Before you begin your battery of Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections on the GRE, you will have to complete the GRE Analytical Writing measure. Read on to learn about this important section of the test and for useful preparation tips.
The GRE Analytical Writing measure has two tasks timed at thirty minutes each. The first task asks you to “analyze an issue” by taking a position on a brief statement. For this task, you will have to construct your own argument in support of your position. Here is a sample Analyze an Issue task:
As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.
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.
While the instructions following the prompt provide a general direction for your essay, this task is very open-ended. You can probably imagine many ways to address the issue and many points on both sides. The best way to sort through all this is to be authentic about your opinion. Don’t search for what you are supposed to write; write your actual thoughts and views about the issue, and then explain and defend them. Remember, you will not be scored on whether you have a certain “correct” opinion or analysis – you will be scored on how well you explain and defend your position. So take the position you actually believe and for which you can make the best case.
Some writers fall into the trap of remaining ambivalent about the issue. You should never simply discuss the points on both sides as an impartial observer. The instructions in this sample did tell you to “consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true,” but they began by telling you to “discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement.” You will have to come down on one side or the other, even if the extent to which you agree (or disagree) is not especially far from the “center” of neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Take a side. Remember, you won’t be penalized for doing so. You will be penalized if you fail to do so.
The second task of the GRE Analytical Writing measure asks you to “analyze an argument,” providing you with a short paragraph in which an author supports their own position on an issue. For this task, you will not construct your own argument but critique the argument in the prompt, identifying the assumptions and facts upon which it relies for strength and validity. Here is a sample Analyze an Argument task:
In surveys Mason City residents rank water sports (swimming, boating, and fishing) among their favorite recreational activities. The Mason River flowing through the city is rarely used for these pursuits, however, and the city park department devotes little of its budget to maintaining riverside recreational facilities. For years there have been complaints from residents about the quality of the river’s water and the river’s smell. In response, the state has recently announced plans to clean up Mason River. Use of the river for water sports is, therefore, sure to increase. The city government should for that reason devote more money in this year’s budget to riverside recreational facilities.
Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on the assumptions and what the implications are if the assumptions prove unwarranted.
You can probably see some of the assumptions behind this argument’s assertion that use of the river for water sports is “sure to increase” (“sure” is such a strong word!) and its recommendation that the city government “devote more money in this year’s budget to riverside recreational facilities.” This argument is plagued by “what ifs.” First of all, what if the state doesn’t follow through on its plans to “clean up” Mason River? Anyone who assumes that state governments always follow through on their plans probably doesn’t live in the real world. What if the state follows through on its plans, but the “clean up” project improves neither the river’s water quality nor its smell? What if these things improve, but the residents of Mason City don’t increase their use of the river for water sports because they prefer to swim, boat, and fish in a more rural setting? What if the residents increase their use of the river for water sports but do so without increasing their use of the riverside recreational facilities? Are the facilities in question even connected to water sports? Or are they parks or amphitheaters or walking/cycling paths? Even if these facilities are connected to water sports, what if an increase in the use of these facilities doesn’t lead to an increase in the cost of maintaining them?
A list of “what ifs” like this one is not a good essay, but it’s a good demonstration of the assumptions that the instructions asked you to identify. You would want to write an essay about how the argument simply assumes that all of these loosely-connected logical dominoes will fall, explaining the consequences in the event that one of them doesn’t fall (or, as the instructions put it, “the implications if the assumptions prove unwarranted”).
Official prompts available as practice/prep material for the GRE Analytical Writing measure are few and far between, but don’t despair – you can practice by writing essays on any issue or any argument you come across! The exact nature of the prompts and instructions is less important than the core skills of clearly expressing your well-reasoned view (Analyze an Issue) and clearly discussing the assumptions or weaknesses of an argument (Analyze an Argument). In the age of media and social media, arguments are everywhere. You can’t avoid them. If you are watching a show or reading an article about sports, politics, entertainment, food, or virtually anything else, you will encounter opinions backed up, with varying degrees of skill and success, by arguments. Superhero movies are canned experiences that have long since passed their sell-by date. Sushi is the best food. The Jacksonville Jaguars will be a top-five team in the NFL within five years. That one candidate representing that one party should not be running for office again. For one or more of these statements, you can probably say immediately whether you agree or disagree with it, and to what extent. If you clearly express the reasons why you agree or disagree, you’re analyzing an issue. If you critique the points and premises used by the speaker or writer in support of the statement, you’re analyzing an argument. You will never run out of practice material.
Each writing task will be scored on a range from 0 to 6 in half-point increments, both by a person and by a program, with the two scores being averaged. If the scores given by the person and by the program are significantly different, another person will take the place of the program, and the two human-generated scores will be averaged. (This person/program scoring approach is the same as on the GMAT). Once each of the two tasks has its averaged score, those two scores are in turn averaged into your final Analytical Writing score.
If you are uncertain about your writing skills and concerned about how your essays would be scored, the official GRE prep platform on the ETS website offers services for having your Analytical Writing essays scored by the program used in the scoring process described above. You can purchase this service a la carte or along with a full official practice test. Don’t write essays before purchasing this service, either alone or as part of a practice test; you will be provided with prompts and timed as you write essays responding to them.
Your goal should be to become so skilled in writing these essays that the act doesn’t tire you out mentally. You still have five sections of Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning (the “real” GRE) after your one-hour Analytical Writing measure! Even if the Analytical Writing score is less important than the quant and verbal scores, you should practice writing enough to still be at your sharpest for the more important sections of the test.
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Contributor: Elijah Mize (Apex GRE Instructor)