Table of contents
Over at r/ToeflAdvice one user asked for some feedback on their TOEFL independent essay. After years of helping English learners prepare for this exam, I was happy to help. But I wanted to make something that would help other learners as well, so I decided to turn it into a blog post.
Here I offer a close reading of the passage with some commentary and suggestions. Then I use the official TOEFL iBT Independent Writing rubric to give the essay an overall score.
Please let me know if you find this helpful as I'm considering turning this format into an ongoing series. And if you have an essay that you'd like me to take a look at, don't hesitate to be in touch!
✍️ Student Essay
The comments below are by no means comprehensive, but here I do my best to point out some aspects of the essay - good and bad - that stand out to me.
|Some people believe that it is important to get other people’s perspectives and opinions when making an important decision for yourself. They even try to convince you to choose their opinion even if it might not be the right decision for you.|
It's good that this essay begins by identifying the people with whom it disagrees. Gerald Graff, former president of the Modern Language Association and author of They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, recommends always starting with what others are saying:
to give writing the most important thing of all - namely, a point - a writer needs to indicate clearly not only what his or her thesis is, but also what larger conversation that thesis is responding to.
One problem here, however, is that it's not clear who those people are. The first sentence refers to people who seek the input of others before making a decision; the second sentence refers to the people who give their opinions to others. This part of the essay could have been strengthened by using one of the templates offered in the "Introducing Standard Views" section of They Say, I Say, e.g.:
|Conventional wisdom has it that [ ].|
Notice as well that the person in this opening section jumps around from 'other people' to 'yourself.' This inconsistency changes the mood of the essay: is the writer entering into an argument with others, or is he offering advice to the reader? When referring to people in general, it's better to avoid the pronoun you in favor of the indirect pronoun one.
Lastly, I think the possessive could be better expressed using a prepositional phrase rather than an apostrophe.
Taken together, the opening lines could be re-written as:
Conventional wisdom has it that it is important to get the perspective and opinion of others when making an important decision for oneself.
|However, I strongly disagree with these people and feel that a person should always make important decisions alone. I feel this way for two reasons which I will discuss in the following paragraphs.|
It's good that the essay clearly states the opinion, though I think this part could have been strengthened by some preview of those reasons. After all, the conventional wisdom seems reasonable enough, so it's somewhat hard to believe that the writer feels so strongly against it. Even some implicit reference to the reasons could be enough to hook the reader into continuing with the essay.
Moreover, a point about language: non-restrictive relative clauses, which begin with the relative pronoun which, are always set off from the main clause by a comma.
The essence of this argument is captured by the addage Two heads are better than one. However, by focusing on the benefits of collaboration, these people overlook the importance of individual responsibility and the problem of outside influence.
This essay is interesting because it overturns a common assumption, so giving some hint of the reasons that follow assures the reader that the essay is well thought through.
|First of all, whenever you make a decision alone, only you are responsible for it regardless the outcome. You will not be able to blame others for your failure or let them take credit for your success.|
Again we see the issue of referring directly to the reader. This is an argumentative essay, not an advice column, so let's reorient the essay towards the topic by referring not to the reader but to the topic.
Do we really need the transitional phrase First of all? Yes, it's helpful to include these adverbs to signal major transitions in the writing, but I think the information contained in First of all is already captured nicely in the line break of the new paragraph.
Independent decision-making ensures that the individual alone is responsible for the outcome, preventing her from blaming others for negative outcomes and enabling her to take credit for success.
Next we move on to a personal anecdote that, I think, could benefit from some concision and a re-orientation away from the writer in particular and towards the problem at hand:
|My personal experience is a compelling illustration of this. Recently, I was in a situation where I had to choose between two companies for my next job. The first job was offering more money however, the second job was much more prestigious. I chose the job that was offering more money because for me, earning more was a major priority and would help me achieve my goal faster. I never discussed this situation with anybody, not even my parents. In case I regretted my decision, I didn’t want to put the blame on others for my wrong decision-making. This incident made me more independent and self-reliant.|
This anecdote is a great illustration of the topic of the paragraph, which emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for one's decisions. But would it have been possible to express it in a sentence or 2 before moving back up to a more general level of detail?
Take for example when I was offered two jobs: one that was higher paying, another that carried more prestige. If I had discussed this decision with my parents, for example, they would most likely have urged me to go with the latter for the prestige that it would bestow upon our family, but I ultimately chose the former because it aligned better with my personal goals. It was a difficult decision, so by keeping it private I saved my parents from the blame they would have received if I regretted the decision. Moreover, making this big decision on my own gave me a larger sense of independence and self-reliance.
|Second of all, if you make a decision in a group, it is easy to get influenced by others even if you do not like that decision. This will act as a mental burden in the future and can affect your everyday life. For instance, one of my friends got admitted to a university in the United Kingdom...|
One thing I would point out here is that the essay dives down into the details a little too quickly. Drawing on the Uneven-U pattern of development outlined in The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities by Eric Hayot, if we divide the sentences by level of detail - 5 being very general and abstract, 1 highly specific and evidentiary - then the topic sentence would be a level 4. From there we want to proceed smoothly towards the level 1 evidence, whereas this section plunges down rather quickly into highly specific information.
