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One of the Biggest Mistakes You Can Make on the GRE Essay (Part I)

At one time, I was inclined to think that the biggest mistake students made on the GRE was failing to back up their responses with concrete examples. Mere hypothetical scenarios were the only ballast these weak essays had. So I advised students to think of concrete examples to help support their points.

The ‘Concrete Examples’ Trap

What I’ve come to realize is that almost every test prep outfit recommends including specific examples, but that’s often where both they and the students stop, in terms of providing support. So what we have are essays with vivid examples but little to no analysis of the question.

Nowhere was this tendency clearer than when we had a little promotion offering free essay grading service. At least half of the essays had specific examples, instead of vague hypotheticals. Of these, many had examples that were extremely lacking, and felt tacked on, at best. The other half that had fleshed out examples may have seemed paragons of great writing, or at least what the GRE is apparently looking for, which is the coveted ‘6’. Yet, none of these essays received that score (based on our grading); some even scored much less.

The reason is the GRE wants to see how you analyze a complex issue. It chooses prompts that it wants you to explore, before arriving at a nuanced position, one that is not a simple “yes” or “no”, followed by three examples that, while heavy on details, are devoid of analysis.

Let’s Look at Sample Essays

Below are two essays. Each has an intro and one body paragraph in response to the following question:

“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.

As you read, I want you to make some judgments on the essay, the style, etc. Also, pay attention to the logical structure of the paragraph and how the writer develops (or doesn’t develop) their position.

Essay 1

Technology is becoming a bigger part of our lives each day. People are always on their cellphones or in front of a computer. This is not good for our ability to think clearly. Therefore, humans will not be able to think for themselves as time goes on.

People spend lots of time on social media sites, like Facebook. They “talk” to friends, but they really aren’t spending quality time. Many reports indicate that people also feel sad and depressed when they are on Facebook and other social media sites. They have difficulty focusing and thinking, being social human beings. This is what is deteriorating. If it continues like this, humans ability to think will lessen.

Essay 2

From the mundane—virtual calendars that have each minute of each day planned out for the next three months—to the profound—diagnostic tools that allow physicians to capture cancer in its earliest stages—technology is greatly shaping the way we live, and think. With this increased reliance, some argue, surely our ability to think for ourselves becomes diminished. After all, many of us are unable to recall our home phone number, or those of any of our close friends, since everything is stored on an electronic device. While it is tempting to think that such dependence portends an apocalypse in thinking skills, much of the technology we use today actually allows us to function more efficiently, and focus our attention on thinking about those things that matter most.

Nowhere are information and the ability to use that information more critical to our lives than in medicine. Doctors inundated with patients and the record keeping this entails are more prone to making errors. Some of these errors might seem venial—thinking an allergy is a cold. Other oversights, however, can be downright lethal. Fortunately, in the last decade, technology has played a far greater role in both informing and guiding the decisions of physicians. Patient histories that were previously lost if the patients entered another provider can now be easily accessed via electronic devices. Timely and redundant procedures can now be dispensed with, as a doctor, with a quick flick of the wrist, can use an iPad to access a patient’s history—one that has sedulously been stored in a database. Doctors can now focus on those fields in which technology has yet to catch up with the human intellect—the diagnosis, the ability to read an X-ray. Indeed, they will have more time to hone such skills, to augment their thinking, as much of the minutiae of medicine can be “outsourced” to technology. That is not to say that technology has become a panacea, as it were, for the medical profession; human error can pop up in anything from transfer of records, to a doctor becoming overly reliant on the Internet to determent of her clinical skills. Yet those very oversights technology itself will be able to redress, as doctors become better at documenting any oversights and making such discoveries available, via technology, to a wider audience. In sum, as technology becomes a greater part of the medical profession, physicians will better be able to focus and refine their uniquely human thinking abilities.


In the second part of this blog post series, I will analyze each essay, citing its merits and its flaws.

Before you read that post:

  • List two to three things you think the essay does well and two or three things you think it doesn’t do so well. (Remember what I mentioned at the beginning of the post: the goal is to not simply answer yes or no, but to take a relatively nuanced position.)
  •  Give the essays a score, keeping in mind that you can only judge the first two paragraphs of each essay. Feel free to share your thoughts as a comment.


