How writing a toefl essay differs from academic writing


Students take TOEFL if they wish to pursue higher education in the USA or the UK. It’s important to understand that universities need students’ TOEFL scores not only to determine the best candidate but also to make sure they can handle the requirements of US higher education. This way, you can make several important inferences from TOEFL writing assignments that will help you understand the requirements to academic writing and, thus, succeed with essay writing once you are admitted.

TOEFL has two writing tasks – an independent TOEFL essay and the integrated TOEFL essay:

An independent essay is one where you have to take a position and argue for it. At university, this type of writing will be called an argumentative essay. Basically, you have to learn to structure an essay into the following necessary components: an introduction, which will consist of a hook (interesting observation, fact) and your position (a thesis statement); a body paragraph that starts with a topic sentence, elaborates on the topic and sustains the argument with examples; and a conclusion restating the central point and summarizing arguments.

An integrated essay is where you have to compare and contrast the divergent opinions of two experts on one point. Namely, a student first reads a text presenting an expert’s views (expert’s ‘argumentative essay’ having a thesis statement (main idea) and three arguments supporting his point) and then listens to a short lecture having a parallel structure but arguing for the opposite position. The key to success here is to construct an essay with an introduction presenting a topic and the two opposing views on it, and three body paragraphs each giving details about two matching arguments. The conclusion for this type of writing task is not necessary. This type of writing teaches you to structure compare/contrast essays, but, first of all, it teaches you to recognize, analyze, compare and present the opinions of other people, which is essential for academic writing.

The following tips will make you succeed in writing both TOEFL and academic essays:

1. Use academic language

This means grammatical correctness, no contractions, demonstration of a wide range of vocabulary to avoid repetitions, the variety of sentence structure types (the intermixture of simple and compound sentences longer than 7 and shorter than 60 words), no colloquial phrases, appropriate use of conjunctions and discourse phrases (this is especially important for TOEFL essays, as an e-grader searches for these and automatically determines large proportion of your score!).

2. Take a side

A TOEFL independent essay task may take various forms. For example, you may be asked to agree/disagree on some statement, you may be presented three statements so that you choose which is the most appropriate, and you may be asked what position you prefer. Nevertheless, in each case, you have to express one clear view and build your essay around it. This means you cannot write different views that are equally good or present arguments in favor of two statements. You need to take one side! Not taking one side will also be a grave mistake when writing an argumentative essay at college or university and you can actually receive zero for such an essay.

3. Structure your essay

Make sure your essay has an introduction containing a thesis statement (your position), body paragraphs beginning with topic sentences, and a conclusion (it is only recommended to omit it in the TOEFL integrated essay as it takes time but brings no points here). There should be logical transitions both between these elements and within them.

An introduction and a conclusion should be neither too short nor too long. For a TOEFL independent essay, the best variant is a three-sentence introduction (a hook, a thesis statement, a transitional sentence) and a two-three-sentence conclusion (restatement of a central point and the summary of the reasons). In an academic essay, an introduction and a conclusion should not be longer than 10% of the general word count.

4. Sustain your position

In an independent essay and in academic writing, you have to strive for several but well-developed ideas. For example, if you have to prove something is good or bad, you do not need to give 10 reasons to think so, you may give only two or three, but you have to elaborate on them and sustain them with proofs (real-life examples for TOEFL and relevant data/experts’ views for academic essays).

For TOEFL essays, two body paragraphs presenting two reasons works best for you may not have enough time to write and proofread three well-developed paragraphs. At college, the ideal is a five-paragraph essay, which is the one having three body paragraphs presenting three supporting points.

5. Do not retell

This relates to working with texts or any other type of sources. You have to analyze a source and use only the information you need to support the point you make. Retelling is a far too common mistake when an essay lacks structure. What I mean is that taking several texts on the topic and retelling them is not the way to write essays.

For example, forgetting about the necessary structure, a TOEFL-taker may just retell the text and then the lecture, which will be nothing close to an integrated essay. He should, on the contrary, come down to reading/listening having the structure of his future essay in mind and noting the main point, three supporting arguments, and details relating to them in the two sources. In the same way, students may just find several sources on the essay question and retell them giving much unnecessary information or repeating the claims which have already been made. On the other hand, if students think about the right structure first, they are less likely to make such errors.

So… the takeaway message is: build an essay around your claim and your structure, not around the sources.

