The GRE essay topics on the Issue task come such from such wide a variety of fields that there seems to be no discernible pattern in the GRE writing prompts we’ve seen. There are angry mayors decrying pollution in their cities; woven baskets along a mythical river; and rhesus monkeys and stimulation. Despite such a colorful array, there are several “buckets”, or categories, into which the GRE Issue Essays fall.
Below, you can see that I’ve come up with seven main GRE essay topic categories and sorted the actual issue questions from the ETS website into them. Remember, the Issue Essay you will see test day will be drawn from this question bank.
It’s very important to remember that one of the argument prompts found on the GRE site will come up test day. That’s right: you can get a head start by doing mock essays from the prompts on the official site.
Though, I should mention that there are nearly 200 argument prompts on the site. Before you despair, keep in mind that some of these prompts are very similar and by practicing an essay prompt or two from each of the buckets below, you’ll prepare yourself for test day. And who knows? You might get lucky, the argument prompt you get test day being one that you already wrote a mock essay for.
Meet the 7 categories of GRE essay topics
These GRE writing prompts will ask you something about the aims and objectives of essay writing. The emphasis is typically on college–choosing majors, tuition, curriculum–though you might get a prompt relating to education at large.
“All college and university students would benefit from spending at least one semester studying in a foreign country.”
“Educational institutions have a responsibility to dissuade students from pursuing fields of study in which they are unlikely to succeed.”
“Educational institutions should actively encourage their students to choose fields of study that will prepare them for lucrative careers.”
“A nation should require all of its students to study the same national curriculum until they enter college.”
“Governments should offer a free university education to any student who has been admitted to a university but who cannot afford the tuition.”
“Universities should require every student to take a variety of courses outside the student’s field of study.”
“Claim: Universities should require every student to take a variety of courses outside the student’s major field of study.
Reason: Acquiring knowledge of various academic disciplines is the best way to become truly educated.”
“Formal education tends to restrain our minds and spirits rather than set them free.”
You’ll notice these prompts are all very similar. For instance, there are two prompts–the ones beginning with “educational institutions”–that are almost identical. Though this list is not exhaustive, in terms of education prompts that could pop up, it is highly representative, as are the prompts for the categories below. So if you practice with just a few prompts per category, you should be ready.
Unsurprisingly, given that the GRE is a test for graduate school, the education prompt tends to come up more often than any other. I would recommend writing one of these essays on a prompt that specifically mentions college and another that doesn’t (“Formal education tends…free” is a good one because it is probably the least related to the others).
2. Technology and society
“As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.”
“The primary goal of technological advancement should be to increase people’s efficiency so that they have more leisure time.”
“The increasingly rapid pace of life today causes more problems than it solves.”
“Although innovations such as video, computers, and the Internet seem to offer schools improved methods for instructing students, these technologies all too often distract from real learning.” (this ones a hybrid with the education “bucket”–cool!)
“Some people believe that our ever-increasing use of technology significantly reduces our opportunities for human interaction. Other people believe that technology provides us with new and better ways to communicate and connect with one another.”
“The human mind will always be superior to machines because machines are only tools of human minds.”
(I know this is a pretty random bucket – but it’s what ETS decrees)
“To understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities.”
“Claim: Governments must ensure that their major cities receive the financial support they need in order to thrive.
Reason: It is primarily in cities that a nation’s cultural traditions are preserved and generated.”
“It is primarily in cities that a nation’s cultural traditions are generated and preserved.”
“When old buildings stand on ground that modern planners feel could be better used for modern purposes, modern development should be given precedence over the preservation of historic buildings.”
“The best way to solve environmental problems caused by consumer-generated waste is for towns and cities to impose strict limits on the amount of trash they will accept from each household.”
“Some people believe that government funding of the arts is necessary to ensure that the arts can flourish and be available to all people. Others believe that government funding of the arts threatens the integrity of the arts.”
“In order for any work of art—for example, a film, a novel, a poem, or a song—to have merit, it must be understandable to most people.”
