Introduction to GRE Analytical Writing
“Getting to know everything about the writing section on the GRE will not only fetch you a perfect score, but also help you become a better writer”…
Getting a 99 percentile score on either of Verbal and Quant sections on the GRE requires several weeks, if not months, of diligence, patience, practice, and smart prep. But with only a fraction of the hard work you put in for Math and Verbal, and just a few days of practice, you can easily get a 99 percentile score on the AWA section. Plus, getting a 6.0 on the AWA isn’t a regular occurrence, and only about 8000 test takers around the world do it every year. So, if you can be one of those guys, you will be famous not only among your friends, but also among the admissions committees.
Unfortunately, the AWA is the most neglected section on the GRE. Test takers across the world believe that they can easily master AWA in a day or two. And look at what they end up with: The average AWA score of a GRE test taker worldwide is a mere 4.0, and the average AWA score of an Indian test taker is even lower. Now, to most Indian students, getting a 4.0 on the AWA might seem like an impressive feat. But in reality, 4.0 is considered just average in most countries. And on top of it, getting a 6.0 isn’t really as tough as it seems. It is only that you don’t know how.
If you are looking to score a perfect 6.0 on the AWA section, you will have to be a lot more planned than most other students. Just as with the Verbal and Quant sections, mastering the essay section on the GRE requires the same amount of confidence, persistence, and practice. And in addition to all that, you will also need a solid guide that can help you with all the strategies and tips. You will need an AWA Bible, so to speak.
But sadly enough, there isn’t much useful information on the internet about this frequently neglected section. Yes, there are some good articles and sample 6.0 essays that you can get with a simple Google search, but nowhere on the internet is a definitive guide to help you write a 6.0 essay on the GRE. And that is why, we at CrunchPrep, decided to provide you with a complete, advanced guide to scoring a perfect 6.0 on the AWA. And hey, don’t blame us if the 6.0 percentile goes down from 99 to 80 soon.
What is the AWA all about?
The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) portion of the GRE consists of two essays, each of which you will need to write in 30 minutes or less. The two essays you will see on the GRE are, Analysis of an Issue and Analysis of an Argument. These two essays will always come first on your GRE test, no matter what. You cannot simply skip off AWA, move on to the other sections, and come back later. AWA itself is a separate section, and only after you finish writing the two essays can you move on further.
Despite what most students say, you should remember that the AWA only tests how well you can write an essay, and hence measures only your writing abilities. Contrary to popular opinion, the AWA does not analyze your thought process. As long as your essay sounds logical, writing ability is all it measures. We will be discussing more about this in the upcoming sections.
How important is the AWA?
It is a widely known fact that your AWA essay score is not as important as your composite math and verbal score on the GRE, and getting a 5.0 or 6.0 won’t make or break your chances of getting admitted to the university of your choice. Graduate school admissions officers only bother about your AWA score, if it is too low, or significantly lower than their usual class average. Yes, a poor score on the AWA can definitely send up a red flag, and the admissions committee will certainly think twice before letting you in. Sometimes, they even go to the extent of rereading your SOP and LORs, to find out if they were actually written by you or someone else. So, it is rather safe to say that the AWA score is an important enough factor when it comes to admissions.
What is the score range for AWA?
The AWA score ranges between 0 and 6.0, with 0.5 point increments. But what exactly does it mean to get a 6.0, or 4.0 or for that matter, a 0 on the AWA? Well, the scoring system is designed in a way that your responses to each of these essay questions are scored on a 6-point scale, with 6 being the highest score and 1, the lowest. Given below, are the parameters that ETS looks at when grading your AWA essays:
6.0 – Outstanding:
A well-articulated critique of the argument/issue, demonstrating mastery of effective writing, and displaying the following characteristics:
- Clearly identifies and analyzes the most important features of the argument with deep insight.
- Develops cogent ideas, organizes them logically, and connects them properly without sudden transitions.
- Supports the main points of the critique strongly.
- Demonstrates superior control of the English language, including diction, sentence formation, spelling, grammar and syntactic variety used in standard written English.
- Few to no flaws in the essay.
5.0 – Strong
A well-developed critique of the argument, demonstrating good control of writing, and displaying the following characteristics:
- Clearly identifies the important features of the argument and analyzes them thoughtfully.
