Kaplan GRE & GMAT Exams Writing Workbook, 3rd Edition (2008)

Chapter 2. Essay Scoring

Approximately 10–15 days after your test date, you will receive your score on the Analytical Writing section. On both the GRE and the GMAT, you will receive a cumulative score from 0 to 6 for your two essays. Each essay is scored by at least two different graders. If the two scores for any essay are identical, the essay receives that score. If the scores differ by a single point, they are averaged. If the graders disagree by more than one point, a third grader is brought in to adjudicate the score. Your score on the Analytical Writing section will be the average of your two essay scores, rounded off (if necessary) to the nearest half-point.

Here’s how a typical Analytical Writing score might be derived:


It should be notes that while scores range from 0–6, about 90 percent of all scores on both the GREand the GMAT fall between 2 and 5. The “mean” or average score for both tests is also about thesame, around 4.2.

ETS sends this composite score to the institutions you designate; the individual essay scores and the actual essays are not made available to admissions personnel.

The use made of your test scores by colleges and universities is determined by those institutions. ETS provides guidelines for interpretation of scores and suggestions as to how the scores should be used, but the actual policies are set by the schools themselves.

Essay Scoring at a Glance

Both the GRE and GMAT essays are scored on a six-point scale that can be summarized as follows:
6: Outstanding
5: Strong
4: Adequate
5: Limited
2: Seriously flawed
1: Fundamentally deficient 0: Off topic, or not consisting of words in English NS: No Score

The Analytical Writing sections of the GRE and GMAT share many similarities, but also have some interesting differences with regards to the scoring. Let’s first begin by reviewing the similarities, starting with the scoring “rubric,” which is almost identical for the two tests.


GRE and GMAT essays are scored “holistically.” A holistic score emphasizes the interrelation of different thinking and writing qualities within an essay—such as content, organization, and use of language—and tries to denote the unified effect. Four main areas are considered in coming up with a score. The essays should:

1. Follow directions. Essentially, this means—is the essay relevant to the issue or argument? For the issue essay, does the author (a) identify and take a position on the issue and (b) support the position with examples or evidence? For the argument essay, does the author (a) understand the argument’s conclusion, evidence, and assumptions and (b) discuss why the argument is or is not convincing? This seemingly simple point is actually critical to success. No essay, no matter how well written, can receive a high score if it does meet the basic requirement of following directions and addressing the topic at hand.

2. Reason soundly. Does the essay draw a clear and insightful conclusion? Is the evidence persuasive, and does it logically and naturally lead to the conclusion? Does the essay clearly demonstrate how the evidence supports the conclusions?

3. Be organized. Does the essay state and maintain a clear and consistent position? Are evidence and conclusion placed close together and clearly linked? Does the author use transitions and keywords to maintain a smooth and logical flow and highlight important points? Is the overall effect one of clarity and focus or of randomness and lack of cohesion?

4. Use language well. Does the author use appropriate and expressive vocabulary, avoiding repetition, needless jargon, and overly poetic language? Is the sentence structure strong and varied, neither too short and choppy nor too dense and complex? Does the author avoid excessive errors in grammar, usage, spelling, or idiom that could obscure the meaning of the essay?


The following table provides a brief description of a typical essay of each type at each score level.



A score of zero is reserved for “unscorable” essays—essays that completely ignore the essay topic. For this reason you shouldn’t spend your entire allotted time on an essay section typing over and over again: “I hate ETS. This essay assignment is awful.” If you do so, you will be rewarded with a score of zero. On the GRE, if no essay response is given for either of the two essay tasks, an NS (No Score) is reported for the entire section. If an essay response is provided for only one of the two writing tasks, the task for which no essay response is provided will receive a score of zero. On the GMAT, if no essay response is given for either of the essay tasks, both essays will receive a score of zero, for a final score of zero.


As noted, both the GRE and the GMAT come up with a single score between 0 and 6 for the Analytical Writing section. On the GRE, each essay will be read by two human graders. On the GMAT, each essay will be graded twice, once by a human grader and once by the E-rater—a computer program designed by ETS to reduce test administration costs. More on the E-rater in a bit—for now just know that ETS justifies its use of the E-rater based on the high agreement between the scores given by the E-rater and those given by human graders.

In holistic scoring, graders are trained to assign scores on the basis of the overall quality of an essay in response to the assigned task. As aforementioned, if the two assigned scores differ by more than one point on the scale, the discrepancy is adjudicated by a third GRE or GMAT reader. Otherwise, the two scores are averaged. The final scores on the two essays are then averaged and rounded up to the nearest half-point.


