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

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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!

 

 

 

 

 How to Use a Colon

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Former President Bill Clinton is a colon.

 

What is a colon? Is it a region in Cuba? Part of digestion? An Oakland A’s baseball player? A Spanish conquistador? A theater in Buenos Aires?  If you said yes to each of these questions, you would be 100 percent correct. But for us writers, a colon is something else entirely.

The colon: a punctuation mark rich with meaning and full of character. Most often it is found telling the reader, “Hey, don’t go! I have more to say! I need to explain myself.” Not too different from Former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

“They actually have charged and run ads saying that President Obama wants to weaken the work requirements in the welfare reform bill I signed that moved millions of people from welfare to work. Wait. You need to know, here’s what happened. (Applause) Nobody ever tells you what really happened. Here’s what happened…”

 

HOW TO USE A COLON

A colon signals a pause similar to a semicolon–shorter than a period but slightly longer than a comma.  Do not place a space between the preceding word and the colon. Lastly, a dash can often replace a colon; the major consideration between the two is formality. A colon is used in more formal, academic, and scholarly writing. A dash is used in less formal writing, like news articles and fiction. Although meaningful, the colon can be a little stuffy in some prose.

I. To introduce a list

A common use of a colon is to introduce a list. In this case, the colon has the same meaning as the phrases “as follows” or “the following.” Some stricter grammarian prefer to leave out these words when using a colon. Make the decision for yourself–I have seen the colon and these phrases used together effectively.

The steps for making a delicious guacamole are simple and easy:

  1. Cut 3 avocados in half, remove seed, and spoon flesh into a larger bowl.
  2. With a potato masher or the back of a fork, mash the avocados until chunky. Don’t over mash.
  3. Chop one tomato into chunks and add to bowl. Use masher or fork to combine.
  4. Chop half a head of cilantro and add to the bowl. Use masher or fork to combine.
  5. Juice from half of a lemon and half of a lime.
  6. Add 2 teaspoons of cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne powder, and salt to taste.

Or the list can fit neatly into a complete sentence like in the one below.

Please bring back the following ingredients from the store: three avocados, a lemon, a lime, cilantro, and one tomato.

 

II. To signal an elaboration or an example of something just stated.

A colon can introduce an example, definition, elaboration, or detail of something just stated. In this case, the colon has the same meaning as “namely” or “that is.” A colon is most common between two independent clauses, but often a dependent clause and independent clause can be linked with the colon.

San Diego has a borderline arid climate: the average precipitation is less than 12 inches of rain.

 

III. To introduce a quote

A colon introduces longer quotations of more than one sentence and block quotes. Often the quote will illustrate a point made in the preceding sentence. Make sure that your lead-in sentence to the quote is a complete thought–no incomplete sentences before a quote.

John Steinbeck always had seemed to know more about American society, especially where it was going: “It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

 

IV. After a salutation

In a formal letter, a colon can be used after the salutation. This is not something you will need to worry about on the tests, but a good fact to know regardless.

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing in response to the job posting for a superhero…

 

HOW TO NOT USE A COLON

I. Not between a preposition and its object

Never separate a preposition and its object with a colon. This is highly abnormal and strange. Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate: in such a way.

INCORRECT: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate: in such a way.

And remember that this punctuation carries meanings like “namely” and “as follows.” If you replace the colons in your sentence with these words, and the sentence sounds strange, then remove the colon.

SOUNDS STRANGE: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate “as follows” in such a way.

SOUNDS STRANGE: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate “namely” in such a way.

CORRECT: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate in such a way.

 

II. Not after words like “such as,” “like,” or “for example.”

Never use colons in conjunction with words like ”such as,” “like,” or “for example” since these words and a colon mean the same thing. Thus using both would lead to redundancy.

INCORRECT: I would give up a lot of food: like chocolate or ice cream before giving up pizza. 

INCORRECT: I would give up a lot of food like: chocolate or ice cream before giving up pizza. 

CORRECT: I would give up a lot of food like chocolate or ice cream before giving up pizza.

 

 Coming up with Examples for Timed Essays

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Writing

By Ildar Sagdejev CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

My students are always looking for ways to make the timed essay easier on the GRE and GMAT. Concurrently, they are also always looking for ways to not write. Perhaps you are like me — a little dumbfounded that people want to improve their writing by not writing — and might want to force those people to write essay after essay, regardless of their wishes. But that’s not going to effective. So when this paradoxical beast does rear its ugly head, I pull out an activity that will make their timed essay easier and not require much writing: generate examples for essays they would write.

This is a fun, painless, and beneficial way to prepare for timed essays. For one, generating examples and organizing them around a topic will save you time. Instead of knocking your head against a table trying to get examples to fall out your ears during the test, organize examples before hand around common topics usually found on the test. In this way, you won’t have to think too hard to come up with examples.

Second, this activity ensures that you have high quality examples. Have you ever been in the middle of writing an essay, supporting your opinion with an example, and a new, better example leaps into your mind? Frustrated, you have to push this example aside in a timed essay–nothing to do but plow ahead before time runs out. By preparing ahead of time, though, by thinking about the topics and examples, you’ll have the best examples to choose from on test day.

I use a Google Spreadsheet, which I am making available to you, to help students organize their examples. The spreadsheet can be found in Google Drive’s Template Gallery or by clicking on the image at the bottom of the page. Also, you may need to sign up for a Google account to use the template. But feel free to make your own in your favorite spreadsheet app.