- Develops ideas clearly, and connects them logically, with appropriate transitions.
- Gives a very sensible support to the main points of the critique.
- Has clear control of language, including diction and syntactic variety
- May have minor flaws like spelling errors, but no major flaws.
4.0 – Adequate
A satisfactory critique of the given argument, demonstrating decent control of writing, and displaying the following characteristics:
- Capable of Identifying and analyzing the main features of the argument.
- Develops and organizes ideas satisfactorily, but some important connections and transitions may be missing.
- Supports the main points of the critique.
- Demonstrates sufficient control of language, but may lack syntactic variety.
- May have many minor flaws or some major flaws.
3.0 – Limited
A satisfactory essay with clearly flawed critique of the argument, demonstrating little control of the elements of writing, and displaying the following characteristics:
- Does not identify or analyze many of the important features of the argument.
- Has limited logical development and no proper organization of ideas.
- Offers support of little relevance and value for points of the critique
- Uses language imprecisely and/or lacks sentence variety
- Contains occasional major errors or frequent minor errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
2.0 – Seriously Flawed
An unsatisfactory essay with serious weakness in analytical writing skills, and displaying the following characteristics:
- Demonstrates no understanding of the main features of the argument.
- Almost no analyses of the main points have been made.
- Does not develop any ideas or is disorganized
- Provides nil to few relevant evidences.
- Has frequent serious problems in the use of language, grammar, spelling, and sentence structure.
1.0 – Fundamentally Deficient
An essay full of fundamental deficiencies in analytical writing skills, and displaying the following characteristics:
- Provides little to no evidence of the ability to understand and analyze the main idea.
- Failure to develop an organized response.
- Contains severe and persistent errors in language and sentence structure
- Has an unusually frequent pattern of errors in grammar, usage, and logic.
- A totally incoherent response.
0.0 – Unscorable
A paper that is totally illegible or obviously not written on the assigned topic. A score of zero is given to responses that come under one of the following cases:
- The responses are off topic.
- The responses are written in a language other than English.
- The responses are a mere copy of the given topic.
- The responses consist only of random keystroke characters.
- No response.
So, it is safe to say that if you write at least a few sentences in English, you will get a score of 1.0. But rest assured, no university under the sun will accept a score that low.
How is the AWA graded?
Each of your AWA essays is scored on a scale of 0 to 6. Two readers will read your Issue essay and assign it a deserving score and two different readers will read your Argument essay and assign it a score. Each grader will award a 6.0 to the top essays and scores of 0 are reserved for essays written on topics other than the one assigned or written in a foreign language. The graders spend about 30 seconds to 2 minutes on each essay, and give it a score based on pre-defined evaluation metrics such as the overall quality of your critical thinking and writing, as mentioned previously. The graders who evaluate the responses are college and university faculty members from various subject matter areas, including higher education.
Once the readers finish grading your essay, the two scores will be averaged to arrive at a final AWA score. If the grades given by the two readers differ by more than a point, a third, highly experienced grader is brought in to resolve the discrepancy (i.e., determine your final score for that essay).
For each essay, your final score is the average of the scores assigned by the two readers or the adjusted score assigned by the third reader.
Here’s how a typical Analytical Writing score might be derived:
If you earned scores of 6 and 5 on the Analysis of an Issue, then your final score for the Issue essay would be the average of these two i.e., (6 + 5) /2 which equals to 5.5 and if you earned scores of 4 and 5 on the Analysis of an Argument, your final score on the Argument essay would be (4 + 5) /2 which equals to 4.5.
Your final AWA score will be the average of your scores on Issue and Argument essays i.e., (5.5 + 4.5) /2 which equals to 5, which will be your final AWA score.
It should be noted that though your AWA scores range from 0 – 6, about 90 percent of all scores fall between 2 and 5. The average score for the AWA section for all the test takers so far is around 4.2.
Your Analytical Writing Assessment scores are computed and reported separately from the multiple-choice sections of the test and have no effect on your Verbal, Quantitative, or Total scores. Your score report however will not include copies of your responses; only scores are sent. You will receive your essay scores approximately 10-15 days after your test date.
What do graders look for in your AWA essays?
