineers created a Turtle Excluder Device (TED), that must now be installed in all shrimping trawls. This one simple invention has greatly reduced the number of sea turtle deaths per year for a number of reasons.

First, the TED was specifically designed to help sea turtles. The TED mechanism has a mechanical barrier in the middle of the net that prevents any animal larger than ten centimeters from getting caught deep inside. Once the animal hits this metal grid, it tilts downward, providing that animal with a clear path to exit. Smaller animals, like shrimp, pass through the metal guard and get caught in the end of the trawl net, as usual.

Second, in order to make sure that fishermen use the Turtle Excluder Device, the “Shrimp-Turtle Law” was passed. It states that all trawling shrimping boats must have a TED installed. There are specific organizations in charge of monitoring shrimping vessels to ensure that their TEDs are properly installed and maintained.

Finally, America now tightly controls the import of shrimp. All shrimp products must come from a ship that is a certified user of TED-installed shrimping trawls. Countries, companies, or fishermen who do not comply with the “Shrimp-Turtle Law” are not allowed to sell their products in the US and some European countries. Since most shrimping businesses want to import their goods to as many locations as possible, they have decided to comply and install TEDs in their trawls.

The underlined portions are the most important points in this passage.

  • Main Idea: Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) have reduced the number of sea turtle deaths
  • Reason 1: TEDs designed to prevent large animals from getting caught
  • Reason 2: All boats must have a TED installed
  • Reason 3: Shrimp importing is now tightly controlled

Now that I know all this about the reading passage in this particular integrated TOEFL Writing question, I can safely predict that the speaker in the listening passage will feel that Turtle Excluder Devices are ineffective and attack each of the claims in the reading.

TIP #2: Take Good Notes

It is very, very important to take good notes during Task 1, especially on the Listening passage. There are two reasons for this:

  • The reading passage will reappear after the lecture and be visible while you are writing. Therefore, while it is important to take note of the author’s position and main points, you don’t need to take as extensive notes on the reading passage.
  • You are expected to write more about the listening passage than the reading. That’s right! In your answer, you should write twice as much about the professor’s viewpoint and counterarguments then the author. Therefore, it is vital that you take good notes during the lecture.

I can’t emphasize this enough: take good notes on the Listening passage!

You will be expected to write twice as much about the content of the listening passage than the reading.

Here’s a link to the audio passage on Turtle Excluder Devices. Listen and compare your notes in the reading to your notes in the listening.

Try to write more about the listening section then the reading, even in your notes.

Here are my notes to the listening passage from the TOEFL integrated writing question from TST Prep’s Complete Test #13 .

Here’s a link to that audio passage again so you can practice taking notes and compare yours to my own.

TIP #3: Don’t Quote!

For the TOEFL integrated writing task, you are expected to explain the positions of the author and the professor, in your own words! It is very important, therefore, to paraphrase everything.

This is especially true of the reading passage. Remember, while you are writing your essay, the reading section will be right in front of you. If you directly quote the author, the TOEFL e-rater system will pick up on this and it can lead to a reduction in your score!

For example, let’s say that the reading passage states:

There are many who argue that corn ethanol should replace fossil fuel gas as the primary source for running cars.

DON’T say in your answer: “The author discusses how there are many who argue that corn ethanol should replace fossil fuel gas as the primary source for running cars.”

This is a huge mistake that many students make!

Instead, paraphrase the author’s position, such as: “The author discusses the advantages of switching from fossil fuels to the alternative energy source: corn-based ethanol.”

TIP #4: Use Lots of Transitional Words and Phrases

Transitional words and phrases are a crucial component of your writing, especially in TOEFL Writing task one. You will have to transition between contrasting points of view in both the reading and listening passage. The best way to keep your essay cohesive is to transition between ideas with these discourse markers.