Those of you who are just planning to take the GRE move along; this section is just for GMAT test takers. It’s time to get acquainted with the E-rater. Obviously, ETS loves the E-rater, and its for-profit subsidiary, ETS Technologies, has had considerable success selling the program on a subscription basis to colleges as an automated essay-scoring program. It also offers the E-rater to people like you who are preparing for the GMAT, through its product Essay InsightSM. For $20, you can write two essays on real topics and have them scored by the E-rater. If you wish to try this product after you’ve finished with this book, it can be purchased at www.mba.com/mba/Store/.

But before you plop down your hard-earned cash for the opportunity to have two essays graded by the E-rater, let’s face some facts. A computer program cannot follow the thread of an argument. It cannot even follow the grammar of an essay very well, as anyone who’s ever used a grammar check program can tell you. In fact, these are just some of the reasons why ETS has not yet attempted to use the E-rater as an essay grader on the GRE.

So how do the E-rater’s scores manage to correlate so well with those of human graders? And what does this mean to you and the way you should approach writing your essays?

First of all, you may find it insulting to have your essays graded by a computer program, but you shouldn’t sweat it too much. The E-rater works like a search engine, much like Google™ and other Internet search engines. The E-rater employs a huge database that stores hundreds of scored sample responses for each ETS-approved essay topic. The computer program scans your essay and then determines how well it stacks up against the scored essays on the same topic in its database. If your essay is similar to the 6.0 essays in its database, then your essay will receive 6.0 points. If it’s similar to 5.0 essays, then it will receive receives 5.0 points, and so on. In other words, if you write an essay that is very similar to a high-scoring essay in the E-rater’s database, then you will get a high score.

Fooling the E-rater is easy if you are able to identify what it favors and what it does not. In fact, ETS has conducted its own study to find out how easy it is to trick the E-rater and found that it’s quite easy—and the good news for you is that it’s much easier to fool the E-rater into awarding you a higher score than the essay merits than the other way around. We are not suggesting that you write your essays with the specific goal of fooling the E-rater. But it is helpful to understand the process by which the E-rater mimics a human grader. Let’s review the four areas used to come up with a score, to see how the E-rater analyzes these areas.

1. Follow directions. For the E-rater, this amounts to trying to assess whether the essay responds to the assigned topic. It does this by analyzing the essay’s use of prompt-specific vocabulary. In order to be rewarded for following the directions well, you should try to use not only the words in the essay prompt, but also synonyms and related terms that would likely appear on a high-scoring essay. For instance, let’s say an Issue essay asks for you to take a stand on the following: “Business leaders have a responsibility to give back to the communities in which they operate.” You should try to think of synonyms and related phrases to use in the essay, e.g., business leader: entrepreneur, chief executive officer or CEO, corporation, captain of industry, capitalist; responsibility: obligation, duty, accountability; community: locality, neighborhood; related phrases: citizen, shareholder, philanthropy, etc.

2. Reason soundly. Of course the E-rater is completely incapable of following the reasoning of an essay. What it can do is search the essay for the use of transitional words that tend to be used in well-reasoned essays. In particular, the E-rater rewards the use of:

Bullet Evidence and conclusion words: because, since, for example, therefore, thus, so, etc.

Bullet Contrast words: however, but, although, conversely, nonetheless, still, yet, whereas, etc.

Bullet Continuation words: likewise, similarly, in addition, also, moreover, furthermore, etc.

3. Be organized. The E-rater rewards the use of an easy-to-follow structure, most clearly indicated by the use of paragraphs—with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion—that make appropriate use of the continuation words noted above.

4. Use language well. The E-rater rewards the correct use of grammar and the proper spelling of words, as well as syntactical variety (this just means varying the word choice, as we already recommended regarding the essay prompt words), and sentence structure variety. To vary your sentence structure you should try to mix up long sentences with short ones. Finally, it’s important to give yourself enough time to proofread your essay for grammar and spelling errors.

Fortunately, the following chapters will help you to do all of the above as a matter of habit. So no matter how you feel about the E-rater as a grading tool, you can learn how to get a great score from it.


Of course, that’s what this book is all about. Right now we just want to offer a few pointers to set you off in the right direction, now that you understand how your essays are scored. Learning to do the following is essential to getting a high score on the essays.

Understand Your Task

In particular, we want to make sure you recognize the difference between an Issue essay and an Argument essay. In their rush to start writing their essays, some test takers have been known to mistake one assignment for the other, with disastrous consequences for their final score. This tends to happen more commonly on the GMAT, where either type of essay may appear first. For the Issue essay, your job is to take a stand on the stated topic and support it with relevant examples or reasons. Here’s an example of an Issue essay prompt.

