The GRE’s Analytical Writing section can be pretty intimidating. It’s the very first thing you’ll face when you sit down to take the exam, and you have to write two essays in one hour. No wonder a lot of students find it the most stressful part of the GRE!
But fear not: to help make the Analytical Writing section more approachable, I’ll teach you 15 great GRE essay tips to aid both the newbie and the experienced test taker.
feature image credit: Essays!!/used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Resized from original.
10 Awesome Overall GRE Writing Tips
We’ll start out with our best general GRE Analytical Writing tips to help you prepare for both essays.
#1: Use POWERPREP Online to Type Your Essays
If you’re taking the computer-based GRE, practice the essay using POWERPREP Online. PowerPrep Tests 1 and 2 have built-in essay answering capabilities, as does the Preview Tool; after writing on the prompts in the program, you can continue to use those capabilities to write additional essays. Read more about how to get the most out of PowerPrep with this article.
If for some reason you can’t get PowerPrep to work, it’s okay to practice the essay with another word processor (like Word, OpenOffice, or GoogleDocs). However, to make your experience more realistic, make sure to avoid using any of the following when writing your essay: shortcuts (including ones for cut, paste, select all, and undo), spellcheck and grammar check, and the redo and copy functions.
You may be surprised to find how much lacking these extras affects the speed of your essay writing. For example, while there is an “undo” feature in the GRE word processor, you can’t access it by CTL+Z or CMD+Z, a shortcut that’s drilled into muscle memory for most people familiar with word processors; instead, you must click the “Undo” button.
#2: Keep Within Strict Time Limits
Time pressure is part of what makes the GRE essays difficult. If you’re not taking the test under realistic conditions, including with time limits, then you’re not practicing in a way that’s going to help you on test day.
If you’re really struggling with the timed part of the GRE essays, you could try writing as much as you can in 30 minutes, marking where you are when the timer runs out, continuing to write until you’re finished, and then marking how long that took. This technique is not as useful for GRE Writing practice as it might be for Verbal or Quantitative practice because there is no set amount you have to write or set points you have to cover. However, marking when you hit the time limit and continuing to write until you’re finished with the essay could be helpful to help you readjust your expectations for what you can accomplish on the essay in 30 minutes vs. what you might think an ideal essay should look like, given enough time.
In general, though, do stick to the 30-minute time limit for reading the task and writing your answer for each practice essay.
#3: Grade Your Essays With the Official Rubrics
Be ruthless in identifying your essay weaknesses by comparing your GRE essays to the standards set forth in the rubrics for the Issues and Arguments essays and grading your practice essays accordingly. Don’t give yourself the benefit of the doubt, because the GRE essay grader and computer program grader won’t.
Sample GRE essays at each score point are helpful in giving you concrete examples of the points made in the rubric for each score level (as we’ll discuss in the next GRE essay tip). If you’re still concerned you can’t be objective enough about your own writing, find a GRE essay buddy to help you grade your work according to the rubrics.
Learn more about this topic with our guide to how the GRE essay is scored.
#4: Write Practice Essays With Pre-Existing Samples You Can Compare
When choosing essay prompts to practice on, you should start out by choosing topics that ETS has sample essays on, so you can compare your responses to the anchor ones that have already been scored by ETS.
Understanding the GRE writing rubric is important for doing well on the test, since that’s what the real GRE essay graders will be using to score your responses, but it can sometimes be difficult to take the abstract ideals of a rubric and see how your own writing measures up. It’s easier to see how you’ve done when you compare your writing to how others have written on the same topic.
Currently, the ETS website has one Issues task and one Argument task with sample scored essay responses free and publicly available. There are two additional instances each for the Issues and Argument tasks in the answer keys of Chapters 8 and 9 of The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test (2nd edition). To get access to these four prompts with sample essays, you can either purchase the guide or take it out of your local library, if they have it.
#5: Only Use Official Prompts
There are 328 official GRE writing prompts available (152 Issue and 176 Argument), so there’s very little point in practicing for the essay with non-official prompts.
The only reason to use non-official GRE essay prompts is if they’re the six bonus prompts on ScoreItNow! which will get your essay scored by the e-scorer software that the real GRE uses (more on that below). Otherwise, writing practice essays on non-official prompts is just not worth it.
#6: Do Mock Analyses of Official Prompts
As mentioned in the previous tip, there are so many GRE essay prompts that you won’t run out of topics to practice with (unless you’re planning on spending 164 hours doing practice Analytical Writing essays). Because of this, you can supplement your GRE Writing practice by practicing outlining essays without having to write out a full essay.
