GMAT Analytical Writing: All About the GMAT Essay and How to Prepare For It

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Yup, the rumors are true: you’ll encounter a 30-minute GMAT analytical writing section on test day. But while analytical writing can seem tough at first, finding out exactly what’s expected and how to attack it for a maximum score will do a lot to make the GMAT essay feel manageable! In this post, we’ll take a look at what you need to know to master the GMAT AWA.


 

Table of Contents


 

Introduction to GMAT Analytical Writing

You may be thinking: why on earth would the GMAT even want to test my writing skills? In the modern global business world, you will always have contacts whom you know primarily through writing (email, reports, publications, etc.). Similarly, many people important for your advancement will meet you the first time through your writing. You need to be able to make a strong first impression in your writing, through the arguments you present.

On your GMAT writing assignment, the test will present an argument, often in the context of a newspaper editorial or the statement of a company. The nature of this argument will generally allow you to argue for either side, and the side you choose does not affect your score. You will have 30 minutes to read the prompt and construct your essay. Later, your essay will be graded by both a computer and a person on a scale of 0 to 6; your AWA test score will be an average of these two scores.

Don’t forget the main purpose of this task: to measure your GMAT analytical writing skills. This means that whether you argue for or against the argument, your job is to analyze the argument. You’ll need to consider questions such as:

  • What are the assumptions of the argument, and how strong are they?
  • What sort of facts would strengthen or weaken the argument?
  • Are there alternative explanations or perspectives that would explain the facts in question better?

You will not need any special knowledge outside of your own life experience and your general sense of the business world.
 
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What to Expect for GMAT Analytical Writing

Both the computer and the human reviewer are looking for particular elements in a good GMAT AWA essay. In short: a successful Analysis of an Argument essay will be clear and cogently argued; it will present the individual critiques in a logically consistent order; it will identify all the points in need of consideration, and it will use word choice and variety of syntax to effectively communicate.

A lot of students wonder: Are spelling, grammar, and punctuation important on the GMAT analytical writing? Will they make or break your score? They are pretty important—luckily, your GMAT SC correction practice will serve you well in this regard. But you can’t leave these elements up to chance: practice correcting your essays (more on this below), and always, always leave a few minutes at the end of the section to proofread your essay.

Timing

Remember, you’ll only have 30 minutes for the entire essay. This means that, while you’ll spend the bulk of your time actually writing, you should still set aside around 3-5 minutes at the beginning of the task for planning, then leave another 3-5 minutes at the end to read over and make minor corrections to what you’ve written. These seemingly small actions can have a big impact on your score! But practicing—and following the instructions—is key to mastering the pacing here.

AWA Directions

Throughout the GMAT, knowing the directions ahead of time gives you an edge because you don’t have to spend time reading them on test day. This advantage is compounded on the AWA test section because the instructions are substantial: it’s a lot to read, so it’s that much less to read on test day. Moreover, the “post-argument” paragraph enumerates skills that will be important to practice and master, so you walk into test day armed and ready with your “analysis toolbox” prepared.

With that in mind, here are the directions that precede every AWA argument task:

The first bullet point tells us: a good AWA essay is well-organized, has a natural flow from point to point, and is clear and unambiguous about what it is saying. Those are all important points to keep in mind.

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The second bullet point reminds us: what they present will be, in all likelihood, a flawed argument, but what you must create is a cogent and clear argument, and that will necessarily involve providing clear and relevant support. It’s not enough simply to assert something badly: you must provide justification for what you are saying.

The final bullet points may appear enigmatic: “control the elements of standard written English.” What does that mean?

Well, first of all, it means no grammar or syntax mistakes. It also means varying the sentence structure—some simple sentences (noun + verb), some with two independent clauses (noun + verb + and/but/or + noun + verb), some with dependent clauses, some with infinitive phrases, some with participial phrases, etc. Finally, it means choosing the right words and the right tone: the tone should be skeptical toward the prompt argument and persuasive toward the points you are making, but not arrogant or dogmatic in any way.

