Understanding the TOEFL Writing Section

Understanding the TOEFL Writing Section

The writing section comes at the very end of the TOEFL test. You’ll have about fifty minutes to write two essays. That’s  a lot of writing, but if you become familiar with the section before you take the test, you’ll have a much easier time. You’ll also feel much less nervous at the test centre.

The Integrated Essay

First is the TOEFL integrated essay. This is called an “integrated” task because it involves reading, listening, and writing. Let’s take a look at these requirements one by one.


First, you will be given three minutes to read a short article about an academic topic. It will be about 250 words. When time runs out, the article will disappear—don’t worry, it will come back later. The articles in this section of the test cover a range of academic topics. There are a few common “styles” of articles you can prepare for:

  • Articles that support a clear theory, like:  Mars is the best planet to colonize.
  • Articles that explain the purpose of something, like:  Three possible reasons Stonehenge was built.
  • Articles about a problem, like:  Three problems when farmers use crop rotation.

The article will start with an introductory paragraph that establishes its main topic. That will be followed by three body paragraphs—each containing a unique supporting argument.

Articles about history and science seem to come up the most in this section of the test, but be prepared for anything!


Next, you’ll listen to a short lecture about the same topic. It will be about two or three minutes long, and the lecturer will challenge the article. This means that if the article mentions three reasons why Mars is the best planet for humans to colonize, the lecturer will explain why Mars isnot the best planet. If the lecturer mentions three problems with crop rotation on farms, the lecturer will present solutions to each of those problems. Remember that you can only hear the lecture once, and you will not be given a transcript. You’ll need to take detailed notes as you listen.


Finally, you’ll see a question like:

“Summarize the points made in the lecture, being sure to explain how they oppose specific points made in the reading passage.”

You’ll have 20 minutes to write your essay. The article will appear on the side of your screen as you write. The test instructions say that a typical essay is between 150 and 225 words, but you can write as much as you want. There is no penalty for exceeding that length. Actually, if you have a target score that is more than “typical,” you should probably write more than the suggested length. 

For a detailed guide to the integrated essay, check out our deep dive into this task.

The Independent Essay

Once you have finished with the integrated task, you will write the TOEFL independent essay.  

You’ll have 30 minutes to respond to a question by giving your personal opinion. The questions in this part of the test often relate to education, working, and life in general.

The questions typically ask if you agree or disagree with a given sentence. Those questions look like this:

“Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Students do not respect their teachers as much as they did in the past. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

But you might instead be asked a multiple choice question, like this one:

Nowadays, people live much longer lives than ever before. Which of the following do you think is the main cause of this?

  •  Technological improvements 
  •  Changes to education systems 
  •  Improvements to our diets 
  •   “Use specific details and examples in your answer.”  

    Or you might be asked to pick between two opposing or mutually exclusive options, such as:

    Some people think that the government should use extra money to fund programs to improve the environment. Others think that it’s better for the government to spend money to support artistic programs. Which option do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.”

    In any case, the timer starts ticking as soon as the question appears on the screen, so don’t wastetoo much time reading the question.

    The instructions for this task state that a “typical” essay is about 300 words. But just like in the integrated task, you can write as much as you like. There is no penalty for writing more than 300 words. Advanced-level students often try to write about 400 words.


    Both essays have equal value when it comes to your final score. Remember that your essays are graded in two ways.  

    First, a human rater will give your essays holistic scores based on the  ETS Writing Rubrics. “Holistic” means that the score comes from an examination of your essays as a whole. The raters want to see essays that haveoverall coherence and strong organization. They also care about whether your essays are totally on topic.

    Next, your essays will be scored by the  ETS e-rater. This is a computer program that closely examines the more technical aspects of your language use. It will look for specific grammar and usage errors. It will also judge the complexity of your vocabulary and grammar.

    Finally, the human and e-rater scores are combined to produce a final score between 0 and 30 points for the whole section. That will show up in your ETS account between six and 10 days after you take the test.