They will prove to the TOEFL grader and e-rater that you have a firm grasp on both the English language and North American academic essay structure

Here is a list of some common transitional words and phrases:

TOEFL Writing Transitional Phrases

Purpose Location Transitional Phases
to sequence points and reasons - (int.) organizing points made in each passage
- (ind.) first sentence of each body paragraph
and then, first of all, firstly, in the first place, first and foremost, firstly, secondly, thirdly, next, after that, meanwhile, lastly, later, finally, while
to elaborate
(add ideas)
- (int.) reporting on points from the listening passage in body paragraphs
- (ind.) when explaining your reason, usually second sentence of the body
- (ind) when developing your personal example
above all, actually, additionally, as well as, as a matter of fact, in addition, believe it or not, furthermore, indeed, in fact, just as, moreover, more importantly, too
to illustrate
(giving examples)
- (ind.) when introducing your personal example or anecdote as an illustration, for example, for instance, I remember when, such as
to show cause and effect - (ind.) towards the end of each body paragraph, when you are concluding your personal example and/or connecting your story to the topic as a result, because, consequently, due to, hence, so, therefore, thus, for this reason
to contrast - (int.) when introducing the point of view of the listening passage in every paragraph
- (ind.) to recognize the opposing argument in the introduction and conclusion
although, at the same time, but, contrary to, even though, however, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the other hand, still, when in fact, yet, whereas, besides, despite the fact that, conversely
to summarize/
to conclude
- (int.) the conclusion paragraph
- (ind.) the last sentence of each body paragraph
- (ind.) the conclusion paragraph
all in all, as noted above, finally, in conclusion, in short, in the end, on the whole, to conclude, to sum up

If you want to see some of these transition words in action, check out our article Topics and Sample Essays for the Writing Section of the TOEFL Test()

TIP #5: Time Management

For the integrated writing task, you only have 20 minutes to write your essay! Therefore, while time management is important throughout the TOEFL, it is especially important on this task.

You should spend approximately two minutes taking notes and outlining your answer, three minutes writing your introduction paragraph, eleven minutes writing the body paragraphs, two minutes for the conclusion, and the last three minutes for editing.

Here is the time breakdown for task one of the TOEFL writing section:

Integrated Essay Time Breakdown

Minutes Tasks
0-2 Gather your notes and outline the essay
3-5 Write your introduction
6-16 Write your body paragraphs (2-3)
17-18 Write your conclusion
19-20 Edit your essay

Be sure to download our Complete Practice Test right here so you can practice the entire test.  

…but here is the essay response to the TOEFL integrated question on Turtle Excluder Devices.

The reading and the lecture are about the pros and cons of the Turtle Excluder Device (TED). The writer believes there are many benefits to the use of TED, and that it has decreased the number of sea turtles caught in trawls by shrimpers. The speaker in the listening passage disagrees. He claims there are still many issues with TED, and challenges each of the writer’s points.

First, the article posits that the design of TED includes a metal barrier inside the net that prevents larger animals from getting caught. Additionally, it says, TED also provides a path for the sea turtles to exit. However, the professor points out that small and mid-sized turtles still get caught deeper in the trawls. He states this is because the metal barrier only prevents creatures larger than ten centimeters to pass through it.

Also, the author notes that laws have been passed requiring shrimp boats to have TED and use it properly. The lecturer rebuts this argument. He says that it is impossible for organizations to regulate the fishermen while they are fishing for shrimp and that they can just remove the TED right before putting the nets into the ocean. Furthermore, he argues that they are inclined to do this because sometimes TED can also prevent shrimp from passing into the depths of the trawls, which decreases their profits.

Another reason the writer feels that TED is beneficial is that under import regulations, the shrimp sold in the US can only come from suppliers who are certified TED users. Again, the speaker holds there are flaws in this argument. He suggests that there are many boat owners who claim to be TED-certified, but, in reality, have fake documentation. The lack of consistency in TED certification from country to country allows many to deceive ports and sell their shrimp anyway.

To sum up, both the author and the lecturer hold conflicting views about TED.

Five more to go… 

Still with me? 

Awesome (just like these tips). 

Now, let’s take a look at our last five tips for the TOEFL Writing section. 

TASK 2 (The Independent Writing Task)

TIP #6: Make an Outline

Now onto the independent writing task. Making an outline is a good idea for any writing task, but it is especially important for task 2.

Unlike the integrated essay, this answer must come completely from you. With only 30 minutes to write your answer, it is important to come up with a plan first!

