How does the GRE essay work?
The GRE essay section, also known as the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), actually comprises two parts: the Issue essay and the Argument essay. You are allotted 30 minutes for each essay. Both test your ability to write a cogent thesis statement that you must defend over the course of several paragraphs.
What is the difference between the Issue and the Argument essays?
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As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.
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 Issue essay asks you to respond to and analyze a general statement, like the ones above, that relates to politics, education, or culture. Essentially, you are taking a position on a complex matter.
Woven baskets characterized by a particular distinctive pattern have previously been found only in the immediate vicinity of the prehistoric village of Palea and therefore were believed to have been made only by the Palean people. Recently, however, archaeologists discovered such a “Palean” basket in Lithos, an ancient village across the Brim River from Palea. The Brim River is very deep and broad, and so the ancient Paleans could have crossed it only by boat, and no Palean boats have been found. Thus it follows that the so-called Palean baskets were not uniquely Palean.
Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument and explain how the evidence would weaken or strengthen the argument.
The Argument, by contrast, asks you to dissect the logic behind a position. The position is provided in a paragraph, and thus requires a little more reading than the Issue task.
Where can I find sample topics?
Good news! ETS publishes the entire pools of Issue topics and Argument topics on its site. The topics you see on your test will be drawn from those pools, so this is an essential resource.
How are the essays scored?
Deep in a dark room far, far away resides a poor soul who must sort through an interminable stack of GRE AWA essays. In a mere thirty seconds, that person must award a score from a 0.0 – 6.0, based on 0.5 increments. The grader is typically a university literature/writing professor who, according to ETS, has undergone rigorous training in order to qualify.
But that’s only half of the story.
This next part sounds a little nefarious — so hold onto your seats. Over the course of the last decade or so, ETS has developed–and it would say refined–the “E-rater”, an automated essay grader.
While it may seem that HAL, the diabolical talking computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has been unleashed to wreak grading havoc on your essays, the “E-rater” is only used as a second “grader” to ensure that the human grader isn’t napping at the job. If the “E-rater’s” score differs by more than one point (on the half point scale) from the human grader’s score, your essay is sent to another human grader, the master grader–who, presumably, resides in an even darker room.
Your final score is the average of the two essays, rounded up to the nearest .5. At least for now, HAL has not completely taken over — the “E-rater” serves only as a check on human error. That is not to say that one day the two human graders will emerge from their dark rooms as anachronisms (as far as GRE essay grading goes). Let’s hope that such a day never comes, the day in which admission to a top-notch grad school hangs in the precarious balance of a robot grader.
How does the GRE AWA scoring range work?
What exactly does it mean to get a 0.0, or for that matter a 6.0 on GRE Analytical Writing? Well, a 0.0 means you fell asleep, your forehead planted firmly on the keyboard, an endless series of gobbledygook forming on screen. A 6.0 is a consistently insightful and well-crafted essay, running a good 80-plus lines.
You may think I’m jesting with the 0.0, but really I’m not: those essays are deemed “Ungradeable.” Hence, very few students end up getting a 0.0, or, for that matter, a score below a 2.0. Indeed, the vast majority of students fall between a 3.0 and a 5.0.
So what exactly does it mean to get a 3.0 vs. 4.0, or a 4.5 vs. a 5.0? For me to really answer that it would take at least several pages, including example essays. Instead, have a look at the scoring guidelines on ETS. Or, to really get a sense of how the scores work, have a look at a few sample essays. You may even want to compare them to any mock essays you’ve written, to get a rough sense of where you would score.
ETS has full descriptions of what an essay of each score looks like on its Score Level Descriptions page. The links to the sample essays are included below.
Is there anywhere I can get my essays graded?
While there is no better teacher than feedback, having someone give you an honest critique of your essay is difficult. ETS offers a service to grade your GRE AWA essays. But that is all you will get. A simple score. No feedback. People have tried, apparently, but nobody at ETS will provide feedback (apparently, the “E-rater” has not yet evolved to this level of sophistication).
Luckily, things aren’t quite as bleak as that. Over the years, I’ve seen many students asking for feedback on the forums (urch.com, thegradcafe.com) and munificent souls (usually GRE test takers with strong writing skills) provide insightful analysis. While that may not sound all that reassuring, remember that this feedback is free of charge and there really isn’t much else out there in terms of essay feedback.
More creative ideas on how to get your essay graded here. Let us know if you have any others, we’d love to hear them! 🙂
What do the graders look for?
The graders look for the three C’s: clarity, coherency, and cogency.
First off, you must express your ideas in a clear manner. If you jumble your words, or simply throw in unnecessary words, doing so compromises clarity. But your essay is not just one sentence with a clearly expressed idea; it is a set of ideas that should logically connect to one another. That is coherency.