For practice Issue essay outlines, you should come up with at least three examples and a few bullet points to explain how each one supports your point. Work on not just explaining the content of each example, but on showing how the example is relevant to the issue and why the example is evidence to back up your position.
For practice Argument essay outlines, come up with at least three points of analysis and a few bullet points to explain the importance of each. These points of analysis could be the assumptions made in the argument, what evidence is needed to evaluate the argument, alternative explanations, and so on.
#7: Try ScoreItNow! or POWERPREP PLUS Online
For $20, ScoreItNow! lets you get two essays on real GRE prompts (plus six essays on bonus non-official prompts) scored by the e-rater used for the real GRE. You won’t receive human grading on your essays, but you will at least receive a grade and insights into how the e-rater might score your writing on the real test. If you write fewer than 50 or more than 1,000 words you’ll get an “advisory” notice and won’t get a grade on ScoreItNow! (although if the reason you got an advisory notice is because your essay was too long, you can get a refund).
ScoreItNow! is pretty pricey ($10 per real GRE essay scored) so it’s not a good choice for everyone, but if you are concerned about how your writing will fare on the GRE, particularly with a computer grader, it’s good to know this is an option.
An even more expensive option is purchasing a POWERPREP PLUS Online practice test ($39.95 per test per purchase; you may only take the test once per purchase, and it expires after 90 days). With each of the two adaptive practice tests, you’ll be able to submit one Issue and one Argument essay to be scored by the e-rater. You should only go with this option if you plan on taking advantage of the full computer-based practice test as well as getting your essays scored; otherwise, ScoreItNow! is the more cost-effective option for official GRE essay grading.
#8: Leave Time to Review and Edit Your Work
As I mentioned in the first tip, the GRE Writing word processor has no spell check, no grammar check, and no auto-correct. Because of this, it’s likely you’ll make some mistakes when you’re writing your essay, especially if you’re typing fast. It’s okay to make a few small mistakes, but if your essay is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, that will make it difficult to understand, which will have a negative effect on your score. Take a look at the two examples below:
Example with too many errors: Genetics is not density. The argument that naure is paramount over nurture failes, to ake into acount, the eyr reel affects that environment can ahve on behavior.
Example with minor errors: Genetics is not destiny. The argument that naure is paramount over nurture fails to take into account the very reel effects that environment can have on behavior.
In the second example, there are still some errors (“naure” instead of “nature,” “reel” instead of “real”), but the meaning is much clearer. Leaving yourself time to read over and edit your work will make sure you don’t end up with an essay that looks like the first example.
In other cases, it’s necessary to edit for clarity not only for mechanical things like spelling and punctuation, but also to make sure your ideas are organized in a way that makes sense. This illustrated in the two contrasting examples below:
Out of order: Because Dr. Field visited only Tertia, while Dr. Karp visited “the group of islands that includes Tertia,” it’s possible that the children Dr. Karp interviewed were primarily from islands other than Tertia, reflecting a bias towards those other islands’ cultures. Similarly, without knowing more about the sample sizes of Dr. Field and Dr. Karp’s studies and of the populations they were studying, it’s hard to know if the two studies are at all comparable. Another important question that would need to be answered in order to make this recommendation would be whether or not the group of islands including Tertia that Dr. Karp visited had similar cultures.
Better ordered: Another important question that would need to be answered in order to make this recommendation would be whether or not the group of islands including Tertia that Dr. Karp visited had similar cultures. Because Dr. Field visited only Tertia, while Dr. Karp visited “the group of islands that includes Tertia,” it’s possible that the children Dr. Karp interviewed were primarily from islands other than Tertia, reflecting a bias towards those other islands’ cultures. Similarly, without knowing more about the sample sizes of Dr. Field and Dr. Karp’s studies and of the populations they were studying, it’s hard to know if the two studies are at all comparable.
#9: You Don’t Need a Perfect GRE Essay Score
Your GRE Writing score is a very, very small part of most grad school apps. A 4.5 or above is good enough for most programs, and there’s certainly no need to sweat over not getting a perfect 6.0. The reason for this is that even if the rest of your application is mediocre, a high Writing score won’t have a huge positive effect on your chances.
Once you manage to get a 4.5 (or higher, if programs you’re applying to have a higher score cut-off), it’s far better to spend your time on your Verbal and Quantitative scores, GRE subject test scores, or other parts of your grad school applications.
