Mike MᶜGarry

Brainstorming for GMAT AWA

How do you begin the AWA?

Of course, as of June, 2012, there is only one essay, the Argument essay, on the GMAT.  Suppose you are faced with the following AWA Argument prompt (this is the very last prompt listed in the OG13):

The following appeared in a memorandum written by the chair of the music department to the president of Omega University.

“Mental health experts have observed that symptoms of mental illness are less pronounced in many patients after group music therapy sessions, and job openings in the music-therapy field have increased during the past year. Consequently, graduates from our degree program for music therapists should have no trouble finding good positions. To help improve the financial status of Omega University, we should therefore expand our music-therapy degree program by increasing its enrollment targets.

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underline the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sounds, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusions.

This last paragraph is, of course, the standard directions paragraph that you will find appended to each and every GMAT AWA Argument prompt.  You should know this paragraph inside-out by the time you sit for your GMAT.

We are going to approach this AWA prompt with strategy.  We know that whatever argument the GMAT presents will probably be rife with flaws, so we are going to look for those flaws.

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By way of preparation for the AWA, you need the directions thoroughly, so there’s no need to spend time on those on test day.  The first thing you do when you sit down to the AWA, at the very outset of your GMAT, is to brainstorm.  We know ahead of time that the prompt will contain a flawed argument, and we want to consider the flaws.  Start by making a list of flaws of the argument.  In the real GMAT, you might jot these notes down on your dry-erase pad.

Flaw #1

Mental health experts have observed that symptoms of mental illness are less pronounced in many patients after group music therapy sessions…”  So, the mentally ill folks are not quite as bad when we play music.  Is this effect strong or subtle?  For example, it seems unlikely that music would have the kind of sustained effect that medication has.

Flaw #2

Do we need someone specially trained to conduct a “group music therapy session”, or is this a matter of just putting folks in a room and playing relaxing music for them?  Do we need folks with particular expertise to run these sessions?  Couldn’t any group therapist just pop in an Enya CD and have more or less the same effect?

Flaw #3

“… job openings in the music-therapy field have increased during the past year…” A vague numerical word: “increase.”  What does that mean?  Does it mean that there are thousands of openings in every major city for music-therapy specialists?  Unlikely.  Keep in mind, this increase could be extremely modest — say, an increase from 7 full time positions nationwide last year to 11 this year.  That’s certainly an increase, but it’s not indicative of a burgeoning employment opportunity.

Flaw #4

Notice the wildly overconfident conclusion.  “… graduates …. should have no trouble finding good positions.”  For the past few years in the US, in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, unemployment has been quite high: in September 2012, it dropped below 8% for the first time in four years!  This has been a job market in which highly qualified people have struggled to find employment.  Maybe there are a few new positions for music therapy, but the idea that graduates will have “no trouble” finding a job is unreasonably optimistic.

Flaw #5

Omega University’s music department apparently already has a “music therapy” program, so the surest sign that there are jobs galore and the opportunity for expansion would be the field-related jobs that recent graduates of this program found.  This would see a highly pertinent piece of information, and it is conspicuously absent.

Flaw #6

Something is fishy about the fact that we are talking about helping mental health patients, but this program is in the music department.  Presumably, anything in the music department first and foremost would educate people about music.  It’s less than clear that a music professor would have the expertise to give folks the kind of training that would actually qualify them to work with the mentally ill.  Perhaps there are special requirements for this unusual field, but something seems incongruous, because normally, the government wisely sets incredibly rigorous requirements for the kinds of professionals who can work closely with the mentally ill.

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Flaw #7

Expanding the program will “improve the financial status of Omega University”?  When alums make mega-billions, and then donate a sizeable chunk of that money to their alma mater, that can have a major impact on a university’s balance sheet.  But, these jobs, music-therapists, are clearly middle class jobs.  It’s hard to imagine these folks making $100K — for the sake of argument, let’s say, they are definitely not making more than $200K.  That’s not an income level at which people are poised to give multiple millions to their university.  How is it that having a few more upper middle class graduates will “improve” the university’s “financial status” in any noticeable way?



Don’t spend a great deal of time on brainstorming.  Here, I found seven objections, which is much more than you will need.  Also, notice the relatively informal language: when you are brainstorming, you can use slang, abbreviations, symbols — anything that makes sense to you.  You need be formal only in the essay itself.

You really only need a few powerful objections to the argument.  Once you have a short list, decide which ones are most powerful.  On this list, #2 & #6 seem most tenuous, so we will simply drop those.  Flaw #5 would be worth a mention.  Points #1 & #3 can be combined under the theme of “ambiguity.” Overall, the argument should be organized around (#1 + #3), #4, and #7.  OK, now we are ready to write.  The next post will feature a full essay response to this prompt, organized around those objections.



  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as “member of the month” for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike’s Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.

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