The following paragraph always appears after the argument prompt. This is the real meat-and-potatoes of the AWA directions:

First of all, notice it give you one clear task: “Be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument.” Then, it lists several strategies that you might employ in your analysis. Don’t feel compelled to use every one of these in every AWA essay, though you should be using most of them in most essays.

 
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Scoring for GMAT Analytical Writing

If you’ve only taken standardized tests like the ACT or the SAT before, you may find AWA scoring slightly strange. GMAT Analytical Writing affects your overall score differently than essays on other exams do. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what a good GMAT analytical writing score on the GMAT is, as well as how important AWA test scores are to your overall GMAT score.

The GMAT Analytical Writing Scoring System

First, let’s get an important point out of the way: The AWA test score does not affect your overall GMAT score. Instead, it’s included as a separate category on your score report.

Although you won’t have an exact breakdown of your scores for each element, the GMAT analytical writing assessment is looking at your abilities in roughly four categories:

  • Quality of Ideas
  • Organization
  • Writing Style
  • Grammar and Usage

Based on your overall work, you’ll receive a score from 0 to 6, in half-point increments.

So just who decides where your essay falls within each of these four categories? First of all, a computer does. This is a bit surprising to most students when they first learn about it—after all, how can a computer evaluate something as subjective as writing? Well, remember that you’re not being scored on poetry here. Instead, the computer looks at the organization, syntax, and analytical aspects—things the GMAT algorithm is pretty good at doing.

Then, a trained evaluator will score the essay based on the general development of your ideas and written expression. The GMAT then averages these scores into your overall AWA score. Don’t worry about huge discrepancies in scores between the human and the computer graders, though: if the scores have more than a one-point difference, another human grader comes in to help set the final score.

GMAT AWA Percentiles

If you’re wondering, for example, how a GMAT analytical writing score of 4.5 compares to other test-takers’ scores, you’ll want to look at the GMAT AWA percentiles. GMAC regularly updates this information so that you can see what percentage of previous test-takers received each score.

Click to view the most current AWA percentiles:

AWA Percentile
AWA Score
88%
6
81%
5.5
56%
5
46%
4.5
18%
4
11%
3.5
4%
3
3%
2.5
1%
0.5-2
0
0

How to Score Your Practice GMAT Essays

Scoring your own GMAT writing can be a little bit like trying to scratch your own back: it’s hard to see exactly where you are. But it can be done! By breaking down each component of your sample AWA essay, grading it, and averaging those grades, you can get some idea of your strengths and weaknesses. Magoosh even has a GMAT AWA scoring rubric you can use for this purpose.

But if you’re not certain about how your essays measure up to the GMAT scale, there are other ways to get your GMAT essay scored. These include GMAT Write, an official (paid) service from GMAC; friends; and forums. Take a look and see what option works best for you.
 
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How to Approach the GMAT AWA

Once you know what to expect from GMAT analytical writing, it’s time to start implementing strategies that will help you maximize your score on this section. Keep coming back to these throughout your GMAT prep to ensure that you’re staying on track and pushing your GMAT writing to the next level!

Strategies for the AWA

Here are the tips that will support your success on the GMAT’s AWA:

