@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!





 Coming up with Examples for Timed Essays




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.



 Perfection through Revision



An image of the United States Constitution in 1789. The Senate read through the Constitution making revisions to the amendments before sending the document back to House of Representatives for consideration and approval.

Perfection doesn’t just happen. Whether it is perfection in nature, like a flower mixing sugar and caffeine in its nectar to attract bees and help them remember the location of the plant; or perfection in human endeavors, like Roman architects constructing arch bridges that are still in use after 2,000 years; or perfection in human society, like enshrining freedoms and rights for all humans in the United States Constitution, perfection is a combination of dedication, patience, creativity, recombination, and experimentation over a long period of time. Writing is no different. Perfection is earned. It’s ephemeral. It’s rare. No author worth anything can write something once and have it be perfect.

The GRE does not provide us enough time to write a perfect essay. But we do have enough time to get close. With only 30 minutes, you will need to save time to edit and revise your essay because that is the only way you will get close to perfection, and thus close to a perfect score.

This article is a collection of quotes from authors about revising. Each quote illustrates one important aspect of revision. Use these quotes as inspiration and guidance when writing.


1. Nothing comes out perfect the first time

“I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.” ― Vladimir Nabokov

For some reason, some students think that in one great attempt, they can produce a perfect piece of writing, or at least that they can get a passing grade on a timed essay. Almost every one of these students failed, though, when it came down to writing the essay. You must save time to revise. Just as Mr. Nabokov intimates: you should spend more time revising than actually producing new writing.


2. Revise while you write

“I don’t write a quick draft and then revise; instead, I work slowly page by page, revising and polishing.” ― Dean Koontz

Don’t wait until you finish your essay to revise. Before you write a sentence, ask yourself: “What is it I want to say?”, “How is it related to the topic of this paragraph?”, and “What will I say in the next sentence?” These questions will help you to focus and organize as you write. After you write a sentence, go back and re-read it; look for common grammatical errors that you tend to make. Also, when you finish a paragraph, go back to the beginning and re-read the paragraph. By revising as you go, there will be less to do at the end.


3. Revise at the end of writing

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” ― Raymond Chandler

When you finish writing, you will need to go back through the whole essay to revise any errors. That means, you should save about 3-5 minutes at the end of time to revise. I have known some writers, just like Mr. Chandler, who can only write by dumping as much information onto the page and spending a majority of the time editing, chopping, adding, and reshuffling the writing. If this is your style, embrace it. But I would encourage you to plan and revise as you go also, so that in one writing, you produce a fairly complete essay.


4. Writing changes your mind

“When you write…some things that come very late in the creation change what you were conceiving back when you started. Therefore, you have to go back and revise.” ― William Kennedy

This is an excellent principle to keep in mind. You may have a thesis that you start writing with, but by the time you work through all of your examples and arrive at the conclusion, your mind has changed. Your opinion may have shifted in a subtle way, and your explanations may lead to a conclusion other than the one you initially intended. This is a great part of writing–discovering what you think–so make sure to go back to your thesis and re-read it. Make sure it is truly the point you are supporting in your essay, and if it isn’t, make a change.


5. Be someone else when you revise

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” ― Don Roff

One of the hardest parts of revising is editing and deleting your own work. That’s why you should imagine that it is not your writing. The trick is to disassociate yourself from what you just wrote. Try to imagine that this is an essay that your archnemesis wrote, and the more you destroy it, the more you destroy their power over you. Don’t get attached to the sentences and phrases. Be a cut-throat, brutal revisionist!


6. There are not good writers, only good revisionists

“I have never thought of myself as a good writer. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.” ― James A. Michener

No one is born a great writer. Some people may have a sunny disposition for writing, but that doesn’t mean that everything they write is perfect. Actually, those people will be the most brutal critics towards their writing, demanding only the best sentences and paragraphs. Any truly great writer is a dedicated revisionist. So, make yourself a great writer by becoming a great rewriter, like Mr. Michener.


7. Don’t stop until you run out of time

“I rewrite a great deal. I’m always fiddling, always changing something. I’ll write a few words–then I’ll change them. I add. I subtract. I work and fiddle and keep working and fiddling, and I only stop at the deadline.” ― Ellen Goodman

Writing has to be published or turned in, which means authors have to stop writing. If there were no limits, authors, like Mrs. Goodman, would keep adding and subtracting from their writing. You should be the same way: revise until there is no more time left. You can always improve a sentence or choose a better word to convey your meaning. Thus, write quickly in order to save time at the end for revision. Use all that time to produce the best piece of writing you are capable of producing.