Most students think that essay length the only important factor when it comes to AWA scoring. But, in reality, it is not. Of course, it is one of the most important factors, but it isn’t the only factor. You will have to take many other factors into consideration, if you are looking to get anywhere near the perfect score. We have complied a list of all the factors that affect your overall AWA score, so you can be well prepared, while improving your writing skills on those lines.
The 7 Elements Graders Look For:
This is the most important, and also the most fundamental of all factors that the graders judge your essays on. The grader should understand what you are trying to say, by reading once. This makes their job easier, and they will understand that if it can be understood with just a single reading, then your essay has clarity.
As we discussed earlier, the grader can spend a maximum of only two minutes per essay, and it is your duty to make sure your essays have clearly composed ideas, because more often than not, graders do not bother to reread your essay and waste another couple of minutes. Consequently, you will end up with a score much lower than what you actually deserve.
Ask yourselves these two questions when you are writing the essays. What are you trying to say? What’s your main point? These two questions must have solid answers by the time the grader finishes reading the essay. If you think about it, these are the exact same questions you will have to answer, during Reading Comprehension. Just like how you can easily solve a Reading Comprehension question if you have answers to those two questions, graders assessing your essay will also need to find answers to these exact same questions, if you need a perfect score. Substance matters more than any other factor when it comes to your essays. So, make sure you have solid points, and clear logical reasoning that can be easily understood.
You should have seen it coming; structure is the second most important factor on your essays. The way an article is formatted, has a massive impact upon its readability. Your essays should read like a story; something that can be easily understood, and something that has a proper structure and organization. So, it is important that you break up your essay into distinct paragraphs, each with its own meaning and context, while maintaining a smooth transition between one paragraph and the next.
This way, every paragraph reads like a separate story, and the essay graders can easily scan through your entire response easily. Plus, since the transitions are smooth, and there aren’t any sudden twists in your response, it will make the grader’s job a whole lot easier.
So, ideally, you should have a structure in mind before you begin writing the essay. The general structure is to start with an introductory paragraph followed by 3-4 body paragraphs and finish off with a conclusion paragraph. So, you should make sure that there are at least 5-6 paragraphs in your essay, if you want a solid score on the AWA.
3. Sentence Variety
Even though you are writing several paragraphs on the same topic, you should ideally avoid writing similar or same sentences. If you are an avid reader of news, you get the point. No good writer under the sun writes two exactly same sentences in a single essay or article. Consecutive sentences with the same structure and length can sound monotonous and lifeless, and will obviously bore the reader.
Instead of sounding repetitive and boring, use sentence style skillfully. But this doesn’t mean you should rearrange the words, or chance the voice from passive to active or vice versa. It simply means that you should use a different variety of words to mean the same thing.
For example, if you have already written the sentence ‘The most important virtue of a leader is a strong sense of ethics.’, and if you have to use the same sentence at a later point in the essay, you should try and rephrase that same sentence and write something like this: ‘A strong moral framework is paramount for any leader.’ Get the point?
In this way, you should keep varying the sentence structures, flow and rhythm by switching between short and long sentences. You should also make use of transitional and signal words to vary sentence openings and endings.
There has been a longstanding myth among test takers that the GRE really loves heavy vocabulary, and using it on your AWA essays will boost your score. Well, this isn’t true at all. We have seen students with exceptional vocabulary but poor coherence get paltry AWA scores in the past. And we have seen students with great essay scores without using heavy vocabulary.
Like we said earlier, the AWA is not testing how much vocab you have in your arsenal. There’s Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion for that. AWA only tests how logically you can deduce information and write a reasonable critique about an issue or an argument made by someone else. So, don’t buy those myths. As long as you use sensible reasoning, proper grammar and as long as you can defend your point intelligently and use precise vocabulary to convey meaning effectively, you should be alright. It is not needed that you use heavy vocabulary or GRE words.
5. Language and Grammar
Though officially ETS says you may have minor errors in the essay copy, that doesn’t mean you can ignore silly mistakes. Even though the mistakes or errors do not interfere with overall meaning and coherence, you should understand that the time you make your first error on the essay, the grader will notice it, and will be more conscious while reading the rest of the copy. The grader will be even more vigilant to see if there are any visible or obvious blunders that you have made, and this can have a negative impact on your AWA score. So, try and make sure your essay is as spotless as possible, and eliminate all errors before submitting. Take time to proofread your essay, once you finish writing it. Don’t be in a hurry to submit it off and skip to the next section.