Next you want to provide convincing evidence to back up your thesis. You can throw in some vague example, but doing so means your essay will probably lack cogency. Develop an example that cogently reinforces your thesis is key to a high essay score.
There are some other factors that play into the human grader’s assessment. Style is important; an essay with choppy sentences and unsophisticated vocabulary will be awarded a lower score, all other things being equal, than an essay with mature syntactical development and GRE-level vocabulary deployed felicitously.
There is also the issue of grammar. Even though the graders doesn’t set out to nitpick at grammar, as soon as you make the tiniest mistake, he or she will notice. Anything from improper use of pronouns to misspelling common words can negatively impact your score. At the same time, a grammatical flub or two won’t preclude an essay from getting a perfect score, as long as everything else about the essay is top-notch.
I should note that the essay grader takes around 30 seconds to grade an essay. He or she scans to make sure that you have clearly organized your information, and that your paragraphs start with a topic sentence and flow into specific examples that support your analysis. The grader looks to make sure you have a conclusion that articulates what you’ve already stated. He or she gives you a score and they move on to the next essay.
How long do my essays have to be?
Without running afoul of the censors–size matters. Believe it or not, out of two essays that are identical, save for length, the longer will receive the higher score. That doesn’t mean you should frantically scribble away, hoping that a seven-paragraph essay will automatically confer the much coveted ‘6’. Substance matters greatly. But as long as all the parts of your essay are there, you should shoot for a five-paragraph essay: an intro, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
I should also point out that six paragraphs a long essay do not make. Paragraph length matters too. And, of course, don’t forget that each of those paragraphs has to flow logically and clearly from your thesis.
How do I practice for GRE Analytical Writing?
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Essay writing is tough. Practicing for the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment–given that it’s difficult to get feedback–makes things even more unpleasant: you write and write without knowing if you are really improving. But do not despair–there are sample essays, friends and family, and the ETS essay grading service.
By simply writing often you will be able to write with greater command and facility. With diligent practice, words will not seem submerged deep in your hippocampus, but will spring to life on the page.
2. Don’t forget to outline/brainstorm
You must think about what you are going to write before you write. I’m sure many amongst you subscribe to the school of thought that if you write, they will come: the words, the compelling examples, and the nuanced logic. When practicing for the GRE, you must avoid this tendency and instead spend a few minutes coming up with a roadmap (either in your head or on the computer screen). At first this step will slow you down and you will want to go back to the old method. Be patient. Once you become adept at outlining, the essay will write itself.
3. Spend lots of time editing your practice essays
Though you won’t get much of an opportunity to edit your essay test day, sedulously editing your practice essays will make you more aware of your mistakes, both grammatical and logical. Correcting these mistakes will not only help you anticipate them in the future, but will also make the writing and logic in your future essays clearer.
4. Constantly read sample essays
By reading other students’ essays, you will develop a sense of what ETS is looking for. You’ll also be able to better judge your own essays. Throughout practice sessions you should keep tweaking your essays, so they get closer and closer to the next score up. So if you started at a ‘3’, then focus on getting to a ‘4.’ Once you think you’ve done so, shoot your essay over to the ETS grading service.
5. Improve grammar
ETS explicitly states that it is looking for the quality and clarity of thought, and not grammar per se. Yet the two are closely related. So if you struggle to articulate something–and in doing so break a grammatical rule (or three!)–you will sacrifice clarity. Even minor grammatical errors (faulty pronouns, subject/verb agreement) will mar the overall quality of your writing.
How do I improve my grammar and style?
Between grammar and style, grammar is much easier to improve. Great style is much more elusive. Indeed, many writers have cultivated their prose style over years of assiduous practice. Rest assured though–to score well on the GRE your prose does not have to be fit for The New York Times. You do want to avoid choppy sentences by varying up your sentence structure. You shouldn’t be averse to trading a simple word for a more complex one as long that word is appropriate for the context.
A great book that offers writing advice, from dangling modifiers to how to construct compelling, dynamic sentences, is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
For a more stern approach to writing, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style has helped students for over half a century.
The only reason I mention both of these books is they focus not only grammar but also on style. Many grammar books should suffice, as far as grammar goes–but they are short on teaching writing style, which is a great skill to have for the GRE (and beyond!).
Are there any sample essays I can read?
The best way to figure out how to get a high Analytical Writing score is to look at a GRE essay sample, but doing so without any guidance can be overwhelming. How do you show insight? Do typos affect your score? What’s a good way to keep your essay organized?
We’ll answer all these questions for you (and more!) in this article by analyzing four real GRE essay examples and highlighting the key features you’ll want to include in your own essays.