If we wanted to develop the topic sentence a little further before offering up the evidence, we might rewrite this section as...
Group decisions invite the influence of others towards decisions that one might not agree with personally, which is problematic given that these decisions can affect one's entire life. What's more, it's usually about these major decisions that we turn to friends and family for advice. Asking my friend what we should have for dinner is of little consequence, but when it comes to major decisions about one's life course asking the advice of others can send one down a path they would never have chosen on their own. A friend of mine saw this when he was admitted to a university in the United Kingdom...
Again, I think this anecdote could be edited for concision. An essay really only needs 1-2 sentences of evidence to demonstrate a point, and using any more than that will start to sound more like a rambling story than an argument.
|Had he listened to himself instead of others, he would have been enjoying his life right now.|
Unlike the preceding paragraph, which ends on a new point that was not introduced in the topic sentence, this paragraph ends properly by linking back up to the main idea of the paragraph.
|To conclude, I strongly feel that it is important to make an important decision alone without consulting others because first, you will be fully responsible for that decision irrespective of the outcome and second, you will not get influenced by other's perspectives and opinions.|
Here we have a run-on sentence. A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses are joined with a comma and no conjunction. This reads very much the way that someone would speak, but in academic writing it's very important to understand the structure of syntax beneath the language.
There are 3 ways to fix a run-on sentence:
- Add a conjunction;
- Change the comma to a semi-colon;
- Turn the independent clauses into complete sentences by replacing the comma with a period.
Independent decision making is thus crucial to one's sense of personal responsibility and self-direction. There's nothing terribly wrong with soliciting the input of others on matters about which we are uncertain. Ultimately, however, we are the only ones who know what we truly want.
Using the official TOEFL iBT rubric, I gave this essay an overall score. Please bear in mind that I am not a certified TOEFL grader. However, I made every effort to adhere to the rubric, so I believe it should reflect the actual score quite accurately.
Are your ideas organized into paragraphs? Are there transitional words and phrases between ideas?
Essays that are properly organized help readers move from beginning to end without getting confused.
Using transitional phrases like First, Second... or However, Therefore isn't enough; all the points you make must relate to the topic of the essay.
For top marks, a well-organized essay will display:
- Unity. Every sentence in a paragraph should contribute to a controlling idea, which is usually expressed in a topic sentence.
- Progression. The essay doesn't stay on one point for longer than it deserves. Moreover, the sentences are organized from old to new, giving the sense of movement away from the known towards the unknown.
- Coherence. The various sections of the essays work together within a single argument.
Displays unity, progression, and coherence, though connection of ideas may be occasionally obscured. Essay may include some redundancy (repetition of ideas), digression (points that are not related to the main idea), and/or unclear connections (places where it is hard for the reader to understand the relation between two ideas.
Have you addressed the topic? Do your details, examples, and reasons support your ideas?
Development describes the kinds of support given to your ideas.
For top marks, a well-developed essay will...
- Address the main topic. Stay focused on the question, being sure not to stray away with lengthy anecdotes or digressions.
- Make claims. Argumentative essays are about taking a side on a controversial question. Don't try to appeal to both sides by saying each is right; make a claim that requires evidence and reasonsing for support.
- Use evidence. Use examples, details, and reasons to support your ideas.
Addresses the topic and task well, though some points may not be fully elaborated (unclear).
💬 Language Use
Did you choose the right words? Is there a variety of sentence structures, or is it written primarily in simple sentences?
Language use is all about the facility with which you use the language to express your ideas. There should be a variety of sentence structures, and word choice should be appropriate.
- Grammar. It's not so important if you make a few grammatical mistakes. The point is to use the language properly to express your intended meaning. Of course, if you make too many grammatical errors then it will be difficult to understand that meaning, so it's worthwhile to spend some time reviewing the basics of clause structure and the different ways they can be combined.
- Word Choice. If you're using a word that you're not so familiar with, use the learner's dictionary to double-check that you're using it correctly. Phrasal verbs are somewhat colloquial and usually have a single-word analogue, which is more appropriate to academic writing.
- Sentence Structure. Use conjoining, embedding, and reductions to bring some variety to your writing. But remember that it's not just about using different structures; effective writers use these structures intentionally to craft their message.
May display accurate but limited range of syntactic structures and vocabulary. Errors of usage and/or grammar may be more frequent or may result in noticeably vague expressions or obscured meanings in conveying ideas and connections. Sentences are simple and vocabulary is basic.
💯 Overall Score
This essay follows the conventional format for TOEFL-style essays. The introduction is formatted according to a familiar structure, each paragraph begins with a transitional word or phrase, and examples are given to support each point. However, when writers adhere too closely to the formulae offered in many TOEFL practice books, the essay can feel wooden.
A few points to work on for the writer:
- Grammar. The issue with non-restrictive relative clauses and that of the run-on sentence tells me that you need to develop your grasp of English syntax. Spend some time reviewing the structure of finite clauses before moving on to working with more advanced compound sentence structures.
- Development. The introduction is just following a formula; it's not actually entering a debate. For your essay to be valuable, it needs to enter into conversation with the ideas of others.
- Organization. Make sure that you're using transitional phrases like First of all and In conclusion effectively. These are best used when signalling a major transition between ideas, and are not generally needed at the start of every paragraph.