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!