How to Use This Guide
Before we get to the GRE sample essays and their analyses, I’ll highlight two best ways to use this guide to improve your essay and get a great scoring essay yourself.
First, use the perfect-scoring sample GRE essays in this guide as models of possible ways to accomplish the essay tasks. By this, I don’t mean you should plagiarize entire sentences, paragraphs, or essays – that’s both wrong and against GRE code of conduct (it will disqualify your entire test if discovered). Plus, there are so many prompts (152 Issue prompts and 176 Argument ones) that it’s unlikely you’d be able to use any of these exact essays anyway.
What you can and should do is incorporate the features highlighted in the analyses below in your own essays. For instance, if you’ve been struggling with how to logically connect ideas within paragraphs in your own essays, take a look of some of the examples of logical connection I point out in this article and see how they fit within the context of the full essay. You can then practice replicating successful connections between ideas in your own practice essays.
The other main way to use this guide is in conjunction with the essay grading rubrics to help ferret out your writing weaknesses and work on them. Start with the rubrics for the Issue and Argument tasks and identify which criteria are most difficult for you to meet. Even if you can’t articulate precisely what your weakest spot is (e.g. failing to logically connect your ideas within paragraphs), you can at least narrow down the general rubric area you most struggle with (e.g. organization in general).
Once you’ve identified the general area you have the most trouble with, read the GRE essay examples and our analyses in this article to find concrete instances (rather than the abstract descriptions) of the rubric criteria. For more information about the different rubrics for the different essay tasks, read our articles on how to write perfect-scoring GRE Issue and Argument essays.
Because this article is on the longer side, we’ve created a table of contents to enable you to jump to a specific essay example or task type:
Table of Contents: GRE Essay Examples
Issue Essay 1: Technology and Human Ingenuity
Issue Essay 2: Cooperation Vs. Competition
Argument Essay 1: Mason City Riverside Recreation
Argument Essay 2: Super Screen Movie Advertising
Issue Essay 1: Technology and Human Ingenuity
The first of the GRE sample essays we’ll be looking at is written in response to the following “Analyze an Issue” prompt:
As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.
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 essay written on this Issue prompt takes the position that rather than hindering our abilities to think for themselves, technology will spur humanity on to achieve ever-greater things. The full text of this GRE essay sample can be found on the ETS website.
In this analysis, I’ll go over the different ways in which this essay meets the GRE essay rubric criteria for a perfect scoring Issue essay. The first of these rubric criteria I’ll be discussing is the way the author takes a clear and insightful stance on the issue in the essay.
The author’s position that instead of fearing new technology, we should embrace its possibilities is methodically articulated over the course of the entire essay, culminating in the essay’s conclusion with a full thesis statement (“There is no need to retreat to a Luddite attitude to new things, but rather embrace a hopeful posture to the possibilities that technology provides for new avenues of human imagination.”). Below is an outline of how the author expresses her thesis throughout the essay:
- Paragraph 1: The author acknowledges “technology has revolutionized the world.”
- Paragraph 2: The author explains the reasoning behind the statement in the prompt (“The assumption is that an increased reliance on technology negates the need for people to think creatively to solve previous quandaries”).
- Paragraph 3: The author counters the reasoning she discussed in paragraph 2, writing that “reliance on technology does not necessarily preclude the creativity that marks the human species.”
- Paragraph 4: The author advances her counterclaim one step further, stating that “technology frees the human imagination.”
- Paragraph 5: The author further develops the idea from Paragraph 4, stating “By increasing our reliance on technology, impossible goals can now be achieved.”
- Paragraph 6: This final paragraph concludes the essay with a fully articulated thesis that also sums up what went before: “There is no need to retreat to a Luddite attitude to new things, but rather embrace a hopeful posture to the possibilities that technology provides for new avenues of human imagination.”
The author’s straightforward explanations of her thinking and logic enhance the clarity of her position, while the nuanced content of the position itself demonstrates insight into the issue.
The next area a perfect-scoring Issue essay must demonstrate mastery of is the development of its position through compelling and persuasive examples and reasoning. The author of this essay accomplishes this task by providing examples to support each idea she discusses and, furthermore, explaining not only the content of the examples but also why the examples support her position.
Here’s an example from paragraph 5:
By increasing our reliance on technology, impossible goals can now be achieved. Consider how the late 20th century witnessed the complete elimination of smallpox. This disease had ravaged the human race since prehistorical days, and yet with the technology of vaccines, free thinking humans dared to imagine a world free of smallpox. Using technology, battle plans were drawn out, and smallpox was systematically targeted and eradicated.
In this example, the author begins by laying out the main idea to be discussed (impossible things can be achieved by relying more on technology). She then supports this idea with the example of the impossible problem of smallpox and the steps taken that led to its eradication.
