How Long Should a GRE Essay be?

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Usually, if someone is asked what they got on the GRE, it’s normal to address your Verbal and Quantitative score. If written out, some people won’t even take the time to write something along the lines of “156 Verbal, 158 Quantitative.” They will simply use V and Q to denote the sections. Many test-takers tend to overlook and be underprepared for the essay portion of the exam. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that graduate and MBA programs will be looking at your essay score

I will admit that it is not uncommon for graduate and MBA programs to primarily focus on the Verbal and Quantitative scores of the GRE. With that said, having a strong essay score can help give your application a competitive edge. In this article we will discuss what the GRE Essay prompts are, how the measure is scored, and tips on writing a solid response, including how long the GRE essay should be. 

The GRE Essay Section

The GRE will kick off with the Analytical Writing section, where you will have one hour to write two essays. You will be given thirty minutes to write each one. Hence, you cannot choose to use forty minutes of your one hour on the first essay and twenty minutes on your second essay. Once the thirty minutes is up, you will be taken to the second essay prompt, even if you are in the middle of typing out a sentence. 

Furthermore, the thirty minutes will not start once you begin typing. You will have to read the prompt, plan out your essay, write your essay, and proofread your essay all in thirty minutes. It is stressful. Test-takers who go in unprepared can find themselves starting off the GRE extremely flustered, which does not set them up for success for the rest of the exam. 

The GRE Essay Scoring 

Some of you might know that if you take the computer-delivered GRE, which almost all of you will, you can choose to “Report Your Scores” after your exam ends. At this time, the computer will display your Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning scores right then and there. However, due to how the Analytical Writing measure is scored, you will not be able to see how you did on your essays until your official score report is released about two weeks later.

Each essay will be scored by a human reader along with a computer system, known as the E-Rater. ETS created the E-Rater in order to scan your essay and look for a variance in sentence structure, vocabulary used, overall length, and format which it can then use to identify your writing proficiency. The E-Rater will give your essay a score ranging from zero to six. The human reader will also provide a score within the same range. 

If the human reader and E-Rater both give your essay a similar score, the average of their two scores becomes that essay’s score. If the scores given were very different, a second human reader will read your essay and grade it from zero to six. In this case, your final score for that essay will be the average of the two human readers scores. 

At this point, your two essays that now have scores ranging from zero to six will be averaged to create your official Analytical Writing section score. This score will also range from zero to six in half-point increments. 

The GRE Essay Prompts

The Analytical Writing measure is composed of two tasks: Analyze an Issue and Analyze an Argument. 

The Issue task will broadly speak to an issue and provide instructions on how to respond to that issue. This essay is probably the most similar to what you have done in school. You will need to consider the issue from multiple points of view and then take a stance on the topic. You will need to demonstrate your critical reasoning skills by using logical examples to support your claim. 

The Argument task will not ask you to build an argument but to evaluate an argument provided to you. You will not be asked to state whether or not you agree or disagree with the argument made. If you do, it is likely you will receive a low score. Instead, you will need to address the logical solidity of the argument. In other words, what parts of the argument need to be evaluated more and why. 

How Long Should a GRE Essay Be?

There is no official length requirement for the GRE essays. For example, if your essay is three paragraphs you will not automatically receive a score of zero or one. Similarly, a six paragraph essay will not automatically receive a score of five. The logical evaluation you provide is more important than length, but it will be hard to write a fully developed analysis of the argument and issue tasks in three paragraphs. 

You should aim to have each essay be five paragraphs and roughly five hundred words (give or take). Your five paragraphs should consist of the following:

  1. Introduction
  2. Body Paragraph 1
  3. Body Paragraph 2
  4. Body Paragraph 3
  5. Conclusion

For an in-depth explanation of how to structure each paragraph, check out our article “How to Write a GRE Essay.” 

Tips for Writing a Good GRE Essay

1. Practice 

When it comes to practicing for the GRE, it is not uncommon to practice everything but the timed essays. At the test prep company I work for, we have a saying that “smooth is fast.” If you want your Analytical Writing section to go smoothly, which will lead to you maneuvering through the section quickly, you must be willing to practice. Let me tell you, it is a terrible feeling to have the clock run out as you are in the middle of typing out a sentence on test day. 

Practicing will allow you to build up a great familiarity with the structure of the essay prompts. How ETS asks you to respond to the Issue and Argument will always be the same. Furthermore, you will get very comfortable with the basic outline of your essays (i.e. how you put together your intro, body paragraphs, and conclusions). Metaphorically, it will be like playing “Hide-and-Go-Seek” in your own home versus someone else’s home on test day. 

Hence, when taking the POWERPREP exams on your ETS account, do not skip over the Analytical Writing sections. Also, read through all the example essays provided by ETS in the Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Guide and reflect on how they were put together. For other writing resources, check out this list of the best GRE prep books, including those that provide essay practice.

2. Take the Time to Plan

On test day, take a few minutes to plan out your essay before you start typing away. Often, we feel so pressed for time we immediately dive into our introduction paragraph before using our scratch paper to create a basic outline. Trust me, time spent doing this is well worth the effort.

Students who do not spend time drafting their essays before they start typing tend to end up with jumbled ideas that have no concrete focus. You must think about what you want to say as a whole and ask yourself the most basic question, “Does it make sense?” Starting to write early on may lead to a longer essay, but if it does not logically flow the amount of words will do little to increase your score.

3. Prepare Examples

When seeking out any test prep expert’s advise on the Analytical Writing section, they will emphasize the importance of the examples you use. You want your examples to be very specific. They can come from history, literature, olympic sports, pop culture, politics, personal examples, current events, and so on. Feel free to be creative with your examples as well! 

Personally, I think current events are wonderful to draw from, and by using them you are demonstrating that you care about society and have opinions on how to improve it (something graduate schools are looking for from applicants). I tell my students to watch the news or read The Economist for two weeks leading up to their test day. Take the time to really reflect on a couple events and develop an opinion about them. 

4. Analyze and Then Analyze Some More

It is not enough to have specific examples written throughout your body paragraphs that demonstrate your expertise if they do not truly support your claim. Many test-takers write the introduction to their body paragraph, follow it up with examples, and then conclude the paragraph. They write zero analysis explaining HOW the examples support their thesis. 

Not only do you need to have sentences dedicated to analyzing your examples, the amount of these sentences should exceed the amount of example sentences. Remember, your number one goal is to show the reader you are an analytical person and can think deeply (hence, “Analytical” Writing measure). 

How Long Should a GRE Essay Be? Summary

The Analytical Writing section will give you one hour to write two essays. One will require you to address the soundness of an argument and the other will ask you to create your own argument based off a given issue. Although there is no official length requirement for the GRE essays, you will still want to make them five paragraphs and aim for five hundred words. 

For general GRE studying resources, check out our list of the best GRE prep courses.