What’s Up with the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment?

Back in the day, we humans ate some pretty rough stuff.  Leaves, roots, seeds…our prehistoric palates tended toward the hard, fibrous, and crunchy.  So, it was useful to have a few extra “wisdom” teeth helping out the digestive system.  

Fast forward to the present day, and we live in a world of spaghetti, cake, and protein shakes.  And yet, our wisdom teeth remain.  The only time we think about them is at the dentist’s office, or when they get infected.

In this sense, one could call the Analytical Writing Assessment the “wisdom tooth” of the GRE–it’s not particularly useful or important, and you only need to worry about it if something is seriously wrong.

Nonetheless, let’s take a minute to chew it over!

What is the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment?

The AWA (also referred to as the “essay” or “writing” section) is the very first assignment you’ll complete on the GRE.  It consists of two 30 minute writing assignments: The Issue Task and Argument Task.

How Important is the AWA, Really?

The bottom line?  It’s not.  At least, not really.  Every program is different, but graduate admissions offices generally place a much higher emphasis on your Verbal and Quantitative sections than they do on the writing section.  Plus, they’ll have other ways to review your writing ability, like the Statement of Purpose.

So unless your GRE writing score is exceptionally high or exceptionally low, they generally will not give it a second glance (of course, there are some caveats to this–if you’re applying to a writing-intensive program, the gatekeepers will likely expect high marks).

Thus, essay writing should be the very last topic that you study.  On test day, think of it as a warm-up for the important sections (Quant and Verbal).

How is the Analytical Writing Assessment Scored?

You’ll receive one writing score out of 6 for both of your essays.  To understand the grading scale, have a look at the table below (the left column represents each score, and the right column represents the percentile).

That’s right–if you get a perfect 6, you’ve done better than 99% of other test-takers…if you get a 5.5, you’ve done better than 98% of test-takers.  Once again, unless your program requires a stellar score, anything in the 4-5 range is impressive.  So don’t strive for perfection–save that energy for the other portions of the test!

If you’re interested in seeing the grading rubric, feel free to take a look at the ETS website.

How Can I Study for the Analytical Writing Assessment?

Psstt…hey you…can you keep a secret?  There’s a site with ALL of the GRE writing prompts that could possibly show up on test day.  Just follow these links for the Issue topic pool and Argument topic pool.

That’s right!  You don’t need to go to some seedy corner of the world wide web to find these.  ETS has published them all out in the open!  Now if they would only do that for the Verbal and Quant questions…

So the good news is, it’s easy to practice using GRE writing prompts.  That said, don’t go overboard and try to memorize all of them.  Remember that this section of the test carries significantly less weight than the others, so budget your time accordingly as you plan out your GRE study schedule.

The PowerPrep GRE practice tests include official ETS essays.  However, you will not receive a grade on the free versions (you can pay for the PowerPrep plus versions, which cost about $40 each).  Be sure to consult your GRE tutor to see if he or she can give you feedback for improvement.

The Issue Prompt

After clicking your way through the initial instructions, the Issue Essay is the very first task you’ll have to complete in your GRE marathon.  Let’s dive in!

What’s the issue essay all about?  For that, why don’t we turn to the ETS for an answer:

“The Issue task presents an opinion on an issue of general interest followed by specific instructions on how to respond to that issue. You are required to evaluate the issue, consider its complexities and develop an argument with reasons and examples to support your views.” 

Source: ETS

Got it?  The prompt is going to present an “issue” that you’ll need to respond to.  Usually the GRE Issue essay topic categories have to do with government policy or education.  Here’s an example below:

“Nations should pass laws to preserve any remaining wilderness areas in their natural state, even if these areas could be developed for economic gain.” Source: ETS

“Hold on a minute,” you say.  “I don’t know the first thing about the wilderness!  I’m a cosmopolitan!”  Not to fear, city-slicker.  The test is much more interested in seeing how you construct an argument, rather than what you know about some “general issue.”  So even if the evidence you cite is vague (…or even not 100% true), the grader will not care so long as you are supporting your main point.

The actual instructions vary slightly from prompt to prompt, but they generally look something like this:

“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 and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position.”  Source: ETS

The Argument Prompt

Congratulations: you’ve finished the first essay!  Your reward? Another 30 minutes of writing!  This time, it’s on to the argument task.  Again, let’s check in with ETS to see what this one is all about:

“The Argument task requires you to evaluate a given argument according to specific instructions. You will need to consider the logical soundness of the argument rather than agree or disagree with the position it presents.” 

Source: ETS

Long story short, your job is to critique an argument or proposal.  This usually involves some imaginary city or business considering a plan.  It’s most important to remember here that no one cares about your opinion of these entirely fictional circumstances!  They don’t exist!  Instead, your job is to explain whether the argument is a logical one.  Let’s take a look at an example:

“Of the two leading real estate firms in our town — Adams Realty and Fitch Realty — Adams Realty is clearly superior. Adams has 40 real estate agents; in contrast, Fitch has 25, many of whom work only part-time. Moreover, Adams’ revenue last year was twice as high as that of Fitch and included home sales that averaged $168,000, compared to Fitch’s $144,000. Homes listed with Adams sell faster as well: ten years ago I listed my home with Fitch, and it took more than four months to sell; last year, when I sold another home, I listed it with Adams, and it took only one month. Thus, if you want to sell your home quickly and at a good price, you should use Adams Realty.”  Source: ETS

At first blush, this seems like a pretty reasonable argument to make, right?  Based on all of the evidence, doesn’t Adams sound like a much better firm?  Well, upon closer inspection, the logic quickly begins to fall apart. 

For instance, do we know that having more agents is necessarily better?  Is it fair to compare “ten years ago” to “last year?”  

Take a few minutes to read back over that argument to see if you can spot any more weaknesses (there are plenty of them).  Your job in the argument essay is to point them out.

One important note: the actual instructions vary slightly from prompt to prompt.  Generally speaking, there are three versions:

  • “Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument.”
  • “Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument.”
  • “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.” Source: ETS

While the overall assignment never changes (analyze the argument) you’ll need to tailor your essay to the particular instructions…so be sure to read them carefully!

Brainstorm!

Have you ever turned on a water faucet that’s been unused for a while?  The first murky water to come out isn’t usually the best.  

You’ll have the same problem if you dive immediately into writing–your first ideas are often not your strongest.  Thus, be sure to give yourself enough time to carefully plan out your essay.  Let that brain faucet run!

Be sure to organize your essay into clear, distinct paragraphs.  Each paragraph should have its own specific purpose.  

Those who fail to plan plan to fail.  It’s one of those annoying clichés…but like most annoying cliches, it’s true.  It is absolutely crucial that you plan out your essay before writing it.

Knowledge is Power

Like vestigial teeth (hey–there’s a great GRE vocab word!), the Analytical Writing Assessment is somewhat of an afterthought in the admissions process.  Nonetheless, having a good grasp on the basics will boost your confidence for this first portion of the test!

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