  1. Recognize Unstated Assumptions: Recognizing assumptions is essential for the Critical Reasoning questions, and it will also serve you well on attacking the prompt argument in your AWA.
  2. Know the Directions: This a matter not only of knowing what they say but also, more importantly, understanding the various options you have for analyzing the argument. This list of analytical strategies is always given in the paragraph that follows the prompt argument. It’s important to get familiar with this “analytical toolbox”, so it is yours to employ on test day.
  3. Recognize the Common Flaw Patterns: GMAT AWA prompt arguments often contain one of six types of flaws. Learn to spot these patterns, so you are ready on test day.
  4. Plan Before You Write: This is obvious to some test-takers. Your first task is to find objections to and flaws in the prompt argument. Create a list of flaws. Then, select the 2-4 of those that are most relevant, that would be the most persuasive talking points. Once you have your list of insightful flaws, then you are ready to write.
  5. Use a Template: Many test takers find it helpful to have the basic structure of the AWA essay already planned out and practiced, so it’s just a matter of plugging in the specific details on test day. Here’s an example of a possible GMAT writing template. Feel free to adapt this template as is, modify it, or create one of your own.
    1. Paragraph #1: State that the prompt argument is flawed. Briefly enumerate the flaws you will examine, in the order that you will discuss them.
    2. Paragraph #2 (or #2 & #3): Sticking to that same order, analyze each flaw in detail, explaining your reasoning why each is a serious weakness of the argument.
    3. Last Paragraph: Suggest improvements, which are the reverse of the flaws (i.e. “This argument would be considerably stronger if it did such-and-such to remove flaw #2.”). Close by restating that is it a weak argument.
  6. Write with Variety: First of all, vary your sentence structures. Here are some examples of different structures:
    1. Simple sentence, one independent clause: Jack went to town.
    2. Sentence with two independent clauses: Jill went to town and Jack stayed home. (Two independent clauses can be joined by “and”, “or”, “but”, “yet”, “so”, etc.)
    3. Sentence with an independent clause and one (or more) dependent clauses: Jack went to the town where Jill lives.
    4. Sentence with an infinitive phrase: Jack went to that town to see Jill.
    5. Sentence with a participial phrase: Hoping to see Jack, Jill went to town.

    A good essay should not have two sentences in a row with the same structure.

    In addition to variety in sentence structure, strive for variety in word choice. Of course, you will want to echo words that appear in the prompt argument. But in your own analysis, vary the descriptive words, never using the same word twice. Don’t say “weak … weak … weak” when you can say “unpersuasive … untenable … questionable.” Well-chosen synonyms can make an essay shine.

  7. Avoid Common AWA Errors: There are a few common flaws that can pull your GMAT analytical writing score down. As you practice the AWA, make sure you avoid the following:
    1. Vague Language: The words “few”, “many”, “more”, “less”, and “some”, by themselves without numerical qualification, can be vague. Always consider the range of possibilities contained in vague words comparing quantity or size.
    2. Inappropriate Comparisons: This form presents a premise and conclusion for Thing #1, which is often quite clear and undisputable. Then, it argues, Thing #2 is very similar, so the premise and conclusion should apply to Thing #2 as well. Depending on the situation, the comparison may not be apt, and pointing out Thing #2 differs from Thing #1 in ways relevant to the argument can expose an essential flaw.
    3. Cause/Effect Errors: Many arguments want to make the case that “A causes B.” Whenever the argument “A causes B” is presented, some alternative interpretations to consider are (1) the reverse, “B causes A”; or (2) “A and B are both caused by new thing C”, or (3) “A and B, for a variety of reasons, often appear together, but one does not cause the other.” (This last interpretation is summed up succinctly in the sentence: “Correlation does not imply causality.”) Learn to spot arguments that draw conclusions of causality, and questions whether that’s the correct relationship.
    4. Overconfident Conclusions: Confidence = good. Overconfidence = bad. If you read the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Economist magazine, you will notice the kind of tone the GMAT favors: thoughtful, balanced, and measured. Extreme conclusions are seldom correct on the GMAT. Any AWA prompt that presents a conclusion with God-given certainty is too strong, and this is a flaw that needs to be addressed.
  8. Proofread! Proofread! Proofread!: When you proofread, you have to consider several levels simultaneous: Is every word spelled correctly? Is every structure grammatically correct? Does the argument logically flow? Unfortunately (or fortunately!) you are not allowed to read your essay aloud in the testing center. What I do recommend, though: silently mouth the words, as if you are carefully pronouncing each word, even though you are not making any sounds. When you move your mouth & tongue, you are engaging more of your brain than when you are simply reading silently with your eyes, and you are more likely to catch subtle mistakes.