About the Author

Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT for the last 10 years. He is the Lead Content Developer and Tutor for Magoosh. His favorite food is wasabi-flavored almonds. Follow him on Google+!

25 Responses to One of the Biggest Mistakes You Can Make on the GRE Essay (Part I)

  1. priya November 27, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    Hey Chris,

    You mentioned in one of your replies above that we need to read a lot of practice essays. Where do we find them? We know there is a pool of questions on but…

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele December 4, 2014 at 11:44 am #

      Hi Priya,

      You know that there just aren’t that many practice essays out there. I have two books by Vibrant Publishers, but I wouldn’t recommend either of them. The essays aren’t necessarily representative of ‘6’, at least not all of them. Most of the samples are weak on analysis and are just rich with examples. And the book never tells you what makes for a good essay.

      I hope, too, one day write a bunch of a different essays of varying scores, and focus on how to improve essays. Of course, that will be some time off since it will be pretty time consuming.

      Sorry, I can’t give you any guidance. But study the essays on the site. That is your best bet :).

  2. Mariam November 18, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    Hi, Is there a word limit to either of the essays (Issue and Argumentative)? And if not, what is the ideal length according to you? Thanks.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele December 4, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Hi Mariam,

      There isn’t a word limit, just because there are really only so many words a mortal can crank out in that time. I’d probably max out at around 700 myself–and that’s with numerous typos and subpar phrasing.

      A good length is about 500 words. That is pretty impressive alone. If you can create a coherent argument and use felicitous diction to boot you are on the right path.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Tushar October 3, 2014 at 12:56 am #

    Hi Chris,
    I have a question about the type of examples to be used in the essay. As I am from India and don’t know much about working of government, cultural values etc. of US, can I use my own examples of which grader may not be aware of.
    And can we use examples from good english movies instead of real life examples.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele December 4, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      Hi Tushar,

      Using examples from India is absolutely fine. The reader doesn’t have to know about those examples, as long as you explain the parts that are relevant to your argument, making sure to give at least some context, you should be fine.

      Movies are probably not the best to use as examples because they aren’t based on real life, and many of the essay prompts focus on reality. That isn’t too say you can’t write a solid essay using a movie examples, but it’d be a little tougher.

      Hope that helps!

  4. Zainab Ahmed September 13, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    When I read all the sample essays written for the GRE, all I can think is that my writing skills are so elementary and no matter how many essays I’ll read, I will never learn to write like that. The second essay, for example, is so clearly written and the word choice is great. I can’t even think of any challenging words when I write my essays. What do I do?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 15, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

      Hi Zainab,

      Well, that is me writing at a really elevated style that just screams for a six. The point is that the essay won’t necessarily score a ‘6’ if it only sticks to one example without taking into consideration the prompt: how exactly does technology affect our brains, and in what ways are these changes mostly good, or depending on the essay, mostly bad.

      The GRE isn’t expecting that level of style, even for a six. It does expect to see some style, but it’s also looking for how you reason. Don’t just say, technology is bad, or even that it is good or bad, but mostly one or the other. When we try to use technology to supplant skills that are best done by humans (e.g. clinical diagnosis), then we can likely get in trouble. When we allow technology to intrude throughout our day, so that it impairs long term productivity… developing those ideas are what will help you get a high score. And notice no fancy words and syntax :).

      Reason well, use some sentence variety, and a few compelling examples to back up your point, and you can get a ‘5’.

      Hope that helps!

      • zainab September 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

        Okay, thanks so much for replying Chris. That really helped, knowing that I dont need to use fancy or challenging words to get a high score. I will try practicing writing as many essays as possible for better writing skills. You are a great tutor! :)

  5. Pari August 23, 2014 at 2:45 am #

    Hey Chris,

    I’ve my Gre exam in couple of weeks. All I feel is that I lack in mentioning appropriate examples in support to my context , rather say I dont really understand what kind of examples to mention in there. Can you please help me with this?.