#10: Write Essays as Part of Full-Length Practice Tests
The Analytical Writing questions are the first section on the GRE, so you’ll be full of energy as well as test-taking adrenaline. However, this first hour of writing is then followed by 4-5 more sections (depending on whether or not you get an experimental section), so you can’t expend all your energy in the essays.
As part of your preparation for the GRE, you need to learn how to conserve your concentration and stamina, and the best way to do this is by taking realistic practice tests. This ties in with the advice in Tips 1, 2, and 5, which all aim to get you the most realistic testing experience possible. Only by doing a practice GRE in realistic conditions can you know what will be a problem for you on test day and address the issue.
In addition to our top ten general GRE Analytical Writing tips, we have five strategies specific to the two different types of essay questions.
GRE Essay Tips: Analyze an Issue Advice
For the Issue essay, you’re asked to explain whether you agree or disagree with something and why. The general structure of the task means that there are a couple of things you can do to write a good essay on every Issues prompt, no matter the topic. Our GRE Writing tips below will help you craft a clear and compelling response.
Issues Tip 1: Always Include a Thesis Statement
If there’s only one tip you follow about the GRE Issue essay, it should be this one: always, ALWAYS include a thesis that clearly articulates your position, whether you agree or disagree with the perspective presented.
If you don’t state a position, you are neglecting a fundamental aspect of the Issue essay task. There are six different variations on the issue task wording, but every single one of them requires you to either discuss your views explicitly or explain whether you agree or disagree with a given statement, recommendation, or claim. Failing to state your point of view in your essay makes it impossible for the graders to judge how well you’ve supported your position, and will result in a low essay score.
Issue Tip 2: Preplan Essay Opinions and Examples
You can’t memorize 152 different essays for each possible Issues prompt, but there are enough similarities between the different prompts that you can research some examples ahead of time to use as support.
Start by formulating your own opinions about common issues topics like the role of government and public officials, activities in everyday life, and teaching. Next, pick evidence you can use to support each of those opinions. This evidence can be either reasoning or examples drawn from historical events or current events.
When it comes time for the Issue essay, you’ll be able to draw from this pool of examples and reasoning to support your position; at the very least, even if the exact examples or reasoning isn’t applicable to the specific topic, you’ll be in the habit of thinking of ways examples and reasoning could support your point of view.
Find out more about how to get a perfect score on the GRE Issue essay here.
GRE Essay Tips: Analyze an Argument Advice
For all “Analyze an Argument” Analytical Writing questions, you’re asked to judge the soundness of an argument. Below, we have three GRE writing tips to help with writing analyze an argument essays successfully.
Argument Tip 1: Focus on the Task
Don’t get caught up in analyzing whether the author’s claims are true or false, or whether or not you agree with them or what your own views are – that’s not the task. Instead, analyze the logic behind the argument being made and the flaws (or lack of flaws) in the argument’s construction.
Staying focused on the task may take practice, as you might find it difficult to be objective about some of the arguments made due to personal experience or outrage at some of the logical jumps being made. To do well on the argument essay, harness that rage into analysis and explanation of how the argument is flawed.
Learn more about how to do this in our discussion of how to get a perfect 6 on the GRE Argument essay.
Argument Tip 2: Only Write About Major Points
Because you only have 30 minutes for the GRE argument essay, you don’t have to analyze every single facet of the argument. It’s more important to analyze major features that contribute to the argument’s efficacy (or lack thereof).
Imagine yourself like a lawyer in a courtroom, trying to get across the story of the case to the jurors. You can’t dwell on every single detail that proves your opponent is incorrect or your case will be a shapeless mess of information, even if all of it is true. Instead, you need to hit the main points first and then, if you have time, you can circle back to minutiae.
Argument Tip 3: Only Use Information Included in the Argument
The GRE is pretty good about using made-up names and places for the prompts, so you won’t be tempted to use outside knowledge to make assumptions. Still, you should make sure you confine your analysis to what’s written in the prompt only and don’t assume beyond what’s there.
Sticking to the information included in the prompt is an important part of completing many of the argument tasks, since the arguments are often flawed due to unstated assumptions. As a test taker, it’s your job to point out those flaws, not make more assumptions of your own.
When you’re studying, it’s important to have an end goal. Find out what’s a good GRE writing score here!
Looking for the source of all GRE Writing prompts? Look no further – we have over 60 official prompts and links to the others in this complete list of GRE essay topics.
Unsure of what a good GRE essay looks like? Then be sure to read through our analyses of perfect scoring GRE essay samples.
