The GRE’s Analytical Writing section can be pretty intimidating. It’s the very first thing you’ll face when you sit down to take the exam, and you have to write two essays in one hour. No wonder a lot of students find it the most stressful part of the GRE!
But fear not: to help make the Analytical Writing section more approachable, I’ll teach you 15 great GRE essay tips to aid both the newbie and the experienced test taker.
feature image credit: Essays!!/used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Resized from original.
10 Awesome Overall GRE Writing Tips
We’ll start out with our best general GRE Analytical Writing tips to help you prepare for both essays.
#1: Use POWERPREP Online to Type Your Essays
If you’re taking the computer-based GRE, practice the essay using POWERPREP Online. PowerPrep Tests 1 and 2 have built-in essay answering capabilities, as does the Preview Tool; after writing on the prompts in the program, you can continue to use those capabilities to write additional essays. Read more about how to get the most out of PowerPrep with this article.
If for some reason you can’t get PowerPrep to work, it’s okay to practice the essay with another word processor (like Word, OpenOffice, or GoogleDocs). However, to make your experience more realistic, make sure to avoid using any of the following when writing your essay: shortcuts (including ones for cut, paste, select all, and undo), spellcheck and grammar check, and the redo and copy functions.
You may be surprised to find how much lacking these extras affects the speed of your essay writing. For example, while there is an “undo” feature in the GRE word processor, you can’t access it by CTL+Z or CMD+Z, a shortcut that’s drilled into muscle memory for most people familiar with word processors; instead, you must click the “Undo” button.
#2: Keep Within Strict Time Limits
Time pressure is part of what makes the GRE essays difficult. If you’re not taking the test under realistic conditions, including with time limits, then you’re not practicing in a way that’s going to help you on test day.
If you’re really struggling with the timed part of the GRE essays, you could try writing as much as you can in 30 minutes, marking where you are when the timer runs out, continuing to write until you’re finished, and then marking how long that took. This technique is not as useful for GRE Writing practice as it might be for Verbal or Quantitative practice because there is no set amount you have to write or set points you have to cover. However, marking when you hit the time limit and continuing to write until you’re finished with the essay could be helpful to help you readjust your expectations for what you can accomplish on the essay in 30 minutes vs. what you might think an ideal essay should look like, given enough time.
In general, though, do stick to the 30-minute time limit for reading the task and writing your answer for each practice essay.
#3: Grade Your Essays With the Official Rubrics
Be ruthless in identifying your essay weaknesses by comparing your GRE essays to the standards set forth in the rubrics for the Issues and Arguments essays and grading your practice essays accordingly. Don’t give yourself the benefit of the doubt, because the GRE essay grader and computer program grader won’t.
Sample GRE essays at each score point are helpful in giving you concrete examples of the points made in the rubric for each score level (as we’ll discuss in the next GRE essay tip). If you’re still concerned you can’t be objective enough about your own writing, find a GRE essay buddy to help you grade your work according to the rubrics.
Learn more about this topic with our guide to how the GRE essay is scored.
#4: Write Practice Essays With Pre-Existing Samples You Can Compare
When choosing essay prompts to practice on, you should start out by choosing topics that ETS has sample essays on, so you can compare your responses to the anchor ones that have already been scored by ETS.
Understanding the GRE writing rubric is important for doing well on the test, since that’s what the real GRE essay graders will be using to score your responses, but it can sometimes be difficult to take the abstract ideals of a rubric and see how your own writing measures up. It’s easier to see how you’ve done when you compare your writing to how others have written on the same topic.
Currently, the ETS website has one Issues task and one Argument task with sample scored essay responses free and publicly available. There are two additional instances each for the Issues and Argument tasks in the answer keys of Chapters 8 and 9 of The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test (2nd edition). To get access to these four prompts with sample essays, you can either purchase the guide or take it out of your local library, if they have it.
#5: Only Use Official Prompts
There are 328 official GRE writing prompts available (152 Issue and 176 Argument), so there’s very little point in practicing for the essay with non-official prompts.
The only reason to use non-official GRE essay prompts is if they’re the six bonus prompts on ScoreItNow! which will get your essay scored by the e-scorer software that the real GRE uses (more on that below). Otherwise, writing practice essays on non-official prompts is just not worth it.