6. Don’t rewrite from the source

TOEFL-takers might have been informed that they cannot simply rewrite the point from the text or the lecture word-for-word. They have to paraphrase the idea, to tell the same thing in other words. This is how TOEFL essay writing prepares you to avoid plagiarism, which is forbidden fruit in the garden of academic writing. Remember, an indication of an author does not make an essay plagiarism-free. Only 10% of your paper can match another source word-for-word (this should be a direct quotation). All other citations of the sources should be paraphrases or summaries of the original opinions.

7. Do not present new information in the conclusion

New information in a conclusion is considered a mistake in academic writing. Some professors ask students to finish with a call to action (what you want people to do considering all you have found out/written on the issue). However, a general rule is that a conclusion has just to restate your central point (a thesis statement) and summarize all of your arguments.

8. Do not excuse or express doubts about your understanding

“Excuse me for my level of English”, “As far as I understand”, “If I understood the author right…”, “I may be wrong but…” are absolutely inappropriate in both TOEFL and academic essays. You have to appeal to the reader by showing your expertise and logic, not make him bored and discouraged to read your essay at all.

What you still have to learn to succeed with academic writing     

Now, let’s imagine you have passed your TOEFL test and have been accepted at a college or university in the United States. Of course, your preparation for TOEFL essays will help you out a lot, as you will understand many of the above-mentioned requirements for academic writing so far. Still, you have to realize it is not TOEFL anymore and you have to learn several new things too.


Unlike TOEFL essays, all academic papers need to be formatted according to a particular style. APA, MLA, Chicago, and Harvard formatting styles are the most common. You might first feel overwhelmed by the number of detailed instructions prescribing everything from the size of margins to capitalization and italicizing of citations. This is why, at first, it is definitely better to use proofreading or editing services to see where you might be missing out on the points.

Using college- and university-level examples

TOEFL takers get a sound recommendation to support their statements by retelling a real-life experience – they are easier to write, take less time and result in fewer grammar mistakes. This can still work for high schools, but not for colleges and universities.

Let me explain with an example. You argue that it is better to live in the city than in the village. One of your reasons/supporting points is that children and young adults are surrounded by museums and theatres in the city and are more likely to learn to appreciate these cultural experiences. Therefore, in a TOEFL essay, you may simply tell about someone who has grown up in the city, attended theaters and exhibitions, and become a well-rounded personality interested in the cultural life of his nation.

College- and university-level examples should not relate to one person only. You will have to find more credible proofs that you are right. For example, you may find facts about how often city residents vs villagers attend cultural events or some research studying what affects attendance of theatres and museums – living in a city may be one of the factors, etc.

Finding credible sources

For college and university essays, you have to sustain your point by citing credible sources. Students are occasionally asked to use only manuals or to analyze a particular article. However, as a rule, you will have to look for the sources on your own. Searching for sources is a bit different from regular internet searches as websites, wikis, and encyclopedias are not allowed. Credible sources are books, research articles published in scientific journals and articles from reputable national newspapers. This way, you will have to learn to assess the credibility of the sources.

You also need to be ready that it will take more time to make sense of these texts – unlike TOEFL essays, articles do not have a similar structure with the author’s points clearly stated in topic sentences. The author’s argument may be found anywhere in the text and may even be hidden between the lines. Thus, your task will be not to find the exact sentence, which represents the author’s opinion, but to create it answering the question “what does the author want to tell with this?”.

Citation and quotation rules

Thanks to TOEFL, you will already know that you need tags to introduce the author’s ideas (e.g. The author argues/claims/criticizes/questions…). Still, in academic writing, you will have to not only represent the author’s opinion but also add introductory and explanatory sentences demonstrating the relevance of the author’s ideas to your claim. Put simply – you will have to explain why the author’s words matter in the case you discuss. You will also need to find out more about punctuation, appropriate length and the allowed overall amount of direct quotations.

Hope TOEFL writing has prepared you well for academic writing. If you struggle to meet the demands of college- and university-level writing, feel free to get the help of an essay tutor or an editor.

About the Author: Roselyn

Hi, I am Roselyn and love engaging, fit for purpose, and edited to perfection writing. Feel free to reach out to work with me, suggest topic ideas, or give feedback on Make a Stand – the project I passionately grow for more than 3 years now.

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