    Thanks :)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 25, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

      Hi Pari,

      Your examples should be specific. For example, don’t say “governments tend to be x, y, and z”. Choose, instead, a country and a political crisis. You shouldn’t summarize too much, because you are trying to analyze the prompt. Notice in the second example, the author talks about the medical technology, but sticks to the thesis by describing how that technology will help make us better. He also does not go in 100% on the issue (“That is not to say that technology has become a panacea, as it were, for the medical profession”).

      To come up with specific examples, you should read as many GRE practice essays as possible to see what the ‘5’ and ‘6’ essays use. Doing so will give you a better sense of what makes for good examples.

      Hope that helps!

  6. Daniel July 27, 2014 at 6:04 am #

    Hey Chris,

    I was wondering, do I need to give accurate facts for the Issue Essay? Can I butcher history a little bit to make a strong point to my argument? Because the graders spend only a few minutes on each essay. Thanks!


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 28, 2014 at 11:53 am #

      Hi Daniel,

      Since one of the graders is a computer, you can definitely butcher history. But if you say that Mongolians landed on the moon in the 12th century, the human grader, I imagine, is going to be somewhat perplexed. Saying that the Bay of Pigs happened in the late 60’s or that the British defeated the Portuguese armada to gain control of the New World isn’t too egregious and shouldn’t negatively impact your grade (history buffs: I know I just skewered a sacred cow or two, but the point historical accuracy doesn’t determine the analytical validity of the essay). Still, try to avoid a complete rewrite of history because the human grader might not be able to repress his/her shock to objectively grade your essay.

      Hope that helps :)

  7. sky July 6, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    Hey Chris,

    I am an ESL, grammar is a big issue for me. I was just wondering whether u have any good materials or way for me to improve my grammar. I tried to read some grammar books in Chinese, but it does not really help me. Thank u.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

      Hi Sky,

      There are some great grammar texts in English that aren’t that boring to read (though most are). I like Princeton Review’s Word Smart because it focuses on grammar as it relates to test prep. Learning the grammar in that book will help you become a better writer.

      For a more fundamental–and even more fun take on grammar–Magoosh offers an English program filled with videos on grammar (from basic to relatively advanced).

      Good luck!

  8. Sriram June 12, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    Hi Chris,
    I did put in my thoughts a couple of days back. Can you please comment?


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 12, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

      Hi Sriram,

      We can’t seem to find your comment :(. We went through the wordpress several times but were unable to find it. So sorry about that. Is there any way you could repost it, in part or in full :).

      • Sriram June 13, 2014 at 1:17 am #

        Essay1 is, at best, a perfunctory attempt to defend an argument. The issues addressed are in general,facile,bordering on the irrelevant. The author imputes the decline in “thinking” to excessive involvement in social media through cellphones and computers. This, in my view, is not a convincing argument and the premise on which the conclusions are drawn are fallacious. The essay seems to be, if anything, a slapdash effort and consequentially, deserves a poor rating.
        Essay2, on the other hand is quiet lucid, persuasive and intelligible, qualified though by a statement which is not accurate – X-rays, citied as an example needing human intervention is not strictly essential. Machine learning techniques – PCA, Naive Bayes, to name a few – can predict, with reasonable accuracy, outcomes by comparing pixels comprised in digital X-ray images. Nevertheless, this is a minor anomaly and should not obscure the efficacy of the argument presented. I fully endorse the author’s viewpoint that technology assists us to function better : leveraging data stores to query relevant information is but prudent use of technology and does not stultify the thought process. If anything, technology would expedite problem solving and as the author imputes, has salutary effects; quoting the medicinal field to buttress his argument is felicitous and apt. The author takes a balanced approach by qualifying his endorsement for technology, in that, he explicitly states technology should not be viewed as a panacea for the realm of medicine. The essay, although mostly complete, in my view point, should have elicited instances of imprudent use of technology – not necessarily related to medicine – for example, using electronic devices to perform elementary and trivial calculations which could not only prove counter-productive, but also make us excessively reliant on technology instead of our brain power. In conclusion, Essay2, overall is well structured, nicely presented and the author presents a good defence of his argument. It should be highly rated.

