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Ten General Guidelines for the GRE AWA – Part I

Want to learn a game? It’s a writing game, based on general rules of English—grammar and style—but with its own idiosyncrasies. It may not be the most fun game in the world, depending on your proclivities, but if you are up for the game, then, like any game, you must learn the rules.

AWA - image by magoosh

The good news is you can learn the rules pretty quickly; the bad news is you may not have a choice. The game I speak of is the AWA writing section, which is the first thing you will see when you take the GRE.

I think it instructive to think of the AWA as a game with certain ground rules. First off, you may get frustrated, thinking that the AWA is biased and not a good measure of your ability to write academic-level stuff. In this respect, you may very well be right; but by thinking of AWA as a game and not a measure of your innate ability to write you are less apt to fight the whole process.

Secondly, the AWA is very learnable. Indeed, the essay structure is probably very similar to what you high school English teacher taught you.

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1. Write, write, write

Open up the Official Guide to the essay section and you will see several sample essays. If you turn to the lowest scoring essay—the one awarded a ‘1’—what is most notable about it isn’t necessarily the egregious syntax: the essay is only one sentence long.

Now I highly doubt you will receive a ‘1’. Even if you hammer out a paragraph of barely discernible prose, you are likely to get higher than a ‘1’. The key point here is length matters. And it doesn’t just make the difference between a ‘1’ and a ‘2’; the ‘6’ essay is notably longer than the ‘5’ essay. Sure the ‘6’ essay is of a general higher quality, but had the ‘6’ essay been the length of the ‘5’ essay it might have received a ‘5.5.’

So don’t think you can just fast and furiously scribble your way to a ‘6’. But as you work to improve the quality of your essays, keep in mind that the more high quality stuff you write the better.


2. Pay attention to the directions

Each Issue prompt and each Argument prompt comes with specific directions, which follow the prompt and are written in non-italicized letters. Make sure to read the directions; do not gloss over them. In your essay, if you do not directly address what the question is asking, your score will take a hit. Let’s take a look at two different directions that follow an Issue prompt.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the recommendation and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, describe specific circumstances in which adopting the recommendation would or would not be advantageous and explain how these examples shape your position.

You’ll notice that the directions begin very similarly but then veer away from each other. Nonetheless, both ask you to what extent you agree or disagree with the argument. The first set of instructions asks you to consider possible objections to your point of view (which implies you want to show how those objections are somewhat lacking). The second set of instructions asks you to offer up specific instances in which the recommendation either holds true or doesn’t.

Much of this can seem frustratingly abstract. The good news is I will write a few different issue essays taking into account the specific instructions. In the meantime, read the sample essays that ETS has released. You can see how the ‘6’ response effectively addresses the instructions.

The other piece of good news is that the instructions don’t create entirely different essays. Oftentimes, being true to the instructions entails nothing more than a few well-deployed sentences in the conclusion or at the end of a body paragraph.

Finally, the excerpts above are only two possible directions for the Issue prompt. Out of the 150 Issue prompts available on the ETS site, there are about half a dozen directions. Learn to become comfortable with each direction prompt. That of course means that you’ll have to knock out quite a few practice essays. Remember, the AWA game may not be the most fun in the world, but becoming good at it can make a big difference in how your GRE scores are interpreted.


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40 Responses to Ten General Guidelines for the GRE AWA – Part I

  1. Sachin November 2, 2016 at 11:06 am #

    Hey Chris, I have been reading a lot of articles and blogs on Issue and Argument essays on the Magoosh blog and some other websites. I feel the Argument essay is downright simpler that the Issue essay. The toughest part for me is coming up with examples to cite in the Issue essay to make it more compelling (and to prolong it in some cases where the topic is completely Greek to me !)

    I have little interest in fields like art, culture, politics or government etc so how do I come up with examples (Like Copernicus or Abraham Lincoln etc.) during the actual exam. From what I have gathered, my essay would not be able to fetch a top score if there is a dearth of examples in it.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 3, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

      Hi Sachin,

      First, please note that ETS releases all the essay topic pools in the exam on its website. So, take a look at them here to prepare. Then, before test day I’d make a list of several important historical figures, events, documents, etc, and have these examples in your arsenal. Think about how these figures and items can fit along with the context of the prompts. You’ll be surprised how the same examples can be used in multiple scenarios with a simple twist. Having these in your arsenal will make your life much easier.

