The GRE essay is often overlooked by those preparing for the exam. It is like the forgotten middle child. Although some graduate and MBA programs do not have a minimum essay score requirement, a high score can, without a doubt, set your application apart from the competition.
Knowing how to write a GRE essay will ensure you start off your test with confidence and grace. In this article I will discuss the structure, timing, and scoring process of the GRE essay and how to go about writing one.
The GRE General Test has three portions: Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning, and Quantitative Reasoning. The Analytical Writing section kick starts the exam and this is where you will need to write your essays (yes, essays plural). Hence, if you are not prepared, you could be left feeling frazzled for the rest of the test.
The Analytical Writing measure is composed of two essays: “Analyze an Issue” and “Analyze an Argument.”
The “Issue” Task will ask you to develop your own argument based on an issue presented to you in the prompt. ETS will not give you some obscure issue that you have never heard of before. It will be of general interest and can clearly be evaluated from multiple perspectives. The instructions will ask you to write a response in which you explain the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement, recommendation, claim, or policy (depending on what the issue was).
The “Argument” Task will not ask you to develop your own argument, but to evaluate an argument presented to you in the prompt. There will be a short passage where an author will make a claim for a course of action or interpretation of events. The author will have some kind of reasoning and evidence and you will need to analyze the logical soundness of it.
Each essay will be read by a human reader and a computer system, known as the e-rater. The human reader and e-rater will each assign your essay a grade from 0-6. If their assigned scores are far apart, a second human reader will grade your essay to settle the discrepancy. The average of the two scores will be your essay score.
Once your Issue and Argument essays have their final scores ranging from 0-6, those two scores will then be averaged to create your official Analytical Writing section score ranging from 0-6, in half-point increments.
If you are thinking, “Oh my god, what if I get a 0?!” that is not likely. A score of 0 is left for essays that are not gradable. For example, if you typed in gibberish or didn’t type at all.
Timing is one of the elements I emphasize when teaching students how to write a GRE essay. You will be given 30-minutes to write each essay, for a total Analytical Writing time of one hour. You cannot allocate that one hour. For example, you won’t have the option to use 25 minutes of your time on the Argument Essay and the rest of your time on the other. Once the clock reaches 30 minutes, the computer will move you on–even if you are in the middle of typing.
No matter how serious you take this portion of the GRE, having the clock run out right as you are in the middle of a sentence is a terrible feeling. The best way to ensure this does not happen to you is to study the outline I will discuss, read example essays that are provided in the ETS Official Guide to the GRE Verbal Reasoning, and practice writing at least three of each essay prior to test day.
There is no minimum length requirement for the GRE essays. However, if you evaluate the example essays released by ETS and their corresponding scores, you will notice longer essays tend to score higher.
With that said, the most important element is that you answer the prompt and display a depth of reasoning to the readers. If your essay is long–such as 600 words–but does not do this, you won’t earn a high score. In general, you should aim for a five paragraph essay that is roughly 500 words.
I want you to imagine you are on stage engaging in a presidential debate. You and your opponent have been asked to provide your opinions on a current issue. What do you want to do in order to win over those who are watching? You want to address the issue directly, clearly state your stance, support that stance with logical reasoning, and anticipate how your opponent will respond so you can counter their argument.
This is exactly how you should go about writing your Issue Task. Your goal is to show the reader you can think deeply and balance complex ideas. Do not oversimplify the issue and take a moment to brainstorm before writing.
One of the biggest problems with test takers’ essays is that information gets jumbled and this prohibits logical reasoning. People get to writing so quickly and they veer off track from the topic. Eventually, readers are left thinking “what point are they actually trying to make right now?” Brainstorming is a time for you to organize your essay and ensure that every paragraph has a clear purpose. Always ask yourself “what am I responding to?”
As you build your argument, think about what you have to say in response to someone who would take the opposite stance. This should be your mindset when you are creating your outline.
Introduction Paragraph: Kick start your essay by introducing the topic, ideally in a fun or clever way. Then, transition into a sentence referencing the other side’s perspective. Finish off your introduction paragraph with a thesis that makes your claim clear. Make sure your thesis quickly addresses your “why” behind the side you have chosen to take.
Body Paragraph 1: Your first body paragraph can be where you discuss the other side’s point of view on the issue. Demonstrate that you understand their reasoning and have thought through their perspective. Finish off the paragraph by stating what is wrong with the other side’s perspective and use relevant examples (we will elaborate on good examples in a bit).
Make it clear that you are shifting the paragraph to give your response by using a transitional word such as “however” or “yet.” Once you support your claim with an example or two, provide commentary that demonstrates the logical soundness of the point you are making. Paragraphs should never end with examples. They need to end with your analysis of the examples. At this point of the paragraph you need to leave the reader feeling convinced of your cognitive skills. In terms of our hypothetical presidential debate, this is the time in which you win over those votes!
