Cracking the GRE Premium (2015)

Part IV How to Crack the Analytical Writing Section

14    The Geography of the Analytical Writing Section

15    The Issue Essay

16    The Argument Essay

Chapter 14 The Geography of the Analytical Writing Section

This chapter clues you in on everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Analytical Writing section of the GRE. It contains important information on how the essays are used by graduate schools, the scoring system ETS graders use to evaluate your essays, and the crucial distinctions between the issue essay and the argument essay. This chapter also looks at the basic word-processing program used by ETS.


The Analytical Writing section of the GRE requires you to write two essays—one will be an analysis of an issue and the other will be an analysis of an argument. You will have 30 minutes for each essay.

In the past, ETS has had problems with test takers relying on preplanned essays. The essay questions have been reformulated to reduce the possibility of testers preparing their essays in advance. However, while you may not be able to plan your entire essay in advance, you can still go into your test session having a good idea of what type of essay you’re going to write.

How Do Schools Use the Writing Assessment?

First, the essays are probably more important for international students and those for whom English is not a first language. If you are not a native English speaker, expect your essay score and the essays you wrote to receive more attention. (ETS also makes the essays available to schools, which may choose to read them or not.) Second, and not surprisingly, the essays will probably be weighted more heavily by programs for which writing is a frequent and necessary task. A master’s program in applied mathematics might not care so much about your 30-minute written opinion about whether or not it’s necessary for a person to read imaginative literature, but a program in creative writing probably would.

Even if your program
doesn’t care much for the
essay, a poor score might
still raise a red flag.

Ultimately, though, here’s the most honest answer to this question: It depends. Some schools will not care at all about the Analytical Writing score, while others will say that they want only applicants who scored a 5 or higher on this section. Call the schools you’re interested in and talk to people in the department. By finding out how important your target schools consider the Analytical Writing section, you’ll be able to determine the appropriate amount of effort to devote to it.

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Regardless of your target score on this section, you should at least read through these chapters to get a better sense of what ETS is looking for. You’ll have to write these essays, so no matter what, you want to do a decent job. You’ll find that writing high-scoring essays is not as hard as it may seem once you’ve been shown how to do it.

How Will the Essays Be Scored?

Your essays will be read by two graders, and each will assign a score from 1 to 6, based on how well you do the following:

·        follow the instructions of the prompt

·        consider the complexities of the issue or argument

·        effectively organize and develop your ideas

·        support your position with relevant examples

·        control the elements of written English

What you write—the
content—will be
weighted more than
how you write.

The grades you receive for each essay will be totaled and averaged. For example, if you receive a 4 and a 5 on your issue essay and a 3 and a 4 on your argument essay, your Analytical Writing score will be a 4.0; 16 total points divided by 4 scores. If the graders’ scores for your essays differ by more than one point, a third person will be brought in to read the essay. The graders use a holistic grading system; they’re trained to look at the big picture, not to focus on minor details. Your essay is not expected to be perfect, so the graders will overlook minor errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. However, pervasive or egregious errors will affect your score.

Here are ETS’s descriptions of the scoring levels:

An essay written on a topic other than the one provided will receive a score of 0.

Who Are These Readers Anyway?

We’ll put this in the form of a multiple-choice question:

Your essays will initially be read by

(A) captains of industry

(B) leading professors

(C) college TAs working part time

If you guessed (C), you’re correct. Each essay will be read by part-time employees of ETS, mostly culled from graduate school programs.

How Much Time Do They Devote to Each Essay?

The short answer is this: not much. It is unusual for a grader to spend more than two minutes grading an essay, and some essays are graded in less than a minute. The graders are reading many, many GRE essays and they aren’t going to spend time admiring that clever turn of phrase you came up with. So don’t sweat the small stuff—it probably won’t even be noticed. Focus on the big picture—that’s what the graders will be focusing on.

ETS graders spend less
than two minutes
grading your essay.

So How Do You Score High on the Analytical Writing Essays?