      • Prashant Singh June 17, 2018 at 7:48 am #

        I am from India so getting up with examples from the history of America or other foreign countries will be a very painful task for me. I know few historical facts about my country. Can i cite them in my essay?

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 19, 2018 at 4:56 pm #

          Hi Prashant,

          Yes, you can certainly use examples from your country! If you use a fact or example that may not be widely known, I recommend that you take a sentence to provide a little bit of context. You might let the reader know what a person is famous for or what was happening in a certain time frame. As long as you provide enough details to connect the example to your argument, you should be fine!

  2. Han Longfei August 22, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    Hello, I took the GRE eralier this month. One problem I encountered is when I am edit my issue essay the time was up before I can press continue or next. What does that mean? Will I have a score on issue essay or my answer won’t be submitted.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 23, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

      Hi Han,

      Congrats on taking the GRE! Don’t worry–once the timer is up the system will automatically send you to the next section, but your response was still submitted exactly as written in the moment that screen changed 🙂

  3. Chinmoy Mohanty June 14, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    So, if I quote a one line dialogue from a TV series or movies, will it be also considered as plagiarism?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 16, 2016 at 9:41 am #

      Hi Chinmoy,

      You say that you will quote a line of dialogue which would mean that you signal the words are not yours and you attribute it to someone. In a case like that, you’re totally covered! No plagiarism at all. 🙂

  4. shra March 11, 2016 at 2:24 am #

    Is writing same examples as in sample essay is plagiarism?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 13, 2016 at 4:12 am #

      Hi Shra,

      Happy to help. 🙂

      In a real academic writing situation, it would definitely be plagiarism if you didn’t cite the source. It is trickier on the GRE AWA because many students come in with memorized templates, quotes, or main arguments they have learned from the finite set of test prep resources that exist. You want to make sure to write in your own voice and inject your own thoughts, but if you were to use the same examples on your essay, you would probably not face a plagiarism issue from ETS.

  5. Nate August 18, 2015 at 6:25 am #

    Hey Chris,

    Regarding the AWA I have two questions.

    1) I struggle to find pertinent examples for the Issue task. However, I write a weekly blog discussing issues arising in the old testament. What do you think about gleaning from those ancient texts to use examples for the essay?

    2) Regarding the “concession point”. Will the graders be satisfied with just one? Or should I include multiple? I see the “pros and cons” of using multiple concession points and I’m leaning more towards using only one, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.



  6. Alex July 10, 2015 at 12:51 am #

    Hello Chris,

    I was wondering about how to address a concession point.

    Under the Q&A section of the video lecture, you have mentioned not to refute the concession point, but to just address it in order to show that the essay is nuanced.

    However, here, you said to refute, or show some lacking of, the concession point.
    I was wondering which guidance to follow. Could you advise?

    Thank you!

  7. Ksu March 24, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    Hello! These are fantastic and much needed tips! Is there going to be part II (or parts) of “Ten General Guidelines for the GRE AWA”?
    Thank you in advance!

  8. Nisarg July 4, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I am going to ask you an uncanny question about AWA ISSUE.Can i cite examples from FICTIONAL books or movies like game of thrones or lord of the rings etc. to support my claim or should i stick with REALITY?

    Don’t take me for a fool.:-)))))

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 10, 2014 at 10:24 am #

      Hi Nisrag,

      No worries :)! That’s a perfectly valid question, considering that using fictional examples is fine on the SAT. I don’t want to say you shouldn’t–and the computer grader wouldn’t know the difference (just don’t dis Hal from 2001). But, the human grader will probably dock the essay in terms of overall persuasiveness.

