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TOEFL Tip #109: Keep It Simple

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 8, 2011

As we discussed several weeks ago, an important key for doing well on the Writing and Speaking sections of the TOEFL is to communicate directly. Using layers of explanations to build up to your main idea is not an advantage on the TOEFL. Complicated responses can be difficult for the rater to assess, and can lead you to make grammar mistakes.

A common version of making your ideas too complicated is “graduate-school-itis.”  The suffix “itis” originally comes from medicine, and means “inflammation.” Common examples include tonsillitis (swollen tonsils), arthritis (swollen joints), and meningitis (swelling of the brain). The “itis” suffix is also used metaphorically to describe attitudes or behaviors, such as “Facebookitis” (constantly checking the social networking site). Graduate-school-itis is a version of this metaphorical use of “itis” – it is the tendency for graduate school applicants to over-extend their thinking and communication.

In many ways, graduate-school-itis is admirable. Graduate school is intellectually challenging, and students who aspire to graduate studies must stretch their critical thinking and communication skills. As part of showing that they are capable of doing advanced work, graduate school applicants take every opportunity they can to push their thinking forward.

Here’s an example of the kind of “pushed” thinking we are talking about. The question asks the student’s opinion about having a new restaurant in the neighborhood. The student replies that having a new restaurant nearby is good for the neighborhood because it will improve racial diversity. At first, this seems strange, until the student explains that most restaurants today hire immigrants to work in their kitchens, and those employees will bring more diversity to her town. This seems like a nuanced and sophisticated way to link together two issues, and to demonstrate that the student can think beyond the obvious reasons (new food to try, new place to meet friends) to want a new local restaurant.

But I hope you can also see that this reason requires TWO arguments. First, the writer has to establish the “fact” about the hiring practices of restaurants, and second, she has to explain the outcome of that “fact.” Not only is this two-step argument too complicated for TOEFL, but it also has too many possible contradictions.  One problem is that not ALL restaurants hire immigrant minorities for their staff. Another problem is that immigrant employees might not be able to afford housing the town that they work in, which means that the neighborhood will NOT become more diverse. Instead, just say that a restaurant in the neighborhood will save you time. Here, all you have to say is that it takes you only 5 minutes to walk to a local restaurant, whereas it might take you 15 minutes to drive to the next-nearest restaurant.

Another example of “pushed” thinking involves using overly complicated language. Instead of just saying, “I like laptops because they are portable,” graduate students often want to say, “Laptops provide students with a sense of utter jubilation because these miracles of modern technology allow aspiring intellectuals to be cosmopolitan nomads.” But such an ambitious sentence – without the help of a dictionary, spell check, or grammar book – ends up sounding like, “Laptops provide studiers with senses of utter jibations for those technologic miracles of modernicity allow intellectuals aspirations that can only be made into nomads of the cosmos.” Using advanced vocabulary is an important skill, but over-loading a sentence like this with elaborate expressions obscures what you are trying to say.

Take consolation, though, that this situation is not unique to non-native speakers of English. Even native English speakers suffer from graduate-school-itis. It is a necessary part of the graduate school experience because it originates from the passion and drive needed for graduate studies. Nevertheless, such convoluted expressions are precisely what graduate school is designed to eradicate.

Remember – the TOEFL is not about being smart. It is about being clear in what you say and write. Leave the complicated intellectual thoughts at home on test day. Being direct in your communication is the smart choice for the TOEFL.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Categories: Speaking,Vocabulary,Writing

2 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » The Year In Review

    wrote on December 31, 2011 at 10:18 am

    [...] approach to the TOEFL and an example of this approach, as well as the advice to be direct and simple, addressed multiple sections of the [...]

  2. Luu, Kim

    wrote on July 19, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    I think the blog is right. Keeping words and sentences simple is the best strategy. We can express them easily and smoothly. With this kind of answers, we will get high scores.

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