Reasoning plays a key role in determining the overall quality of your essay. You should always look to include as many logically compelling reasons as you can to support your stance. One of the most important features about a compelling essay is its ability to convince the reader by means of sound logical reasoning. Anyone who reads your response should be totally convinced of your view point, without having second thoughts. To be able to write such a compelling and well-reasoned copy within 30 minutes would be rather difficult, but you can definitely do it with a lot of practice.
So ideally, you should be able to connect your ideas properly to the central theme or idea of the essay, and convince the reader to agree to your point of view. If the essay doesn’t sound logical or reasonable, you will unfortunately have to pay the penalty, no matter how long the essay is.
In order to make your essay sound reasonable and logically sound, you will obviously need to provide sufficient evidences. If you want to impress the readers, and convince them to agree to your point of view, you will ideally want to provide convincing evidence to back up your thesis. Search for evidences, either direct or implied, and connect them with the essay. You can even create some random examples and evidences, as long as they fit the bill and don’t sound too random. Develop examples that cogently reinforce your thesis is key to a high essay score.
So, those are the 7 most important elements that graders look for in your essays. Make sure you have all these things covered in your essay, and you’re sure to see a perfect score.
Should you skip the AWA section during practice?
This is probably a question that is on the minds of many students. Almost half of the GRE test takers are native English speakers. And these students tend to neglect practicing the AWA section at home, because according to them, it’s not worth investing time on something they are very confident about. But, there are a few vital points that they don’t realize. We’ve observed what students do when they practice for the GRE, how their approaches have affected their scores on test day, and figured out four reasons as to why the AWA section is an extremely important aspect of the GRE exam.
Number 1 Reason Why Practicing GRE AWA is Important: Inflated Scores During Practice:
This is the single most important thing to consider when we talk about the importance of the essay section. Students normally tend to skip the essay section when they take practice tests, so they can directly go to the first section of Math/Verbal. Though this might seem like the obvious choice to you, you should consider the aftereffects before jumping into conclusions.
Think about it. The GRE is not a typical test that you encounter at college or elsewhere. It is a marathon. An intense, 3 hour 45 minute journey, which obviously you aren’t accustomed to. Now, if you skip the essay section during practice, you’ll be forfeiting 60 minutes of the total test time, which means you are going to have to sit for 2 hours and 45 minutes only.
This translates into an inflated overall score during practice, because you are just that much more active than you will be on test day. So, you get accustomed to sitting for 2 hours 45 minutes for the test, and your brain is hardwired to concentrate for that much time only. But, on test day, you still have two more sections to finish after you complete 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Do you get the point? It’s that extra one hour of concentration that requires sudden attention from your brain, which it sadly isn’t ready for. This is exactly why thousands of students score very low on their last two to three sections. They simply aren’t ready for the extra time, because their brains feel tired already. So, if you don’t skip the essay during practice, you’ll be writing in the exact test conditions as on test day, thereby training your brain for the big encounter.
There are a few other important reasons why you should not skip off AWA during practice, and we have discussed them separately.
How Long Should My Essay Be?
The essay graders are aware that you only get 30 minutes to write each AWA essay and they also know that you won’t be able to cover every possible argument, reason and rebuttal. Hence they do not expect you to write a super long detailed analysis of the issue or argument given to you. Remember that most GRE test takers won’t be able to find time to cover everything they would like to cover on the test.
So, how long should your AWA essay be? We see students wondering about this all the time and we know you would like to know about it too. ETS has not spoken out about the ideal length of an essay, and there is no word on the word limit as such. But there seems to be a pattern that appears on GRE sample essays that come along with the ETS official guide to the GRE.
When closely observed, there is a significant increase in the number of words from a 5.0 graded essay and a 6.0 graded essay. The reality is, longer essay is usually better. To analyze further on this topic, we have done a bit of research, and found out an interesting relation between essay length and the final score. If you look at the statistics below, you will have to concur with me. Longer essays usually score better on every essay topic.
If you are a long-essay fan and insist to pen a high scoring AWA essay on the GRE, you should write anywhere between 500-600 words. Don’t ask us why. The research shows that’s how it is, and if it true for a sample of 500 students, it must be true on a larger scale as well.
