Top 5 Writing Mistakes TOEFL Students Make


In my years as a TOEFL teacher, I’ve noticed several very common TOEFL Writing mistakes. Today, we’ll look at the top 5 writing mistakes TOEFL students make.

Mistake # 1: Plagiarism

I’ve put this mistake at the top of the list because it’s the most costly mistake—and the easiest mistake to avoid.

I see a lot of students plagiarize parts of their TOEFL Integrated Writing essay, copying parts of the text word-for-word. (In rarer cases, I’ve also even seen students copy exact sentences from the lecture.) If you do this on test day, the TOEFL scorers will give your Integrated response a very low score, even if the rest of the writing in the essay is good.

Never tell yourself that a TOEFL Writing scorer might not notice a few copied words; they will always catch this. And be careful to make sure you sufficiently paraphrase the Integrated Writing prompt. If you just change a word or two from the original sentence, that still counts as plagiarism on the TOEFL. Speaking of paraphrasing….

Mistake # 2: Paraphrasing incorrectly

This is another easy-to-make mistake in TOEFL Integrated Writing. It’s common for TOEFL students to change the meaning of the source information when they paraphrase it. The result? Incorrectly stated information.

Sometimes a misunderstood vocabulary word can lead to factually incorrect paraphrasing. For example, a reading passage might describe a stage play as “critically loved.” This means that the play was loved by professional critics of plays. But a TOEFL student might mistakenly think “critically” means “done in a criticizing way.” In this case, an incorrect paraphrase could wrongly state that “people loved the play even though they criticized it a lot.”

At other times, wrong information in a paraphrase is simply a grammar mistake. If a TOEFL Integrated Writing prompt talks about Rome invading Britain, a student may accidentally refer to the time that “Britain invaded Rome.” These kinds of small grammar mistakes create large point losses on the grading rubric. Vet any silly grammar mistakes or paraphrasing problems beforehand by taking a TOEFL practice test—simulating test day itself is arguably the best way to prep for the TOEFL, or any standardized test.

Mistake # 3: Omitting Important Information From the TOEFL Integrated Writing Prompt

In TOEFL Integrated Writing, it’s important to recognize and include all of the most important details in the passage and lecture. These key points are easy to spot once you recognize the pattern of the TOEFL Integrated Writing prompt: the passage will always have three main points, and the professor will always directly challenge these three points. Always watch for these key ideas; if you don’t read three points and hear three counter-points, you’ve missed something.

Mistake # 4: Not fully answering the TOEFL Independent Writing question

In TOEFL Independent Writing practice, many of my students fail to fully answer the question.

Typically, TOEFL Independent Writing questions mention two possibilities (studying online vs. studying in a classroom; listening to CDs vs. watching music videos, etc.) and ask students to say which possibility they think is better and why. Often students make the mistake of focusing only on defending their preference, or only on criticizing the option they don’t like. This mistake is completely avoidable. Simply remember that the TOEFL Independent Writing question always puts forth two positions, and that both positions need to be examined in your essay.

Mistake # 5: Skipping the pre-writing stage

Prewriting is the act of writing down your ideas and outline before you start the essay. And trust me when I say it is essential in the TOEFL. Without prewriting, you run the risk of producing a disorganized, confusing, and poorly supported piece. For this reason, an essay based on notes and an outline will always be significantly better than an essay that’s written on a whim. (And—surprise! This is true even when the essay is written by a native English speaker!) Bottom line: always take a little bit of time to plan your TOEFL Independent Essay. Having a properly thought-out argument is key to getting a good score in this second TOEFL Writing task.

Avoiding These Mistakes

If you’ve made one—or all!—of the mistakes listed above, don’t feel bad. Unsurprisingly, many TOEFL test-takers have done the same! Practice “un-learning” these common mistakes with quality prep materials and a good TOEFL practice test or two. Come test day, you’ll feel more prepared than ever. Good luck!


For nearly ten years, David Recine has been teaching ESL students ranging from Kindergarten tots to university grads. He is a test prep expert; writing articles for Magoosh, covering everything from tricky TOEFL vocabulary to complex TOEFL practice test problems. You can read more of David’s awesome blog posts on the Magoosh TOEFL Blog.