The TOEFL independent essay can be a very challenging aspect of the TOEFL ibt. The length of the essay, the challenge of writing correctly on a subject in English, and of course the fact that it comes at the very end of the TOEFL when you and your brain are probably quite tired, all make this one of the most difficult part of the TOEFL ibt. Because of these factors, we need all the help we can get to get a great score on the TOEFL independent essay.
There is an expression in English:
“you never get a second chance to make a first impression”
What does that mean? It means that the very first impression, or the first interaction with someone, is how they will judge you.
The same is true with writing.
Think about this: The TOEFL essays are initially graded by a computer which checks for grammatical and spelling errors, and some basic structure and syntax. After that, they are eventually reviewed by a grader. That is a real person, who reads your essay, and judges your English ability. Because of this we need to make a good “first impression” on the TOEFL independent essay.
How do we do this?
We begin with a strong opening sentence.
There are many ways to do this, but in my opinion the best way to begin is this:
We make the first, or “opening” sentence of your essay, a question.
This is an abstract, or “rhetorical” question. In other words, you don’t ask to get an answer. You ask to make the reader think and reflect.
Let’s look at some examples
If we have a writing prompt like this:
“People listen to music for different reasons and at different times. Why is music important to many people? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.”
An opening sentence, or “question” can look like this:
“Have you ever listened to a song that you hadn’t heard in a long time, and suddenly you are transported back to a memory, or a time in the past when you first heard that song?”
“Is there a song that, when you hear it, you always feel happy and full of energy?”
If we look at these “questions”, we notice a couple of things.
First of all, they don’t actually need a response, they are simply a creative and different way to begin the essay. The people who grade the essays spend hours reading essay after essay. If you begin your TOEFL independent essay in a different and creative way the reader will be much more interested in reading your essay, and will be much more likely to give you a higher score.
Secondly, when you ask someone a question, even if they don’t need to answer it, the brain immediately thinks of possible answers. We can’t help but start to answer the question, even if it’s just in our head. Because of this, beginning your essay with a question activates and engages the reader’s brain, and makes them think actively about your topic.
All of this means one thing: The reader likes your essay and will give it a higher score.
Below are a list of some Independent writing essay prompts for you to practice your “opening sentence question”.
If you’re looking for a complete strategy for the TOEFL independent essay, as well as all four sections of the TOEFL, be sure to check out our full TOEFL study program for our powerful course and full practice tests.
“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.”
Good luck, and keep it simple!
Adam is the founder and lead instructor for the English Simple TOEFL program. He's taught English and TOEFL for over ten years, and developed curriculum all over the world. TOEFL is his business, but helping people is his passion. His "office" is always open, so feel free to drop him an email with any questions, complaints, compliments, or funny jokes. He speaks French, Spanish, Japanese, and Russian. But you gotta write him in English - you're prepping for the TOEFL!