The great thing about the way the author explains her reasoning and examples is the concision and precision with which she gets her information across. Rather than going off into a discussion about the damage caused by smallpox, or staying too vague by mentioning how “diseases” had been solved by the use of vaccines, the author chooses a specific example (smallpox) and mentions only the details relevant to proving her point. This kind of precise writing takes practice, but being able to effectively sum up an example and why it supports your position in just a couple of sentences is essential if you want to get a high score on the GRE Issue essay.
Focus, organization, and logical connections are the third criterion that a perfect-scoring essay needs to fulfill. In the case of this GRE essay sample, the author achieves this organization and focus by linking ideas both within paragraphs (as seen in the previous example) as well as between paragraphs. Let’s look at the way the author transitions between the end of paragraph four and the beginning of paragraph five:
The unlikely marriage of economics and medicine has healed tense, hyperinflation environments from South America to Eastern Europe.
This last example provides the most hope in how technology actually provides hope to the future of humanity. By increasing our reliance on technology, impossible goals can now be achieved.
The author connects the two paragraphs by continuing paragraph four’s discussion of ways human imagination has been pushed by technology (technology combining economics and medicine has solved a problem) with paragraph five’s exploration of how this example has led to achieving things previously considered impossible. The smoothness of the transition between the two paragraphs is effected both by presenting the content of the next paragraph as a logical progression from what was just discussed as well as by using language (“this last example”) that connects the two on a more superficial level.
By keeping paragraphs tightly linked on both the surface level of sentence structures as well as on the deeper level of content being discussed, the author of this essay also keeps her writing focused and cohesive.
The last quality a perfect-scoring essay must demonstrate is precision of language and flow in writing. The author of this GRE Analytical Writing sample fulfills this requirement by using language to precisely and economically convey meaning throughout her essay. Here’s one example of precise and effective use of language in the essay:
This disease had ravaged the human race since prehistorical days, and yet with the technology of vaccines, free thinking humans dared to imagine a world free of smallpox.
In this excerpt, the author uses the evocative word “ravaged” to show the dire extent of the problem solved by technology, reinforcing that the issue was previously considered impossible to cope with. She also uses the phrase “humans dared to imagine” in this sentence, which ties the example being discussed back to the previous paragraph’s discussion of human imagination.
While there are a couple of minor errors in this excerpt (“prehistorical” should be “prehistoric,” “free thinking” should be “free-thinking”), they do not significantly change the meaning of the author’s words and so do not detract from the overall effectiveness of the author’s language.
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Issue Essay 2: Cooperation Vs. Competition
The second of the GRE Issue essay samples I’ll be analyzing is written in response to the following prompt about the values of cooperation vs. competition:
“The best way for a society to prepare its young people for leadership in government, industry, or other fields is by instilling in them a sense of cooperation, not competition.”
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons or examples that could be used to challenge your position.
The sample Issue essay written in response to this topic takes the stance that cooperation, not competition, is a preferable value to instill in young people in preparation for government. You can read the full essay on page 108 of this PDF. Read on for a discussion of the different ways in which this essay meets the requirements for a perfect score.
As with the previous GRE essay sample, we’ll start by looking at how this essay meets the perfect-scoring essay criteria of stating a clear and insightful position (as required by the essay task). The author fulfills the first part of the criteria with his clear statement of his thesis in the last line of the very first paragraph:
I would have to agree that the best way to prepare young people for leadership roles is to instill in them a sense of cooperation.
He reiterates this clear position with the last two sentences of his conclusion:
Getting to be President of the United States or the managing director of a corporation might require you to win some battles, but once you are there you will need diplomacy and people-skills. Those can be difficult to learn, but if you do not have them, you are likely to be a short-lived leader.
To achieve a perfect Issue essay score, however, it’s not just enough to be clear in your position; your position must also demonstrate insight into the issue. The author of this essay accomplishes this second part by choosing a two-pronged approach to answering the essay question. Rather than merely explaining how cooperativeness leads to positive outcomes in government, industry, and other fields, the author also explains how competitiveness leads to negative outcomes.
Thus, the author makes his position clear by stating it in the opening and closing paragraphs of the essay and shows insight by taking the more complex position that not only is cooperation good, but competition is bad.
The next of the rubric criteria we’ll discuss has to do with how well the author develops his position with examples and reasoning. A great example of this development can be found in the second paragraph of this essay, which discusses the drawbacks of competition.
The author begins his discussion of competitiveness by arguing that it’s a quality that doesn’t need to be “instilled” because it’s already present. Beginning with general reasoning about human behaviors at school and the office to introduce his point, the author then neatly segues into specific examples of competitiveness gone amok (Hitler in Germany and the recent economic meltdown in America).