The vote should be extended to minors between the ages of 14 and 18. This would encourage America’s youth to take a greater interest in politics and government and allow them to have some say in policies that have a direct impact on their lives.

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the opinion expressed above. Support your views with reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.

Note that you must take a stand on the issue. While it’s good to acknowledge both sides of the issue, particularly in the introductory paragraph, you must declare your position. To achieve a high score you must attempt to persuade the reader that, despite the counter-arguments, your position is the correct one.

Thus, your body paragraphs should explain your reasons for choosing the position you’ve taken, as well as counter the arguments that someone with the opposite position would likely make. Make absolutely sure that your side will “win out” in your introduction and conclusion.

For the Argument essay, your job is to analyze the given argument, regardless of whether or not you agree with its conclusion. This involves breaking down the argument, identifying the author’s conclusion, evidence, and any underlying (but unstated) assumptions. You must then present a case for why the author’s argument is or (more often) is not convincing. Often, this will hinge on the soundness of the underlying assumptions. In addition, you should indicate how the argument might be made more convincing. Here’s an example of an Argument essay prompt.

The following appeared in a memo from the president of a wine distributor with customers throughout the United States.

“For many years our company has distributed a wide variety of both domestic and imported wines. Last year, however, four out of five of our best-selling wines were produced in California. Furthermore, a recent survey by WineConnoisseur magazine indicates an increasing preference for domestic wines among its subscribers. Since our company can reduce expenses by limiting the number of wines we distribute, the best way to improve our profits is to discontinue selling many of our imported wines and concentrate primarily on domestic wines.”

Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In the discussion be sureto analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. Forexample, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underliethe thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples mightweaken the argument’s conclusion. You may also address possible changesin the argument that would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything,would help you better evaluate its conclusion.

Note: We have placed a large portion of the above directions in bold. This is because these directions appear only in GMAT essay prompts. It would be helpful if these directions were also included in the GRE essay prompt, because the task is exactly the same even if it’s less clearly spelled out. Note that you are asked to analyze the line of reasoning—not to agree or disagree with the final conclusion. This involves examining the evidence and underlying assumptions. You should also realize that no matter what argument you are given, it will contain some questionable underlying assumptions or shaky evidence. You may ultimately show that the argument could be made persuasive, if certain assumptions are shown to be valid or certain pieces of evidence are shown to truly support the conclusion, but the given argument on the GRE or GMAT Analytical Writing section will never be completely sound as written. So, your job is to root out the holes in the argument. For instance, whenever a survey is used in an argument, such the preceding Wine Connoisseur magazine survey, you should always ask yourself whether the survey is truly representative and useful to the argument or whether it could contain some sort of bias that undermines its credibility.

GMAT test takers may be at an advantage when it comes to taking apart an argument, since studying for the Critical Reasoning portion of the Verbal section of the GMAT should help to prepare students for the task of breaking apart an argument. If you want to learn more about the concepts and terminology related to analyzing an argument, refer to chapter four.

Use Your Time Wisely

Even test takers who are seasoned essay writers are likely to feel stress when trying to produce completed essays under the extreme time pressure of the GRE or GMAT Analytical Writing section. Whether you are given 45 minutes or 30 minutes for your writing assignment, it takes discipline and a good strategy to produce an essay that:

Bullet effectively and insightfully addresses the writing task

Bullet is well organized and fully developed, using appropriate example to support ideas

Bullet displays an effective use of language, demonstrating variety in sentence structure and range of vocabulary

Fortunately, this book can teach you effective strategies that will allow you to produce an effective essay in the allotted time. With practice you will develop the discipline you will need to earn a top score. Remember: to maximize your score, you need to focus on writing what the scorers will reward—AND NOTHING ELSE. That’s what we are here to teach you.

Address Your Weaknesses

Depending upon your own particular strengths and weaknesses you may need to spend more time in certain chapters of this book than others. For instance, if you are not a native English speaker, you may need to spend more time on the “Writing Strong Sentences” chapter of this book. If your main problem is not how to write using the rules of standard written English but what to write, you may need to concentrate on the “Writing Strong Paragraphs and Essays” chapter of this book.

This book is designed to break down the elements of writing a superior essay and make them second nature to you. With study and practice, the process of writing superior essays for the GRE or GMAT should become reflexive and automatic. When that happens you can produce stronger, clearer, and more complete essays, and that is the true key to maximizing your score on test day.