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Author: Laura Staffaroni
Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel and fulfill their college and grad school dreams. View all posts by Laura Staffaroni
At one time, I was inclined to think that the biggest mistake students made on the GRE was failing to back up their responses with concrete examples. Mere hypothetical scenarios were the only ballast these weak essays had. So I advised students to think of concrete examples to help support their points.
The ‘Concrete Examples’ Trap
What I’ve come to realize is that almost every test prep outfit recommends including specific examples, but that’s often where both they and the students stop, in terms of providing support. So what we have are essays with vivid examples but little to no analysis of the question.
Nowhere was this tendency clearer than when we had a little promotion offering free essay grading service. At least half of the essays had specific examples, instead of vague hypotheticals. Of these, many had examples that were extremely lacking, and felt tacked on, at best. The other half that had fleshed out examples may have seemed paragons of great writing, or at least what the GRE is apparently looking for, which is the coveted ‘6’. Yet, none of these essays received that score (based on our grading); some even scored much less.
The reason is the GRE wants to see how you analyze a complex issue. It chooses prompts that it wants you to explore, before arriving at a nuanced position, one that is not a simple “yes” or “no”, followed by three examples that, while heavy on details, are devoid of analysis.
Let’s Look at Sample Essays
Below are two essays. Each has an intro and one body paragraph in response to the following question:
“As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.”
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.
As you read, I want you to make some judgments on the essay, the style, etc. Also, pay attention to the logical structure of the paragraph and how the writer develops (or doesn’t develop) their position.
Technology is becoming a bigger part of our lives each day. People are always on their cellphones or in front of a computer. This is not good for our ability to think clearly. Therefore, humans will not be able to think for themselves as time goes on.
People spend lots of time on social media sites, like Facebook. They “talk” to friends, but they really aren’t spending quality time. Many reports indicate that people also feel sad and depressed when they are on Facebook and other social media sites. They have difficulty focusing and thinking, being social human beings. This is what is deteriorating. If it continues like this, humans ability to think will lessen.
From the mundane—virtual calendars that have each minute of each day planned out for the next three months—to the profound—diagnostic tools that allow physicians to capture cancer in its earliest stages—technology is greatly shaping the way we live, and think. With this increased reliance, some argue, surely our ability to think for ourselves becomes diminished. After all, many of us are unable to recall our home phone number, or those of any of our close friends, since everything is stored on an electronic device. While it is tempting to think that such dependence portends an apocalypse in thinking skills, much of the technology we use today actually allows us to function more efficiently, and focus our attention on thinking about those things that matter most.
Nowhere are information and the ability to use that information more critical to our lives than in medicine. Doctors inundated with patients and the record keeping this entails are more prone to making errors. Some of these errors might seem venial—thinking an allergy is a cold. Other oversights, however, can be downright lethal. Fortunately, in the last decade, technology has played a far greater role in both informing and guiding the decisions of physicians. Patient histories that were previously lost if the patients entered another provider can now be easily accessed via electronic devices. Timely and redundant procedures can now be dispensed with, as a doctor, with a quick flick of the wrist, can use an iPad to access a patient’s history—one that has sedulously been stored in a database. Doctors can now focus on those fields in which technology has yet to catch up with the human intellect—the diagnosis, the ability to read an X-ray. Indeed, they will have more time to hone such skills, to augment their thinking, as much of the minutiae of medicine can be “outsourced” to technology. That is not to say that technology has become a panacea, as it were, for the medical profession; human error can pop up in anything from transfer of records, to a doctor becoming overly reliant on the Internet to determent of her clinical skills. Yet those very oversights technology itself will be able to redress, as doctors become better at documenting any oversights and making such discoveries available, via technology, to a wider audience. In sum, as technology becomes a greater part of the medical profession, physicians will better be able to focus and refine their uniquely human thinking abilities.
In the second part of this blog post series (coming soon!), I will analyze each essay, citing its merits and its flaws.
Before you read that post:
- List two to three things you think the essay does well and two or three things you think it doesn’t do so well. (Remember what I mentioned at the beginning of the post: the goal is to not simply answer yes or no, but to take a relatively nuanced position.)
- Give the essays a score, keeping in mind that you can only judge the first two paragraphs of each essay. Feel free to share your thoughts as a comment.
Remember that the makers of the GRE provide all of their possible essay prompts on ets.org. With 200+ possible options, though, it’s impossible to practice them all. The solution? Break the main post topics into categories and practice GRE essay topics from each category.