With each example presented in the essay, the author pushes his position along a little further. He moves from discussing the most extreme historical cases (genocide) to more recent events (economic recession), concluding by focusing in on one person’s life and career (Tiger Woods). This final example allows the author to reach his final destination in his discussion of competitiveness: yes, competition can serve people well up to a certain point, but the price is that it is also “detrimental and ultimately quite destructive.”
The third way this essay meets the requirements of a perfect-scoring essay is through the logical connection of ideas within and between paragraphs. The transition between the end of paragraph two and the beginning of paragraph three provides a stellar example of this skillful connecting of ideas:
It [competitiveness] served him well in some respects, but it also proved to be detrimental and ultimately quite destructive.
Leaders who value cooperation, on the other ahnd, have historically been less prone to these overreaching, destructive tendencies.
On the face of it, the author only connects the two paragraphs by using a transition phrase (“on the other hand”) that sets up the next paragraph as contrasting with what came before. While this kind of transition would be good enough for a lower-scoring essay, though, the author does not just leave the connection between the two paragraphs at that. Instead, he also connects the two paragraphs by keeping the focus on the same issue from the end of one paragraph to the beginning of the next.
The content-level transition between paragraphs occurs when the author transitions from discussing the “detrimental and ultimately quite destructive” competitiveness of Tiger Woods directly into claiming that cooperation-valuing leaders are “less prone to these overreaching, destructive tendencies.” This twofold linkage of content (deeper level) and transition phrase (more surface level) makes it clear to the reader that the discussion of leaders valuing cooperation follows logically the discussion of negative outcomes for competition-valuing leaders.
The final 6-level quality demonstrated by this GRE Writing sample is its use of skillful and precise language to convey specific meaning. Overall, the language in this essay is formal and academic, despite the profligate use of first person point of view by the author (which can make writing seem less formal). The following sentence exemplifies the author’s command of language:
The recent economic meltdown was caused in no large part by the leaders of American banks and financial institutions who were obsessed with competing for the almighty dollar.
Despite the minor error in this sentence (it should read “in no small part,” rather than “in no large part,”), the author’s meaning is absolutely clear: competition led to the meltdown. Strong vocabulary choices like “economic meltdown,” “obsessed,” “almighty dollar” are what make this an effective statement of the author’s position. Compare the above excerpt to a more milquetoast version of the same statement:
The recent economic downturn was mostly caused by financial leaders who wanted to earn lots of money.
This second sentence has the same basic meaning as the real excerpt from the essay. Because it doesn’t use particularly precise or compelling language, however, this watered-down version ends up minimizing the magnitude of problems caused by competitiveness (which undercuts the author’s point). This vaguer version of the essay excerpt also lacks the word “competing,” which makes it useless as an instance of competition among leaders leading to negative consequences.
The original excerpt from the essay, and indeed the entire GRE essay example, is so strong precisely because it manages to pack in specific relevant language that adds to, rather than detracts from, the author’s meaning.
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Argument Essay 1: Mason City Riverside Recreation
The next essay I’ll be analyzing is written in response to the following “Analyze an Argument” prompt:
In surveys Mason City residents rank water sports (swimming, boating and fishing) among their favorite recreational activities. The Mason River flowing through the city is rarely used for these pursuits, however, and the city park department devotes little of its budget to maintaining riverside recreational facilities. For years there have been complaints from residents about the quality of the river’s water and the river’s smell. In response, the state has recently announced plans to clean up Mason River. Use of the river for water sports is therefore sure to increase. The city government should for that reason devote more money in this year’s budget to riverside recreational facilities.
Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on the assumptions and what the implications are if the assumptions prove unwarranted.
The GRE Argument essay sample I’ll be analyzing critiques the numerous assumptions made and ultimately concludes that the argument for spending more money on Mason City’s riverside recreational facilities rests on faulty assumptions.
The full text of this essay can be found on the ETS website. Be sure to read through the essay first before coming back to read my analysis of it. We’ll start by looking at the ways in which this GRE essay sample identifies and examines the argument given in the prompt in an insightful way:
There are three key assumptions made by the argument that are identified in the essay:
#1: The survey results are valid and representative
#2: The reason Mason River isn’t used is because of odor and pollution
#3: Cleaning the pollution in the river will get rid of the odor and then lead to more usage by residents
The Argument essay example we’re looking at examines each of the assumptions by considering the implications if the assumptions made by the article turn out not to be true. Here’s part of the essay’s investigation of the second assumption listed above:
Though there have been complaints, we do not know if there have been numerous complaints from a wide range of people, or perhaps from one or two individuals who made numerous complaints.