      I guess if you are really struggling from a real world example of political corruption that really backs up your point and all you can think of are the Lannisters and company, then go for it. Make sure you tease out the nuances of the situation, esp. how it bears on the prompt and you should do okay with one fictional example, I guess. Though, overall, I wouldn’t recommend it 🙂

  9. Alisha Simmons October 12, 2013 at 6:09 am #

    Hey Chris,

    let me start out by saying that I really appreciate the time and effort the whole Magoosh team puts into the GRE prep!

    My concern on the AWA portion of the GRE is plagiarism (not that I plan on doing it).
    I was wondering if I can come up with some sort of outline, just to be more prepared on how to form certain phrases and therefore save time.
    Take the argument task for example. Obviously you’re supposed to find the fallacies and elaborate etc.
    Can I use certain phrases for the intro, main body and conclusion?

    For example:

    Intro: The following argument is flawed for numerous reasons. Primarily,…

    Main body: The argument fails to provide any justification that….
    The argument would have been stronger had it provided information….
    Had the argument provided information about…
    The argument leaves unanswered questions about….
    Finally, the argument claims that…

    Conclusion: Because the argument makes several unwarranted assumptions, it fails to make a convincing case that….

    Will it be considered plagiarism if I use these phrases that have most likely been used in the past? Same goes for the issue part of the AWA, although I would like to form some sort of outline for that part too.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 14, 2013 at 11:49 am #

      Yes, definitely! Meaning that you can definitely come up with some canned phrases (as you’ve done above) that you can use on the essay (esp. the Argument). Doing so is definitely not plagiarism. Many students use some kind of boilerplate–indeed many test prep books encourage doing so.

      Hope that helps!

  10. Akshay October 2, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    Hey Chris,

    Purchasing your products (Magoosh) is the wisest thing that I’ve done. I would like to express my gratitude towards all the members of your team for the great content of your products and for the ‘Ever-Ready to help’ attitude. 🙂

    Well, I’m taking my GRE on 10th and i’m rigorously practicing day and night in order to get a great score. There’s only one boulder in my way, i would be truely obliged if you’d help me remove it – GRE Issue .
    Actually, whenever i encounter an issue, having practiced quiet a few, i am able to figure out the Pros and Cons..i guess.. but the only problem i face is the Paraphrasing. I mean i lack a FLOW which is must-needed and sometimes i even lack specific examples to substantiate my points. So, i end up only writing a few lines on that point and sometimes get tensed and might repeat the expression in different words to increase my para.

    I would be really happy if u could suggest me a Panacea for this so that i can follow it regularly in all the 5-6 days i can ,starting now.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 3, 2013 at 1:33 pm #


      I think you need to spend the next few days really working on the planning stage of the essay. Come up with your examples, and think through how those examples are going to prove your general point. When you don’t have a clear idea about what you are going to write, you tend to repeat yourself (as you mentioned), something the graders will notice right away.

      One exercise is to spend five minutes writing out the pros and cons. Make sure you provide justification for your examples. Don’t just say the Watergate scandal. That is not an example. The Watergrate scandal shows that leaders we trust implicitly will resort to outright deception in order to achieve their aims. (you might want to write that in shorthand). At the end of five minutes you should have two strong examples/reasoning for your thesis and a concession point.

      Next, write an essay based on this brainstorming, but do not start with the intro–save for the thesis. Write the entire essay–even it takes you a little longer than the allowed time–and then come back and write a quick intro. This should help markedly improve your essays skills in the 5-6 days you have.

      Hope that helps, and good luck!

  11. Nika October 1, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

    What do you think of the ETS Score It Now product? It’s pretty expensive. $13 just to grade two essays. Just wondering if you have any thoughts about it?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 3, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

      Hi Nika,

      It’s a great way to know your baseline writing score and if you improving over time. Since all the graders give you is a score, you get zero feedback. I’d recommend using maybe a couple of times, but to really help you improve you might need a GRE tutor/essay grader.

      Hope that helps!

      • Flavia Grilli de Castro October 24, 2014 at 10:04 am #

        Dear Chris,

        where can I get one of those tutors/graders? Does Magoosh offer that service? Is there anyone you can recommend?

        Also, I can find the continuation to this post, did you give up on the other 8 guidelines?

        Thanks a lot!

