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AWA Issue Strategies

You’ve spent arduous months studying for the new GRE. You’ve mastered your math fundamentals, you’ve built up an impressive vocabulary, and you reading speed is twice as fast as when you first started prepping. Nonetheless, if you prep little for the Analytical Writing Assessment, then the first hour can be a stressful one indeed. (You will have to spend 30 minutes writing the Issue task, and another 30 on the argument). If you think you did poorly on the essays, that knowledge could very well affect your performance on the rest of the test.

Out of the two essays, the Issue tends to be more difficult for most students. Part of the reason is it is far more difficult to “wing it” on the Issue task than it is on the Argument Task. So today’s post will be focused on the more difficult of the two writing tasks: The Issue Prompt.

The Issue Prompt requires you to respond to a simple statement, by developing a position, and supporting it with convincing examples. To be able to do so you will want to “keep” the following points in mind.

Keep it organized

Nothing reflects strong essay writing skills like organization. Even an impassioned, cogent response falls apart if it is not bundled into essay form: the introduction, a few body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

The Intro should not be needlessly long, as you try to stuff in everything you want to say. The Intro serves (unsurprisingly) to introduce the topic. Most importantly, the Intro must have a clearly defined thesis statement. Often it is easiest for the writer—and the reader—if the last sentence in the Intro is the thesis.

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The body paragraphs should develop your thesis. Finally, the conclusion should recap what’ve you said (don’t try to add any new information).

Keep it focused

Within the paragraph it is easy for us to lose our way. Perhaps we summarize needlessly, forgetting that the essay requires our analysis of an issue. Maybe our sentences do not link together logically, and we find ourselves rambling. Or, we may find ourselves juggling several hypothetical examples, never really making a compelling case.

So stay focused on analyzing the issue. Make sure your sentences link together, and be sure to develop an example, so that by the end of the paragraph you can persuasively—and clearly—show how your example supports your thesis.

Keep it engaging

Repetitive sentence structure makes for repetitive reading. Vary up the way you write—don’t be afraid to use a colon (or a dash), drop in a semi-colon, and vary up the syntax. Noun followed by verb followed by adjective implies that you are a hesitant writer. Regardless of your analysis and organization, the overall impression your essay leaves on the graders is a resounding meh.

Keep it specific

Hypotheticals are fine, if you can use them to convincingly back up your point. However, that’s the tough part; “some people,” “mankind,” or “you” are dull, vague abstractions. If you trying to show that knowledge can sometimes be used for destructive ends, “Oppenheimer’s knowledge of nuclear fusion allowed him to create the most destructive weapon the world had ever known” is far more impactful than, “scientists can sometimes use knowledge to hurt us.”

Keep it on topic

Perhaps the most important (lest you wonder why you received a ‘1’ on your essay) is to keep your essay on topic. Imagine you had to write on the mock prompt on knowledge I used above. If you begin talking about how technology is destructive because smartphones cause us to become insular… you have totally forgotten to answer the question, “Knowledge can sometimes be used for destructive ends.”

Keep practicing

Writing well is very difficult. It takes a lifetime of diligent practice. Luckily, the GRE essays graders are not judging whether we could be New Yorker staff writers. Even ‘6’ essays are not perfect; while commanding and sophisticated, these essays are not beyond the grasp of many native speakers.

Even as a non-native speaker, with a little practice you can go from a ‘3’ to a ‘4’ and from a ‘4’ to a ‘5’. But the key is practice. Writing an essay and feeling utterly deflated because it would score below a ‘3’ is fine…as long as you can pick yourself up and tackle another essay prompt, knowing that you can—and will—improve with more practice.

And non-natives don’t despair. Two of the preeminent prose stylists of the English-language novel were both non-native-English speakers. Joseph Conrad didn’t learn English until he was 18 (though his Heart of Darkness will confound most native speaking 18-year olds). And Vladimir Nabokov wrote in both French and Russia before ever committing his pen to English at the ripe age of 25. The first page of Lolita alone makes even New Yorker staff writers crimson with envy.


Okay, enough with the pep talk. For practical advice on practicing: the link below provides access to hundreds of essay prompts by ETS. Better yet, the actual prompt you see test day may be one of these essays.