A column chart with average word count for essays from 500 students
As you can see, the longer the essay, the higher the grades. Notice that a 5+ point essay has length exceeding 500 words. Another interesting fact is, it seems as if 600 is an upper limit for word count. If you go beyond 600 words, you can see how the scores go down. This isn’t surprising, though. Almost no student on this planet can write a perfect 800 word essay under pressure in 30 minutes. If someone is shooting for a high word count, they are surely sacrificing on quality. So, it’s safe to say that 500-600 is what you should be looking at.
If you’d like to know more about the GRE essay length, we’ve done a separate post on that. Go check it out now.
Categorization of GRE Essay Topics
The most fascinating thing about the GRE essay section is that each and every essay topic that shows up on the real test is already published on the official ETS website. This may sound crazy because giving out the questions in advance is totally unnatural. By knowing the topics beforehand, you can prepare sample responses for all those topics and on the test day, all you need to do is just reproduce your sample response. Isn’t that a great advantage for you? You can get a perfect 6.0 score very easily!
But there’s a catch! You were expecting a few, aren’t you?
Well, there are close to 200 topics in all – far too many to practice responses in advance. Also, practicing each of these topics is not advisable as it is going to take a lot of time and effort and there is no point in mugging them up. You could as well spend this time on learning some math or vocabulary. However, there’s a good news. Just scanning through these two lists of essay topics will give you an excellent idea of the types of issues and arguments that show up on test day.
Now, most of the topics that show up on the GRE Essay section can be broadly grouped into five categories. I made things a bit easy for you and listed those five categories below. Take a look.
- Sciences and Technology
So, next time when you practice writing an essay response, make sure you write at least an essay from each of these categories.
How do I get ideas for the essay?
This is most likely the second most frequently asked question in our support mails by students around the world. It’s because a large number of issue and argument prompts on the official essay pool are hard to understand correctly. And when you don’t understand something, how can you write about that something?
So, what can you do about to solve this problem? Here are a couple of things you should work on:
If you were asked to write about a topic from out of nowhere, you would struggle for ideas. But when you already know that there could only be five categories from which your essay topics can show up, then you can turn the table in your favor. You should keep a few related examples for each one of these categories (i.e. education, arts, politics, technology, philosophy) as they will be handy and save you precious time on the test day.
Also, the essay prompts are full of obscure vocabulary and hence are hard to comprehend. Since, every essay prompt that could appear on the GRE is openly accessible on the official ETS website, you should give them a read through. While reading, you should also make note of all the unfamiliar words and later learn them. Learning these new words will ensure that you understand the topic well or at least allow you to take a very good guess.
How to get your essays graded?
Believe it or not, one of the most frequent questions that we receive from students around the world, is how they can get their essays graded. That is a good question, actually. Given the fact that there are so many practice tests for the GRE where you get your Math and Verbal sections graded, there is not even one practice test in the entire world that can grade your AWA score for you. If you are wondering why, it is because it is not at all easy to grade your essay instantaneously.
Think about it. Even on the test day, you will only receive your Math and Verbal scores, but not the AWA score. ETS itself takes about 7-10 days to give you an official report of your AWA score. It is that difficult to assess an essay. Plus, it is required that a human grader reads and grades your essays, if you want an accurate score. Which is obviously impossible if you are taking a practice test at home.
So what can one do? Is there no way to get your AWA essays graded? Well thankfully, there are quite a few options that you can consider. We’ve listed down all the available options, and it is up to you to decide which of them you want to choose.
5 Ways to Get Your AWA Essays Graded
ETS Score It Now!
The ETS Score It Now, is a great feature available for you to get your essays graded. For a small amount of $13 dollars, the ETS Essay Grader will grade two of your essays. You can submit any two of your essay responses, and the software will get back to you with a graded score of your AWA. Now, for most students around the world, and especially for those from the developing world, $13 is quite a lot of money.
And that is probably the reason why most students don’t even know that such a facility is available. We must agree, that even we at CrunchPrep have never used the service ourselves, or know any student who has, simply because we did not need to. Our expert tutors, on the other hand, have been grading student essays for free for a long time now. But nevertheless, we’re pretty sure that the ETS Score It Now feature will get you an accurate score, because well, it’s ETS who developed it.
