The GRE’s Analytical Writing section can be pretty intimidating. It’s the very first thing you’ll face when you sit down to take the exam, and you have to write two essays in one hour. No wonder a lot of students find it the most stressful part of the GRE!
But fear not: to help make the Analytical Writing section more approachable, I’ll teach you 15 great GRE essay tips to aid both the newbie and the experienced test taker.
feature image credit: Essays!!/used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Resized from original.
10 Awesome Overall GRE Writing Tips
We’ll start out with our best general GRE Analytical Writing tips to help you prepare for both essays.
#1: Use POWERPREP Online to Type Your Essays
If you’re taking the computer-based GRE, practice the essay using POWERPREP Online. PowerPrep Tests 1 and 2 have built-in essay answering capabilities, as does the Preview Tool; after writing on the prompts in the program, you can continue to use those capabilities to write additional essays. Read more about how to get the most out of PowerPrep with this article.
If for some reason you can’t get PowerPrep to work, it’s okay to practice the essay with another word processor (like Word, OpenOffice, or GoogleDocs). However, to make your experience more realistic, make sure to avoid using any of the following when writing your essay: shortcuts (including ones for cut, paste, select all, and undo), spellcheck and grammar check, and the redo and copy functions.
You may be surprised to find how much lacking these extras affects the speed of your essay writing. For example, while there is an “undo” feature in the GRE word processor, you can’t access it by CTL+Z or CMD+Z, a shortcut that’s drilled into muscle memory for most people familiar with word processors; instead, you must click the “Undo” button.
#2: Keep Within Strict Time Limits
Time pressure is part of what makes the GRE essays difficult. If you’re not taking the test under realistic conditions, including with time limits, then you’re not practicing in a way that’s going to help you on test day.
If you’re really struggling with the timed part of the GRE essays, you could try writing as much as you can in 30 minutes, marking where you are when the timer runs out, continuing to write until you’re finished, and then marking how long that took. This technique is not as useful for GRE Writing practice as it might be for Verbal or Quantitative practice because there is no set amount you have to write or set points you have to cover. However, marking when you hit the time limit and continuing to write until you’re finished with the essay could be helpful to help you readjust your expectations for what you can accomplish on the essay in 30 minutes vs. what you might think an ideal essay should look like, given enough time.
In general, though, do stick to the 30-minute time limit for reading the task and writing your answer for each practice essay.
#3: Grade Your Essays With the Official Rubrics
Be ruthless in identifying your essay weaknesses by comparing your GRE essays to the standards set forth in the rubrics for the Issues and Arguments essays and grading your practice essays accordingly. Don’t give yourself the benefit of the doubt, because the GRE essay grader and computer program grader won’t.
Sample GRE essays at each score point are helpful in giving you concrete examples of the points made in the rubric for each score level (as we’ll discuss in the next GRE essay tip). If you’re still concerned you can’t be objective enough about your own writing, find a GRE essay buddy to help you grade your work according to the rubrics.
Learn more about this topic with our guide to how the GRE essay is scored.
#4: Write Practice Essays With Pre-Existing Samples You Can Compare
When choosing essay prompts to practice on, you should start out by choosing topics that ETS has sample essays on, so you can compare your responses to the anchor ones that have already been scored by ETS.
Understanding the GRE writing rubric is important for doing well on the test, since that’s what the real GRE essay graders will be using to score your responses, but it can sometimes be difficult to take the abstract ideals of a rubric and see how your own writing measures up. It’s easier to see how you’ve done when you compare your writing to how others have written on the same topic.
Currently, the ETS website has one Issues task and one Argument task with sample scored essay responses free and publicly available. There are two additional instances each for the Issues and Argument tasks in the answer keys of Chapters 8 and 9 of The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test (2nd edition). To get access to these four prompts with sample essays, you can either purchase the guide or take it out of your local library, if they have it.
#5: Only Use Official Prompts
There are 328 official GRE writing prompts available (152 Issue and 176 Argument), so there’s very little point in practicing for the essay with non-official prompts.
