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12 Tips to Ace GRE Writing

Worrying about the GRE essays? A lot of test takers find it intimidating to sit down at their computer on test day and write an essay in 30 minutes…and then write another one directly after that! GRE analytical writing can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. A handful of key GRE analytical writing tips will help you sit down at those word processors and proceed—with confidence—to get the GRE score you want.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the GRE writing tips you can use to boost your essay score on the Argument essay and Issue task. Here are all the GRE essay tips you’ll need to send you on your way to that perfect score.

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General GRE Analytical Writing Assessment Tips

While the GRE general test writing section can seem unpredictable, there are still ways to prepare for the essay! Later on, we’ll look at each type of task (Issue and Argument) separately. Before we do that, though, there are some important GRE writing tips to know for Issue and Argument essays in the GRE analytical writing section.

1. Know the topic types

If you’ve been practicing for the AWA, you may be thinking, “What types? They’re totally random!” But there’s definitely a pattern to GRE prompts! We’ve identified seven types of analytical writing prompts on the GRE, including:

  • Education
  • Technology
  • Cities
  • Arts
  • Government and Power
  • Intellectual Endeavors
  • Philosophy

Before you take the official exam, review sample topics in these areas so you know how you’ll address different types of subjects as they come up. You can see all possible Issue tasks and Argument tasks on the ETS website before test day.

But as you look at the GRE ETS AWA prompts, make sure you don’t waste time outlining a possible essay for each and every one. The time it takes—plus the memorization it would involve—is not worth the effort! Instead, focus on perfecting your approach to different topic types.

Remember, you don’t need to be an expert in these areas, or even have outside knowledge—instead, work on coming up with examples to address different types of prompts and how to write about topics you’re unfamiliar with in a short period of time.

2. Read the directions thoroughly

Read the directions? Of course I read the directions! Almost all test-takers think this—but in our experience, not enough are reading the directions thoroughly.

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.

Here’s some good news: 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.

3. Manage time well

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For each and every section on the GRE, you have a time limit—and the AWA is no exception! If you’re like most test takers, you’ll definitely feel those 30 minutes start to shrink once you sit down at the screen.

To make the most of your time on GRE tests, we suggest dividing up the writing section like this:

  1. 2 minutes to read through the prompt and directions
  2. 3 minutes brainstorming, outlining, and writing a thesis statement
  3. 20 minutes writing the body paragraphs and examples of your essay
  4. 2 minutes to edit for small mistakes, such as grammatical errors
  5. 3 minutes (if available) to write an intro

Nope, that’s not a mistake—save the intro for last. Why? A few reasons. First of all, if you’ve already stated your thesis at the beginning, it’s not that important. And yet, second of all, test takers get so caught up writing the “perfect intro” that time speeds by and they haven’t focused on their body paragraphs—the meat of the essay—at all. This way, you’ll have a much better chance of getting a high score on the GRE AWA.

4. Write as much as you can

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.

Issue Essay: GRE Writing Tips

The first essay you’ll see on all GRE tests is the Issue essay. In this task, you’ll be asked to analyze an issue described in the prompt, then create an essay agreeing or disagreeing with it. Read on for our best GRE essay tricks and tips for this task!

5. Come up with pro/con statements

One of the most important things about the Issue essay is that it requires you to take a side.

To do this, make a list of statements that either support or refute the prompt (pros and cons). Then, choose whichever side you think has the best statements. Take a look as Magoosh’s experts walk you through a pro/con evaluation of a topic here!

We recommend you work in shorthand. It doesn’t have to be pretty! It just has to be understandable as you go back through your notes. This shouldn’t take a lot of time—remember, you don’t have a ton of time for brainstorming! Practice pro/con lists until you can make one in under a minute.

6. Choose a side

Based on what you’ve written in your pro/con statement, it’s time to pick a side. You’ll find that the directions for the Issue essay always ask you to agree or disagree. That’s how important this is to creating a high-scoring essay—they actually put the fact that you need to state your opinion in the prompt.

It doesn’t matter what you actually think about this in real life—or even if you have no opinion on it whatsoever! All that matters is that you pick the side you can most easily support.

So how should your opinion show up in the essay? Make sure you state it immediately, as part of your thesis statement. Just as importantly, select examples that support this point of view really well, then explicitly tie them back to your opinion with reasoning throughout the rest of the essay.

7. Relate all examples and reasoning back to your thesis

As you make your pro/con list (described in Tip #5), you’ll be jotting down statements that help support different sides of the argument. Once you’ve chosen what side you’ll be arguing, as in Tip #6, you’ll need to elaborate on those with real-world examples or reasoning.

What’s the difference? Reasoning explains why something’s true (“From the statements X and Y, we can see Z”), while examples show a particular case in which that is true (“The ubiquity of Mickey Mouse proves Z”). Depending on how you brainstorm, you’re likely to have come up with a pro/con list featuring mostly reasons or examples.