And there is one more downside with this feature. The score is all you get, when you submit your essays. No feedback. Now, you would expect that ETS would give you some valuable tips to improve your score, but unfortunately, that $13 you spend is only going to get you a couple of numbers from ETS. So, unless you don’t need feedback, you are really not improving on the essay, and you have money to spend, you should definitely try and consider some other alternatives to this service offered by ETS.
Friends, Family, and Experts
Yes. However unbelievable it might seem, your friends can sometimes help you get better marks. They can help you identify the mistakes you did not find obvious enough, and you also get an outsider’s opinion on your essays, and therefore on your points of view. Now, even though your friends might be untrained, or unaware of the GRE AWA grading system, having a second pair of eyes look at your writing can be really beneficial to finding your flaws. Plus, you receive feedback then and there, right on your face, and it is sometimes the easier way to learn.
But before you let your friends or family judge your essays, you should tell them beforehand that you only had 30 minutes to write your essay, and so they should not expect you to write an award-winning piece. You should also tell them to pay attention to, and then judge you on the following aspects of your essay: structure, logical flow of ideas, and persuasiveness of examples. They should ideally not be looking for impressive words or sentence framing, but it is just an added bonus.
If however, you are too shy to ask your friends or family, try asking an experienced professor at your college, preferably a professor in linguistics or someone who is really good at formal, written English language. These professors not only give you an accurate assessment of your essays, but will also give you valuable insights as to where exactly you can improve your writing skills.
When you don’t have access any professors or wise friends who can help you evaluate your AWA essays, the best option you are left with, is you. Self-evaluation, though most of the time not recommended, can be a really useful option for you. There are hundreds of mock essays on the internet, and with a simple google search, you can get access to various essays for the GRE. Even the ETS website has a few sample answers for essays, and the same questions have sample answers which are purposefully written to mirror a 6.0, or a 5.0 level essay, for example.
So, if you can compare your response with those on the internet, you can roughly estimate whether your answer is closer to the 4.0 or the 5.0 sample. If you can do this a lot of times, you will begin to see a definite pattern, which can help you estimate your average AWA score. Also, most mock essays usually have an explanation at the end, which explain why they have been given their respective scores. This really helps you see if your essay is lacking in similar ways.
This sounds rather difficult, and it actually a really complex and time taking process, which is why you should try and take this approach as a last measure; if you cannot find any other alternative helpful enough.
If you are an internet geek, you would probably agree that sometimes, internet strangers are really helpful in nature. There are many GRE forums like Urch, PaGaLGuY, etc, where you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of GRE experts and aspirants, who wouldn’t mind lending a hand. Thousands of GRE aspirants visit these forums every single day, and if you can post your essay and ask for some feedback, more often than not, someone will provide you with the necessary assistance. While this someone may or may not be an expert, it often helps to have a second opinion from someone in your niche.
Alright. We’ve saved the best for the last. GMATAWA.com is probably the most fantastic resource out there, when it comes to grading your essays. It was developed to grade GMAT AWA essays, but rest assured, there’s not much difference between GMAT and GRE AWA essays. The basic structure of essays is the same everywhere, and this website is really helpful in grading your essays.
The grading happens instantaneously, and as soon as you submit your essay, you will receive a composite AWA score, along with various metrics on which your essay has been graded. We, at CrunchPrep, assure you that, other than ETS Score It Now, this is probably the most accurate AWA rater you will see, and you can expect a similar AWA score on your exam as well. So, make full use of this feature, and assess your writing strengths and weaknesses. However, you should remember that the website allows you to grade only 10 essays per email address, so choose wisely which essays you will be sending.
So, those are the five ways that you can get your AWA scores graded. Most often, more than one of the resources mentioned above will definitely be helpful to you. And by the way, remember this: Only two things can make you a better writer – Practice, and Feedback.
How does the GRE essay work?
The GRE essay section, also known as the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), actually comprises two parts: the Issue essay and the Argument essay. You are allotted 30 minutes for each essay. Both test your ability to write a cogent thesis statement that you must defend over the course of several paragraphs.
What is the difference between the Issue and the Argument essays?
Photo by amotid.com
As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position
The Issue essay asks you to respond to and analyze a general statement, like the ones above, that relates to politics, education, or culture. Essentially, you are taking a position on a complex matter.