The only reason to use non-official GRE essay prompts is if they’re the six bonus prompts on ScoreItNow! which will get your essay scored by the e-scorer software that the real GRE uses (more on that below). Otherwise, writing practice essays on non-official prompts is just not worth it.
#6: Do Mock Analyses of Official Prompts
As mentioned in the previous tip, there are so many GRE essay prompts that you won’t run out of topics to practice with (unless you’re planning on spending 164 hours doing practice Analytical Writing essays). Because of this, you can supplement your GRE Writing practice by practicing outlining essays without having to write out a full essay.
For practice Issue essay outlines, you should come up with at least three examples and a few bullet points to explain how each one supports your point. Work on not just explaining the content of each example, but on showing how the example is relevant to the issue and why the example is evidence to back up your position.
For practice Argument essay outlines, come up with at least three points of analysis and a few bullet points to explain the importance of each. These points of analysis could be the assumptions made in the argument, what evidence is needed to evaluate the argument, alternative explanations, and so on.
#7: Try ScoreItNow! or POWERPREP PLUS Online
For $20, ScoreItNow! lets you get two essays on real GRE prompts (plus six essays on bonus non-official prompts) scored by the e-rater used for the real GRE. You won’t receive human grading on your essays, but you will at least receive a grade and insights into how the e-rater might score your writing on the real test. If you write fewer than 50 or more than 1,000 words you’ll get an “advisory” notice and won’t get a grade on ScoreItNow! (although if the reason you got an advisory notice is because your essay was too long, you can get a refund).
ScoreItNow! is pretty pricey ($10 per real GRE essay scored) so it’s not a good choice for everyone, but if you are concerned about how your writing will fare on the GRE, particularly with a computer grader, it’s good to know this is an option.
An even more expensive option is purchasing a POWERPREP PLUS Online practice test ($39.95 per test per purchase; you may only take the test once per purchase, and it expires after 90 days). With each of the two adaptive practice tests, you’ll be able to submit one Issue and one Argument essay to be scored by the e-rater. You should only go with this option if you plan on taking advantage of the full computer-based practice test as well as getting your essays scored; otherwise, ScoreItNow! is the more cost-effective option for official GRE essay grading.
#8: Leave Time to Review and Edit Your Work
As I mentioned in the first tip, the GRE Writing word processor has no spell check, no grammar check, and no auto-correct. Because of this, it’s likely you’ll make some mistakes when you’re writing your essay, especially if you’re typing fast. It’s okay to make a few small mistakes, but if your essay is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, that will make it difficult to understand, which will have a negative effect on your score. Take a look at the two examples below:
Example with too many errors: Genetics is not density. The argument that naure is paramount over nurture failes, to ake into acount, the eyr reel affects that environment can ahve on behavior.
Example with minor errors: Genetics is not destiny. The argument that naure is paramount over nurture fails to take into account the very reel effects that environment can have on behavior.
In the second example, there are still some errors (“naure” instead of “nature,” “reel” instead of “real”), but the meaning is much clearer. Leaving yourself time to read over and edit your work will make sure you don’t end up with an essay that looks like the first example.
In other cases, it’s necessary to edit for clarity not only for mechanical things like spelling and punctuation, but also to make sure your ideas are organized in a way that makes sense. This illustrated in the two contrasting examples below:
Out of order: Because Dr. Field visited only Tertia, while Dr. Karp visited “the group of islands that includes Tertia,” it’s possible that the children Dr. Karp interviewed were primarily from islands other than Tertia, reflecting a bias towards those other islands’ cultures. Similarly, without knowing more about the sample sizes of Dr. Field and Dr. Karp’s studies and of the populations they were studying, it’s hard to know if the two studies are at all comparable. Another important question that would need to be answered in order to make this recommendation would be whether or not the group of islands including Tertia that Dr. Karp visited had similar cultures.
Better ordered: Another important question that would need to be answered in order to make this recommendation would be whether or not the group of islands including Tertia that Dr. Karp visited had similar cultures. Because Dr. Field visited only Tertia, while Dr. Karp visited “the group of islands that includes Tertia,” it’s possible that the children Dr. Karp interviewed were primarily from islands other than Tertia, reflecting a bias towards those other islands’ cultures. Similarly, without knowing more about the sample sizes of Dr. Field and Dr. Karp’s studies and of the populations they were studying, it’s hard to know if the two studies are at all comparable.