Balance it out by making sure you explain why each example is important, relating it to your thesis, and providing a specific instance of each reason you give—again, one that’s relevant to your thesis. Want to see this in action? Take a look at a Magoosh expert brainstorming potential Issue task examples!

8. Make a concession point

Back in Tip #6, we encouraged you to make the position you’re taking in the Issue task really, really clear, and then support your position. But when you look closer at the Issue prompt, you’ll see that you’re also asked to look at both sides of the argument. How is this possible?

The GRE AWA requires pretty nuanced thinking, and this is no exception! You will need to bring up an argument from the side your essay disagrees with, that is true in some cases. This is called a concession point. The instructions don’t tell you to do this exactly—but it’s the best way to discuss both sides of the argument while making sure that you stick to your main argument.

How do you find a concession point? If you’ve followed Tip #5, it’s easy. You’ll need to whip out that old pro/con statement again!

In the end, while you will need to make a concession point, it’s important that the entire essay—including any concession points—all drive the reader back to one opinion: yours.

Argument Essay: GRE Writing Tips

The second task you’ll face on GRE writing sections is the Argument essay. For this essay, you’ll look at an argument and analyze it logically. How to write the GRE Argument essay? You’ll need to know the types of arguments in writing samples, as well as how to present a good argument yourself. If this type of argument test still sounds overwhelming, never fear—we have plenty of GRE analytical writing tips for this part of the exam, as well!

9. Identify the assumptions

The first of our tips for the GRE Argument essay? To analyze an argument on the GRE, you’ll need to find out what assumptions the author is making and show why they are unwarranted. Focus on one of these tasks at a time, starting by just finding where the assumptions are in the passage.

Spend some time here: getting these assumptions correct is super important to writing a high-scoring Argument essay. You’re not looking to see how many you can find—there will often be more than one or two! Instead, you want to make sure you’ve found the most important ones the author’s used.

Identifying assumptions takes some practice, so we suggest you take another look at the pool of ETS Argument tasks to practice. As you go through these, ask yourself: what claims is the author making? Where does the author support these claims? What information is missing that would make this claim valid?

10. Find the logical fallacies

After you’ve found all the assumptions in the argument, you’ll need to take it a step further and analyze the argument. To do that, you’ll need to be familiar with the types of logical fallacies you’ll encounter in GRE Argument prompts. Luckily, Magoosh has a video describing logical fallacies in a sample essay for your review!

Just as there are lots of types of arguments in essay prompts on the GRE, so too are there lots of types of logical fallacies in them. For the Argument task GRE essay, you’ll need to identify the most important assumptions, then describe the types of logical fallacies the author is making. You won’t need to describe every single one in your essay (see Tip #12), but you will need to describe and explain the biggest ones.

11. Never agree with the argument

Don’t ever agree with the argument that the Argument task presents on the GRE! Your thesis statement should be a refutation of the logic in the prompt.

In other words, the kind of thesis you’ll need for the Argument task is NOT the same kind of thesis you’ll need for the Issue task. Remember, the Issue task asks you to agree or disagree with the presented argument. On the other hand, the Argument analysis GRE essay asks you to write an essay about an essay. Your thesis should have to do with why the argument is weak due to logical fallacies.

Think about it: if this was a great argument, why would the GRE have provided it for an Argument essay? The whole point of the Argument essay is for you to find the flaws in an argument. Therefore, your thesis should never be that this argument is great and has no flaws! Not only is that (extremely) unlikely to be true, but it also fails to show critical thinking and analysis on your part—which is what the test maker is looking for here.

Long story short? Challenge the argument in your thesis statement!

12. Choose your examples carefully

You’ve identified assumptions. You’ve found their logical fallacies. You’ve written a thesis statement. Now, it’s time to choose examples!

At this point, you may have a huge list of six, seven, or even eight assumptions. That’s great! You’re going to end up throwing a lot of them out. You can write a top-scoring essay using only three or four examples from the prompt. With this in mind, choose the ones that most undermine the writer’s point—in other words, the ones that have the biggest negative effect on the essay as a whole. Once you’ve chosen those examples, organize your body paragraphs around them, as Magoosh’s expert does with the GRE Argument here.

As you write, remember that your examples should always be points about the prompt that support your overall argument in the GRE AWA essay. ALSO remember that your argument in this task is about the construction of the essay, rather than the what they author’s saying (form, not content!). Because of that, it’s not important at all to include positive points about the argument. Unlike the Issue task, the Argument task only needs you to show flaws—not pros and cons.

A Final Word on GRE Writing Tips

While the AWA can seem overwhelming when you first encounter it, practicing with these GRE analytical writing tips can cut that frustration way, way down. Use them to work through some of the prompts on the ETS website, and you’ll see exactly what we mean. They take a little while to get used to, because these aren’t simple tasks—yet at the end of the day, they’ll help boost your score where you want it to be. Good luck as you start putting these GRE essay tips to use!

P.S. Ready to improve your GRE score? Get started today.

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