Woven baskets characterized by a particular distinctive pattern have previously been found only in the immediate vicinity of the prehistoric village of Palea and therefore were believed to have been made only by the Palean people. Recently, however, archaeologists discovered such a “Palean” basket in Lithos, an ancient village across the Brim River from Palea. The Brim River is very deep and broad, and so the ancient Paleans could have crossed it only by boat, and no Palean boats have been found. Thus it follows that the so-called Palean baskets were not uniquely Palean.
Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument and explain how the evidence would weaken or strengthen the argument.
The Argument, by contrast, asks you to dissect the logic behind a position. The position is provided in a paragraph, and thus requires a little more reading than the Issue task.
Where can I find sample topics?
Good news! ETS publishes the entire pools of Issue topics and Argument topics on its site. The topics you see on your test will be drawn from those pools, so this is an essential resource.
How are the essays scored?
Deep in a dark room far, far away resides a poor soul who must sort through an interminable stack of GRE AWA essays. In a mere thirty seconds, that person must award a score from a 0.0 – 6.0, based on 0.5 increments. The grader is typically a university literature/writing professor who, according to ETS, has undergone rigorous training in order to qualify.
But that’s only half of the story.
This next part sounds a little nefarious — so hold onto your seats. Over the course of the last decade or so, ETS has developed–and it would say refined–the “E-rater”, an automated essay grader.
While it may seem that HAL, the diabolical talking computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has been unleashed to wreak grading havoc on your essays, the “E-rater” is only used as a second “grader” to ensure that the human grader isn’t napping at the job. If the “E-rater’s” score differs by more than one point (on the half point scale) from the human grader’s score, your essay is sent to another human grader, the master grader–who, presumably, resides in an even darker room.
Your final score is the average of the two essays, rounded up to the nearest .5. At least for now, HAL has not completely taken over — the “E-rater” serves only as a check on human error. That is not to say that one day the two human graders will emerge from their dark rooms as anachronisms (as far as GRE essay grading goes). Let’s hope that such a day never comes, the day in which admission to a top-notch grad school hangs in the precarious balance of a robot grader.
How does the GRE AWA scoring range work?
What exactly does it mean to get a 0.0, or for that matter a 6.0 on GRE Analytical Writing? Well, a 0.0 means you fell asleep, your forehead planted firmly on the keyboard, an endless series of gobbledygook forming on screen. A 6.0 is a consistently insightful and well-crafted essay, running a good 80-plus lines.
You may think I’m jesting with the 0.0, but really I’m not: those essays are deemed “Ungradeable.” Hence, very few students end up getting a 0.0, or, for that matter, a score below a 2.0. Indeed, the vast majority of students fall between a 3.0 and a 5.0.
So what exactly does it mean to get a 3.0 vs. 4.0, or a 4.5 vs. a 5.0? For me to really answer that it would take at least several pages, including example essays. Instead, have a look at the scoring guidelines on ETS. Or, to really get a sense of how the scores work, have a look at a few sample essays. You may even want to compare them to any mock essays you’ve written, to get a rough sense of where you would score.
ETS has full descriptions of what an essay of each score looks like on its Score Level Descriptions page. The links to the sample essays are included below.
Is there anywhere I can get my essays graded?
While there is no better teacher than feedback, having someone give you an honest critique of your essay is difficult. ETS offers a service to grade your GRE AWA essays. But that is all you will get. A simple score. No feedback. People have tried, apparently, but nobody at ETS will provide feedback (apparently, the “E-rater” has not yet evolved to this level of sophistication).
Luckily, things aren’t quite as bleak as that. Over the years, I’ve seen many students asking for feedback on the forums (urch.com, thegradcafe.com) and munificent souls (usually GRE test takers with strong writing skills) provide insightful analysis. While that may not sound all that reassuring, remember that this feedback is free of charge and there really isn’t much else out there in terms of essay feedback.
More creative ideas on how to get your essay graded here. Let us know if you have any others, we’d love to hear them! 🙂
What do the graders look for?
The graders look for the three C’s: clarity, coherency, and cogency.
First off, you must express your ideas in a clear manner. If you jumble your words, or simply throw in unnecessary words, doing so compromises clarity. But your essay is not just one sentence with a clearly expressed idea; it is a set of ideas that should logically connect to one another. That is coherency.