Five Steps to Write a Better Essay

I. Read example essays and collect sample writing prompts

  1. GRE Analysis of an Issue Essay prompts
  2. GRE Analysis of an Argument prompts
  3. GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment prompts
  4. SAT Essay prompts

II. Organize the prompts into themes and topics

  1. History
  2. Education
  3. Business
  4. Politics
  5. Morals and Ethics
  6. Science
  7. Technology
  8. Art
  9. Society

III. Identify common themes within the topic

  1. History: To be successful in a field, you have to know the history of that field.
  2. Education: Formal education limits creativity.
  3. Business: Employees should be given the freedom to work hours when they will be most productive, choosing their schedule for the day.
  4. Politics: Governments should solve today’s problems and not try to predicate what problems will exist in the future.
  5. Morals and Ethics: Parents should be teaching their kids right and wrong, not schools.
  6. Science: Science should only focus on research that will benefit society.
  7. Technology: Technology does not deliver on its promise of making our lives easier.
  8. Art: Funding art, whether it be music, theater, or dance, is a waste of money.
  9. Society: Societies as a whole are becoming less violent.

IV. Write down examples for each prompt, organizing them into pro/con and support/against columns.

  1. You will need to give some context for the examples you write. A good way to add context is to simply organize the examples around those that support the prompt and those that undermine the prompt. If you think the example is in a grey area, then make the text of that example actually a grey color.
  2. Also, there will be overlap between prompts and topics, so don’t hesitate to put an example under different topics or prompts under different topics.

V. Maintain and update database regularly

  1. If you read something in the newspaper or hear or story from a friend related to one of your prompts, add it to the database.
  2. When you practice writing an essay, use the database initially, but as you practice more and more, try to wean yourself off the spreadsheet.

 

 

 Identifying Common Flaws in Arguments

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Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle upset by logical fallacies

Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle upset by logical fallacies. Click on the image to reveal 24 logical fallacies.

In order to evaluate a test taker’s writing and logical reasoning, both the GRE and GMAT contain a 30 minute argument analysis essay. Based on a short argument, test takers must identify errors in logic, explain why these are errors, and ultimately, discuss how these flaws negatively affect the conclusion or recommendation of the argument.

To prepare for this portion of the test, you need to be comfortable identifying and naming common flaws in logic. But, what is an argument flaw (sometimes called a logical fallacy)? Simply put, these are either intentional or unintentional mistakes made in reasoning. Often, people will sacrifice rigorous reasoning for brevity and commit these errors; others intentionally exploit these flaws to convince an unwitting public to do or buy something. Whatever the case may be, we need to be able to identify these flaws to be successful on the written portion of the test. And the bonus of studying these flaws is that you will be able to root out deceivers, provocateurs, and soothsayers.

Some people have a knack for spotting these errors while some of us have to work a little harder. If you find yourself in the latter group, fret not because there are a lot of great resources available to you. One of my favorite resources is a website with a catchy title: Thou Shall Not Commit Logical Fallacies.

This is a great website that identifies 24 common flaws made by everyone. Jesse Richardson, Andy Smith and Som Meaden did a great job of putting all these flaws together on one poster with definitions and examples (They also will print you a poster and mail it to you for $20). The site has a webpage for each of these flaws making it easy to focus on one flaw at a time, and of course, to send your friends the link of the flaw that they committed. :)

For the GRE and GMAT, though, you will not need to know all 24 of these flaws. Many of these are not common on the test, so I have created a list below, with links, to the most common flaws found in arguments given to students. Spend some time looking over each of these. Try and think of a time where you have heard one of these flaws; search for them in news stories you read, advertisements you see, or in a politician’s speech you hear. You are bound to start seeing them all over the place. The more you look the more you see.

Disclaimer: This is not an extensive list of the flaws that appear on the GRE and GMAT argument analysis essays. So, don’t end your search; this is where it begins.

1. False Cause - Sometimes called confusing causation with correlation, this is one of the most committed flaws. Cause-and-effect is generally extremely hard to prove whether you are talking about a business plan, a historical event, or a chemical reaction in the body. When humans see two events coincided, they tend to think that one caused the other, but this is not necessarily true. Most likely, these events are correlated, not causal.

2. Ambiguity - Who hasn’t been ambiguous when arguing a point or writing an essay? This happens often when people are not well versed in the topic, or don’t want to take the time to explain themselves. On the test, you will find all kinds of phrase and words that lack a clear meaning. This is a flaw you should point out.

3. Composition/Division –  By another name, this is stereotyping. If you assume that a characteristic of a member of a group is representative of all members (or vice versa), you are committing this flaw. Don’t stereotype individuals or groups based on your narrow experience, and don’t let other people get away with it either.

4. Black-or-White – Sometimes called a binary argument, or assuming that two courses of action are mutually exclusive, this flaw happens often. Humans have to simplify the world in their mind in order to make sense of it. When we do this, we tend to ignore the middle ground, or grey area, in a situation.

5. Anecdotal – Just because your grandmother had a bad experience once in eastern Kentucky doesn’t mean that you should think that eastern Kentucky is a bad place. In reality, it is probably really nice. Don’t let your narrow experience of something, or someone else’s, influence your opinions or conclusions, so don’t let them get away with it on the test. Demand rigorous and verifiable evidence.

6. The Texas Sharpshooter – Humans will unconsciously ignore information that contradicts their beliefs while actively seek out information that confirms their beliefs. A sort of mental cherry picking that allows us to feel comfortable with our decisions and beliefs. But, this is flawed. No using partial information or data to support conclusions.

Your journey has just begun. Continue to better yourself and those around you by demanding a little more rigor in their arguments.