The author identifies the assumption that complaints indicate many people want to use the river and examines it by reasoning through possible scenarios other than the one presented in the prompt. The insight comes from the fact that the specific possibilities discussed by the author are highly plausible alternative explanations for the facts that would change the validity of the prompt’s assumption. It’s very possible that the complaints were not made by every single resident, or even a majority of residents, as the prompt seems to assume, but were in fact only made by a few people.
As a result of her analysis, the author ultimately concludes that there is insufficient information to support the assumption that Mason River isn’t used due to its odor and pollution.
The next way the author of this sample GRE essay fulfills the requirements of a perfect-scoring Argument essay is by providing comprehensive support for each of her main points. Throughout the essay, the author is able to explain exactly why each assumption made is problematic by using examples that precisely illustrate her argument.
Consider how this is approached in the second paragraph of the essay. The author starts the paragraph by presenting the assumption made in the essay argument that the survey results can be relied upon. She then proceeds to decimate that assumption with multiple examples of ways in which the survey could be flawed and not be an accurate representation of the residents’ opinions, as can be seen in the following excerpt:
For example, the survey could have asked residents if they prefer using the river for water sports or would like to see a hydroelectric dam built, which may have swayed residents toward river sports. The sample may not have been representative of city residents, asking only those residents who live upon the river. The survey may have been 10 pages long, with 2 questions dedicated to river sports. We just do not know.
The thoroughness of the author’s support for her point is magnified by the specificity of the scenarios she proposes. Stating “the survey might not have been representative of the city residents” would have been far less compelling a point than stating “[t]he sample may not have been representative of city residents, asking only those residents who live upon the river.”
Another important ideal a perfect-scoring Argument essay must live up to is being organized logically, with clear transitions between ideas. The author of this GRE essay sample is able to meet the first part of this requirement with a simple five-paragraph organizational structure: an introduction, one paragraph for each assumption discussed, and a conclusion.
Accomplishing the logical connection and development of ideas throughout the essay requires a little bit more finesse, but the author still manages it. Here’s an example from the beginning of the third paragraph of a skillful transition:
Additionally, the author implies that residents do not use the river for swimming, boating, and fishing, despite their professed interest, because the water is polluted and smelly.
In the above example, the author uses the transition word “additionally” to connect the ideas that will follow with what went before. The example also references the previous paragraph’s discussion of the unreliability of the survey of residents (“their professed interest”) and links it to the current discussion of pollution and smell being the cause of low participation in riverside recreational activities. The combination of these two methods of connecting the two paragraphs results in a smooth logical flow from one idea to the next.
Lastly, a perfect-scoring Argument essay must be precise and effective in its discussion of ideas, with few if any errors. The author of this essay successfully meets this standard by using purposeful language to efficiently and clearly get her point across, as can be seen in this example from paragraph three:
While a polluted, smelly river would likely cut down on river sports, a concrete connection between the resident’s lack of river use and the river’s current state is not effectively made.
The author contrasts the prompt’s assumption (“a polluted, smelly river would likely cut down on river sports”) with the “concrete connection” that is not present. The essay as a whole is not completely devoid of errors (for example, the author writes “afffected” instead of “affected”), but the errors are few and do not have a negative impact on the clarity of the writing.
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Argument Essay 2: Super Screen Movie Advertising
The last of the GRE essay examples I’ll be analyzing at is written in response to this “Analyze an Argument” prompt:
The following is taken from a memo from the advertising director of the Super Screen Movie Production Company.
“According to a recent report from our marketing department, during the past year, fewer people attended Super Screen-produced movies than in any other year. And yet the percentage of positive reviews by movie reviewers about specific Super Screen movies actually increased during the past year. Clearly, the contents of these reviews are not reaching enough of our prospective viewers. Thus, the problem lies not with the quality of our movies but with the public’s lack of awareness that movies of good quality are available. Super Screen should therefore allocate a greater share of its budget next year to reaching the public through advertising.”
Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be answered in order to decide whether the recommendation and the argument on which it is based are reasonable. Be sure to explain how the answers to these questions would help to evaluate the recommendation.
The essay written in response to this “Analyze an Argument” prompt raises and evaluates questions about how many viewers and reviews of Super Screen productions there actually were, if there is a strong relationship between how movie reviewers and general audiences react to movies, and whether or not the percentage of positive reviews about a movie reflects how much of an impact reviews have on audiences.
The full text of this GRE essay sample can be found on p. 112 of this PDF. Read through the essay first, then check below for an analysis of its positive (and negative) qualities.
