GRE AWA: Argument Essay


In my last post I looked at the GRE’s Issue Essay. Today we’ll take a look at the Argument Essay. There is a clear difference between the two essays, so it’s important to note the differences because each task will require a different approach.

The Argument Essay is all about critiquing someone else’s argument and conclusion. As with the Issue Essay, the pool of potential writing prompts are available here. The instructions that you’ll see going along with each prompt differ a little bit but the basic idea is the same: Find the logical flaws with the original argument and point how the author’s conclusion may be incorrect.

One of the biggest problems that students have in writing these essays is that they are not used to reading critically. By that I mean that much of the reading you’ve been doing has been assigned by teachers and comes with an implied stamp of correctness. You are inclined to agree with the conclusions that the author presents. To successfully complete this task on the GRE, you need to do the exact opposite. You need to figure out why the author is wrong.

The best way to do that is to seek out assumptions that the author has made. An assumption is an unstated piece of evidence that must be true in order for the author’s conclusion to be true. The failure of the author’s assumptions may lead to the failure of her argument. Your job is to find and point out those assumptions in order to reveal the logical weakness.

To find an assumption, you’re looking for a way in which the evidence can be true and yet still not lead to the conclusion. Finding assumptions can be a nuanced skill, but the most basic skills are to approach the argument looking for flaws and find assumptions where the conclusion and evidence don’t match up.

Keep those ideas in mind as you start crafting your own essays and don’t forget to read some graded samples to see these ideas in action!

 GRE AWA: Issue Essay


It’s time to step off the solid land where answers are firmly right or wrong and tip our toes into the sometimes uncertain territory of the GRE essay section. The essay section is called the Analytical Writing Assessment or AWA and is composed of two thirty-minute essays: the Issue Essay and the Argument Essay. We’ll begin today by looking at the Issue Essay.

The Issue Essay begins by giving you a semi-controversial statement. Not controversial in a partisan or ideological sense, but rather something that intelligent people could disagree about. If you want some examples, the entire pool of potential essay prompts is made available by ETS here. Let’s pull one example from that source to work through here:

“To understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities.”

What follows is a standard set of instructions that outlines your task:

“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 first thing you must understand is that there is no correct or incorrect answer here. ETS doesn’t have a secret pro-city or anti-city agenda. Answering in agreement or disagreement with the prompt produces an equal likelihood of an excellent score. However there are several key things you WILL need to accomplish to get a great score.

1. Answer the question- In this case there are two reasonable theses you could forward. You must study major cities to understand a society or you don’t need to study major cities. As the instructions point out, any essay needs to get into the nuance. However, if you begin your essay without a clear statement of which side your essay if taking you risk losing your reader.

2. Clarity is key- As I mentioned above, you want to be very clear about the point you’re going to make and how you’re going to get there. That’s driven largely by the fact that you have two graders. One is a piece of software, and although the algorithm is uses is proprietary we do know that similar software uses transition words, punctuation and paragraph structure in order to assign a score. Those all suggest you should work on being organized and clear, but in my opinion the facts about the second grader are even more compelling. The human grader that will read your essay will spend approximately 30 seconds going through it. The grader is not going to go into great depth so the clearer and more organized your thoughts are the easier you are going to make it for her to evaluate them. That leads to higher scores.

3. Take the time to prep what you’re going to say- These essays require evidence and examples, but more importantly they require evidence that is neatly structured and aimed at achieving some sort of objective. If your approach is more machine gun than methodical (“Cities are really important! All the best stuff is in cities, so they must mean something. Talent tends to move to big cities because there are more jobs there.”) You risk losing the impact of your examples. Take the time to come up with goals for each body paragraph and a topic sentence before you start work on your essay. It really shows.

Have a point. Express it clearly. Organize your evidence so that it has the biggest possible impact. Do those things and you’re well on your way to a great GRE essay score!


 The Thrill of Victory


All too often the GMAT is a stumbling block and something that derails big dreams. That makes the victories even sweeter. I just got a text from a student who scored a huge victory on the GMAT. Let me tell you her story.

Stacy (not her real name) had taken a GMAT course from a major test prep company earlier this year. She’d gone to the classes, she’d done the homework but she still didn’t improve very much. At the end of the course she was scoring 540. With dreams of applying to top-five business schools that kind of score just won’t cut it. That’s when she came to me.

Stacy had heard about me from a friend who is currently attending Stanford Graduate School of Business. She put her trust in me and got to work. We started at the beginning. We didn’t focus on the content of the test. Stacy’s expensive prep class had covered that. (Of course, an online course from Barron’s would have done the same thing much more cost effectively). We looked at Stacy’s approach to each question. What was the question asking for? How could she get the information she needed as efficiently as possible? And then started to put it into practice. Question by question with praise for successes and lessons to be learned when questions were missed.

We met regularly over the course of two months. Stacy’s skills grew steadily even though the scores on her practice tests didn’t reflect it. Some days she had big leaps, other days the score slipped a little but the upward trend was clear. When Stacy was ready to take the official test she scored a 630.

In many ways it was a huge victory. She made an incredible improvement over her previous score. In other ways it was disappointing. Stacy had dedicated herself to refining her approach to each question and spent a lot of time working through practice problems. Her score had gone up a great deal, but not enough.

Stacy didn’t get up. She got back to work for a few weeks and trusted the work she had done before. She went back and scored 690! All of those top schools are now very much within her reach. Understand the process, work hard and you too can achieve some great results!

 What Does My GMAT Score Really Mean? (Part 2)


In my last post I discussed how to interpret the various parts of your GMAT score. In this section I’ll discuss how you should think about it. If you score a 650 what does that mean? Should you re-take the test?

The first thing that’s important to remember is that the GMAT is simply a tool to help you achieve your goal: admission to the business school of your choice. I mention that because the often-stated goal “to score as high as possible” isn’t really useful. As long as the end goal is accomplished, the score doesn’t really matter. That being said, there are many extremely competitive schools, and so any incremental gain in your score can be a slight edge in your application.

That being said, your GMAT skill is not fixed like your height. If you’re six feet tall today, you’ll be six feet tall tomorrow. If you score 650 today, you may or may not score the same thing tomorrow. If your skill level is at a 650 scoring 670 or 630 is fairly likely. Are your guesses lucky? Did you happen to get reading comprehension passages that you understood very well? Were you feeling good and confident and quick on the day of the test? All of these differences can help determine where in your range that you score.

So should you re-take the test? The first consideration you need to consider is the end result. Would the score you have be enough to get you admitted to the school of your choice? If it would, congrats! You’re done with the GMAT. If not, you have to ask whether you need a small improvement or a large improvement. If you need a large improvement, it’s time to reconsider your study methods and consider getting some more help to achieve your goals. If what you need is just a small improvement, you may want to consider taking the GMAT again soon. GMAC will allow you to re-take 16 days after your initial test (rather than the former 30 day wait), so it’s certainly possible to brush up on a little more practice and be ready to go quickly. But should you?

Your scores in full practice tests should be a good indication. If you’re able to score higher on reliably scored full practice tests, it’s worth taking a shot again and hoping you can have a better day to get what you want. If your practice scores show that your score is fairly reflective of your current skill level, it’s okay to take a shot at a better score but be aware that a lower score is also a possibility! As long as you’re willing to take that risk, go for it.

If you decide to try again, good luck!