5 TOEFL Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

As an English teacher, I can tell you that everyone makes mistakes in writing. And in my years as a TOEFL tutor, I’ve seen just about every kind of TOEFL writing mistake you can imagine.

Still, certain kinds of writing mistakes are more common than others. The trick to creating a top-scoring TOEFL essay is to understand which common mistakes are the easiest to make … and learn to avoid these mistakes.

Common TOEFL Writing Mistake #1: Run-on Sentences

A run-on sentence occurs when two or more complete sentences are incorrectly written as one sentence—with a single capital letter at the beginning and a single punctuation mark at the end.

Here’s an example:

TOEFL Writing“I disagree that people spend too much time on leisure activities really people have a healthier work-life balance these days.”

Here’s the correction:

TOEFL Writing“I disagree that people spend too much time on leisure activities. Really, people have a better work-life balance these days.”

Notice that I added an extra comma in the second sentence as well (after really). Run-on sentences often suffer from a lack of punctuation.

Common TOEFL Writing Mistake #2: Run-on Paragraphs

A run-on paragraph is, as you may have guessed, the incorrect combining of two or more paragraphs into one. All too often, I see TOEFL essays that are just one big run-on paragraph—dozens of sentences and hundreds of words with no line breaks for new paragraphs.

TOEFL Writing

Run-on sentences can be a little hard to follow. But for readers (and TOEFL writing scorers), run-on paragraphs can be downright exhausting. Plus, this confusing construction mistake can really hurt your TOEFL score.

Here’s an example based on a TOEFL Independent Writing question from Good Luck TOEFL:

Question: Some people say that physical exercise should be a required part of every school day. Other people believe that students should spend the whole school day on academic studies. Which opinion do you agree with? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.

TOEFL WritingPartial Answer (first two paragraphs, written incorrectly as one run-on paragraph):

I think physical education should be included as part of the daily class roster at schools. Physical education is important to keep children strong and healthy so that they can focus on their studies. Moreover, physical education classes are a form of study in their own way. By exploring exercise and other health-promoting activities, schoolkids learn important facts about their own bodies and about health in general. You cannot learn without a healthy mind, and you cannot have a healthy mind without a healthy body. Gym classes are important because they promote learning by keeping students in good physical condition. If students don’t exercise every day, they can have too much energy, feeling tense and distracted. In the long run, children who don’t get exercise may become overweight and develop aches and pains from unhealthy living. All of this can lead to emotional and behavioral problems that hinder academic performance.

Here’s the correction:

TOEFL WritingPartial Answer (revised to form multiple paragraphs with correct paragraph breaks):

I think physical education should be included as part of the daily class roster at schools. Physical education is important to keep children strong and healthy so that they can focus on their studies. Moreover, physical education classes are a form of study in their own way. By exploring exercise and other health-promoting activities, schoolkids learn important facts about their own bodies and about health in general.

You cannot learn without a healthy mind, and you cannot have a healthy mind without a healthy body. Gym classes are important because they promote learning by keeping students in good physical condition. If students don’t exercise every day, they can have too much energy, feeling tense and distracted. In the long run, children who don’t get exercise may become overweight and develop aches and pains from unhealthy living. All of this can lead to emotional and behavioral problems that hinder academic performance.

Common TOEFL Writing Mistake #3: Getting Similar Words Mixed Up

TOEFL Writing

“Adversarial” is not quite the same word as “adverse” or “adversary,” and it’s certainly not the same word as “advertise.” “Quick” is not “click,” and “opinion” is not “opening” or “pinion.”

Yet many TOEFL test-takers confuse these and other similar words as they hastily type in their test responses.

Here’s an example:

TOEFL WritingA typical web scratch on Google may yell many more results than you really need, so you must review the resulting carefully.

And here’s the correction:

Good exampleA typical web search on Google may yield many more results than you really need, so you must review the results carefully.

Common TOEFL Writing Mistake #4: Missing Important Details

TOEFL Writing

Organization and structure are very important in TOEFL writing. TOEFL scorers want to see any written claims backed up with sufficient details.

In TOEFL Writing Task 1, a written summary of a lecture and passage, you need to include all key details from the sources. And in Writing Task 2, a personal essay, you must support your opinions and claims sufficiently.

Very often, however, test-takers’ summaries are noticeably incomplete in Task 1, and their Task 2 answers offer arguments that are not clearly supported.