Here are the kinds of questions you can expect from TOEFL Writing task number two:

Independent Question Types

Question Type Frequency Examples
pick-a-side usually Do you agree or disagree with the following statement, "Parents should read their children's text messages" ?
open sometimes What advice would you give a friend who is traveling to another country to go to school?
three-choice rarely For your senior year of college, you must volunteer at the school library. Would you rather stack books, read to children or help with Internet searches?
advantages/disadvantages hardly ever Many students are asked to evaluate their professors at the end of the semester. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?

Once you read the essay question, first decide your main point. This usually requires you to choose a position based on the question, for instance:

  1. Do you agree or disagree with the statement?
  2. What is your opinion about the topic?
  3. Which one would you choose a), b), or c)?
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Next, write down two strong arguments or reasons that you can make to support your position. Don’t try to write more than two since you only have 30 minutes to write a strong and detailed essay.

Finally, in your outline, write down a personal example that you can use in your answer to illustrate each of your two reasons.

Here is how to structure your outline:

Main Point

Reason 1 Personal Example 1
Reason 2 Personal Example 2

TIP #7: have a clear opinion and stick to it

“Is it better to study in a group or to study on your own?”

Of course, sometimes you would prefer to work alone, and at other times it would be best to team up with a group. However…

…don’t do that on test day.

This is TOEFL Writing death. (hahahahahaha…. seriously)

Do NOT write one paragraph in favor and one paragraph against! Leave your personal feelings aside and take one clear and specific stand.

Think of your independent TOEFL Writing essay as a persuasive essay. Your job is to convince the reader to agree with your opinion. It’s much easier to do that when you argue from a single perspective.

Think of your independent TOEFL Writing essay as a persuasive essay. Your job is to convince the reader to agree with your opinion. It’s much easier to do that when you argue from a single perspective.

Therefore, choose the side that you agree with the most (or have the best personal example that will highlight this position), and stick to your side.

Want to know about the TOEFL Topics for task 1? Check out this article where you can find a list of Writing topics!

Okay… only three more to go!

TIP #8: Remember Your Conclusion Sentences
in Each Body Paragraph

Be sure to always include a conclusion sentence at the end of each body paragraph that will connect back to your main point. In other words, the last sentence of each body paragraph should always connect to your main argument, thus addressing the question directly.

While commonly forgotten by students, this will help keep you focused on the main idea of your essay. It is easy to get sidetracked while writing, especially about a personal experience.

So, here is the general make up of your body paragraph for the second writing task:

  1. one sentence providing the reason for your opinion
  2. one to three sentences further explaining your reason
  3. three to five sentences describing your personal example that supports your reason
  4. one concluding sentence that connects your personal example back to your stance on the topic – DON’T FORGET THIS!

Here’s an example from a body paragraph in response to the TOEFL independent writing task in TST Prep’s Complete Test #13.

The question is, “Your friend wants to lose weight. What advice would you give to your friend and why?

There are so many diet plans out there that people use in order to try to lose weight. Some say to cut carbohydrates, while others say to cut sugar in order to shed pounds. If my friend asked me how to lose weight, I would suggest the following two things: a balanced diet and exercise.

First, a well-balanced diet has been proven to help people lose weight throughout history. Following a nutritional meal plan with lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as drinking lots of water, is best. Most importantly, cutting out heavily processed foods and fast foods is an absolute must for weight loss. I have witnessed this personally in my own life. My mother always used to struggle with losing weight. She tried so many different kinds of diets throughout her life. They were always focused on denying her one of the food groups, such as bread and grains, but never specially addressed over-processed food consumption. Finally, she went to a nutritionist who advised her to just eat natural and organic food in the proper proportions. My mom lost thirty pounds in eight weeks after that. Therefore, I would first advise my friend that the best way to lose weight is to have a healthy, balanced diet.

TIP #9: Take the Time to Edit!

One of the best TOEFL Writing tips I could possibly share here is to leave yourself time to edit.

Plan on finishing your essay around the 27-minute-mark so you have three minutes to edit your essay. 

It’s annoying, I know.