The first aspect of the essay we’ll analyze is how it succeeds in identifying and examining the parts of the argument that are relevant to the task. In the essay’s introduction, the author mentions that there are questions that need to be asked (“Before this plan is implemented, however, Super Screen needs to address some questions about its possible flaws”), but he really hammers it home in the conclusion by specifying which questions need to be answered:
In conclusion, there are many questions Super Screen needs to answer before using this advertising director’s plan. They need to look carefully at actual numbers, both of viewership and of positive reviews. The also need to identify the relationship that their target audience has with movie reviewers and determine how their target audience feels about their movies. Fianlly they need to take a nuanced look at the movie reviews that they use in their advertising.
With this conclusion, the author hits the three main points that need to be considered before agreeing to the advertising director’s plan: viewer and review numbers, audience reactions to reviews, and whether or not reviews are a useful metric by which to measure movie success.
An instance of the author identifying a particular argument can be found in the third paragraph of this GRE essay sample. The paragraph starts by clearly stating the question that needs to be answered (what the number of positive reviews was and how it compared to past reviews). After this initial identification of the question, the author also explains how answering this question would have an impact on the usefulness of the recommendation: if the increase in positive reviews was from 1% to 2%, allocating more money to advertising to emphasize this fact is likely to have less impact than if the money were instead budgeted towards improving film quality.
Another quality all perfect-scoring Argument essays must contain is strong and thorough support for each point discussed. The author of the GRE essay sample we’re analyzing fulfills this requirement, supporting every question she raises about the argument in the prompt by showing how its answer would affect the recommendation.
A good example of this all coming together happens in paragraph five of the essay:
Finally the studio must ask whether the percentage of positive reviews is really a relevant way to measure the potential impact of movie reviews. There are dozens of movie reviewers but when deciding whether to not to go to a movie, the general public will usually pick from among the 10 most popular movie reviews. These are the reviews that will impress the public if they are included in advertising. If the most popular movie reviewers disliked Super Screen movies that a larger number of small time film bloggers reviewed positively, Super Screen needs to think of a new advertising strategy.
In this paragraph, the author opens by identifying the element of argument to be discussed (are positive reviews a useful way to measure the impact of movie reviews in general?). She then develops this point through reasoning about why the answer to this question might contradict the assumption made in the argument (people mostly use popular reviews to decide on what movies to see, rather than the ratio of popular to negative reviews).
The author ends this paragraph by conclusively showing that the answer to the question raised in this paragraph is crucial for determining whether or not Super Screen should follow the advertising director’s plan: if the percent of positive reviews isn’t a good way to measure movie impact and the real issue is that relatively few popular movie reviewers liked Super Screen movies, then the recommendation of the advertising department is unreasonable.
The third requirement for a perfect-scoring Argument essay is that it must develop and connect ideas in a clear and logical fashion. The organization of this GRE argument essay sample helps accomplish this by routing the author’s thoughts into an introduction, four body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each body paragraph of the essay is centered around one or two related questions. A good example of this can be found in paragraph four, which contains two related questions about the relationship between audiences and movie reviewers:
Finally, Super Screen needs to ask what the relationship is between its viewers and the movie reviewers cited in the memo. Using a survey distributed to its target audience, Super Screen could determine if movie reviews have an effect on their audience’s decision to go see a movie, whether movie reviewers tended to have the same taste as the target audience and exactly whether or not movie reviews are reaching the audience. Super Screen also needs to consider how its movie choices have affected the separate movie reviewer and audience populations. If the studio has switched from making mega- blockbuster action movies to more nuanced dramas, the general public may be less willing to go see their movies even though movie critics prefer the dramas to the action movies.
The above paragraph starts out by discussing if Super Screen’s target audiences are affected by reviews and whether their audiences and movie reviewers have the same taste, then segues into discussing if the studio’s film-making choices have affected audiences and movie reviews. The transition between the two different questions being discussed is effected by the simple use of the word “also” in the third sentence of the paragraph:
Super Screen also needs to consider how its movie choices have affected the separate movie reviewer and audience populations. [bolded for emphasis]
The last sentence of the paragraph again links back to the discussion of audience taste vs. reviewer taste, reinforcing the close and logical connection between the two questions discussed in the paragraph.
Finally, a perfect-scoring Argument essay must employ varied and precise language, with few errors. Earlier, we discussed paragraph four as a particularly strong example of the author’s effective development of ideas. The last sentence of this paragraph contributes to this efficacy through the use of specific language:
“If the studio has switched from making mega-blockbuster action movies to more nuanced dramas, the general public may be less willing to go see their movies even though movie critics prefer the dramas to the action movies.”
The use of the descriptor “mega-blockbuster” to describe the action movies preferred by the masses effectively conjures up something that is the diametric opposite of a “nuanced drama.” In addition, the author’s contrasting of the “mega-blockbuster action movies” with “more nuanced dramas” parallels the second half of the sentence’s contrasting of the preferences of the general public vs. those of the (possibly) more refined movie reviewer.