Below is an example of missing details from the opening paragraph of a TOEFL Integrated Writing response. The response is based on a prompt from ETS’ online TOEFL Quick Prep practice page. The passage for this task appears on page 21 of ETS’ TOEFL Quick Prep Volume 3 PDF.

The lecture is on track 11 for the volume—you can find it here (with a transcript of the track on page 39 of the Volume 3 PDF).

Bad ExampleFirst paragraph of the response (incorrectly omitting some corresponding key points from both the reading and the lecture):

In the reading passage, the author is very critical of Chevalier de Seignalt’s memoirs. The passage claims that de Seignalt lied about the amount of money he had and made a false claim that he escaped jail. In contrast, the lecturer says de Seignalt’s autobiography can be trusted, claiming he was truthful about his wealth and that he accurately recounted conversations he had with the famous thinker Voltaire.

Here is the corrected version of this opening TOEFL Integrated Writing essay, covering all three key details as they appear in both the passage and the speech:

Good exampleFirst paragraph of the response (corrected so that all key points are included):

In the reading passage, the author is very critical of Chevalier de Seignalt’s memoirs. The passage claims that de Seignalt lied about the amount of money he had, incorrectly recalled his conversations with the philosopher Voltaire, and made a false claim that he escaped jail. In contrast, the lecturer says de Seignalt’s autobiography can be trusted, claiming he was honest about his wealth, accurate in his descriptions of the talks he had with Voltaire, and truthful when he described his jailbreak.

Now let’s look at a personal opinion from a TOEFL Independent Writing essay that’s missing important support for its claims. Again, I’ll show you just the opening paragraph.

Question:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?: Modern life is easier than life in the past. Use specific details and examples to support your answer.

Bad ExampleFirst paragraph of response (lacks some specific details to support the answer)

I don’t think modern life is easier than it was in the past. With greater efficiency of technology, we’re expected to work even harder and produce even more. In addition, we wake up earlier and must travel farther to get to work and school

The paragraph above is very incomplete. It doesn’t give any evidence that earlier wake-up times or longer commutes to work are connected to modern life.

Here’s a better and more complete version of this TOEFL Independent Writing introductory paragraph:

Good exampleFirst paragraph of response (complete with specific details to support the answer)

I don’t think modern life is easier than it was in the past. With greater efficiency of technology, we’re expected to work even harder and produce even more. In addition, we wake up earlier due to another modern innovation: the alarm clock. Not only that, we’re also expected to travel farther for work and school. This is because the invention of the car has caused the layout of modern cities to become much more spread out.

In the corrected examples for Task 1 and Task 2 above, the extra details seem obvious once they’re added in. But it’s easy to leave out key points in TOEFL essays if you’re not careful.

This is why it’s especially important to brainstorm and organize your ideas before you start to write. Really think about what details are needed to back up the claims you make!

Common TOEFL Writing Mistake #5: Phonetic Misspellings

This mistake happens especially often in Integrated Writing (Task 1) essays. Test-takers will hear the lecturer say a key term, but won’t really know how the word is spelled in written form. This leads to some very confusing misspellings of source material language.

For instance, students may badly misspell a scientific term like migration as “grashum” or “migasun.” In a less extreme but still confusing example, I’ve also seen students misspell “river” as “liver” or “rivv” after hearing this word in a lecture.

To avoid this mistake, you will need to practice in advance. Listen to English speeches that have subtitles and transcripts.

That way, you can check the written version of what you hear and make sure that you correctly understand how spoken words are spelled. TED Talks are especially good for this as TED lectures are very TOEFL-like and come with interactive transcripts.

Final Thoughts

TOEFL Writing
Perhaps the biggest secret to becoming a good writer is to be an accomplished reader. So doing lots of TOEFL reading practice is a great way to understand and avoid TOEFL writing mistakes.

Here’s a few example essays you can read through, dissect, and learn from (both what to do and what not to do!):

Be sure to include non-TOEFL articles and essays in your practice. Read a variety of materials, always paying attention to what good professional writers do in terms of sentence structure, paragraph structure, correct word use, construction of good arguments, and so on.

You can even write practice essays and run them by an editor to get more specific feedback on how your TOEFL writing is shaping up.

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This post was written by David Recine, TOEFL expert at Magoosh. For more help with your TOEFL preparation, check out Magoosh’s free TOEFL Writing Tips ebook.

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