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele October 24, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

          Hi Flavia,

          Interesting you asked (about the post that is!). I was wondering about that the other day. Apparently, it was a work in progress that never went much further. I hope to get to it once I finish some other projects :).

          As for a writing tutor, I can’t really recommend anybody out there–which is kind of sad, in the sense that so few offer a GRE-targeted essay service. One woman did just that and a student tried her out, but her comments were a little too critical. You find out what’s wrong but you don’t necessarily improve.

          ScoreItNow by ETS is the official grader (it’s $15) and I would go with that. The score will be accurate–though you’ll get no feedback beyond that.

          Hope that helps (somewhat :)).

      • Flavia Grilli de Castro October 24, 2014 at 10:44 am #

        One more thing, on the ETS website, ScoreItNow! Overview, it says
        “This service lets you: …
        Receive diagnostic feedback on your responses.”
        Has the service changed since Oct 13 or is it some trick?
        Thank you!

  12. Ila September 27, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Dear Chris,
    I am an Indian student taking my GRE next month. Most spellings we are taught in schools in India are the British spellings and I was wondering if you could tell me if we are penalised for using British spellings.
    Thank you!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 1, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Hi Ila,

      Try as much as possible to use only American spellings. I’m not sure how much students are penalized for British/Indian spellings, but it is best to avoid them altogether.

      Hope that helps!

  13. krish September 9, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    hey chris,
    First of all thanx a lot man! i have a doubt what if we partially agree with the issue and partially disagree,can we construct the essay in such a way that we agree to the issue in some cases and do not agree in some cases?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 10, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      Hi Krish,

      That is how you are supposed to write the Issue statement. You do NOT want to only agree or disagree. That’s why most people end up getting ‘4’ or below. They simply agree or disagree with one side and use examples to support only one side. The GRE needs to show how the statement holds true in some cases, but not in others (or vice versa).

      Hope that helps!

  14. Michaela September 3, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    Hi Chris!

    I’ve been wondering–how relevant would be personal experience for ETS graders, if relevant for the topic?
    One more regarding supporting evidence–are you supposed to remember random researches or statistics to support your position or can you come up with an imaginary statistics that supports your position?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 10, 2013 at 10:59 am #

      Hi Michaela,

      Sorry it took so long to get back to you :).

      So, for the GRE, personal experience examples aren’t looked favorably upon, the way they are in the SAT. Your supporting evidence should be based on historical fact/current events/general reasoning.

      As for the statistics angle, I personally think it sounds a little cheesy :). I think the graders will see through it as well. However, it is mainly how you build your case, so if you can think of a compelling case you read about, and one that proves your point, then you can mention that. Just don’t be really exact (e.g., 64% of patients…) unless you are really confident.

      Hope that helps!

  15. Aakriti September 3, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    Hi Chris!

    First off, thank you for the blog posts and videos. They have been real life savers.

    So this might seem a little silly, but I just wanted to know if would be an issue to use British English spellings in my essays. Just want to make sure I don’t lose out because I ended up using an extra letter somewhere.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 3, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

      Hi Aikriti,

      That’s a good question! Technically, you are supposed to use standard American spelling. But I can’t image a grader lowering your score if you spell “labor” as “labour.” I think British slang, though, would probably hurt your score :).

      Hope that helps!

  16. atir August 6, 2013 at 7:19 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for all your superb AWA posts/videos/comments.if i start writing how much grateful i am to you and magoosh team,i would have to write an essay for that itself(a pretty long one!!! ) :)…
    Anyways out of curiosity , i wanted to know if there is any good book available there for AWA section?
    Please leme know,right now i am concentrating only on your video materials for AWA,and have ETS official book with me to refer for it.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 6, 2013 at 9:58 am #

      Hi Atir,

      Thanks for the kudos!

      I like MGRE’s AWA section. Lots of helpful advice in there as well. It’s also a good idea to look at the ETS sample essays–if you haven’t already. They are in the Official Guide (a must purchase for just about any section).

      Good luck, and let me know if you have any other questions :)!

