2013 Examples for Your Essay


We have reached that time of year where the “Best of 2013” stories start popping up on all the websites you frequent. Take a moment and click through a few of them. The information you find there may just be useful.

Current events are a great way to connect generic essay prompts to more concrete ideas that readers more easily connect with. The problem is that current events seem not to stay current very long and the constant flood of information we receive tends to wash out the relevant bits to the prompt in front of us when test day stress kicks in. So how do you get the focus you need while still maintaining a broad pool of examples from which you can draw?

That’s where those top stories lists can come in handy. Current events provide concrete examples that can help prove a point, without needing significant explanations to explain their significance. For instance, if I said “George Zimmerman” in an effort to explain something about race relations, “stand your ground laws”, or criminal justice in the media, you will instantly understand what I was talking about. If I said the “Boston Marathon bombings” you could instantly connect that to ideas of terrorism, how social media has changed news, or how people come together in a time of tragedy.

Hopefully those connections show you how handy current events can be for connecting abstract ideas to subjects that your readers will instantly understand.  Let’s use the following prompt as an example to see how this might work:


“Do we value only what we struggle for?”


This is exactly the type of prompt question that many students will struggle with because it doesn’t immediately call to mind relevant examples. It seems too abstract. However, if you’ve recently looked over a list of current events, you’re likely to find something that you can connect with this topic. For instance, if you’re trying to show that we do only value what we struggle for, you might bring up the murder case of Aaron Hernandez. You might discuss his NFL career and how he’d just come into millions of dollars and a comfortable lifestyle. You could then make the argument that he didn’t value his freedoms until there were taken away from him, and that if he’d struggled more he would have been less likely to put himself in position where he would lose that freedom.

If instead you wanted to say we don’t only value what we struggle for, you might bring up the royal baby, Prince George. For the people of Britain his birth wasn’t a struggle or a burden, but they got immense joy from his birth. They value another life that can continue their line of royal succession without having to struggle.

Take a look at those best of 2013 lists this week. You might just find an example that will help put your essay over the top!

 It’s Not All About You—Avoid First Person


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Do you enjoy hearing people talk all about themselves? “Me this and me that. I went here. I’ve been there. I know what we should do. Look what I just bought. Well, I think that…” On and on and on they go completely unaware that a conversation involves listening—oblivious to the eye rolls and disinterested sighs of their cornered interlocutors.

Writing is no different. Your reader doesn’t want to constantly hear you talking about yourself, making reference to yourself, or driving home your opinion. Readers want balance and honesty. They want a compelling style and a humble narrator.

Take this paragraph as an example:

I find it hard to focus when I know that there are so many problems in the world. Sometimes I can’t even get through my day when I think about the disease and war and starvation that plagues our world that we see constantly because of our instantaneous consumptive media world. But should I be worried? Should I try to push these ideas from my mind to focus on my life? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, I don’t think there is anything I can do. But maybe there is something I can do, however small and insignificant it may seem.

Notice how the paragraph changes when first person is removed. No longer is the focus on the writer; the focus is on the larger picture. The points are more concise and compelling freed from a subjective experience.

The world is full of problems. Disease and war and starvation plague the world and are more visible in our instantaneous consumptive media world. Should people react with concern? Should they try to push these ideas from their mind to focus on their lives? Theses issues are so vast and huge and complex, some may think there is nothing to be done. But there is always something that can be done, however small and insignificant it may seem.


Now this doesn’t mean you can’t use first person and reference yourself, but this should be done occasionally and thoughtfully, and it should generally not be in the form of “I think,” or “I believe,” or “I feel.” Good authors don’t do this because they take the time to craft sentences and paragraphs that make it clear how they feel. And the really good writers make it subtle, couching their opinion in structure and adjectives, letting the reader decipher their opinion. And the reason for doing this? To let the reader make their own decision. No one wants to be told what to believe. Readers are people and want to decide for themselves. Aim to empower your reader—not pontificate at them.

For example, this sentence is too much:

I believe that chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.