#9: You Don’t Need a Perfect GRE Essay Score
Your GRE Writing score is a very, very small part of most grad school apps. A 4.5 or above is good enough for most programs, and there’s certainly no need to sweat over not getting a perfect 6.0. The reason for this is that even if the rest of your application is mediocre, a high Writing score won’t have a huge positive effect on your chances.
Once you manage to get a 4.5 (or higher, if programs you’re applying to have a higher score cut-off), it’s far better to spend your time on your Verbal and Quantitative scores, GRE subject test scores, or other parts of your grad school applications.
#10: Write Essays as Part of Full-Length Practice Tests
The Analytical Writing questions are the first section on the GRE, so you’ll be full of energy as well as test-taking adrenaline. However, this first hour of writing is then followed by 4-5 more sections (depending on whether or not you get an experimental section), so you can’t expend all your energy in the essays.
As part of your preparation for the GRE, you need to learn how to conserve your concentration and stamina, and the best way to do this is by taking realistic practice tests. This ties in with the advice in Tips 1, 2, and 5, which all aim to get you the most realistic testing experience possible. Only by doing a practice GRE in realistic conditions can you know what will be a problem for you on test day and address the issue.
In addition to our top ten general GRE Analytical Writing tips, we have five strategies specific to the two different types of essay questions.
GRE Essay Tips: Analyze an Issue Advice
For the Issue essay, you’re asked to explain whether you agree or disagree with something and why. The general structure of the task means that there are a couple of things you can do to write a good essay on every Issues prompt, no matter the topic. Our GRE Writing tips below will help you craft a clear and compelling response.
Issues Tip 1: Always Include a Thesis Statement
If there’s only one tip you follow about the GRE Issue essay, it should be this one: always, ALWAYS include a thesis that clearly articulates your position, whether you agree or disagree with the perspective presented.
If you don’t state a position, you are neglecting a fundamental aspect of the Issue essay task. There are six different variations on the issue task wording, but every single one of them requires you to either discuss your views explicitly or explain whether you agree or disagree with a given statement, recommendation, or claim. Failing to state your point of view in your essay makes it impossible for the graders to judge how well you’ve supported your position, and will result in a low essay score.
Issue Tip 2: Preplan Essay Opinions and Examples
You can’t memorize 152 different essays for each possible Issues prompt, but there are enough similarities between the different prompts that you can research some examples ahead of time to use as support.
Start by formulating your own opinions about common issues topics like the role of government and public officials, activities in everyday life, and teaching. Next, pick evidence you can use to support each of those opinions. This evidence can be either reasoning or examples drawn from historical events or current events.
When it comes time for the Issue essay, you’ll be able to draw from this pool of examples and reasoning to support your position; at the very least, even if the exact examples or reasoning isn’t applicable to the specific topic, you’ll be in the habit of thinking of ways examples and reasoning could support your point of view.
Find out more about how to get a perfect score on the GRE Issue essay here.
GRE Essay Tips: Analyze an Argument Advice
For all “Analyze an Argument” Analytical Writing questions, you’re asked to judge the soundness of an argument. Below, we have three GRE writing tips to help with writing analyze an argument essays successfully.
Argument Tip 1: Focus on the Task
Don’t get caught up in analyzing whether the author’s claims are true or false, or whether or not you agree with them or what your own views are – that’s not the task. Instead, analyze the logic behind the argument being made and the flaws (or lack of flaws) in the argument’s construction.
Staying focused on the task may take practice, as you might find it difficult to be objective about some of the arguments made due to personal experience or outrage at some of the logical jumps being made. To do well on the argument essay, harness that rage into analysis and explanation of how the argument is flawed.
Learn more about how to do this in our discussion of how to get a perfect 6 on the GRE Argument essay.
Argument Tip 2: Only Write About Major Points
Because you only have 30 minutes for the GRE argument essay, you don’t have to analyze every single facet of the argument. It’s more important to analyze major features that contribute to the argument’s efficacy (or lack thereof).
