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The GRE Analytical Writing Test

Written by tutor Matthew M.

The GRE Analytical Writing measure includes two separate writing tasks: the Analyze an Issue task (or Issue task), and the Analyze an Argument task (or Argument task). For each task the test-taker is given 30 minutes to complete a written response.

The purpose of the Analytical Writing section is to measure critical thinking and writing abilities. ETS states that these include the ability to:

  • articulate complex ideas clearly and effectively
  • support ideas with relevant reasons and examples
  • examine claims and accompanying evidence
  • sustain a well-focused, coherent discussion
  • control the elements of standard written English

Since these skills are general and not specific to any particular field of knowledge, there is no specific content knowledge that is presumed necessary to effectively complete the Analytical Writing tasks. The test-taker will instead draw upon his or her own experiences, ideas, and education in order to demonstrate the relevant skills.

While the Analytical Writing measure provides a general assessment of critical thinking and writing skills, each task is different and tests specific abilities of the test-taker. For example, the Issue task is used to evaluate how effectively the test-taker constructs an argument to support a position, whereas the Argument task is used to measure how effectively a test-taker analyzes a given argument and identifies its flaws in reasoning. Notice how these tasks are related: for the first an argument is constructed, for the second an argument is taken apart.

The Analytical Writing measure is scored as a composite on a scale from 0 to 6 in half-point increments. Each essay will be assigned a score from 0 to 6 corresponding to how effectively the test taker fulfills the task. A final composite score is calculated by taking the average of both scores. The official score report will not include separate scores for each essay.

The Issue Task

The Analytical Writing measure begins by presenting a prompt for the Issue task. The prompt for each task consists of two parts. The Issue prompt consists of a claim or set of related claims followed by a set of instructions. A claim is an assertion or recommendation that can be agreed or disagreed with. The following presents two related claims, the first of which is an assertion followed by a recommendation:

Society is now dependent upon on digital technology. Schools should therefore focus their resources on replacing older curriculums with newer, more technology-based curriculums.

Issue essay claims are, by design, abstract and general. They typically address issues relevant to large sectors of society, society in general, the (post)modern age, significant categories of people, people in general, or humanity as a whole. The issues addressed tend to fall into a somewhat consistent set of topic categories. These include education and the university, leadership, human nature or psychology, technology, success, the various fields of study, and different points of view including skepticism and pragmatism.

Following the claim, a set of instructions is presented. It is important to note that there are six different sets of Issue task instructions. The particular set given depends on the nature of the claim made. For example, if a recommendation is made, then the set of instructions provided will be appropriate for this claim type. For the above claim, consider how the following set of directions from ETS could be fulfilled:

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the recommendation and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, describe specific circumstances in which adopting the recommendation would or would not be advantageous and explain how these examples shape your position.

While there are clear differences between the instructions, they are alike in their essential expectation that the test-taker analyze the claim, develop and support a position on the issue, and explore the limits of their position.

The entire pool of Issue task prompts is available at the ETS website.

The Argument Task

For the Argument prompt, an argument is presented followed by a set of instructions. An argument is a set of claims in which some claims are conclusions and some claims support conclusions. Another (more abstract) way to think about arguments is to consider the argument as the path reason takes to the arrive at its conclusion. Consider the following argument:

The following appeared as a letter to the editor of a suburban newspaper:

Edgemere High has lost its edge. We are no longer the athletic powerhouse we used to be. In fact, last year Edgemere's football team was last in the state championships. It is now clear that a recently built indoor skate-and-water park has become a popular after-school destination, where many potentially gifted athletes now go rather than participating in sanctioned high-school sports. If Edgemere athletics hopes to regain its dominance, the city council should restrict the hours of operation of the skate-and-water park so that it no longer competes with after-school sports.

Following the argument, a set of instructions will specify how the test-taker should respond to the given argument. It is important to note that for the Argument task there are eight possible sets of instructions. While there are significant differences to distinguish them, they all share a twofold common emphasis on analyzing and evaluating the strength of the argument's construction. For the argument above, consider how the following set of instructions from ETS could be fulfilled:

Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be addressed in order to decide whether the conclusion and the argument on which it is based are reasonable. Be sure to explain how the answers to the questions would help to evaluate the conclusion.

One approach to analyzing an argument is to identify each of its parts and the role each part plays. As stated above, an argument is a set of claims, some of which play a concluding role, some of which play a supporting role. There are three essential points to add:

  • a claim can play both a supporting role and a concluding role
  • a claim can be compound in the sense of being made of two or more simple claims
  • a claim can be explicit or unstated

Unstated supporting claims are generally referred to as assumptions because they are assumed to be true for the sake of the conclusion. Identifying the assumptions the argument makes is one of the fundamental tasks when analyzing the argument.

One approach to evaluating an argument is to consider the argument as the path reason takes to arrive at a conclusion. For reason to travel in a sure footed manner, each part of the path must be secure and well connected to the next. Any gaps in the path can halt reason's progress and create uncertainties and doubts and lead to other conclusions than the intended one. Unstated claims - assumptions - are just such gaps, and identifying them as such is a good way to begin evaluating the argument. However, each part of the path, stated or unstated, must be evaluated as well.

The entire pool of Argument task prompts is available at the ETS website.

Scoring the Issue Task

To determine the individual essay scores, each essay is evaluated according to a set of task-relevant scoring criteria. Although there is significant overlap between them, the two sets of scoring criteria are specifically suited to their intended tasks. The Issue task is scored based on the following set of criteria:

  • development of a position
  • support of a position
  • organization and cohesiveness of the essay
  • clarity, precision and variety of expression
  • control of English grammar and writing conventions

Each of the possible score levels 0 to 6 corresponds with how well and the degree to which each of the above criteria is fulfilled. For scores of 4 or above, the test taker must demonstrate appropriate skill levels in each of the five criteria, whereas limited competency in one or more of the areas will yield a score below 4.