The whole thing is one big opinion. When a writer uses words like “the best” or “ever created,” objectivity has been subsumed in subjectivity. Assume that your reader is smart enough to realize this and remove “I believe” from your sentence because ultimately it’s redundant.

Chocolate ice cream is the best type of ice cream ever created.


The acceptable times to use “I” are when you want to remind your reader that you are like them, that you too are human, are passionate and compassionate, or are trying to commiserate with the reader. Notice the subtle use of “I” to allow the writer to connect with the reader.

The recent discovery of U.S. spying, and especially with the cooperation of large tech companies like Facebook and Google, has reignited questions of privacy on the Internet. This is an important conversation to have, and one that I am glad to engage in, since it involves not only protection of privacy, but also the trade off between rights and security. A fundamental question that we all must grapple with. How much do I want to give up in order to be safe? The answer to this question will be different for each person, but after 9/11, and more recently Boston, everyone agrees that some of our privacy should be sacrificed for protection—we just need to decide how much.


If you are writing a letter to a friend, a personal email, a note to your mom, or a love poem, feel free to use first person. These are the appropriate times to use “I” in your writing. But do so sparingly. It will improve your style. Ultimately, the recommendations in this post are for more formal settings, like papers for school, work emails, and timed essays for tests.



 Write in Active Voice—Avoid Passive Voice Answers



Which picture do you find more compelling? The player driving to the basket for a layup? Or a ball going through a basket? I assume that nearly everyone is more interested in the picture on the left than the one on the right. We are social animals, compelled by human stories and drama. To have a player scoring is far more interesting than a ball falling through the net because we don’t know who scored the point or how hard they strived to score.

Writing in active voice is the picture on the left; writing in passive voice is the picture on the right.


What is it?

In active voice the actor does the action. In passive voice the actor receives the action. It’s the difference between creating a sentence that tells the reader who did what, and in that order, or creating a sentence that tells us what was done by whom.

The basic structure of an English sentence follows the pattern subject-verb-object. In active voice the actor is in the subject position of the sentence. In passive voice the actor is absent or placed in the object position of the sentence.

Active Voice: The player drives to the basket.
Passive Voice: The basketball was shot. 

All passive voice contains a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being). But not every sentence with a be verb is passive. The previous sentence is not passive because the be verb links an adjective (passive) to a noun (sentence).

Passive sentences may also have a prepositional phrase at the end to indicate who the actor is:

Passive VoiceThe basketball was shot by a player.

But if this sentence is about the picture at the top, then it infers who that actor is since no one is present in the picture. Yet another problem.


Write in Active Voice!

The difference between active and passive voice is simple really—the difference between putting the actor at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. But the effects on your writing are dramatic.

Take a mundane sentence as an example: Ice cream was reimagined by Ben and Jerry.

The actors sit at the back of the sentence. What normally would sit in the object position of the sentence after the verb (ice cream) finds itself in the spotlight at the beginning of the sentence. Extra words crowd the sentence (by and was). Also, the compelling verb (reimagined) loses its punch in the passive voice. The -ed crumbles the word into a phantom of its true self.

What about this instead? Ben and Jerry reimagined ice cream.

This sentence has umph and power. It’s forceful and compels the reader forward. The actors sit at the front of the sentence and act out the action of the sentence. The verb sings now.

Also, passive voice should be avoid because it is not emphatic and often a sign of an author who doesn’t know what to say. Or, sometimes people want to hide responsibility for some action or veil their lack of knowledge and so turn to passive voice to do so. Don’t come off as an indecisive writer shirking responsibility. Change your passive voice.

Put the actor at the beginning of the sentence. Activate your verbs. Eliminate the extra words. Passive voice will weigh down your sentences.


Choose answers that are in active voice

Test makers love to foil students with passive voice answer choices. Once you add this to your checklist of possible errors on the test, it will be easy to notice and easy to narrow down your choices. Whether you are dealing with GMAT Sentence Corrections or SAT Improving Sentences, testmakers will definitely test this skill, so be on the look out. Eliminate all answer choices in passive voice. You will start getting more answers correct if you do.


