Crash Course for the New GRE, 4th Edition (2011)

Part II. Ten Steps to Scoring Higher on the GRE

Step 10. Plan Before Writing Your Essays

The Issue Essay

Your issue essay will be read by two readers. At least one of them will be human. Yes, it’s true. One of your readers will be a computer. ETS has developed a program that assesses the sophistication of the writing on student essays.

No matter who your readers are, they will be judging your essays on three basic criteria: the quality of your thinking, the quality of your organizing, and the quality of your writing. Essays are scored on a 1 to 6 scale in half-point increments. The two readers’ scores will be averaged, and the two essay scores will be averaged. Quarter points are rounded up in the student’s favor.

An essay with well-chosen examples, clear organization, and decent use of standard written English is automatically in the top half, guaranteeing you score of at least a 4. If any one of those categories is particularly strong, then your score goes from a 4 to a 5. If two of them are particularly strong, your score goes up to a 6. On the other hand, if any one of those three elements is missing, no matter what’s going on with the other two, you are automatically in the bottom half. Since they will be judging your essays based upon these three criteria, we need a process that gives each its due.

You will be given two topics of general interest, from which you must select one. The topics will be of general enough interest that they are accessible to any test taker anywhere. ETS could never ask a question about, say, Hamlet, because this would advantage one group of test takers over another. Topics, therefore, tend to be about loss, growth, education, the role of government, individuals and society, and so on. In fact, all topics you might see are posted right now on The clock starts running the minute you see your topics, so pick one and get moving. It doesn’t matter which one you pick; one is as good as the other.

Your job is to formulate an opinion about this topic and craft as convincing an argument as you can in support of your point of view. You will need to support your argument with specific examples. You can do anything you like with the issue topic (agree, disagree, even modify) as long as you stay on topic.


One of the most common mistakes that students make is that they write their essays based upon the first two or three examples they come up with. Rarely are these the best, or even the most interesting examples. Rarely do they show any development, and often they are the same examples that everyone else comes up with. ETS is judging you on the quality of your thinking, so take time to think.

Define the Topic

Topics come in three general flavors. There are extreme statements, wishy-washy statements, and open-ended statements. Your first job is to figure out what it means to agree or disagree with the statement. To agree with an extreme statement is to take an extreme position. This has the benefit of a very clear thesis statement, but may be difficult to defend. It is often easier to disagree with an extreme statement. To agree with a wishy-washy statement is usually pretty easy. Just say, “Sure, this is often true. Here are some examples.…” To disagree with a wishy-washy statement is to take an extreme position. You must show that the statement is never true or always true. It is often easier to agree with a wishy-washy statement.


Once you have defined the topic (this should take a minute or less), it’s time to brainstorm. Your job, at this stage, is to push your thinking as far as it can go. Your job, whether you agree with the topic or not, is to come up with at least four “agree” examples, and four “disagree” examples. Quantity and variety are more important than quality at this point. On your scratch paper, draw a “T”. on the left, write, “agree,” and on the right write “disagree.”

Your scratch paper should look like this:

Argue From a Position of Strength

Topics are always general enough that they are accessible to all test takers, no matter who they are or where they’re taking the test. This means that you can apply them to just about any area of expertise or experience. The place to start is with your own areas of expertise. How is the topic true for you? Could it apply to your field of study? Could it apply to your school? Is it true for your company? Go into the exam prepared to talk about the things you know best. What was your major in school? Where do you work now? What books have you recently read or papers have you have recently written? Essays written from an area of strength are always easier to write and far more convincing. It’s always easier to talk about things you know well, and when you do, you will come across as an expert, because you are.

When your brainstorm runs dry, use this checklist:

me, friends, family, school, city, country, company, species, old/young, history, science, literature

This should push your thinking in new directions. How is the topic true for the very old or the very young? What about at the species level? Could it occur in another species? Can it be true for an individual but also a country or company?

The first three examples you come up with are likely to be very similar. They might be three major figures in history, for example. One of those examples might be good, but the second and third don’t advance your argument. Write them down as part of your brainstorm, but make sure to push your thinking into other areas. Each example you choose should have a specific job to do. They are the legs of the argument you are creating. An essay that shows development, or quality thinking, will look at the topic from multiple angles. Each example will bring something new to the argument.

Many students are worried about time at this stage. First, you are being judged on the quality of your thinking, so you cannot ignore this step. Next, a good brainstorm and a good outline will help you to be more efficient and more focused when you write. And lastly, thinking while you write is dangerous. Essays written on the fly often have a lack of focus and structure. When you are trying to think and work at the same time, you distract your brain while you’re writing leading to embarrassing mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and diction.

The other thing to keep in mind is that ETS says specifically, “You are free to accept, reject, or qualify the claim made in the topic, as long as the ideas you present are clearly relevant to the topic you select.” This means that you are free to approach the topic from any angle you want. It also means that you can focus on one particular area or application of the topic.