“Claim: Nations should suspend government funding for the arts when significant numbers of their citizens are hungry or unemployed.
Reason: It is inappropriate—and, perhaps, even cruel—to use public resources to fund the arts when people’s basic needs are not being met.”
“Nations should suspend government funding for the arts when significant numbers of their citizens are hungry or unemployed.”
5. Government and Power
“The well-being of a society is enhanced when many of its people question authority.”
“Claim: In any field—business, politics, education, government—those in power should step down after five years.
Reason: The surest path to success for any enterprise is revitalization through new leadership.”
“Some people believe that government officials must carry out the will of the people they serve. Others believe that officials should base their decisions on their own judgment.”
“Some people believe that in order to thrive, a society must put its own overall success before the well-being of its individual citizens. Others believe that the well-being of a society can only be measured by the general welfare of all its people.”
“Governments should not fund any scientific research whose consequences are unclear.”
“Some people believe it is often necessary, even desirable, for political leaders to withhold information from the public. Others believe that the public has a right to be fully informed.”
6. Intellectual Endeavors
“In any field of inquiry, the beginner is more likely than the expert to make important contributions.”
“The best ideas arise from a passionate interest in commonplace things.”
(For a lack of a better name – though I guess “Deep Thoughts by ETS” would work.)
“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more complex and mysterious.”
“The greatness of individuals can be decided only by those who live after them, not by their contemporaries.”
“People who are the most deeply committed to an idea or policy are also the most critical of it.”
“Many important discoveries or creations are accidental: it is usually while seeking the answer to one question that we come across the answer to another.”
“Claim: It is no longer possible for a society to regard any living man or woman as a hero.
Reason: The reputation of anyone who is subjected to media scrutiny will eventually be diminished.”
How to practice using GRE writing prompts
There are a few more “buckets”, but the seven categories above cover about 95% of the spectrum. The takeaway from all this is that you should find the category you are weakest in and work at becoming more comfortable with and knowledgable about that topic. For instance, many dread the art category, painfully aware that they cannot tell the difference between a Monet and a Manet (besides the ‘o’ and the ‘a’, of course).
Before you just start scribbling (or typing) a GRE essay, an important word on organization:
The point here is to know what you are going to write before writing it. The other way around, while tempting, can get you into trouble with the clock. Sure, you’ll generate some smart words right off the bat, but you’ll very likely write yourself into a hole where you are repeating yourself. This kind of desperation — in which you don’t have anything to say but are doing your best to rephrase what you already said a sentence or two earlier — is not lost on the graders.
The first step is to brainstorm, taking a few minutes to first come up with a position that is nuanced, instead of producing an unequivocal ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the issue question.
Next, you want to consider some possible counterarguments to your position. In acknowledging them, you are not weakening your position, as long as you show how they are lacking. This kind of analysis will only strengthen your position — and it is the exact kind of analysis the graders usually associate with ‘5’ score and higher. Doing this will help you avoid one of the biggest mistakes you can make on the Issue Essay — failing to provide support for your examples.
The good news is, coming up with arguments and counterexamples for these GRE essay topics won’t entail getting a degree in art history, in the case of those prompts. You only have to be able to be comfortable with a few examples, and make sure you can effectively relate them to your analysis. After all, the GRE Issue is not a test of knowledge as much as it is a test of how you can use knowledge — however limited — to back your position.
A few study tactics for using the GRE Issue prompts
If establishing a nuanced position and coming up with counterexamples to that position is difficult for you, don’t worry! Doing this is difficult for many, unless they’ve had practice.
So instead of writing your entire essay, first sit down with a prompt and practice coming up with a position and counterexamples. To give yourself a little structure, start the timer at 5 minutes. At first it’ll be difficult, but stick with it. Doing three prompts each morning for a week or so will make the process easier.
You can also go back to your notes after the five minutes are up and think of ways they could have been improved. Again, being patient and practicing daily will help make this process much more natural. At that point, you can start writing full length practice essays. And don’t worry — with almost 200 prompts, you are not going to run out of practice material!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April, 2013 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.