@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!





 Pacing Etiquette for Tests


You have been practicing for some time now. Reading test prep books, learning different strategies for the verbal and quantitative sections of the test, identifying trap wrong answers, focusing on gaps in your knowledge—all important for test preparation. But the time will come when you have to start pacing yourself.

How you pace yourself depends on a lot of variables—the question difficulty, the question type, how much time do you have left in the section, your own strengths and weaknesses—making it hard to generalize a rule or a guideline that will work in every situation for every person.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I would like to use a broad stroke to paint an overall pacing approach—not so much a strategy as a disposition. Perhaps, a Code of Etiquette for Pacing, or better yet, Pacing Etiquette that you can use on any test.


Check the Bottom Before Diving In

My mom made a point of telling my brother and me a story about cliff jumping. My mom knew someone who had a friend of a friend who had a daughter whose friend’s older brother jumped off a cliff into water before checking the depth and looking for underwater hazards. He jumped head first, hit a submerged rock, broke his neck, and was now in a wheel chair because he lost control of his legs. This had a chilling effect on my brother and me.

With questions on the test, you should do the same: check the bottom before you dive in.

When you saddle up to a question, don’t jump right into solving or reading. Rather, take a second or two to look at the big picture, and ask yourself some quick questions to prime your mind for tackling the question:

  1. What is the question type? Multiple choice? Multiple possible answers? Plug in an answer?
  2. What will the the answer look like and smell like? For math this is especially important because it will help to guide you through the problem.
  3. What kind of information are they giving you?
  4. Is this a short or long passage to read?
  5. Should you skip this question and come back to it later?


Approach with Care, Don’t Chase the Bear

The summer of 2005, I fished for Sockeye Salmon in Naknek, Alaska. During those days of 20 hours of light, we were returning from a 16-hour shift, driving down the beach to our sea shanty for a quick four-hour nap. We crossed a small creek in our Isuzu Trooper, climbed a berm and saw two Grizzly bears—brothers we later found out—feasting on an easy meal of dead salmon down the beach. (When using nets, fish get stuck, but sometimes escape injured. Lots of them die and wash up on shore. So for by the end of the fishing season, the beaches are filled with hundreds of fish carcasses.)

We were elated to see these two massive, regal creatures a hundred yards from us. But I was greedy, not content to sit on the berm and watch them pick their way down the beach. I pushed the accelerator and came down the berm towards the bears. As soon as we dropped down onto the flat of the beach, the bears turned. Dumbfounded by our blundering, noisy, brash decision, they ran off down the beach. I accelerated. I found out that Troopers max out at 35 mph on rocky, salmon-strewn beaches—surprisingly, too slow to keep up with the Grizzles.

On the test, don’t blunder through the questions or passages. Pace yourself early in the question. Wait on the berm seeing the whole picture as you read the question or passage. Sometimes something in the question might catch our eye. We might think it is a clue or the key to answering the question correctly. Don’t make a snap decision to follow this thread.

Remember that the testmakers are putting traps and attractive “clues” to mislead you and send you down the wrong track. Blundering ahead might “scare off” an opportunity or a real clue. Always be aware of your choices when working on a question.


Hang in The Pocket

Photo: The Honorable Mr. Thomas Green

My dad spent high school and college in San Diego.  At UCSC, he started knee boarding and body surfing. When I was six or seven, he started surfing. And since I am my father’s son, I soon started surfing as well.

Surfing is a lot of different things to different people, but most talk about and search for the Ride. Finding that perfect line on the wave. Not forcing your will onto the wave, but riding the wave for what it is. Taking what is presented to you. Nothing illustrates this better than hanging in the pocket.

The pocket of the wave is the place where you, the board, and the wave are moving in harmony. You are not driving forward, cutting back, launching off the lip, or otherwise shredding the gnar. Rather, it is perfect rhythm and flow, like in the picture above. Holding back, claiming your place on the wave, and letting it propel you forward. Hanging in the pocket—if this were a music analogy, we’d be talking about reggae because the timing and rhythm in reggae is all about hanging in the pocket.

So hang back as you traverse a problem. Don’t rush into details. Don’t try to force your will on the question. Take what you are given. Process and move forward with a tender step and a watchful eye. Be aware of the traps that testmakers put in specific question types. Look for problem areas ahead. Hang in the pocket of the question until you arrive at a clear answer. And know when to “kick out” of the question. Don’t spend three minutes on one question, skip it and come back later.