The GRE Analytical Writing essay topics, including the ones 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 cities cracking down on garbage collection; debates on term limits for leaders; pontification about job training; philosophical musings about work and motivation; and speculation that scandals can be useful to society. Despite such a colorful array, there are several “buckets”, or categories of GRE essay topics, into which the Issue Essays fall.
Below, you can see that I’ve come up with seven main GRE essay topic categories and given example prompts, based on the range of prompts I’ve seen in the actual GRE AWA Issue Topic Pool from the ETS website. Remember, the prompts you see below are original Magoosh examples, not the real thing. The Issue Essay you will see test day will be drawn from that ETS question bank.
It’s very important to remember that one of the Issue prompts found on the GRE site will come up test day. That’s right: you can get a head start on actual possible test questions by doing practice essays from the prompts on the official site.
Though, I should mention that there are nearly 200 Issue prompts ranging across all GRE essay topics 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 Issue prompt you get test day being one that you already wrote a mock essay for. In either case, the unofficial mocks I’m about to show you are also in line with the official prompts, and are good practice as you prep for the exam.
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.
“Students should fund their education with part-time work that they do while they study.”
“Placing a limit on classroom size is the best way to ensure that every student gets sufficient help and resources from the instructor.”
“School policies should be based as much on what employers want as well as what students and teachers want.”
“People can benefit more from their education if they return to school after some time spent in the work force.”
“A university’s top priority should be to educate people in the city and immediate area surrounding the school; non-local students should be a secondary priority.”
“Students should not use loans to pay for their tuition or their living expenses at any point during their studies.”
“Claim: Universities should place a limit on how many classes a student can enroll in during a given academic term.
Reason: Students, especially those who are in their early years of university schooling, frequently overestimate the amount of coursework they can commit to.”
“Foreign language courses should be required for graduation at all universities, regardless of a student’s chosen field of study.”
You’ll notice these prompts are all very similar. For instance, there are two prompts–the ones beginning with “Students should”–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 (“Placing a limit… from the instructor” is a good one because it is probably the least related to the others).
2. Technology and Society
“Technology and the human activity that goes with it inevitably leads to greater pollution and environmental damage.”
“Investments in life-saving technology are more valuable than investments in technology related to entertainment or luxury.”
“Modernization should be the main goal of the leaders of any developing country.”
“To prepare students for the modern world, all university courses should include at least a partial online learning component.” (This one’s a hybrid with the education “bucket”–cool!)
“It could be argued that the most important technological breakthroughs have happened by chance and through surprise discoveries. However, others argue that deliberate, well-planned research with specific goals is the only way to ensure technological advancement.”
“It is highly unlikely that there will ever be manned space travel beyond the earth’s moon.”
(I know this is a pretty random bucket – but it’s what ETS decrees)
“The quality of life in a city cannot be very good unless the city itself is well-planned.”
“Claim: There should be laws against farming crops and livestock in the central districts of large cities.
Reason: The pollution typically found in highly urban areas damages food crops and farm animals, causing them to produce contaminated or substandard food.”
“Cities offer safer, more economically secure living in comparison to less developed areas outside of cities.”
“A private company should not have the right to do business in a city if the majority of the city’s residents object to the private company’s business operations.”
“In order to minimize traffic congestion, cities must regulate parking, placing limits on where motorists can park, and how long a vehicle may remain parked in one place.”
“Color photography has eliminated the need for realism in artistic painting, in the opinion of a number of art scholars and artists. At the same time, many members of the art community still feel that realistic artwork is still valuable and worthwhile.”
“Claim: Art museums should charge little or no money for admission, and should be as open to the public as possible.
Reason: Artists create their work because they want to show it to an other people, and art museums are the best venue to give artists an audience.”
“Governments should hire accomplished filmmakers to create films that deliver important public messages.”
“Popular art forms such as advertising images and storybook illustrations will never have as much artistic merit as fine arts such as gallery paintings and sculptures.”
5. Government and Power
“Leaders who are in significant positions of power should be democratically elected, not appointed.”
“Claim: A person in authority should always encourage those under him or her to share their thoughts and ideas.
Reason: A leader’s main goal should be to promote innovation and change.”
“There is a school of thought that says that the most experienced workers should be promoted to management. However, some businesses prefer to select manages based on their perceived leadership skills, regardless of how much experience they have.”
“Many nations have leaders who prioritize economic development and stability over environmental concerns. Such leaders are often at odds with other national leaders who feel that the long term health of the environment should guide economic decisions.”
“Businesses should submit to close regulation and monitoring by government authority.”
“There is a common perception that good personal conduct is the mark of a good leader. However, there is also a conflicting poplar belief that as long as a leader does their job effectively and breaks no laws, their personal morality is unimportant.”
6. Intellectual Endeavors
“A brilliant new idea seldom comes from just one person; instead ground-breaking new ideas develop when people with different perspectives can meet and interact.”
“Scientific fields of study require more critical thinking and research than other fields of study.”
(For a lack of a better name – though I guess “Deep Thoughts by Magoosh GRE” would work.)
“Opportunities do not come to people by luck. Instead, the most successful people are the ones that are constantly seeking out opportunities.”
“It’s not possible for someone to effectively care for others unless they are taking good care of themselves.”
“Self-criticism is more usually more valuable and accurate than criticism that comes from others.”
“The most fulfilling friendships are friendships between people who share a common goal or space, such as co-workers, classmates, or neighbors.”
“Claim: Happiness comes through seeking out new and different experiences.
Reason: People have a natural desire to learn and explore.”
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).
So how do you find official ETS essays in the categories you need to work on? At a glance this does not seem easy. After all, ETS’s GRE AWA Issue Topic Pool does not organize its essays into categories. This is where the good old fashioned “control-f” function comes in handy. Pull up the Topic Pool in your browser. Hit the control button and the f button at the same time on a PC, or hit command+f on a Mac. From there, you will be given the option to search for keywords that are likely to lead to essays on certain topics. For instance, “tech” or “modern” may get you essays int he technology category, “education,” “school,” or “student” may get you education-related prompts, and so on.
Before you choose your GRE essay topic and start scribbling (or typing) away, 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.
Final Tips for Tackling GRE Essay Topics and 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 and a variety of GRE essay topics, you are not going to run out of practice material!