Imagine yourself like a lawyer in a courtroom, trying to get across the story of the case to the jurors. You can’t dwell on every single detail that proves your opponent is incorrect or your case will be a shapeless mess of information, even if all of it is true. Instead, you need to hit the main points first and then, if you have time, you can circle back to minutiae.
Argument Tip 3: Only Use Information Included in the Argument
The GRE is pretty good about using made-up names and places for the prompts, so you won’t be tempted to use outside knowledge to make assumptions. Still, you should make sure you confine your analysis to what’s written in the prompt only and don’t assume beyond what’s there.
Sticking to the information included in the prompt is an important part of completing many of the argument tasks, since the arguments are often flawed due to unstated assumptions. As a test taker, it’s your job to point out those flaws, not make more assumptions of your own.
When you’re studying, it’s important to have an end goal. Find out what’s a good GRE writing score here!
Looking for the source of all GRE Writing prompts? Look no further – we have over 60 official prompts and links to the others in this complete list of GRE essay topics.
Unsure of what a good GRE essay looks like? Then be sure to read through our analyses of perfect scoring GRE essay samples.
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Author: Laura Staffaroni
Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel and fulfill their college and grad school dreams. View all posts by Laura Staffaroni
The following is a sample prompt, similar to the prompts you will encounter on the GRE. Carefully read the directions and write your essay using the strategies outlined previously. After you have written your essay, read the graded sample essays that follow. You can compare your essay to the samples to get a sense of how your essay stacks up. You should also compare the samples to one another to understand better what the GRE readers are looking for. Finally, try to show your essay to an English professor or other qualified person for an evaluation, like one of Chegg’s online GRE tutors. Remember that many different essays can earn high scores.
Tips: Use a word processor with the spell-checker and grammar checker turned off. You may cut, copy, and paste parts of your essay. Take a few minutes to plan your response and write an outline before you begin your essay. Be sure to develop your ideas fully and organize them coherently. Leave time to proofread your essay and make any revisions you think are necessary.
Directions: You have 30 minutes to plan and compose a response that presents your perspective on the topic in the prompt below. You may accept, reject, or qualify the claim made in the prompt, as long as the ideas you present are relevant to the topic. A response to any other topic will earn a score of zero.
Prompt: “In raising a child, love is important, but discipline is most important of all.” Discuss whether you agree or disagree with the statement. Use relevant reasons and examples to support your point of view. In developing and supporting your position, consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true. Explain how those considerations affect your point of view.
Issue Task Sample Essay: Score of 6
The following essay received a score of 6 because it is well organized and focused, uses language effectively, and provides an insightful in-depth analysis of a complex issue.
The issue of proper child rearing is an important, yet rarely debated, social issue, with implications affecting both children and adults. One of the most important variables in a child-rearing philosophy is whether the philosophy values discipline or love more highly. A philosophy that values discipline above love is one in which love may be denied for the purpose of promoting discipline, particularly through withheld affection or through corporal punishment. Most of today’s leading authorities recommend that discipline be valued above love for raising children, especially boys. However, most of these commentators, such as James Dobson, base their child-rearing philosophies not on sound research studying the happiness and social success of the children, but on one particular interpretation of religious texts. Studies have shown that these ideas about child-rearing, far from producing happy, competent adults, in fact do serious harm to children raised under their influence. Indeed, a child-rearing philosophy that values discipline above love fails both a philosophical and a pragmatic test.
From a practical perspective, a child-rearing technique can be considered successful if the child has generally positive memories of childhood, and goes on to be a valuable member of society, as measured through such traits as honesty, compassion, and initiative. Most discipline-based child-rearing philosophies fail on precisely these grounds. It needs little argument that most children do not have happy memories of physical discipline, but the denial of affection can also be a powerfully traumatic act: children who are told that they run the risk of losing a parent’s love also grow up to be nervous, clingy adults, prone to pretending that problems do not exist, in lieu of risking the alienation of affection. Further, child-rearing research has come down strongly on the side of a care-based parenting method. Studies show that, contra Dobson et al, harsh punishment for disobedience does not create a powerful sense of self-discipline; instead, it promotes adults who are guided by punishment rather than conscience. To the contrary, children who are raised with compassion and love (though not without a due measure of discipline) tend to behave towards others in a compassionate and loving manner.