  17. Saurabh July 7, 2013 at 6:23 am #

    On the exam day, say you know a proverb(apothegm/aphorism) or some famous quote related to the issue topic that you got. Is it advisable to use it or it may look banal and plagiarized?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 8, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

      Hi Saurabh,

      That is a good question! If a quote is apposite, then you should try to use it. As far as proverbs go, I would only recommend if you know the proverb well. If you try to paraphrase the proverb, then it may come across as contrived or vague. But don’t worry about plagiarism — one quote line or proverb is fine :).

  18. David Zeglen June 19, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Thanks for the helpful information. I eagerly await your examples!

    I have two questions about the issue essay. First, I’d like to know what you think about using a specific example, and elaborating on it in the body paragraph. For instance, the prompt,

    “To understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities.”

    Do you think it’s okay to use, say, the United States, as the primary example, then break the body down using American cities as an example for each body (D.C. as center of political power; L.A. as entertainment capitol; New York as finance).

    Using another example, for another prompt like,

    “As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.”

    Would it be okay to use just one technology, the Internet, but then talk about different features of the Internet for your argument?

    I’m hesitant to do this because the issue prompt is worded as a generalization, “technology” or “great cities,” so I would assume that to best answer the question, you’d want to show a breadth of examples illustrating the concept. For the cities essay, drawing on different cities from around the world, or history, and for the technology essay, drawing on various examples of technology, like the car, the calculator, and the Internet, not just specifically the Internet. Anyway, I’d like to know what you think.

    Secondly, I’d like to know how much you can shape the issue essay into a more specific argument. For example, the issue prompt,

    “A nation should require all of its students to study the same national curriculum until they enter college.”

    I decided to write a sample essay that opened like this:

    “In this era of globalization, more and more countries are developing innovative and highly competitive advantages because of the growing popularity of national standardized education. If the United States wishes to remain economically competitive in the global market, it is vital that the country implement a national curriculum program from K to 12. This is because a standardized national program with established content can prepare students to enter into a global economy, and it ensures that there is a common learning experience for mobile families.”

    Then I elaborated my two points in the body on how a national curriculum would help the American economy. So I took the issue statement and wrote something with a specific argument to it, that being how it helps the economy. I also made a concession point about how it might also hurt the economy. Do you think anchoring the issue essay on a point you’ve developed is all right, or should it be left as more general, since the issue prompt is not asking specifically about the economy?

    Sorry for the deluge of questions, but your service is too good for me to pass up taking advantage of your expertise!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

      Hi David,

      No problem – I’m glad to help :)!

      For the first prompt, you can definitely use specific cities to develop your example. To be on the safe side, preface the use of such examples by acknowledging that you assume to be great cities because they fit certain criteria. The acknowledgment just has to be a quick sentence; the important part is it shows that you are taking the prompt into consideration.

      For the technology example, you can definitely mention the economy, even though it isn’t mentioned in the prompt. In other words, it is fine to narrow the scope. The key is to provide some justification for doing so. In this example, I think your reasoning for mentioning the economy is pretty clear cut: America should have a national curriculum because it will help us economically. There is no need to mention that you are limiting the scope of the prompt–almost every effective essay will limit the general nature of the issue (indeed, the prompts are meant to be very general so the essay write can do just that).

      Hope that helps answer your questions :). The key behind this essay is not so much the form–though that is critical is well–but the reasoning you employ to arrive at your position, and the specific examples you use to support that position.

      Hope that helps!

  19. Niraj June 18, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    In the second set of directions, as stated in the AWA videos, one should either AGREE or DISAGREE with the task but in doing so, in one paragraph or somewhere within the essay comment on the opposite position/ refute the position you’ve taken and show how the refutation actually strengthens your position right? Whereas the first set of directions is basically saying to do this multiple times?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      Hi Niraj,

      If I understand you correctly, you are wondering whether you should use multiple concessions points. My answer is no, you don’t have to. One will suffice. The second issue is that you can refute–or at least call into question–an opposing argument. That implicitly will strengthen your argument. You don’t need to specifically call out the fact that your argument has been strengthened.

      I hope I addressed your question, but if not let me know :).

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