#6: Do Mock Analyses of Official Prompts
As mentioned in the previous tip, there are so many GRE essay prompts that you won’t run out of topics to practice with (unless you’re planning on spending 164 hours doing practice Analytical Writing essays). Because of this, you can supplement your GRE Writing practice by practicing outlining essays without having to write out a full essay.
For practice Issue essay outlines, you should come up with at least three examples and a few bullet points to explain how each one supports your point. Work on not just explaining the content of each example, but on showing how the example is relevant to the issue and why the example is evidence to back up your position.
For practice Argument essay outlines, come up with at least three points of analysis and a few bullet points to explain the importance of each. These points of analysis could be the assumptions made in the argument, what evidence is needed to evaluate the argument, alternative explanations, and so on.
#7: Try ScoreItNow! or POWERPREP PLUS Online
For $20, ScoreItNow! lets you get two essays on real GRE prompts (plus six essays on bonus non-official prompts) scored by the e-rater used for the real GRE. You won’t receive human grading on your essays, but you will at least receive a grade and insights into how the e-rater might score your writing on the real test. If you write fewer than 50 or more than 1,000 words you’ll get an “advisory” notice and won’t get a grade on ScoreItNow! (although if the reason you got an advisory notice is because your essay was too long, you can get a refund).
ScoreItNow! is pretty pricey ($10 per real GRE essay scored) so it’s not a good choice for everyone, but if you are concerned about how your writing will fare on the GRE, particularly with a computer grader, it’s good to know this is an option.
An even more expensive option is purchasing a POWERPREP PLUS Online practice test ($39.95 per test per purchase; you may only take the test once per purchase, and it expires after 90 days). With each of the two adaptive practice tests, you’ll be able to submit one Issue and one Argument essay to be scored by the e-rater. You should only go with this option if you plan on taking advantage of the full computer-based practice test as well as getting your essays scored; otherwise, ScoreItNow! is the more cost-effective option for official GRE essay grading.
#8: Leave Time to Review and Edit Your Work
As I mentioned in the first tip, the GRE Writing word processor has no spell check, no grammar check, and no auto-correct. Because of this, it’s likely you’ll make some mistakes when you’re writing your essay, especially if you’re typing fast. It’s okay to make a few small mistakes, but if your essay is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, that will make it difficult to understand, which will have a negative effect on your score. Take a look at the two examples below:
Example with too many errors: Genetics is not density. The argument that naure is paramount over nurture failes, to ake into acount, the eyr reel affects that environment can ahve on behavior.
Example with minor errors: Genetics is not destiny. The argument that naure is paramount over nurture fails to take into account the very reel effects that environment can have on behavior.
In the second example, there are still some errors (“naure” instead of “nature,” “reel” instead of “real”), but the meaning is much clearer. Leaving yourself time to read over and edit your work will make sure you don’t end up with an essay that looks like the first example.
In other cases, it’s necessary to edit for clarity not only for mechanical things like spelling and punctuation, but also to make sure your ideas are organized in a way that makes sense. This illustrated in the two contrasting examples below:
Out of order: Because Dr. Field visited only Tertia, while Dr. Karp visited “the group of islands that includes Tertia,” it’s possible that the children Dr. Karp interviewed were primarily from islands other than Tertia, reflecting a bias towards those other islands’ cultures. Similarly, without knowing more about the sample sizes of Dr. Field and Dr. Karp’s studies and of the populations they were studying, it’s hard to know if the two studies are at all comparable. Another important question that would need to be answered in order to make this recommendation would be whether or not the group of islands including Tertia that Dr. Karp visited had similar cultures.
Better ordered: Another important question that would need to be answered in order to make this recommendation would be whether or not the group of islands including Tertia that Dr. Karp visited had similar cultures. Because Dr. Field visited only Tertia, while Dr. Karp visited “the group of islands that includes Tertia,” it’s possible that the children Dr. Karp interviewed were primarily from islands other than Tertia, reflecting a bias towards those other islands’ cultures. Similarly, without knowing more about the sample sizes of Dr. Field and Dr. Karp’s studies and of the populations they were studying, it’s hard to know if the two studies are at all comparable.
