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!


 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.



 Say It Don’t Write It: Slang and Idioms in Formal Essays



By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza), via Wikimedia Commons

By Marek Flekal (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

We begin with two very different pictures: one of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London; the other of the Vakys Crew known for their entertaining and crazy YouTube videos. There is a stark contrast here. Why? Context. Meeting the Queen of England is the Super Bowl of formal, choreographed events with centuries of tradition. The Vakys Crew are in a parking lot wearing skirts and lighting things on fire.

If placed in these pictures, without thought, you would act differently. In one, you may tense up, stutter, and become more self-conscious of your appearance; in the other, you may singe your hair, talk freely, and become less concerned with your appearance. In one, you would choose your words carefully; in the other, you would talk in your natural rhythm and vernacular. This probably seems obvious. But when it comes to writing, students often forget who they are writing to. They forget the context.

When good writers write (and by “good,” I mean considerate, thoughtful writers), they imagine the perspective of their reader and write in such a way that it is easy for the person on the other side to understand. Writers consider their reader’s expectations and anticipate their objections. They speak their language–talk their talk. So step out of your narrow perspective and empathize with your reader. I bet you think about this when you send your friends a text versus sending your mother a text. So do the same on the GRE and SAT. Yes, I am saying you need to empathize with the grader who will read your essay.

The people reading your essay are educated and academically minded, probably watch similar movies and TV as you; they work grading essays like yours, and probably aspire to do something else besides just grading essays. These people will spend a short amount of time skimming–yes, skimming–your essay. They are trained to look for anything that stands out: common grammar errors, lapses in organization, or off-topic sentences. They are also trained to identify slang and idioms. Although the reader may use both in their daily lives, and you may use both in your daily life, you have to leave them out of your formal essays.

Understandably, you may want to invigorate your writing with an idiom or well-placed slang. The essay might seem dry or not a reflection of yourself. Writing like you speak might seem like a good way to win over your reader. But it’s not. Your reader will see these as immature and informal–as if you went to meet the queen in a Hawaiian shirt and a rainbow cape, burning paintings with your homemade spray-can flame thrower as you walk into the room. Not ideal. So save these expressions for your real friends. Don’t waste them on an essay grader. Just give them what they want.

What is Slang?

Slang are words and phrases, used informally in speech outside the realm of proper English. Often times, slang is used to identify peer groups or members of a community. They tend to be casual in nature, relying heavily on euphemism and colloquial expressions.


  1. awesome
  2. blown away
  3. bummed
  4. cheesy
  5. croak
  6. dicey
  7. flaky
  8. flip out
  9. grungy
  10. in the bag
  11. jock
  12. just off the boat
  13. kook
  14. lame
  15. nuts

What are Idioms?

Idioms are words and phrases that have a figurative meaning separate from the dictionary definition of the words. These phrases were once witty, intriguing, and penetrating. Since they are so apt and concise at conveying an idea, they catch on and people start to use them more and more until the language becomes over-saturated. And what was once fresh and sprite, now is tired and old.


  1. come rain or shine
  2. light as a feather
  3. cold turkey
  4. old as the hills
  5. under the weather
  6. toe the line
  7. busy as a bee
  8. highway robbery
  9. nothing to sneeze at
  10. happy as a clam
  11. lend an ear
  12. dead to the world
  13. everything but the kitchen sink
  14. birds of a feather flock together
  15. pick up the tab


 Don’t Shift Narrative Voice



Boyhood of Raleigh, John Everett Millais, via Wikimedia Commons

Finished in 1870, Boyhood of Raleigh depicts Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother sitting captivated by tales of the ocean. Look at the faces of the boys. One is sitting with his knees at his chest, visibly concerned; the other, chin resting on hands, leaning forward, waiting for the next detail, waiting for resolution, waiting patiently.

The art of a good story is really the art of narration. The boys are captivated by the sailor; his ability to build tension, to carefully construct plot, to detail characters free of judgement, to reveal enough to keep the boys interested, but not so much that they lose interest–this is the art of a storyteller.

Perhaps this seems irrelevant for the SAT or GRE essay. However, whether convincing readers of an opinion or captivating them with a sea shanty, all writers need to decide on a narrator, a perspective–the decision about who is going to speak.

For the SAT and GRE essay, this decision is all about pronouns.


When you write your essay for the test, don’t shift narrative voice. That means that you should be consistent in your use of pronouns. Aside from the occasional use of the personal pronoun “I,” your essay should be in third person.

You might be thinking, “Great! What does that mean?” Fret not. The rest of this article will give you a quick review of first, second, and third person as well as a list of the common problem areas involving shifting narrative voice.

Narrative Voice

First Person (I, me, mine, etc.): narrator has a limited perspective; narrator is a part of the story; actions and events are described from one perspective.

Examples: personal experiences, informal messages, emails, conversations, novels, biographies.

Second Person (you, your, etc.): narrator directly addresses the reader, usually to command, direct, or explain how to do something.

Examples: how-to essays, instructions, manuals, recipes, directions.

Third Person (she, he, it, they, Barack Obama, etc.): narrator has complete knowledge of all the characters’ thoughts and actions, or the narrator has limited knowledge of the characters’ thoughts and actions; narrator does not participate in the action or the story; narrator can appear non-biased.

Examples: SAT and GRE essays, formal documents, science journals, newspaper articles, essays for school, law documents.

Common Problem Areas

Problems with shifting narrative voice can occur within the same sentence or among many sentences. Below you will find common shifts that students make in narrative voice leading to faulty expressions.

I. one and you

FAULTY: One can clearly see a distinction between the two: Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete vernacular, and War and Peace was written in a Russian vernacular. You can see the difference in the following experts.

CORRECT: One can see the difference in the following experts.

II. we/our and you

FAULTY: Truth be told, our chance of victory was slim and we couldn’t expect our team to come out on top. But we went out on the court and played with heart. You overcame exhaustion to beat the state champions!

CORRECT: Truth be told, our chance of victory was slim and we couldn’t expect our team to come out on top. But we went out on the court and played with heart. We overcame exhaustion to beat the state champions!

III. everyone and you

FAULTY: Everyone must remember these simple steps to ensure a moist roasted turkey for thanksgiving: (1) Brine your turkey. (2) Roast your turkey slow and low. (3) Let the turkey rest 30 – 45 minutes before you slice.

If you are giving instructions or describing how something is done, stick with second person.

CORRECT: You must remember these simple steps to ensure a moist roasted turkey for thanksgiving: (1) Brine your turkey. (2) Roast your turkey slow and low. (3) Let the turkey rest 30 – 45 minutes before you slice.

IV. singular noun and plural pronoun

FAULTY: A CEO is often stereotyped as a greedy, immoral, take-no-prisoners predator. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. More often than not, they are trustworthy, respectable, and honest people who inspire loyalty and hard work in their employees.

It’s easier to change the noun than correct the plural pronouns in this case.

CORRECT: CEOs are often stereotyped as greedy, immoral, take-no-prisoners predators. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. More often than not, they are trustworthy, respectable, and honest people who inspire loyalty and hard work in their employees.

Remember that your essay will be in third person on the SAT and GRE. Staying consistent with narrative voice requires you to be consistent with your pronouns. So, as with most grammar rules, be consistent and you’ll be fine.

Be excellent and happy studying!