But don’t hate passive voice–sometimes it’s appropriate

Passive voice tends to get a bad rap. Yes, it does add extra words to sentences. Yes, it does make verbs less compelling. Yes, it does arrest the forward movement of sentences. And yes, it does result in tentative sentences.

Yet sometimes we need passive voice.

For one, sometimes we actually don’t know who the actor is. When an action has taken place, and we want to talk about it, then we need to use passive voice. For example:

The ball was thrown through the glass window.

At times, we would rather emphasize the action and not the actor or to emphasize the receiver of the action. This is a time to use passive voice:

The houses, the cars, the trees, the entire small town was demolished by the storm.





 @DanaGoats: You’re right! 30 Minutes is not Enough Time



I couldn’t agree with you more, @DanaGoats. Thirty minutes is an egregious amount of time for writing an essay. Some of the topics are so broad, expansive, and complex that you could write a whole book on the issue. Here is a great example: “As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.” This issue is so difficult to understand and grasp and that to really know, and to really provide a strong reasoned essay, you would need time, like a few months, maybe years. I mean, this issue is discussed in this article, this article, this abstract, this book, and this book. And that is only a small sampling.

So how do we deal with only thirty minutes for an essay?

First the graders understand the pressure that you are under. According to ETS, “Although the GRE readers who score your essays understand the time constraints under which you write and will consider your response a first draft, you still want it to be the best possible example of your writing that you can produce under the testing conditions.” They consider your writing a first draft. As such, an essay could contain a misspelled word or an errant comma and still receive a perfect score. That being said, you should save time to revise and correct your essay. If they see errors repeated throughout the essay, they will knock down your score.

Second, they are not really testing your essay writing skill. According to them, “The Analytical Writing measure tests your critical thinking and analytical writing skills. It assesses your ability to articulate and support complex ideas, construct and evaluate arguments, and sustain a focused and coherent discussion.” Not to say that this makes it easier, but they are more interested in your ideas than your grammar (this is not a license to neglect grammar). They want to see coherence and development—not a fabricated essay format or a research paper. They want to see analytical skills and critical thought.So in thirty minutes, ETS can make some assumptions about what kind of thinker and writer you are.

Third, imagine that you are crafting a business email for a prospective client. You want to come off clear and precise. You don’t want to be too formal, but you don’t want slang and idioms to crowd the email. Also, you know that the client will appreciate a stylistically clear and grammatically correct email. ETS is no different, so trying approaching the essay as an email for a potential client, not an essay for school.

Finally, you have opportunities to prepare for this essay so that you can really focus your time on test day. The preparation you do now will only benefit you when you have the thirty minute pressure weighing down on you. Here is a collection of articles that can help you prepare for the essays on the GRE.

  1. Outlines for Timed Essays: Establish outlines for potential essays before test day so that you don’t have to think about it during the test. Just use an outline you have already mapped out and fill it with the specifics of the prompt in front of you.
  2. Coming up with Examples for Timed Essays: Start generating examples now. ETS publishes example prompts for the Issue essay and Argument essay that will be very similar to what you will see on the test. Come up with examples and organize them based on topic. That way, you won’t have to spend a lot of time thinking of good examples on test day.
  3. Perfection through Revision: Save time to revise. This may be the difference between a 3 or a 4 on the test. Nothing comes out perfect the first time, so make sure you pace yourself  and spend time to edit and revise your writing.
  4. Identifying Common Flaws and Part II: For the argument analysis essay, make sure that you are aware of the common argument flaws and fallacies that pop up on the test.

In the end Dana, your essay skills are not being tested. ETS is testing you on a very particular type of writing that you really are only going to do once. But the skills for success on the writing measure, like preparation, planning, and revision, are skills that you will use again in the future. So don’t approach it like an essay for school. This is something unique, but requires a similar skill set.

Good luck!