Philosophically, the discipline-based child-rearing philosophy also comes up short. Physical coercion as a valid means of achieving one’s objectives is never a good lesson to teach. Moreover, some would argue that it is simply morally wrong to harm a child, whether it is with the intent of promoting discipline or not; since such behavior would not be tolerated in a non-discipline context, there is no reason to believe it acceptable in a discipline context, especially when there is no solid evidence that it has any beneficial effects. It is also unsatisfactory that strict-discipline parenting methodology presupposes the need to be even more strict and firm with male children than with female children. Without evidence for substantial behavioral differences between male and female prepubescent children, there is no reason to believe that their development would require radically different parenting strategies.
I do not wish to argue that discipline should be avoided. Completely lax parenting is just as bad as domineering parenting. However, parental discipline must always come second to love; parents must meet the physical and emotional needs of their children, even disobedient ones, under all circumstances. The good parent, having set boundaries, can make sure that the child is free to explore within them, and to deal adequately with the challenges beyond the home, simply by setting the positive example of treating the child with affection, care, and respect.
Issue Task Sample Essay: Score of 4
The following essay received a score of 4 because, although the ideas were supported with relevant examples, the essay lacks focus and includes errors that reduce its overall clarity.
I believe that love and discipline are both important, but discipline has to be more important. Too many children these days are raised without discipline. They do whatever they want, and don’t pay attention to the effect they have on society. For a child to really grow up right, you have to set limits and make sure the child follows them, because otherwise they won’t think that there ever are any limits. Nowadays we hear all kinds of stories from the media—in the papers, on television—about the things that kids do when they grow up unsupervised. All these things could have been prevented by a bit of discipline when that child was growing up.
Kids who grow up without discipline always wind up getting into trouble. Whether it’s disrespecting their parents or their employers, to having no goals for themselves, to violent and unrestrained behavior, not having discipline leads to problems. Sometimes undisciplined children grow into violent adults, for instance, Lyle and Erik Menendez, who killed their parents solely to get the insurance money, clearly showed a profound lack of discipline. Their desire for material goods was not restrained by a proper sense of discipline that would have led them to work hard to get it. Thus, these two wild children did the unthinkable: they killed their parents in their undisciplined search for greater material happiness.
Another person who showed a remarkable lack of discipline in her life was Janet Jackson. Her crazy antics at the Super Bowl showed a remarkable lack of discipline, while it may be fun to flaunt yourself, someone with the proper upbringing that emphasizes the importance of discipline will know better than to expose herself on national television. She just wanted to jump-start her career without putting in the work. What she needed was more discipline.
In short, discipline is extremely important. A person who does not have will not go far in life, whether because of the mistakes they make or because they will lack ambition to achieve his or her goals, and if a person does not learn discipline in childhood, then when will they learn it? Therefore, the most important thing when raising a child is discipline, to prevent those kinds of mistakes in adulthood.
Issue Task Sample Essay: Score of 2
The following essay received a score of 2 because it lacks any serious development of the stimulus, and contains frequent errors that either distract from or obscure the author’s intended meaning.
Give a kid nothing but love all the time will turn them into spoiled brats. They’ll think they never have to face any consequences for their actions and that they can get away with anything they want.
The Bible says to spare the rod and spoil the child and I agree. My aunt raised my two cousins and never spanked them or hit them and they are both spoiled and mean. Every time I see them growing up, they take my toys and hit me and the other kids and they never get punished. My aunt always takes their side and blamed other kids for fights and problems.
I’m not saying people should beat there kids, just that kids need discipline. It doesn’t have to be spankings, it could be grounding them or taking away toys or something. But they need to know they can’t just do anything they want.
Dulan, Steven W. McGraw-Hill’s GRE: Graduate Record Examination General Test, 2014 Edition. Copyright © 2013 by The McGraw-Hill Education, LLC. All rights reserved.