Next you want to provide convincing evidence to back up your thesis. You can throw in some vague example, but doing so means your essay will probably lack cogency. Develop an example that cogently reinforces your thesis is key to a high essay score.
There are some other factors that play into the human grader’s assessment. Style is important; an essay with choppy sentences and unsophisticated vocabulary will be awarded a lower score, all other things being equal, than an essay with mature syntactical development and GRE-level vocabulary deployed felicitously.
There is also the issue of grammar. Even though the graders doesn’t set out to nitpick at grammar, as soon as you make the tiniest mistake, he or she will notice. Anything from improper use of pronouns to misspelling common words can negatively impact your score. At the same time, a grammatical flub or two won’t preclude an essay from getting a perfect score, as long as everything else about the essay is top-notch.
I should note that the essay grader takes around 30 seconds to grade an essay. He or she scans to make sure that you have clearly organized your information, and that your paragraphs start with a topic sentence and flow into specific examples that support your analysis. The grader looks to make sure you have a conclusion that articulates what you’ve already stated. He or she gives you a score and they move on to the next essay.
How long do my essays have to be?
Without running afoul of the censors–size matters. Believe it or not, out of two essays that are identical, save for length, the longer will receive the higher score. That doesn’t mean you should frantically scribble away, hoping that a seven-paragraph essay will automatically confer the much coveted ‘6’. Substance matters greatly. But as long as all the parts of your essay are there, you should shoot for a five-paragraph essay: an intro, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
I should also point out that six paragraphs a long essay do not make. Paragraph length matters too. And, of course, don’t forget that each of those paragraphs has to flow logically and clearly from your thesis.
How do I practice for GRE Analytical Writing?
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Essay writing is tough. Practicing for the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment–given that it’s difficult to get feedback–makes things even more unpleasant: you write and write without knowing if you are really improving. But do not despair–there are sample essays, friends and family, and the ETS essay grading service.
By simply writing often you will be able to write with greater command and facility. With diligent practice, words will not seem submerged deep in your hippocampus, but will spring to life on the page.
2. Don’t forget to outline/brainstorm
You must think about what you are going to write before you write. I’m sure many amongst you subscribe to the school of thought that if you write, they will come: the words, the compelling examples, and the nuanced logic. When practicing for the GRE, you must avoid this tendency and instead spend a few minutes coming up with a roadmap (either in your head or on the computer screen). At first this step will slow you down and you will want to go back to the old method. Be patient. Once you become adept at outlining, the essay will write itself.
3. Spend lots of time editing your practice essays
Though you won’t get much of an opportunity to edit your essay test day, sedulously editing your practice essays will make you more aware of your mistakes, both grammatical and logical. Correcting these mistakes will not only help you anticipate them in the future, but will also make the writing and logic in your future essays clearer.
4. Constantly read sample essays
By reading other students’ essays, you will develop a sense of what ETS is looking for. You’ll also be able to better judge your own essays. Throughout practice sessions you should keep tweaking your essays, so they get closer and closer to the next score up. So if you started at a ‘3’, then focus on getting to a ‘4.’ Once you think you’ve done so, shoot your essay over to the ETS grading service.
5. Improve grammar
ETS explicitly states that it is looking for the quality and clarity of thought, and not grammar per se. Yet the two are closely related. So if you struggle to articulate something–and in doing so break a grammatical rule (or three!)–you will sacrifice clarity. Even minor grammatical errors (faulty pronouns, subject/verb agreement) will mar the overall quality of your writing.
How do I improve my grammar and style?
Between grammar and style, grammar is much easier to improve. Great style is much more elusive. Indeed, many writers have cultivated their prose style over years of assiduous practice. Rest assured though–to score well on the GRE your prose does not have to be fit for The New York Times. You do want to avoid choppy sentences by varying up your sentence structure. You shouldn’t be averse to trading a simple word for a more complex one as long that word is appropriate for the context.
A great book that offers writing advice, from dangling modifiers to how to construct compelling, dynamic sentences, is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
For a more stern approach to writing, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style has helped students for over half a century.
The only reason I mention both of these books is they focus not only grammar but also on style. Many grammar books should suffice, as far as grammar goes–but they are short on teaching writing style, which is a great skill to have for the GRE (and beyond!).