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TOEFL Tip #70: The Limits Of Memorized Answers

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on March 25, 2010

Many of our clients want to have a list of memorized answers for the Speaking and Writing sections of the iBT. They believe that if they memorize 100 answers that are general enough, then those 100 answers will apply to any question they get on the test.

Although Strictly English does believe that you can have some “go-to” topics before you walk into the exam, it is not realistic to assume that your standardized answers will easily fit for any question you get.

For example, one standard topic that can work for many questions is “BODY”.  So let’s imagine that a student has memorized the idea of talking about BODY. That is GOOD. It will probably help them come up with an answer. But let’s take this a step further and say that they have memorized one very specific positive body answer and one very specific negative body answer. The positive body answer is, “It keeps me fit” and the negative body answer is “It might hurt me”. So let’s look at five possible questions on either Task 2 or on the Independent Essay and see how many of them we can use these standard answers of STAY FIT and HURT MYSELF for.

QUESTION: Should children be required to take gym class in high school?

POS: I believe that children should be required to take gym class in high school because it helps them stay fit.

NEG: I believe that children should not be required to take gym class in high school because they could hurt themselves.

We were lucky here, because GYM CLASS is already about BODY, so our general catch-all answers work. But we’ll still have to explain specifically HOW children might hurt themselves. And that hurt must be SPECIFIC for each prompt’s situation. At this level of detail a standard answer is no longer possible. For example, let’s imagine our more detailed standard answer is “IT WILL HURT YOUR BACK.”  Will it work in every question? Let’s see:

QUESTION: “Do you agree with the statement that owning your own home is better than renting an apartment?”

ANSWER: I do not agree that owning my own home is better than renting an apartment because home ownership hurts my back.

At first glance, this sounds silly. Millions of people own homes and 99% of them do not have a bad back. And if they DO have a bad back, it is not BECAUSE of home ownership. Now, BAD BACK can still be used to answer this question, but we have to introduce that concept in a way that is unique to the question.

REVISED ANSWER: I do not agree that owning my own home is better than renting an apartment because home ownership requires more physical labor, which might hurt my back.

This is better, but now we have to explain WHAT KIND OF PHYSICAL LABOR hurts the back. Gardening? Shoveling snow? Raking Leaves? Mowing the Lawn?  Again, at this level of detail, whatever answer we come up with, won’t work for another answer. Sure shoveling snow can hurt your back, but we can’t use that for an answer to a prompt like:

QUESTION: “Is it better to wear glasses or contact lenses?”

I think it is better to wear glasses because I will not hurt my back while shoveling snow.

I hope you can see that this answer is TERRIBLE. And we seriously get students who try to answer with these kinds of memorized answers. Now please note that BODY is still a good topic, and even HURT is still a good idea. For example,

I prefer glasses because contacts can infect my eyes.

Now the good thing is that HURT is still our answer, but the bad thing is that we still had to come up with a hurt that was SPECIFIC to contact lenses (an infection).

Please remember that the directions for both the Speaking and the Writing on the iBT say to give “reasons and examples” to support your opinion. These reasons and examples must be specific and relevant to the prompt.

Of course, you can say, “well, I’ll just memorize 10 different kinds of hurt”, but I hope you can see that what we’ve shown here will just happen again.  If you memorized 10 kinds of hurt, then you’ll get a prompt that needs an 11th type of hurt. If you memorize 100 types of bodily injury, then you will get a prompt that requires a 101st type of bodily injury.

Trust us when we say: It is not possible to memorize enough answers.

And on a broader picture. Is this really how you want to be preparing for your college career? I hope you understand that you cannot memorize your way through the American university system.  Sure, you need to memorize many facts in, say, an organic chemistry class. But most of your classes will evaluate you on your ability to think critically and your ability to synthesize new ideas from existing information. Therefore, you might as well begin learning how to do this NOW.

So, in conclusion: Yes, Strictly English encourages you to memorize some GENERAL TOPICS, but we do NOT encourage you to memorize specific details. Instead, you need to learn lateral thinking skills, critical thinking skills, and the ability to synthesize information. These skills are really only taught in university. It’s what differentiates university from high school. Therefore, you really need to be working with Strictly English tutors, all of whom have their Ph.D.s and work at a university.


Categories: Speaking,TOEFL Preparation,Writing

1 comment so far. Leave a comment.

  1. Ali Ibrahim M.ameen

    wrote on May 13, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    toefl is a scary exam

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