Body Paragraph 2: Body paragraph two is where you should elaborate on your side of the issue. Present your claim with confidence and solid reasoning. Also, you can be creative with how you provide support for your claim. Choose examples that are relevant to what you are saying and that you are knowledgeable of.
You can draw from a wide variety of examples such as pop culture, history, literary novels, current politics, personal narrative, and so on. The most important element is that the reader understands why the particular example is being used and how it logically supports your argument. Do not choose to mention something such as the U.S. Civil War if you really don’t know much about it. On the flip side, even if you are a U.S. history connoisseur, if the Civil War really doesn’t have to do with your argument, then don’t mention it.
Body Paragraph 3: Body paragraph three can be used to continue to demonstrate that you have thought critically about the various perspectives of the issue. Use this paragraph to discuss potential shortcomings of your argument. Then, deal with the complication by providing a reasonable counterargument.
Throughout the essay, you will be switching back and forth between discussing other perspectives and then your perspective. It is crucial that the reader is always clear on which one you are addressing. Use transitional words (“but,” “yet,” “however,” “furthermore,” “therefore,” “similarly,” “although,” etc.) to show the shift in perspective.
Conclusion: In my opinion, you should not put too much time into the essay at this point. It is better to have a strong introduction and body paragraphs than a long conclusion. Readers go through these essays quickly, and if you have managed to impress them up until now it is quite possible they will skim your conclusion paragraph.
Provide some more commentary on the other side’s perspective and then summarize your own. Perhaps you can find a way to tie everything together by referencing your introduction paragraph. Just make sure to summarize without blunty restating what you have already said.
The Argument Task tests your ability to understand and evaluate an argument. I suggest reading the argument at least twice. During your first read, try to simply get an understanding of what the author’s claim is and how they are supporting that claim. Your second read through is when you want to attack their line of reasoning and enter into your brainstorming phase.
Essentially, you will be writing a five paragraph essay on the gaps in the author’s logic. As you read the argument a second time, try to find three issues–usually each issue will correspond with a particular sentence. Each issue will also become a body paragraph in your essay.
Introduction: In your introduction paragraph, make it clear that you understand the argument of the author. Transition into your thesis sentence where you explain the deficiency of logical soundness due to bad assumptions made by the author. Finish off your introduction by introducing the three flaws that will be your body paragraphs (present the three flaws in the order in which the author did).
Insufficient Evidence: Is the author providing evidence from an experiment or data set that had a bad sample size? Perhaps the statistics provided in the argument do not actually prove or disprove anything because not enough data was gathered or a wider variety of data needed to be gathered.
For example, if the author was making an argument regarding the overall physical health of residents in San Diego, CA, but chose to use data that came from a group of gym goers, odds are that data has skewed their conclusions.
Start off the paragraph with a topic sentence and address the insufficient evidence the author used to support their claim. Make it clear why the evidence provided is not numerically sufficient in supporting the argument, elaborate on why, and provide an example. Finish the paragraph by speaking to the empirical research that could be conducted in order to provide insightful data on the argument made.
Comparing Apples to Oranges: Is the author making a comparison that should not be made? For example, perhaps the author is drawing conclusions about high school education in California by comparing it to primary school in Texas.
Make sure to address the faulty comparison and speak to why the two variables are different. Elaborate on how this comparison affects the soundness of the author’s argument and provide an example. Conclude the paragraph by discussing a solution to the comparison–what two things could be compared in order to provide further conclusions about the argument.
Talk vs. Action: Is the author making an argument that is supported by talk and no action? It is not enough to say what should be done–a logical explanation of how something can be executed is needed in order to have a valid argument.
Address how the author’s argument is relying on talk and no action. Make sure to analyze why this changes the validity of their argument and the type of action that could be taken to fix the gaping whole in their logic.
Correlation vs. Causation: It is very likely the argument presented to you will have a correlation vs. causation issue. This is caused when a claim is made that two things have a causal relationship (one thing directly causes another) when in reality there is no proof of causation between the two data sets.
For example, data could show that as ice cream sales increase so does the sale of sunglasses. Due to the fact that these two variables have a linear relationship, we can say there is a correlation between ice cream sales and sunglasses sold. Is there validity to saying this is a cause and effect relationship? Does buying ice cream directly cause a person to go purchase sunglasses? No. An underlying factor to these two variables could be warm weather.
In your body paragraph, address the causal relationship the author is using to support their claim. Take the reader through a logical explanation of why such an assumption cannot be made and how the two variables could simply correlate. Express why the assumption of causation is problematic to the argument and the randomized controlled trial that could be constructed in order to determine if there is causation.
Conclusion: As with the Issue Task, your conclusion paragraph is not as important as everything that preceded it. Simply sum up your essay and try to make a reference back to your introduction.