On the face of it, you might think it would be pretty difficult to impress these jaded readers, but it turns out that there are some very specific ways to persuade them of your superior writing skills.

Make the graders’ jobs
easy. Give them exactly
what they’re looking for.

What ETS Doesn’t Want You to Know

In a recent analysis of a group of essays written by actual test takers, and the grades that those essays received, ETS researchers noticed that the most successful essays had one thing in common. Which of the following characteristics do you think it was?

·        Good organization

·        Proper diction

·        Noteworthy ideas

·        Good vocabulary

·        Sentence variety

·        Length

What Your Essay Needs in Order to Look Like a Successful Essay

The ETS researchers discovered that the essays that received the highest grades from ETS essay graders had one single factor in common: length.

To ace the Analytical Writing section, you need to take one simple step: Write as much as you possibly can. Each essay should include at least four indented paragraphs. Your Issue essay should be 400 to 750 words in length, and your Argument essay should be 350 to 600 words.

So All I Have to Do Is Type “I Hate the GRE” Over and Over Again?

Well, no. The length issue isn’t that easy. The ETS researchers also noted that, not surprisingly, the high-scoring essays all made reasonably good points addressing the topic. So you have to actually write something that covers the essay topic. And in your quest for length, it’s more important that you add depth than breadth. What this means is that it’s better to have a few good examples that are thoroughly and deeply explored than it is to add length by tacking more and more examples and paragraphs onto your essay until it starts to feel like a superficial list of bulleted points rather than a thoughtful piece of writing.

Read the Directions Every Time

You should read the directions for each essay prompt. The instructions we provide here for each essay task are not necessarily the ones you will see on the GRE. Directions can vary in focus, so you shouldn’t memorize any particular set of instructions. Visit the ETS website at www.gre.orgfor a complete list of all the potential essay topics and direction variants. (Yes, you really get to see this information in advance of the test!) Practice responding to the different instructions, combined with a variety of issue and argument prompts. Be sure to mix it up; the prompt/directions pairings you see on the ETS website are not necessarily the duos you will see on the real test. Practicing with a variety of these essays will prepare you for whatever comes your way on test day.

Oh, Yes, You Can Plan Your Essays in Advance

In fact, there are some very specific ways to prepare for the essays that go beyond length and good typing skills. So how can you prepare ahead of time?

Creating a Template

When a builder builds a house, the first thing he does is construct a frame. The frame supports the entire house. After the frame is completed, he can nail the walls and windows to the frame. We’re going to show you how to build the frame for the perfect GRE essay. Of course, you won’t know the exact topic of the essay until you get there (just as the builder may not know what color his client is going to paint the living room), but you will have an all-purpose frame on which to construct a great essay no matter what the topic is. We call this frame the template.


Just as a builder can construct the windows of a house in his workshop weeks before he arrives to install them, so can you pre-build certain elements of your essay. We call this “preconstruction.”

In the next two chapters we’ll show you how to prepare ahead of time to write essays on two topics that you won’t see until they appear on your screen.


It is worth noting at this time that the essay section gives you two very distinct writing tasks, and that a failure to appropriately address the question tasks will severely reduce your score.

The Issue Essay

The Issue essay asks for your opinion; you’re expected to present your viewpoint on a particular topic and support that viewpoint with various examples. The following is one example of the instructions for the Issue essay:

You will be given a brief quotation that states or implies an issue of general interest and specific instructions on how to respond to that issue. You will have 30 minutes to plan and compose a response in which you develop a position on the issue according to the specific instructions. A response to any other issue will receive a score of zero.

Make sure that you respond to the specific instructions and support your position on the issue with reasons and examples drawn from such areas as your reading, experience, observations, and/or academic studies.

Note how important it is to specifically address the assignment provided as part of the Issue prompt; not following ETS’s directions will make your grader unhappy and result in a poor score on the essay.

