Jane Birkenhead, June 24 2022

Ideas for TOEFL independent writing

These are some of the most common questions that I get asked about TOEFL independent writing. 

Thinking of ideas and writing about them in an essay shouldn't be stressful or time-consuming but for many students, it is. Let’s consider some different ways that you can practice thinking of ideas.

My main advice for thinking about ideas for essay writing is this:
You are an educated, experienced person. You have amazing ideas. So use your own knowledge and experience of the world to generate ideas.

In TOEFL writing the raters are not looking for sophisticated, philosophical ideas. You really don’t have time for that in 400 words and 30 minutes! You need to be able to 1. express an opinion in response to the essay prompt, 2. explain your opinion and 3. support it.

In summary, your ideas need to be

So, how can you practice thinking of ideas for independent writing? I like to divide the process into 2 distinct stages that you can practice individually. These are:

1. Pre-Planning

I refer to this stage as pre-planning because pre means before. You can do this kind of planning BEFORE you even see an essay prompt.

This is how it works.

Think about the main subject areas that often feature in TOEFL essay prompts. These are topics like :

Then consider what you know, and what you think about each of these topics. You might like to write notes to help organize your thoughts. Remember, you’re not going to link any of this to a specific essay prompt. This is an opportunity to dig into your mind and to recollect knowledge and ideas.

As you think about each of these topics, also think of any relevant experience you have of each one. Think about supporting details you could use to explain your opinion.

This isn’t an exercise that you have to complete in one go. I recommend to my students that they keep a separate document for each topic, then add ideas when they think of them.

Using this method of practising should help you to generate lots of ideas from your own knowledge and experience.

2. Planning

Planning is what you do when you’ve read the essay prompt and you’re getting ready to start writing your essay. Good writers plan and it’s essential to make a plan before you start writing your independent essay in the TOEFL exam. 

Sometimes, students don’t like to make a plan because they feel it wastes time. But I can assure you that if you spend 2-3 minutes making a plan, it will actually help you to write faster. It will also to help you to stay on topic which is important when you’re writing in a limited timeframe.

This is how it works.

1. When you see your essay prompt, quickly decide your opinion

2. This will either be to agree or disagree, to make a choice or to express a preference. Don’t overthink this part. Go with your gut reaction. Don’t try to second guess the raters and imagine what they would like you to say. They really don’t mind! 

3. Then, think of 2 points that will help you to support your opinion. These will become the 2 body paragraphs in your essay. 

4. You should also think of details that you can add to explain your opinion. These may be general or personal examples, or knowledge you have. 

You can practice this planning exercise for many essay prompts. 

Make sure that you don’t try to cover too much ground when you plan your essay. It’s better to be specific, and to concentrate on a particular area because then your essay will be more focused.

In the beginning, this exercise may take you 5-10 minutes to complete. As you do it more and more, you’ll get faster. When you write an essay in the exam, you should aim to complete your planning in the first 2-3 minutes.

Don’t be tempted to Google perfect essays or to copy sample essays word for word. The best writing occurs when you use your own ideas and knowledge. Then you will produce writing that's natural, fluent and easy to read.

Finally, don’t worry that your ideas aren’t good enough. They are. 

You are an educated, experienced person and you have amazing ideas.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

Previous 25 Skills Building Exercises from the TOEFL Official Guide
Next Getting Back to Studying