There are a few minor spelling errors (e.g. in “attendence” instead of “attendance”), and the last two body paragraphs both start with “finally” (which is a little repetitive), but in general, this is a skillfully written essay. It’s not perfectly polished like an essay you’d turn in for school, but that’s absolutely OK. In the grand scheme of the GRE essay scoring rubric, writing flourishes matter much less than clarity of thought and precision of language.
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6 Tips for a Perfect-Scoring GRE Essay
To wrap up this article, I’ll go over some of the key points you should take from the four GRE sample essays I analyzed in this article.
#1: Include an Introduction and a Conclusion
One thing that all these perfect-scoring GRE sample essays had in common was an introduction and a conclusion. It doesn’t have to be a full paragraph, but you need to at the very least introduce your ideas at the beginning of your essay and wrap up your conclusions at the end of it.
#2: State Your Position Clearly
In my notes to myself on one of the GRE Issue essay examples I analyzed above, I observed that the author “states her thesis early and often” because of the way her position was made clear throughout the essay. While obviously you don’t want to just repeat the same sentence over and over again, it is imperative that you include at least one clear statement of your position in your essay, preferably in your introduction paragraph.
The importance of clearly stating your position varies between the two GRE essay tasks somewhat. For the Argument essay, you might be able to get away with a vague summary of the points you’ll cover and still get a 4.0 or above on the essay; by contrast, it’s nearly impossible to get above a 3.0 on the Issue essay if you do not clearly state your position on the issue, as that is integral to the essay task itself.
Whatever the prompt or essay type, if you want to get a perfect score on your essay, you’ll need to include a clear statement of your position on the issue or what points you’ll be analyzing in regards to the argument in the prompt.
#3: Be Specific in Your Support
All of the perfect-scoring GRE essay examples analyzed in this article contained specific and relevant support for the claims made by the authors. In the Issue essay examples, the authors drew upon well-defined examples and concise examples that directly supported the author’s position on the issue. In the Argument essay samples, the authors focused in on several specific parts of the arguments and debated their validity using specific hypothetical scenarios and questions.
The takeaway of this for your own writing is that the specific is always more persuasive than the general when it comes to supporting a point. And if you can’t find specific support for your position or for the flaw you’ve found in an argument, then that’s a good sign that you need to consider changing your position or finding another part of the argument to critique.
#4: Explain Your Support Clearly
As I discussed in my analyses of the four GRE Writing samples, whether or not your writing is polished and perfectly worded and spelled is not nearly as important as your successful communication of your ideas and how they are supported. In the GRE essay, all is precision, and analyses of issues that use clearly-explained compelling examples or analyses of arguments that cut to the very heart of why an argument is flawed with supporting explanations will ultimately score higher than beautifully crafted but logically imprecise essays.
#5: Use Transitions
All of the authors of the GRE essay examples analyzed in this article are able to maintain focus and organization in their essays by employing multi-level transitions that link ideas between and within paragraphs on both content and linguistic levels. In your own writing, be conscious of when you are changing from discussing one idea to another and make sure the transition is smooth. Even just adding transition words like “additionally” or “in contrast” to the beginning of new ideas can help your writing flow better.
#6: Stay Organized
While all of the GRE essay examples used in this article were written in response to different prompts, they all adhered to basically the standard five-paragraph, introduction-body paragraphs-conclusion format.
There’s no reason to take extra time away from your analysis of the questions to figure out a unique organizational structure for each essay when the five paragraph essay will get it done just as well (if not better). This is not because other forms are not possible; as the ETS website says, “You are free to organize and develop your response in any way you think will enable you to effectively communicate your ideas about the issue.”
But the utility of the five paragraph form is that it’s a tried-and-true way to keep your essay organized. Using it will save you the time of having to figure out a new organizational strategy for every essay you write. And the more consistently you stick to a simple (but clear) organizational structure, the faster you’ll get at it, until organizing your thoughts logically comes as second-nature (especially important in a timed essay environment when every second counts).
Now you know what it takes to get a perfect essay score. But do you actually need to get a perfect 6.0 on GRE Writing? Find out with our discussion of what a good GRE Writing score is.
Curious about how the criteria mentioned in this article translate into numerical scores? Read our article on how the GRE essay is scored to learn more!
Need to boost your essay score quickly? We have 15 great tips and strategies that help you improve your Analytical Writing score.
Ready to dive into practice essays with some practice topics? Use our guide to the 328 official GRE essay topics to get started.
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Author: Laura Staffaroni
Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel and fulfill their college and grad school dreams. View all posts by Laura Staffaroni