How does the GRE essay work?
The GRE essay section, also known as the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), is actually comprised of two essays: the Issue and the Argument. You are allowed 30 minutes for each essay. Both test your ability to formulate a cogent thesis statement, which you must defend over the course of several paragraphs.
What is the difference between the Issue and the Argument essays?
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, which relate to politics, education, or culture. Essentially, you are taking a position on a complex matter.
For some examples: ETS has released an entire pool of Issue topics, which is a great resource!
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. You can find more sample Argument topics here.
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?
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?
It is one thing to read the guidelines for what constitutes a ‘6’ essay. In essence you are interpreting the information. But by actually reading you learn what the grader (and the robot) are looking for.
While sample essays abound in prep books, some of them appear written and polished over time, and thus don’t reflect the work of someone who is under the constraints for the essay.
The best source for sample essays are the released sample essays (completed with grader comments!) from ETS:
The essays here are actual student essays. Use these essays to assess your own level of writing. In other words, determine where in the 0.0-6.0 range you fall, based on the scores given to the other essays.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May of 2013, and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.