Based on the guidelines provided by ETS, a score of 6 is given when: the test taker has carefully analyzed the issue and developed a thoughtful position on it; the essay makes a compelling case in support of this position by providing strong reasons and illustrative examples; the essay is very well organized for its purpose and the ideas presented cohere logically to address the issue; the test taker has utilized clear and precise prose to express diverse, yet related ideas; the test taker has demonstrated a high level of awareness of the grammatical rules and writing conventions for standard English.

A score of 5 is given when: the test taker has analyzed the issue and articulated a well-defined position on the issue; the essay makes a strong case to support this position by providing reasons and relevant examples; the coherency, scope and organization of the ideas are well-suited to address the issue; the test taker has utilized clear and precise prose to express related ideas; the essay demonstrates strong grammatical awareness and follows the writing conventions for standard English.

A score of 4 is given when: the test taker has presented a sufficiently defined position on the issue; the essay makes a sufficient case to support the position by providing appropriate reasons and examples; the essay is organized and coherent within a scope appropriate to support the position; the ideas are sufficiently expressed in suitable prose; in general, the essay is grammatically correct and follows the standards of written English.

A score of 3 is given when: the test taker has presented a somewhat unclear position on the issue; the reasons or examples given provide a limited basis of support for the position; the organization of the essay is not sufficient to provide strong cohesion of ideas or a sense of unity; the ideas are expressed in prose somewhat unsuited for developing complex ideas; some grammatical errors compromise intended meanings or obscure relationships between ideas.

A score of 2 is given when: the test taker presents an unclear position on the issue; the reasons or examples given provide only weak support for the position; the organization of the essay provides little cohesion or unity; the ideas are expressed in prose unsuited for developing complex ideas; frequent grammatical errors compromise intended meanings or obscure relationships between ideas.

A score of 1 is given when: the test taker fails to present and support a relevant position on the issue; the essay is without focus; the ideas are poorly expressed; serious grammatical issues interfere with meaning throughout the essay.

A score of 0 is given when: the test taker fails to respond the given prompt. According to ETS this includes: responding in a language other than English or writing entirely off topic.

A score of NS is given when: the test taker provides no response.

The official scoring guidelines for the Issue essay can be found on the ETS website.

Scoring the Argument Task

The Argument task is scored based on the following set of criteria:

  • critical analysis and evaluation of an argument
  • organization and structure of the response
  • support of the points in the analysis
  • clarity, precision and variety of expression
  • control of English grammar and writing conventions

It is important to note that the Argument task is not asking for opinions or arguments in support of or against the claims in the given argument. Instead, the appropriate approach is to analyze the argument in order to evaluate the basis and justification of each of its claims.

Each of the possible score levels 0 to 6 corresponds with how well and the degree to which each of the above criteria is fulfilled. For scores of 4 to 6, the test taker must at least demonstrate competency in each of the five criteria, whereas weakness in one or more of the areas will yield a score below 4.

Based on the guidelines provided by ETS, a score of 6 is given when: the test taker has carefully analyzed the given argument and clearly identified many of the required elements; the response is very well organized and logically developed for its purpose; each of the major points of the analysis is thoroughly evaluated and strongly supported; the test taker has utilized clear and precise prose to express diverse, yet related ideas; the test taker demonstrates a high level of awareness of the grammatical rules and writing conventions for "standard English."

A score of 5 is given when: the test taker has analyzed the given argument and identified many of the required elements; the response is well organized and logically developed for its purpose; each of the major points of the analysis is carefully evaluated and well reasoned; the test taker has utilized clear and precise prose to express related ideas; the essay demonstrates strong grammatical awareness and follows the writing conventions for standard English.

A score of 4 is given when: the test taker has analyzed the given argument and identified some of the required elements; the response is generally organized and logically developed for its purpose; each of the major points of the analysis and evaluation is supported; the ideas are sufficiently expressed in suitable prose; in general, the essay is grammatically correct and follows the standards of written English.

A score of 3 is given when: the test taker has identified few of the required elements in the argument; the organization of the essay provides limited unity, cohesion or logical development; the ideas discussed are frequently outside of the appropriate scope for the task; the ideas are expressed in prose somewhat unsuited for developing complex ideas; some grammatical errors compromise intended meanings or obscure relationships between ideas.

A score of 2 is given when: the test taker has not identified the required elements in the argument; the organization of the essay provides very limited unity or cohesion and lacks logical development; the ideas discussed are mainly outside of the appropriate scope for the task; the ideas are expressed in prose unsuited for developing complex ideas; frequent grammatical errors compromise intended meanings or obscure relationships between ideas.

A score of 1 is given when: the test taker fails to appropriately respond to the argument; the essay is without focus; serious grammatical issues interfere with meaning throughout the essay.

A score of 0 is given for the same reasons as in the Issues task: failing to respond to the given prompt, responding in a language other than English, or writing entirely off topic.

A score of NS is given when: the test taker provides no response.

The official scoring guidelines for the Argument essay can be found on the ETS website.

In order to better understand the scoring guidelines for each task, the test-taker should review representative sample essays for each score and carefully determine how the characteristics of each essay meet the applied scoring criteria. Sample essays and scoring commentary can be found on the ETS website for both Issue essays and Argument essays.

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