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Page 1 - Analytical Writing Study Guide for the GRE®

General Information

There are two components of the Analytical Writing section of the GRE: Analyze an Issue and Analyze an Argument. The two tasks are very similar and you can use some of the same strategies in your writing: Identify the position taken and think about how the position could be supported. If you are doing the Issue task, you will design the argument. In the Argument task, the argument is already given and you will decide if it is valid and well supported.

Analyze an Issue

This task requires you to analyze a statement and a reason for the statement about a common issue. Then you need to take a position on the statement and support your reasoning.

Sample Prompt:

“All schools in a country should provide the same curriculum to all students, from grades Kindergarten through twelve, to best prepare all students for the future.”

“Write a response in which you tell whether you agree or disagree with this statement. Be sure to include specific reasons and situational examples to support your position.”

Analyze an Argument

This task requires you to analyze an argument given for, or against, a common issue. You also need to evaluate the writer’s reasons, in terms of validity and how well he/she has supported the position taken.

Sample Prompt

“The following was part of a testimonial given by one citizen regarding the two leading grocery stores in a town:”

“If given a choice, I would always shop at Good Groceries for all of my grocery needs. Their store is always clean and the people are friendly. Plus, there is never a charge for bags. I shopped at the other grocery store in town one time and was not pleased. I also did not notice the savings at the other store that I found at Good Groceries.”

“Write a response in which you evaluate the statements made by this customer. Include any additional evidence needed to make the given argument more convincing and identify anything that you think is faulty reasoning.”

Your Task

Writing an analysis requires careful study of given information plus an insightful thought process. Even doing these things well is not enough. You must be able to put together a concise written piece that specifically addresses the prompt. Here are some things to consider when taking this section of the GRE.

About the Prompts

  • Prompts for this test are designed to be fair to all test-takers, regardless of their field of expertise.

  • The type of thinking required is similar to that required of graduate school students.

  • Writing a good, solid response may be done in a variety of formats and contain a wide range of content. It’s the effect of your writing that will make the difference.

  • You can access all of the actual prompts used for the issues task here.

  • The actual prompts used for the argument analysis can be found here.

(These prompts are published by the GRE Program to help you prepare for the test.)

Scoring

How will your essays be scored? For what are the scorers looking? Here are some things to consider as you practice writing and on the day of the test.

The Scorers

The paper version of this test is usually only available where the computer version is not given. It is scored by two trained human scorers, using a scale ranging from 0 to 6, in half-point increments. These scores are then averaged if they are not more than 1 full point apart. If the discrepancy in scores is more than one point, a third human scorer is assigned to settle the discrepancy.

Most tests are computer-administered and will be scored first by at least one trained human scorer, then reviewed by a computerized scoring program. If there is a wide difference in these two scores, a second human scorer is called in and the two human scores are averaged.

The scorers for both versions of the test have been highly trained to utilize a scoring rubric that guides them to look for specific things in your essays. Scoring is more objective than you might think as these items are either present or not present in an essay. The following guidelines will give you an idea of the types of things that are evaluated. You can use these guidelines to evaluate any practice writing you do before the test.

The Guidelines

Generally, the scorers are looking for how well you think analytically and how well you express that in writing. Grammar and mechanics are considered, but isolated, minor errors in these areas will not affect your score.

Scoring Guide for Writing on an Issue

Presentation of Position

This test will ask you to answer a question, such as whether or not you agree with a given statement. To answer it, you will have to present a position clearly and intelligently. For example, a good position would involve more than just agreeing or disagreeing with the proposition, but stating to what extent you agree or disagree, and why. The position should be stated clearly and briefly within the first two paragraphs, but also reinforced throughout the paper.

Position Development

After you have made clear what your argument is, you will need to clarify and add nuance to that position throughout the paper. This can involve differentiating your position from other similar ones (for instance, people who support the same policy as you but for different reasons), laying out what your main reasons are, stating possible counterarguments to your position and why you feel they are not persuasive, and outlining circumstances where your views might not apply.

Logical Organization

There is no one right way to organize your essay. Focus on arranging your ideas in a way that makes sense and will help a reader understand what you are saying. For instance, you might structure your paper as a series of examples, or start with reasons for supporting a policy and then move on to considering and rejecting possible counterarguments. One tip for clear organization is to create a rough draft, then look over it for ideas that are similar and should be placed together.

Appropriate Vocabulary and Sentence Variety

Since you are aiming for graduate-level writing, your essay should show the ability to use appropriately sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure. However, this does not mean consistently using the most difficult or unusual words. Use words whose meaning you know well and which you are confident that you can use correctly. Long, complex sentences are also not always the best choice. Good writing has a mix of short and long sentences that are structured in different ways.