So set yourself a goal (say, an essay a day) and practice. And remember, your mood coming out of the essay will affect your performance on the other sections. So (for non-native speakers) do Nabokov proud, and for natives with enough practice maybe you’ll be able to show those New Yorker staff writers a thing or two.


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39 Responses to AWA Issue Strategies

  1. Avinash August 26, 2016 at 3:35 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I guess I am a lot of thoughts to put on, but facing trouble to make my writing more persuasive. Can you please suggest how i can make my writing more persuasive as to better reflect my thoughts.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 26, 2016 at 4:59 pm #

      In the AWA issue Essay, being persuasive is all about using evidence. Anytime you make a claim, think of the reasons people might doubt that claim. Address all of those most obvious doubts. Also think about any questions people might ask you to get a better idea about what you’re saying in your essay, and why you’re saying it. Always put forth a very complete set of supporting details and argumentative evidence.If you think you won’t have the time or space to complete your argument within the time and pace limits of AWA, then choose a different argument, or find a way to simplify your argument.

  2. Meredith August 6, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    One set of directions states to “discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement…” I’m confused by “extent.” Does this mean that ETS simply wants us to take a side either in agreement or disagreement and explain why? Or by “extent” do they mean that it is okay to strongly disagree, or to somewhat agree, etc.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 7, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

      Hi Meredith,

      The second option is more accurate–another way to think about “extent” is “degree.” So not only do your agree or disagree, but what are the limitations of that opinion? I hope that helps! 🙂

  3. Lid June 19, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    Can you write in first person on either GRE essays?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 20, 2016 at 9:20 am #

      Hi Lid,

      There is no specific prohibition of first person and some people do well on the essay and use the first person. But I tend to recommend avoiding first person, especially “I think” and “in my opinion.” Both of these phrases tend to be redundant. You usually can take these phrases out of the sentence and your sentence will still maintain its meaning and grammar. So, you can completely avoid first person and writing in a more sophisticated tone.

      If you do use first person, I’d recommend that you use it once in the introduction paragraph for your thesis. And that is it.

      I recommend taking a look at some of the sample essays written on some topics. These are released by ETS, the testmakers, and will give you an excellent idea of what a great, good, and poor essay will look like. You’ll notice that a 5 and 6 do not have first person but the other lower scored essays do.

      I hope that helps! 🙂

  4. Alyssa May 22, 2016 at 11:06 am #

    Hi Chris!
    I have a questions about the intro paragraph/thesis statement. Do you have to include the points you plan on discussing in your body paragraphs in your intro/thesis?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 23, 2016 at 11:31 am #

      Hi Alyssa,

      It’s not necessary to state your points verbatim in your intro — in fact, it will probably save you time not to do so 🙂

  5. Davut January 11, 2016 at 5:36 am #


    My exam is on 13th February and I have about 1 month from now on. I tried to focus on verbal and math section more until now and did not spend enough time on AW section of the GRE. Would you recommend writing one essay per day to gain acceleration on practicing ?

    Any suggestion would be appreciated.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 1, 2016 at 6:15 am #

      Hi Davut,

      I am so sorry this didn’t get answered quickly, but hopefully our advice can help! I’d suggest that you first take a look at these ETS topic pools:

      List of AWA Issue Prompts
      List of AWA Argument Prompts

      Familiarize yourself with these topics, and then write several practice essays of your own using these ETS topics as a way to familiarize yourself with the questions and expectations. If you are careful to answer the actual question posed by the AWA tasks and you prepare yourself by knowing what will be expected of you on that day, you won’t have any trouble getting a good score. 🙂

  6. Laura January 1, 2016 at 10:11 am #

    Oppenheimer used nuclear fission, not fusion. 🙂 The GRE grader do not care if your facts are correct, though.

  7. Alex September 5, 2014 at 12:20 am #

    Dear Chris,

    Firstly, thanks for keeping up with the blog. It’s been a great help.

    Secondly, I was wondering if there is any way to insert special characters on the Gre essay software during the exam – such as those required in ‘vis-a-vis’ or ‘blase’ or ‘cliche’. If not, should these phrases/words be avoided? I’m from India and keyboards here don’t have these characters on them by default.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 5, 2014 at 10:25 am #

      Hi Alex,

      That is a good question. I have no idea of the keyboards here allow you to do so. Regardless, I don’t think ETS will hold that against you. Of course, there is a computer grader, but maybe it has been programmed not to dock. Still, I can’t image ETS being so picayune as to do you for not having the proper diacritic.