#9: You Don’t Need a Perfect GRE Essay Score
Your GRE Writing score is a very, very small part of most grad school apps. A 4.5 or above is good enough for most programs, and there’s certainly no need to sweat over not getting a perfect 6.0. The reason for this is that even if the rest of your application is mediocre, a high Writing score won’t have a huge positive effect on your chances.
Once you manage to get a 4.5 (or higher, if programs you’re applying to have a higher score cut-off), it’s far better to spend your time on your Verbal and Quantitative scores, GRE subject test scores, or other parts of your grad school applications.
#10: Write Essays as Part of Full-Length Practice Tests
The Analytical Writing questions are the first section on the GRE, so you’ll be full of energy as well as test-taking adrenaline. However, this first hour of writing is then followed by 4-5 more sections (depending on whether or not you get an experimental section), so you can’t expend all your energy in the essays.
As part of your preparation for the GRE, you need to learn how to conserve your concentration and stamina, and the best way to do this is by taking realistic practice tests. This ties in with the advice in Tips 1, 2, and 5, which all aim to get you the most realistic testing experience possible. Only by doing a practice GRE in realistic conditions can you know what will be a problem for you on test day and address the issue.
In addition to our top ten general GRE Analytical Writing tips, we have five strategies specific to the two different types of essay questions.
GRE Essay Tips: Analyze an Issue Advice
For the Issue essay, you’re asked to explain whether you agree or disagree with something and why. The general structure of the task means that there are a couple of things you can do to write a good essay on every Issues prompt, no matter the topic. Our GRE Writing tips below will help you craft a clear and compelling response.
Issues Tip 1: Always Include a Thesis Statement
If there’s only one tip you follow about the GRE Issue essay, it should be this one: always, ALWAYS include a thesis that clearly articulates your position, whether you agree or disagree with the perspective presented.
If you don’t state a position, you are neglecting a fundamental aspect of the Issue essay task. There are six different variations on the issue task wording, but every single one of them requires you to either discuss your views explicitly or explain whether you agree or disagree with a given statement, recommendation, or claim. Failing to state your point of view in your essay makes it impossible for the graders to judge how well you’ve supported your position, and will result in a low essay score.
Issue Tip 2: Preplan Essay Opinions and Examples
You can’t memorize 152 different essays for each possible Issues prompt, but there are enough similarities between the different prompts that you can research some examples ahead of time to use as support.
Start by formulating your own opinions about common issues topics like the role of government and public officials, activities in everyday life, and teaching. Next, pick evidence you can use to support each of those opinions. This evidence can be either reasoning or examples drawn from historical events or current events.
When it comes time for the Issue essay, you’ll be able to draw from this pool of examples and reasoning to support your position; at the very least, even if the exact examples or reasoning isn’t applicable to the specific topic, you’ll be in the habit of thinking of ways examples and reasoning could support your point of view.
Find out more about how to get a perfect score on the GRE Issue essay here.
GRE Essay Tips: Analyze an Argument Advice
For all “Analyze an Argument” Analytical Writing questions, you’re asked to judge the soundness of an argument. Below, we have three GRE writing tips to help with writing analyze an argument essays successfully.
Argument Tip 1: Focus on the Task
Don’t get caught up in analyzing whether the author’s claims are true or false, or whether or not you agree with them or what your own views are – that’s not the task. Instead, analyze the logic behind the argument being made and the flaws (or lack of flaws) in the argument’s construction.
Staying focused on the task may take practice, as you might find it difficult to be objective about some of the arguments made due to personal experience or outrage at some of the logical jumps being made. To do well on the argument essay, harness that rage into analysis and explanation of how the argument is flawed.
Learn more about how to do this in our discussion of how to get a perfect 6 on the GRE Argument essay.
Argument Tip 2: Only Write About Major Points
Because you only have 30 minutes for the GRE argument essay, you don’t have to analyze every single facet of the argument. It’s more important to analyze major features that contribute to the argument’s efficacy (or lack thereof).