Especially since at this point you will have taken the test for almost 3 hours and 57 minutes. You will be ready to go home and have a drink!

But remember, there is no spellcheck on the exam. That’s right, you will be responsible for finding spelling and grammar mistakes yourself. Also, be sure to pay special attention to spacing and punctuation.

There is no automatic spellcheck on the TOEFL exam. You will be responsible for typing and correcting spelling and grammatical mistakes.

So, to be prepared for the exam, always give yourself 3 minutes to proofread your essays, and starting now, write your practice answers with spellcheck turned off!

Forgetting to edit is not the only common mistake students make on the independent essay.

Michael Goodine from Test Resources has an excellent list of common mistakes made while preparing for and taking the exam that you can check out here.

TIP #10: Get Feedback

While preparing for the TOEFL writing section, it is crucial for you to get your hands on some practice questions.

And to get valuable feedback from a qualified TOEFL instructor who knows exactly what you need to write to earn a high score in the writing section. Relying on yourself or a teacher you know will certainly help, but you will not be able to reach your full potential without advice from an experienced instructor.

Therefore, the last tip while preparing for the TOEFL is to get help from a trained professional.



If you haven’t already, be sure to download TST Prep’s Complete Test #13 where you can see these sample essays and more.

Was there anything we missed?

If you have more TOEFL Writing tips, please don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments section below.

And, as always, we are here to help if you have any questions or concerns, [email protected]


  1. Ruth

    Point 7 isn’t true (but perhaps you needed just one more to make 10 tips instead of 9?)
    I took both sides all the time when I took the TOEFL, and got a 119 (and the reason I missed one point was the speaking, where I forgot to mention two specific examples).

    • Josh

      Hi Ruth and thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. Congrats on your score, that’s incredible. In regards to your opinion on tip #7 ” HAVE A CLEAR OPINION AND STICK TO IT”, it is not put there arbitrarily to inflate the number of tips. We have found that students who fail to have a concrete opinion tend to have difficulty developing the topic and writing with clarity. This is not always the case and you can write a perfect essay by arguing both sides of the argument, generally speaking, however, it is easier to write a clear and well-developed essay when taking one clear side of an issue.

  2. Rob

    Hello Josh. What do “int” and “ind” mean? You used these in the TOEFL Writing Transitional Phrases table without explaining them. Thanks.

    • Josh

      Hi Rob, and my apologies. I should clarify that. The “int” stands for “integrated writing (task 1),” and the “ind” stands for independent writing (task #2).

  3. Thomas

    Hello, I’m preparing for TOEFL, and I found a weird subject for the independent subject. “The average global life expectancy went from 29 years old in 1800 to 71 years old in 2015. According to you, what is the main cause for such a change?”. Do you know if it is possible to have a question like this? Thank you for your help.

    • Josh

      Hi there and thank you for your question. This does indeed sound like a reasonable topic since anyone could have an opinion on it. It is a bit strange but definitely possible. (I’ve seen weirder). This would also be difficult because you would have to use past unreal unconditional forms and sentences like “It could have been” “might have been because”, etc. Hope that helps!

  4. Rogerio

    Hello Josh! How are you?
    Please where can I find the TOEFL Writing 24+ Guide to download?

  5. Nikitha Crasta

    Hi Josh, I’m taking my test in a few minutes. Thank you so much for the free material on the website. It has definitely helped me make my own template!

    • Josh

      Thanks for leaving a comment Nikitha. How did the test go? I’m always interested to hear if anything was surprising/interesting/etc.

      • Nikitha Crasta

        The test was alright! I haven’t received my scores yet, except for Reading (26) and Listening (29). The questions asked were congruent to the examination pattern. I couldn’t really relate to the personal opinion question asked in the speaking section. I found the reading section quite tough compared to everything else. In the end, it wasn’t so bad considering I started prep 24 hours before the exam. If I had put in the effort, I would’ve been able to do well.

  6. James Jhan

    Thanks a lot for sharing the tips and the analysis, I really appreciate it!

  7. Erfan

    Hello Josh, How can I have this post in PDF format? Is it possible to send me the PDF file of this post ??


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