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Breakdown by Section

Those AWA test tips are all important to keep in mind for your GMAT writing. But when you actually sit down at the computer on test day, what should you do? Here’s the process to use to get the most out of your 30 minutes with the GMAT AWA!

Brainstorm

By the time you sit down on test day, you should have read the directions to the AWA (they’re posted above—take another look!), so you won’t need to waste time reading them again. Instead, dive straight into AWA brainstorming. As you brainstorm, list the argument’s flaws; then evaluate those flaws to find which objections are the strongest.

Write an Introduction

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel with each GMAT AWA introduction. Start by stating where the passage is from. Then, focus on two main tasks: summarizing the argument and stating why it’s flawed. Keep it short and sweet; three sentences are enough to get your main points set up!

Construct Your Body Paragraphs

These will make up the lion’s share of your essay, so you’ll spend most of your time writing body paragraphs. Here’s how to go about doing that:
 

  1. Identification: Focus on a Premise: The first thing you will need to do in your paragraph is to identify what part of the argument you intend to analyze. The best way to do this is by simply summarizing the premise in the argument. You can state that it is flawed at this point, but it is not necessary. You’ll have plenty of time to do that, and the reader already knows what will happen from what you told them in the introduction. Paraphrase, summarize, and use synonyms to present the premise—don’t copy word for word—and this is a great way to lay the groundwork for your analysis.
  2. Name Calling: Describe the Flaw: Now that you have summarized the premise and presented it to the reader, time to name the flaw and describe it. You might not always able to name the flaw in the argument and are not required to know the name of logical fallacies, but do it if you can. This is a great way to signal to the reader that you know what is going on in the arguments, and it will focus your mind on how to expose the flaw. Argument flaws are flawed for different reasons and each requires a certain approach when analyzing and attacking. Here is a fun, engaging resource that goes through some common, everyday logical flallacies, which you are bound to see some of on the test.

    If you can’t name the flaw, then you can at least talk about what the flaw is. You can begin to describe what makes it a flaw, which will lead nicely into your next point in the paragraph.

  3. Why It’s a Flaw: Explain by Way of Example: The flaw is exposed, now time to show the reader why it is a flaw. To do this, you need to talk about it by way of example. This can involve hypothetical, yet real-world, examples drawn from the argument, or it can involve real-world examples that you are familiar with. We can’t expect our reader to understand the ramifications of the flaw, so this is the time to really spell it out for the reader. Give them something tangible that reveals what the argument is missing or what might happen as a result of the flawed premise. One note, this will be the bulkiest part of the paragraph, containing the most sentences.

    If done well, this discussion will flow nicely from the specific premise and flaw into a broader discussion of the argument and its conclusion.

  4. State the Obvious: Flaws Hurt Arguments: This is a common step skipped in student essays. We must return to the larger picture. Students assume that everything will make sense once the flaw is exposed, but this is far too brash. We can’t just expect our reader to “get it.” We need to speak plainly and directly about how the flaw weakens the argument, and more specifically, the recommendation, plan, or conclusion of the argument. Not all flaws weaken arguments in the same way so be specific about what aspect of the conclusion is questionable.
  5. Do Good: Improve and Strengthen the Argument: Now that you’ve taken the time to analyze the argument, break down a flaw, and explain the result of that flaw to the conclusion, time to build it back up. Approach the essay as a concerned and interested party, responding to the argument with sympathy. Don’t just be destructive. Give suggestions for improvement. And if you don’t like the conclusion, peer into the heart of what it is trying to accomplish and recommend a way to get there.

Conclude the Essay

First of all, keep in mind that you should not dwell in the conclusion. The heart of your essay, what really matters toward your score, is in the body paragraphs. These should be bulky and in-depth, but the conclusion should be short and to the point. Wrap things up in a timely manner so that you can get to the business of editing and revising your essay.