Most students come up with a point of view and then wrack their brains for the perfect examples to support it. They will often come up with that perfect example, but sometimes it doesn’t happen until hours after the exam. The best way to have a perfect connection between your examples and your thesis statement is to select your examples first.

Some essay instructions will be relatively straight forward, such as “Present a point of view and support it with well-chosen examples.” Other instructions may be more specific, such as “Present your position on the issue and describe a situation in which the implementation of your recommendation would not be advantageous.” Paying close attention to the instructions you have been given, craft your point of view by selecting your three strongest examples. Be sure that each of your examples performs a specific and distinct job in support of your position.

Once you have selected your best examples, write a thesis statement to accommodate your examples. In this way, you will always have the perfect examples for your thesis statement because the examples came first! On your scratch paper, jot down your thesis, and underneath it, list your three examples in the order in which you plan to use them. Next to each example, jot down just a few words to remind yourself why you’ve chosen that example. This is the job that each example will perform in your argument, or why the example is a perfect illustration of your thesis.

You now have three interesting examples showing different perspectives on the issue: a thesis statement, which is perfectly supported by your examples; a clear, well organized outline for your essay; and even the makings of a topic sentence for each of your supporting paragraphs. Not only are you now ready to write, but when it comes time to write, you can focus just on your writing. You don’t have to distract yourself from your writing by thinking about where your essay is going next. You’ve got a good clear plan. Stick to it. Your essay, at this point is 60% written. You have the majority of your intro paragraph and the beginning of the topic sentences for each of your supporting paragraphs. All you need to do is explain each of your examples in greater detail, come up with a conclusion, and you’re done. It’s time to start writing.


When it comes to writing, there are two things your essay must have and a handful of things it could have to get credit for good writing.

   Must Have:

1. Topic sentences—A topic sentence announces the subject and or point of each supporting paragraph. It could be quite literal such as “____ is an example of why [restate your thesis],” or something more nuanced. Use your topic sentence to link each example to your thesis and to indicate to the reader the point you would like each example to make. Make it easy for your reader to get your point and the direction in which you are going. The harder your reader has to work to find your point, the lower your score will go. It does not pay to be overly subtle when your reader will spend only one to two minutes on your essay.

2. Transitions—Transitions give your essay flow. They indicate changes in scale, direction, or perspective, and help the reader get from one paragraph to the next. It might be just a few words attached to your topic sentence or a whole sentence. If you are changing direction, for example, simply saying “on the other hand” or “in contrast” might be sufficient. If you are changing scale or perspective, you might say “when viewed from the perspective of a____” or “What is true for an individual is equally true for a____. For example …”

 Might Have:

1. Specifics—When you argue from a position of strength, these should be easy. Use names, dates, places, and any other relevant details. The details bring an example to life and make you sound like an expert.

2. Quotes—In many ways, a quote is like the ultimate specific. You can’t always use quotes, but if you have a good one and you can drop it comfortably into your essay, it’s quite impressive.

3. Big Words—Big words used correctly always score points. They are a way to distinguish yourself from the other writers. They are also something that can be prepared in advance. Generate a list of impressive words that you know well and look for places to use them.

4. Analogies—To say that censorship, for example, is a double-edged sword may be a bit clichéd, but it is also a terrific way to set up an argument that has two sides. Using a good metaphor is like tucking a snazzy silk handkerchief in your breast pocket. It’s not necessary, or even common, but if you can pull it off, it raises the whole ensemble to another level.

5. Length—Length counts. Statistically speaking, longer essays score better. That means beefing up your typing skills. If you have time, drop in a fourth example or add a few more details to each of your first three examples.

6. Rhetorical questions—Does anything sound more professorial in an essay than the occasional rhetorical question? It is a rhetorical flourish that is rarely used but particularly effective for this type of essay. It allows you to speak directly to your reader and represents a sophisticated way of jumping into a topic that most writers never consider.

7. Commands—Use them. They will grab the reader’s attention. It is a bold style of writing that few people use.


Analysis of an Argument

On the issue essay, your job is to craft your own argument. On the argument essay, your job is the opposite. You will be given someone else’s argument, and you must break it down and assess it. In some ways, this is not difficult. The argument you’re given will be filled with some pretty obvious flaws.

Here’s an example of the type of prompts you will see for your argument essay:

The following appeared in a memorandum from the regional manager of the Taste of Italy restaurant chain.

“After the first month of service, the new restaurant in the Flatplains Mall, which uses the Chipless brand of wine glasses, has reported a far lower rate of breakage than our other restaurants that use the Elegance brand. Since servers and a bartenders at all of our restaurants frequently report that breakage is a result of the type of wineglass, and the customers at the Flatplains Mall restaurant seem to like the Chipless style of glasses, we should switch all of our restaurants over to the Chipless brand.”


