@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!





 Outlines for Timed Essays



Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Last-minute panic works for some. Calvin probably can’t focus on a school-related task until panic becomes a tectonic force squeezing diamonds out of his brain. But for most of us, and probably for his furry feline friend Hobbes, this pressure doesn’t forge sparkling nuggets of wisdom. The force turns us into a gelatinous black goo that centuries later people harvest to fuel their air conditioners and chainsaws.

Time pressure, like on an SAT or GRE essay, can cause anxiety and stress that inevitably complicates what should be concise and confuses what should be straightforward. But with a little preparation before hand, you can show up on test day calm and cool like a Pacific breeze on a spring day.

So how can you be pacific on test day?

Develop outlines for different types of essays.

Multiple outlines, aside from the standard essay form you learned in school, will not only release pressure and anxiety, but also is an effective way to write a critical, thoughtful response to the issue. Instead of your typical three-part thesis with three supporting paragraphs, why not take a stance that is more balanced, that considers the range of opinions, that allows for multiple interpretations, that avoids black-and-white categorizations, that embraces the shades of grey? (Not fifty, though. That’s way too many.) By coming to the test with a few essay structures in your back pocket, you can spend your time coming up with examples, brainstorming, and ultimately, writing and revising your essay.


Standard Five Paragraph Essay
I. Introduction
II. Support 1
III. Support 2
IV. Support 3
V. Conclusion

This is what you learned in your high school English class.
Useful when you want to fully support a thesis.
Useful when you can’t think of counterexamples.
Useful when you have a couple of reasons for supporting your thesis.


Support Your Opinion by Disproving an Opposing Opinion
I. Introduction
II. Point & Support
III. Counterpoint & Support
IV. Rebuttal to the Counterpoint
V. Conclude with original point

Useful when you want to support your point.
Useful when you want to strengthen your side by attacking the other side of the issue.
Useful when you can think of a lot of examples to support your opinion.
Useful when you identify a flaw in reasoning in the prompt.
For full effect, present the counterpoint as if you believe it. Don’t build a straw man because that will only weaken your side.


Present a Qualified opinion.
I. Introduction
II. Point & Counterpoint
III. Point & Counterpoint
IV. Point & Counterpoint
V. Conclusion

This structure can be used in two ways.
Useful for presenting equal weight to both sides of the issue.
Useful when you have reasons and examples on both sides of the issue.
Useful when you can’t say one way or the other.
Useful when your reasons and examples also contain reservations and qualifications.


Useful when you want to present an opinion that is contrary to an accepted one.
Useful for undermining a commonly held belief.
Useful for exposing multiple flaws.
Useful when you have a strong understanding of the issue and understand the logic behind both sides.


Critique a Theory
I. Introduction
II. Present Theory
III. Critique 1
IV. Critique 2
V. Conclusion

Useful when presented with a claim or theory in the prompt.
Useful when you disagree with the claim.
Useful if you have clear reasons for not agreeing with the prompt.
Useful for critical analysis.


 How to Use a Colon



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…”



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…



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




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.