Written English Conventions

GRE test takers are expected to be familiar with the conventions of standard written English, including grammar, usage, punctuation, and other mechanical issues. This means using a formal writing style throughout, and thoroughly proofreading your work to ensure there are few errors. Conventions of formal writing can sometimes be broken for effect (for instance, using a sentence fragment for emphasis), but this is only effective if the paper is largely error-free and the broken rule contributes to your meaning.

Scoring Guide for Writing about an Argument

Identification and Examination of Argument Aspects

The first step in writing this type of essay is reading the argument you will evaluate, deciding on the most important aspects of the argument, and identifying what is effective or ineffective about those elements. You do not need to develop or support your own ideas on the topic the author is discussing but only evaluate their argument. For each point you make, positive or negative, you should be able to support it with evidence and logical analysis.

Organization and Development of Ideas

As with the issue paper, there is no standard way you must organize your thoughts. Base your organization on the most effective way to analyze the argument. You could start out with a brief summary of the author’s argument, or with a question that their writing raises. You might base your organization on the structure of the paper, going through point by point, or arrange your paper around one large-scale critique (for instance, presenting a thesis that the author’s argument is self-contradictory, and then using body paragraphs to explain why).

Support Provided

Argument analysis papers are not based solely on your opinion of the author’s argument or of the topic under discussion, but on how well the author succeeds in constructing a logical and persuasive argument. For instance, if you are claiming that the author’s argument is self-contradictory, use two or more quotes from the text that contradict each other to prove this point. (Paraphrasing can also be an effective form of evidence.) And support your claims by explaining them in detail—rather than just stating that a given quote demonstrates poor logic, show exactly how.

Appropriate Vocabulary and Sentence Variety

You do not need any specialized vocabulary to explain what is persuasive or illogical about an argument. As with any piece of graduate writing, you will need to demonstrate your ability to use college-level vocabulary effectively and use a variety of sentence structures that are suited to your ideas.

Written English Conventions

Aim to create an essay that is largely free of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. This means budgeting enough time to read over your work carefully after writing. When analyzing an argument, you will need to be especially aware of conventions for quoting and paraphrasing text and embedding quotations from another author in a sentence of your own.

Use of Allotted Time

You will only have 30 minutes to write each essay, so you will need to plan well to use your time judiciously and produce the best result within the time limits. Here is a suggested time management plan:

Planning (5 minutes or less)

The planning phase of your essays will include reading over the prompt or material. For argument analysis, you may want to make brief notes on the argument as you read. You will then need to decide what position you are taking and what your main pieces of evidence will be. Since you will not have much time to write extra material that will ultimately be discarded, make sure you have a plan for the essay that will ensure a complete and fully supported argument. You may want to create a brief outline or notes to refer to while writing.

Writing (at least 20 minutes)

You will need to quickly write all the material you will use in your finished essay. Referring to your plan, write out your argument in detail, giving both topic sentences and proof or examples for all your claims. Keep referring back to your plan and make sure you are leaving enough time to address all the points you intend to. One tip is to save the introduction for last so you can be sure it will effectively introduce the material to come.

Reviewing (5 minutes or less)

Reviewing is essential to ensure that careless errors do not lower your score. You will not have time for extensive rewriting. Instead, read over what you have written from the perspective of an outside reader. Make sure you have effective transitions between ideas so that readers can follow your logic and that each idea is introduced with a clear topic sentence. Then read over one final time slowly, looking for errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Other Tips and Tricks

Practice Writing with a Time Limit

Writing with a time limit is a skill, but one you can quickly improve with practice. Doing 30-minute practice essays will give you a sense of how quickly you need to work and how much time you will be able to devote to each aspect of the writing process. Your goal should be to finish in time, but also use all the time allotted; if you rush and do not generate enough material during the writing stage, for example, it could harm your score.

Practice Reviewing Your Own Writing

The GRE writing section tests your ability to quickly critique what you have written in terms of both substance and how it is expressed. Each time you practice GRE writing, make sure to read over what you have written, looking for logical gaps, inconsistencies, possible counter-arguments, or questions the readers would want to be answered. Since it is easy to miss typos in your own writing, proofreading your work is also a skill that improves with practice.

Read and Write on Varying Topics

The GRE will likely ask you to write on subjects on which you are not an expert. To hone your skill at writing on a previously unfamiliar topic, write practice essays with prompts chosen at random rather than picking the prompts you like the most. Reading formal writing on a variety of topics is also crucial to improving your vocabulary and general knowledge, and familiarizing you with the conventions of academic writing.

Get Others to Evaluate

This test will require you to quickly revise your own work. You can improve your ability to do this during the preparation phase by periodically getting feedback from others. The ideal person to help you evaluate your writing is someone skilled and experienced with academic writing, and who is familiar with the guidelines for GRE essays. Ask your reader to identify possible gaps in your reasoning and places they got confused, as well as any issues with mechanics and style that you need to work on.

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