      Hope that helps!

  8. Cornelia September 1, 2014 at 5:08 am #

    Dear Chris,

    One thing that concerns me when writing my essays in the issue part is that a lot of the examples that come to my mind are not that well-known in the Anglosphere. I’m German, and I often think of something German scientists or politicians did or said, events that happened in Germany or things taught in German high school. The example essays that I compare my essays to usually score high by drawing on a wide range of examples that are well-known in the US. Stating my examples, that the examiner has possibly never heart of, either requires a longer explanation, for which I don’t have time, or googling on part of the examiner.

    What would you suggest? In theory, the GRE should not be culturally biased. But I am afraid if I simply drop unknown German examples, the examiners might be confused.

    Thank you for your advice,


    PS: To know what I mean, I thought of some examples for you. Let’s say the issue is about privacy and I refer to the surge in users of the email client, a Berlin-based start-up whose unique selling point is that they protect their clients’ privacy as much as possible. Or in an essay about rebellion I could refer to the way the German authorities dealt with house occupiers in Dresden in contrast to those in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin wall – the occupiers in Dresden were given proper rent contracts while those in Berlin were forcefully evicted, causing violent clashes with the police. Or when writing about technology, I might want to cite the website where people sell self-crafted goods. I know that there exists a similar format in the US – etsy – but I am not that familiar with it and would not feel comfortable writing about it and would prefer the German example. This issue comes up for me with almost every essay I write at least once!

    • Holing September 16, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

      I am on the same boat and would love to see this question answered!

      • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
        Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 1, 2016 at 7:40 am #

        Hi Holing and Cornelia!

        I know this is a late reply, but hopefully it can help others in your positions. 🙂

        It is perfectly fine to use non-US examples for the GRE essays, but you want to make sure you give relevant context and information on the events so that the reader doesn’t have to guess whether or not your example really applies to the point you are trying to make. If you can do that, then any examples from your own country should be fine. 🙂

  9. Karishma May 22, 2014 at 5:17 am #

    I have read in most sites that practicing essays is the best way to go for AW. But writing a full length AW issue essay or argument essay takes 30 mins each for a time limited atmosphere. So my question is while practicing from the ets pool of topics, do we need to write full length essays for every topic or just structuring and brainstorming on the topic and writing mock essays 3-4 times will be enough?

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette May 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

      Hi, Karishma

      30 minutes for each essay can definitely be tough to fit into your schedule! Doing quick structuring/brainstorming is a good alternative when you don’t have a lot of time. However, especially as you near your exam date, make sure to sit down and do a few full-length essays (not all in a row, but maybe one every few days) just so you can feel comfortable with the experience. I hope that helps! 🙂


      • Karishma May 23, 2014 at 1:26 am #

        Thanks Margarette!!

  10. Hashim April 24, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    Hello people of Magoosh,

    I have a question about writing a thesis for an issue task. I noticed that in the video lesson, the thesis contained a statement indicating choosing a side. However, there’s no mention of the main points covered in the body paragraphs. Is that a good practice? Don’t you think that a reader ought to know what to expect in the body paragraphs just from reading the thesis statement?

    Referred thesis: “a college curriculum should be designed around the career a student will pursue upon graduation”


    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin April 25, 2014 at 9:57 am #

      Hi Hashim!

      Excellent question! In a typical, untimed essay you definitely would want to let the reader know what is coming. The intro and thesis should give the reader some idea of where the discussion is headed and what will be discussed. This is a common practice in American essay writing.

      But with the GRE, our strategies are a little different. Since we have such a limited amount of time to write an essay, we recommend spending as little time as possible writing the introduction and conclusion. The bulk of your time should be spent crafting the body paragraphs. As such, we only recommend stating your opinion or stance on the topic and not worry about prefacing your examples and reasons.

      This isn’t to say that you can’t do this. If you are a quick writer and have the time, then you can definitely indicate what the main points of your body paragraph will be. 🙂

      Happy Studying!