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele June 13, 2014 at 11:32 am #

          Hi Sriram,

          Thanks for the excellent feedback! Your comments on the first essay are spot on. Luckily, you are not going to hurt the first student’s feelings–I wrote the first essay, doing my best to mimic low quality essays that I’ve seen.

          On the second example, you’re right–the essay wouldn’t get docked points on knowing the latest in X-ray technology. I think you also bring up a good point, when you mention that the example could have brought up the overuse of technology. However, I don’t think that would necessarily belong in the medical example paragraph. A subsequent paragraph addressing some downsides may have made a more natural place.

          Thanks again for the insightful analysis :)

  9. Mireille June 10, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    I would probably give the first essay a 3… the reason being obvious — not at all insightful, not really having a broad approach of the issue at hand, moreover stylistically lacking, as well. Very simple sentences, basic English, no challenge for a reader who wants to “spend quality time”, to quote him / her. ;) However, the author was able to come up with a concrete example (Facebook) and did make an honest effort to follow through with that idea.

    As for the second essay, the only reason I would probably give it a 5.5 is the fact that is completely and totally taking one path and one path only — obviously the person is more familiar with medical field and sticks with it, but perhaps before taking that path I would have probably added a few quick examples of how technology is positively impacting other fields, as well. Just to make things sound a bit more rounded. Medical is indeed an important aspect in our life, but not the only one. Even the conclusion, instead of reflecting the impact technology has in humanity, the author sums it all up with doctors only in mind, and it kind of makes me feel a bit less human, you know… since I’m not a doctor! LOL

    Other than that, anyone can see a bright and insightful person, who read of book or two, wrote that essay: he or she is not too shy to use a few challenging words here and there, the sentence structure varies (as it should be!) throughout the paragraphs, etc. Without a doubt a more informative sample than the first essay.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 12, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

      Very good! I think most people are blown away by the writing of the second essay and automatically award it a ‘6’. But it is too example-driven, in the sense that it does not connect the example to the broader issue, nor does it really follow the directions, “consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position”. At best, the essay only indirectly touches on this.

      So that’s the point of the follow up to this post. Essentially, I’ll take an essay that doesn’t have the rhetorical flourish of this essay, yet better follows the directions. It will get a ‘6’. This one is probably on it’s way to a ‘5’ (though the computer might give it a ‘6’), unless it connects the doctor example to the bigger picture and delves a little more deeply into the directions, something it could easily do in a follow-up paragraph.

      Look forward to your insights on the follow-up post :)

      • Mireille June 12, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

        …yes, indeed, I “felt” something is quite fishy with this author having his mind stuck on those doctors! He simply won’t let them go! LOL Well, then hopefully ETS will be as generous with me as I was with this guy! :D

        I know it’s not relevant to the subject, but I just can’t help asking this… These…paragraphs / essays you are using as study materials in your posts…do you collect them from various sources or you actually…create them yourself as you need them?! I actually meant to ask you the question ever since you reassured me (a few posts back) that you were not masquerading as Solomon; that’s when it first occurred to me you might have actually typed the whole thing yourself, not just copied and pasted it from somewhere, as I was first tempted to assume). Then, when I saw these other two examples, I remembered about my unasked question. :) Not a big deal, just pure curiosity, I guess. And yes, I did / do believe you not being Solomon — that really isn’t my dilemma here! :D It never was, actually. :)

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele June 13, 2014 at 11:37 am #

          Interesting question!

          In this case, I actually wrote both essays :). Both are examples of what not to do, but each of a totally different order. Indeed, the medical example could still be saved and be a perfect ‘6’ if it uses the subsequent paragraphs to broaden the scope and addresses the directions a bit better. As for the first example, it is severely lacking. (Not my best writing day :)).

          However, we have many other student essays on the site that we collected a year from students who wanted feedback (they gave us permission to use them for the blog :)).

          Otherwise, all the other content is hatched from Solomon’s mind (I mean my mind :)). Don’t worry I’ve never masqueraded as a student in the comments section :).

          • Mireille June 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

            … I can appreciate the kind of humor “not my best writing day!” :D

            Thanks for taking the time to answer my question, although it was quite off-topic.

      • Mireille June 12, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

        (I felt something *was*) :)

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