The argument text will be followed by a brief series of instructions. You may be asked for ways to strengthen an argument, find alternative explanations for an argument (weaken), discuss questions to be asked about the argument (identify premise and assumptions), discuss evidence needed to evaluate the argument, and so on. All instructions will ask you to work with the basic parts of an argument in some way. No matter what, you must be prepared to identify the parts of an argument, different types of argument, and how they all work.

Breaking down the Argument

There are three basic parts to any argument.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is the point of the argument. The author is trying to convince you of something. That something is the conclusion. Typically, the conclusion will be stated, and it is often indicated by words such as “therefore” or “in conclusion.” It is possible, however, for a conclusion to be implied.

The Premises

Once you identify the conclusion, ask yourself, “Why?” The answers to that question that are stated in the argument are the premises. They are always stated. There will be a few of them. They are the evidence cited to support the conclusion.


Assumptions are never stated. They link the conclusion to the premises, and there are hundreds of assumptions. When you brainstorm an argument, it is assumptions you are looking for. They are all of the things that have to be true in order for the conclusion to be true.

When you begin to break down an argument, you will want to use the formal language of arguments. First, identify the conclusion, then the premises, and finally the assumptions.

Types of Arguments

There are some types of arguments that you will see frequently. Once you identify the type of argument being made, spotting the assumption is easy.

Causal: A Causes B

A causal argument assumes a cause-and-effect relationship between two events. For example, employee turnover is up because salaries are down. The conclusion is that lower salaries caused employee turnover to go up. To weaken a causal argument, you need to point out other potential causes for a particular event. Perhaps employee turnover is up because of a change in management or other policies. Perhaps there is another company offering better jobs. To strengthen a causal argument, you need to show that other potential causes are unlikely.

Sampling or Statistical: A = A, B, C

In these arguments the author assumes that a particular group represents an entire population. For example, nine out of ten doctors surveyed prefer a particular brand of chewing gum. The conclusion is that 90% of all doctors prefer this brand of chewing gum. Is that true? To weaken this argument, you need to show that the people in the group surveyed don’t represent the whole population. Perhaps they surveyed doctors at the chewing gums annual shareholder meeting. Perhaps they surveyed doctors in the city where the chewing gum has its headquarters. To strengthen this argument, you need to show that the sample population is, in fact, representative of the whole.

Analogy: A = B

Analogy arguments claim that what is true for one group is also true for another. For example, football players like a particular brand of cleats, so soccer players should too. The conclusion is that soccer players should like this brand of cleats. Why? Because football players like them. This is the premise. The main assumption is that soccer players should like the same thing as football players. Is this true? To weaken analogy arguments you need to show that the two groups are not at all analogous. Perhaps football players prefer cleats that offer foot protection while soccer players want ones that mold to the foot. To strengthen these arguments, you must show that the two groups are quite similar indeed (at least in their shoe choice).

Crafting Your Argument Essay

The overall process for crafting your essay will be the same as it is for the issue essay. Invariably, you will have to follow the approach dictated by your instructions. Although, no matter what you will need to identify and address weaknesses in the argument. Throughout your essay you want to use the language of arguments. That means naming conclusions as conclusions, sampling arguments as sampling arguments, premises as premises, and assumptions as assumptions.


Begin by identifying your conclusion and then identify the major premises upon which it rests. For each premise note the type of reasoning used (sampling, casual, and so on), and the flaws associated with that type of reasoning. This is as much brainstorming as you will need.


Rank the premises by the size of their flaws. Start with the most egregious and work your way down. The outline of your essay will look something like this:

·        The author’s conclusion is z. It is faulty and more research/information is needed before the suggested action is taken.

·        The first and biggest flaw is premise y. It’s possible that it is true, but it rests upon the following assumptions. Can we really make these assumptions? What about these alternative assumptions?

·        Even if we assume y to be the case, there is premise x. Premise x draws an analogy between these two groups and assumes that they are interchangeable. Can we really make this assumption? What about these alternative assumptions?

·        Even if we assume x to be true, there is also w. W is a sampling argument, but the author not only has not proven the sample to be representative, but he/she also points out that this may not be the case! Perhaps, as noted, blah, blah, blah.

In conclusion, this argument is incomplete and rests upon too many questionable assumptions. To improve this argument, the author needs to show a, b, and c, before the building is to be torn down (or the company is to change tactics or the school is to reorganize its curriculum, insert argument conclusion here).


Feel free to have fun with this essay. Reading essays can get pretty boring, and a smart, funny critique of a faulty argument can be a welcomed break for your reader. You might say, “If I were the president of company x, I would fire my marketing director for wasting my time with such a poorly researched plan.” It is OK to have personality as long as you get the analysis of the argument done at the same time.

For a more in-depth look at the techniques for the argument essay and some sample essays, see our Cracking the New GRE book.