  11. Lara March 27, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    I just started practicing the AWA and am following the 90-day study plan for beginners. I’m trying my best to follow the outlined time structure you suggested in the videos, but in my first two essays I’ve always run out of time and always seem to produce mediocre work. Would you recommend that I practice writing without a time limit for now? Or should I just keep working with the time limit and would I gradually improve with more practice?

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin April 2, 2014 at 9:33 am #

      Hi Lara, Happy to help!

      First, I recommend to keep practicing. Writing the essays on the GRE is a particular type of skill that needs lots of practice. So keep your head down and keep at it.

      Second, if you feel like you need extra practice, try writing an essay more often. Instead an essay a week, write two. This will give you more opportunities for improvement.

      Third, I recommend that you keep timing yourself. It doesn’t help to be good at writing an essay in an hour. We need to be good at writing an essay in half an hour.

      One thing that I have done with my students in the past is have them write only an introduction or only an introduction and body paragraph in a set amount of time. So give yourself a time limit of 8 minutes and see if you can complete an introduction and body paragraph. This allows you to practice writing under time constraints and you can take baby steps towards completing an essay in 30 minutes.

      I hope that this helps! Best of luck in your studies! 🙂

  12. Marcel February 13, 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    Hi Chris!

    I just started reading the book you recommended: On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Although I would love read all of it, I don’t have much time to spare. Could you suggest what chapters would most benefit us for the GRE AWA ?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele February 14, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

      Hi Marcel,

      Good question! I think the grammar-related passages are important. As are the chapters that relate to crafting sentences and creating paragraphs.

      Good luck!

  13. Asma Maladwala October 20, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Hi Chris,
    Do you know if there are any sites where I can find high scoring sample essays? I’ve been practicing but feel as though I’m in a void as I have no point of comparison. Getting feedback from family and friends is helpful, but I’d just feel so much better if I could compare my essays to actual GRE essays. I could only find one sample set on the ets website…


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 21, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

      Hi Asma,

      It seems that only offers example essays. Just google “example GRE essays” and it should be the second hit.

      Besides that there aren’t too many others I can think of that are online. Writing higher scoring essays, ‘5.5-6’ for blog posts is something I plan to do soon though :).

  14. Veronica August 1, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    Hello! I would enormously appreciate if you can clarify me this. Which link are you referring to in the following sentence?:

    ” For practical advice on practicing: the link below provides access to hundreds of essay prompts by ETS”.

    I cannot find it anywhere and it would be of invaluable help for me to have these essay prompts in order to practice.

    Thank you very much!

  15. J September 2, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    So I just found out ETS has started employing their e-rater technology. Thoughts?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

      Thanks for reporting that! Well, I hope it is better than the GMATs, which apparently counts number of words, a couple of transition sentences, etc. I guess time will tell.

      • emma March 1, 2013 at 11:27 am #

        whats e-rater technology, mentioned by J, Chris??

  16. Muhammad Usama Khan March 30, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    Sometime it seems that we cannot write enough in the issue task.

    If we practice one essay per day, who will rectify this and will tell us how to improve our score in analytic. So that we can BUT ALL feel confident to write essay with positive tone.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

      Yes, that is true, and indeed I need to write another post on generating ideas.

      As for somebody to give you feedback, find a trusted family member or friend. Of course, that person would not want to read everyone of your essays, but as long as you get feedback every once in awhile that will help :).

  17. Bhavin Parikh
    Bhavin March 25, 2012 at 11:50 pm #

    This sentence is dead-on, “If you think you did poorly on the essays, that knowledge could very well affect your performance on the rest of the test.”

    I recently talked with a student who was consistently scoring in the 80th percentile on math and verbal in practice. But he wasn’t prepared for the writing section on test day and it affected his concentration throughout the rest of the exam. He scored in the 60th percentile. Doing well on writing can definitely set a positive tone for the rest of the exam.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 26, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      Hi Bhavin,

      Yes, I am happy to hear that student’s experience echo my thoughts. Really, “Doing well on writing can definitely set a positive tone for the rest of the exam” is perhaps the greatest GRE tip that nobody has ever heard of.

  18. typeR March 18, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    Did u mean non-native below??
    “Two of the preeminent prose stylists of the English-language novel were both native-English speakers.”

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 19, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

      Ha! Yes, I definitely did. Thanks for catching that :).

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