What Students Need to Know About Independent Essays

This post will explain some important information about the independent essay! 
​I have noticed a trend lately: a lot of my students do not realize their essays are off-topic.
Recently, I assigned an essay for homework. The prompt was: Some people think travel is a good way to get an education. Others prefer to take college classes. Which do you think is better, and why?
I received a lot of essays that attempted to answer the question, and students did pick one or the other. However, after the introduction, the body paragraphs did not answer the question. For example, one body paragraph said:
College classes are a good way to learn because they are organized. A student takes a class and then has to study and take an exam. For example, when I was in dental school, I studied how bacteria affects the mouth. We learned how it caused cavities to form, and how to fill them. In the labs, we did a lot of manual work in which we polished teeth and built crowns for them. We took exams where our professors monitored our work. In the end, I learned a lot from this class, and all of my professors were very knowledgeable. 
As you can see, the grammar is good. So, what’s the problem?
There is no comparison to travel, and clearly this is an essay asking you to compare.
Here is a body paragraph that answers the prompt much better:
The first reason I feel this way is that while travel is enjoyable, we often do not remember the lessons we learned on the trip. When taking college classes, students have to study and recall facts and information for later. I remember when I went to Rome, I had a great time taking pictures and enjoying all the historical sites, especially the Colosseum. However, I did not really retain information about this significant place and could only say it was amazing and impressive. Then, I took a class about the history of Rome. I learned a great deal about the Colosseum: its purpose, date of construction, and even the materials used to build it. A simple visit to the Colosseum allows you to take in the magnificence of its structure, but you won’t learn anything substantial unless you take a class and study it from a textbook. The need to study and retain information in order to get a good grade makes this a far better learning experience. Consequently, I definitely feel that college classes are a better way to learn than going to a place as a tourist.
The difference is that I actually COMPARED travel and a college class, rather than just talking about the benefits of taking a class. This is how you are expected to answer.  
Since a lot of TOEFL essays ask you to compare, this is definitely worth noting.

By the way, I wrote a full essay that you can read below. This would get a 5/5.
Some people think that travel provides the best education. Other people think that taking college classes is a better way to get an education. Which do you believe, and why?
There is no question that traveling has myriad benefits, and this is why millions of people book vacations every year. Traveling is entertaining and enjoyable, and many people prefer it over classes. However, with regards to education, I strongly feel that taking classes is the best course of action for reasons I will explain in the following essay.
To begin with, when people study for classes, they focus their attention, which will force them to learn more. When people travel, they focus on pleasure and relaxation rather than learning new information. For example, when I was 21, I went on a vacation to Hawai’i with my friends. We spent a week on O’ahu, and we ate at fancy restaurants, relaxed on the beach, and drank cocktails. However, I did not learn anything about the islands or their history. In contrast, last year I took a class on the history of Hawai’i. I learned not only about how the islands were discovered by Polynesians, but also how they were later mapped out by Captain James Cook, a British navigator who created reliable maps of the islands. Furthermore, I learned about ancient customs such as rituals they had related to pleasing their gods, and cultural expectations for men and women. These were things that I had completely ignored when I was taking a vacation for pleasure with my friends many years prior. 
What is more, when you take classes you have to take tests and memorize information which will be stored in your mind for later use. Vacations tend to be ephemeral and forgettable. For instance, I have visited Washington, DC many times but never learned much about American history on my visits. Recently, I took a class about American history. I learned about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars that were fought in this country, and the outcomes of both events. I also learned information about each American President from George Washington to Joe Biden. Furthermore, I learned how democracy was created in the United States, and the contents of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I had to study for several exams, and this committed the information to my long-term memory.  I would say that this one class taught me more in a few months than I learned from ten visits to the nation’s capital.
In conclusion, although traveling is an amazing experience, it’s no substitute for a college education. Taking classes is effective because the focus is on information, and you have to memorize course content in order to pass your exams with flying colors.