Imagine yourself like a lawyer in a courtroom, trying to get across the story of the case to the jurors. You can’t dwell on every single detail that proves your opponent is incorrect or your case will be a shapeless mess of information, even if all of it is true. Instead, you need to hit the main points first and then, if you have time, you can circle back to minutiae.
Argument Tip 3: Only Use Information Included in the Argument
The GRE is pretty good about using made-up names and places for the prompts, so you won’t be tempted to use outside knowledge to make assumptions. Still, you should make sure you confine your analysis to what’s written in the prompt only and don’t assume beyond what’s there.
Sticking to the information included in the prompt is an important part of completing many of the argument tasks, since the arguments are often flawed due to unstated assumptions. As a test taker, it’s your job to point out those flaws, not make more assumptions of your own.
When you’re studying, it’s important to have an end goal. Find out what’s a good GRE writing score here!
Looking for the source of all GRE Writing prompts? Look no further – we have over 60 official prompts and links to the others in this complete list of GRE essay topics.
Unsure of what a good GRE essay looks like? Then be sure to read through our analyses of perfect scoring GRE essay samples.
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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
The GRE Argument writing task is designed to test your ability to your critical-reasoning and analytic (as well as writing) skills. Your task is to compose an essay in which you provide a focused critique of the stated argument — but not to present your own views on the argument's topic. [Argument format and directions]
The following GRE-style Argument prompt consists of an argument followed by a directive for responding to the argument. Keep in mind: the argument itself is not from the official pool, and so you won't see this one on the actual GRE.
GRE Argument Prompt
The following appeared in the editorial column of the Fern County Gazette newspaper:
"The Fern County Council made the right decision when it unanimously voted to convert the Northside branch of the county library system into a computer-skills training facility for public use. The converted facility will fill what is certain, based on national trends, to be a growing need among county residents for training in computer skills. And since our library system boasts more volumes per resident than any other system in the state, the remaining branches will adequately serve the future needs of Fern County residents."
Discuss what evidence you would need to properly evaluate the argument, and explain how that evidence might strengthen or weaken the argument.
Sample Argument Essay (490 Words)
This editorial argues that the Fern County Council's decision to convert a library branch to a computer-skills training facility was the "right" one. However, its author fails to provide sufficient information to permit a proper evaluation of the argument's reasoning. Each point of deficiency is discussed separately below.
One of the argument's deficiencies involves the claim, based on a national trend, that there is "certain" to be a growing need in Fern County for computer-skills training. The author provides no specific evidence that the county conforms to the cited trend. Lacking such evidence, it is entirely possible that the Fern County residents are, by and large, already highly proficient in using computers. Of course, it is also possible that a large and growing segment of the local population consists of senior citizens and/or young children — two groups who typically need computer-skills training — or unemployed workers needing to learn computer skills in order to find jobs. In any event, more information about the county's current and anticipated demographics is needed in order to determine the extent to which Fern County residents actually need and would use the Northside computer-training facility.
Another of the argument's deficiencies is that it provides no information about alternative means of providing computer-skills training to county residents. Perhaps certain local businesses or schools already provide computer-training facilities and services to the general public — in which case it would be useful to know whether those alternatives are affordable for most county residents and whether they suffice to meet anticipated demand. Or perhaps county residents are for the most part willing to teach themselves computer skills at home using books, DVDs and online tutorials — in which case it would be helpful to know the extent to which affordable broadband Internet access is available to Fern County households. If it turns out that county residents can easily obtain computer-skills training through means such as these, converting the Northside branch might not have been a sensible idea.
Yet another of the editorial's shortcomings has to do with the number of books in the Fern County library system. The mere fact that the system boasts a great number of books per capita does not necessarily mean that the supply is adequate or that it will be adequate in the future. A full assessment of whether the remaining branches provide adequate shelf space and/or printed materials would require detailed information about the library system's inventory vis-à-vis the current and anticipated needs and interests of Fern County residents. If more, or more types, of printed books and periodicals are needed, then it would appear in retrospect that converting the Northside branch to a computer training center was a bad idea.
In a nutshell, then, a proper evaluation of the editorial requires more information about current as well as anticipated demand for computer-skills training in Fern County and about the adequacy of the library system's stacks to meet the interests and preferences of the county's residents.