The Argument Essay

The Argument essay requires a different type of response. Instead of presenting your own perspective, your job is to critique someone else’s argument. You’re supposed to address the logical flaws of the argument, not provide your personal opinion on the subject. The following is one example of the directions for the Argument essay:

You will be given a short passage that presents an argument, or an argument to be completed, and specific instructions on how to respond to that passage. You will have 30 minutes to plan and compose a response in which you analyze the passage according to the specific instructions. A response to any other argument will receive a score of zero.

Note that you are NOT being asked to present your own views on the subject. Make sure that you respond to the specific instructions and support your analysis with relevant reasons and/or examples.

In the Argument essay, the emphasis is on writing a logical analysis of the argument, not an opinion piece. It is absolutely essential that you don’t confuse the two essay tasks on the GRE.

ETS graders don’t expect a
perfect essay; occasional
spelling, punctuation,
and grammar errors won’t
kill your score.


ETS has created a very simple program that allows students to compose their essays on the screen. Compared to any of the commercial word-processing programs, this one is extremely limited, but it does allow the basic functions: You can move the cursor with the arrow keys, and you can delete, copy, and paste. You don’t have to use any of these functions. With just the backspace key and the mouse to change your point of insertion, you will be able to use the computer like a regular word-processing program.

Take a look at the image below to see what your screen will look like during the Analytical Writing section of the test:

The question will always appear at the top left of your screen. Beside it, in a box, will be your writing area (in the writing area above, you can see a partially completed sentence). When you click inside the box with your mouse, a winking cursor will appear, indicating that you can begin typing.

As we said above, the program supports the use of many of the normal computer keys:

·        The “Backspace” key removes text to the left of the cursor.

·        The “Delete” key removes text to the right of the cursor.

·        The “Arrow” keys move the cursor up, down, left, or right.

·        The “Home” key moves the cursor to the beginning of a line.

·        The “End” key moves the cursor to the end of a line.

·        The “Enter” key moves the cursor to the beginning of the next line.

·        “Page up” moves the cursor up one page.

·        “Page down” moves the cursor down one page.

You can also use the buttons above the writing area to copy and paste words, sentences, or paragraphs. To do this, you first have to highlight the desired text by clicking on the starting point with your mouse and holding down the mouse button while you drag it to the ending point. Then click on the “Cut” button. This deletes the text you’ve selected from the screen, but also stores it in the computer’s memory. Next, just move the cursor to wherever you would like the selected text to reappear, and click on the “Paste” button. The selected text will appear in that spot.

If you make a mistake, simply click on the “Undo” button, which will undo whatever operation you have just done. You can undo a cut, a paste, or even the last set of words you’ve typed in. Unfortunately, unlike many word-processing programs, ETS’s program does not have a “Redo” button, so be careful what you decide to undo.

Obviously, the small box on the screen is not big enough to contain your entire essay. However, by hitting the “Page up” and “Page down” keys on your keyboard, or by using the arrows on your keyboard, you will be able to go forward and backward to reread what you have written and make corrections.

Does Spelling Count?

Officially, no. The word-processing program doesn’t have a spell checker, and ETS essay readers are supposed to ignore minor errors of spelling and grammar, but the readers wouldn’t be human if they weren’t influenced by an essay that had lots of spelling mistakes and improper grammar—it gives the impression that you just didn’t care enough to proofread.

Because pervasive spelling errors will detract from your score, pick an easier word if you’re really uncertain of how to spell a word.


·        Different programs value the essay section in different ways. Check with your program to see how important the essays are.

·        Understand the criteria ETS uses for judging your essay. Organization, examples, and language use are important. Perfect grammar and spelling less so.

·        On the GRE, longer essays tend to receive better scores, so strive to write as much as you can for each essay.

·        Make sure you understand the differences in the assignments for the Issue essay and the Argument essay.

·        Issue essays ask for your opinion on a topic while Argument essays expect you to critique the logic of an argument. The ways in which you’re asked to do each of these tasks will vary, so make sure you read each set of directions carefully.

·        The word processor ETS provides has only the most basic functions. You can delete, copy, and paste text, but not much more.