To keep things manageable and short, don’t go into the details. You only need to recap the major problems in the argument. Sometimes it is enough to say that there are major problems in the argument. Ignore the desire to repeat all the main points that you covered in the body paragraphs. This will only take extra space and waste precious time.

Finally, recommend a way to achieve the goal stated in the article. It is important to approach the analysis of the argument as an interested party. You don’t want to be wholly negative. For one, you will write a better analysis if you imagine yourself tied to the argument in some way, and two, the prompt asks you to strengthen the argument. Find some general evidence that will make the argument more convincing or make it irrefutable. Suggest a change so that the logic stands on firmer ground.


 

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Example GMAT Essays

A GMAT analytical writing sample essay, whether well done or flawed in itself, can help you polish your own GMAT writing and bring your essays to the next level. The important part of reviewing example GMAT essays is in analyzing them (and expert analysis is even more helpful, particularly at the beginning).

Where can you find sample GMAT analytical writing prompts? Easy! The GMAC (the GMAT test-maker) actually provides all possible AWA essay topics on their website. So if you need examples of analytical questions for the GMAT, look no further!

Once you’ve read through a few sample AWA prompts, read through the third prompt on page 31 of the PDF. Magoosh GMAT expert Mike McGarry has written a great GMAT AWA Example essay in response to this prompt, including analysis of why it works well and why it would receive a 6.
 
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GMAT AWA and Business School

So just how important are the AWA scores for business school admissions? We certainly could argue that the GMAT Analytical Writing score is not so important. It’s undeniable that the Quantitative sections and Verbal sections, which contribute to the overall GMAT score, are considerably more important than the separate GMAT writing score. Arguably, the fact that the AWA section was “cut in half” when IR was added in 2012 is a further indication of the relative importance of the GMAT essay and its score.

It’s true that Business school adcoms rely on the Quant, Verbal and Composite scores significantly more than the GMAT writing score. In fact, recent evidence suggest that adcoms also rely on the IR score significantly more than the GMAT essay score.

But while it’s true that, in your GMAT preparation, Quant and Verbal and even IR deserve more attention than the AWA, it’s also true you can’t completely neglect AWA. The difference between a 5 or 6 as your GMAT Analytic Writing score will not make or break a business school admission decision, but having an essay score below a 4 could hurt you.

The purpose of the AWA is to see how well you write, how effectively you express yourself in written form. This is vital in the modern business world, where you may conduct extensive deals with folks you only know via email and online chatting. Some of your important contacts in your business career will know you primarily through your writing, and for some, your writing might be their first experience of you. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and when this first impression is in written form, the professional importance of producing high-quality writing is clear.

While you don’t need to write like Herman Melville, you need to be competent. A GMAT Analytic Writing score below 4 may cause business schools to question your competence. That’s why it’s important to have at least a decent showing in AWA.

For Non-Native English Speakers

In particular, if English is not your native language, I realize that this makes the AWA essay all the more challenging, but of course, a solid performance on the AWA by a non-native speaker would be a powerful testament to how well that student has learned English. Toward this end, non-native speakers should practice writing the AWA essay and try to get high-quality feedback on their essays.

Devoting 30% or more of your available study time to AWA is likely unwise, but devoting 0% to AWA might also hurt you. Between those, erring on the low side would be appropriate. If, in a three-month span, you write half a dozen practice essays, and get generally positive feedback on them with respect to the GMAT standards, that should be plenty of preparation.

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Conclusion

The GMAT analytical writing can feel like a slog when you first encounter it: it requires deep focus and analysis, and it’s not what most students have spent their prep time working on. But with a bit of preparation, your GMAT essays can take your admissions file to the next level by boosting your AWA test score significantly!

By including GMAT writing in your overall GMAT prep schedule, you’ll ensure that this section of the test doesn’t become a drag on your application—and helps, rather than hurts, your shot at your dream school. Good luck!

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