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Last Updated On: May 17th, 2020

What does it test?

According to the ETS Web site, the Analytical Writing section of the GRE General Test “measures critical thinking and analytical writing skills, specifically your ability to articulate and support complex ideas clearly and effectively.” It measures these skills by having you write two 30-minute essays: the Issue Essay and the Argument Essay.

The Issue Essay

Test-takers are given an issue statement and asked to share their opinion about the statement by writing a thoughtful, organized, and well-written essay. The directions about how to respond to the statement can vary slightly, so you should read them carefully. ETS publishes a helpful Pool of Issue Topics. The following is a sample topic:

As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.

Write a response in which you 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.

The Argument Essay

Test-takers are given an argument and asked to analyze it in a thoughtful, well-organized, and well-written essay. Like the issue essay, directions for each task can vary slightly. ETS publishes a Pool of Argument Topics. Here is one example from that page:

The following appeared as a letter to the editor from a Central Plaza store owner.

“Over the past two years, the number of shoppers in Central Plaza has been steadily decreasing while the popularity of skateboarding has increased dramatically. Many Central Plaza store owners believe that the decrease in their business is due to the number of skateboard users in the plaza. There has also been a dramatic increase in the amount of litter and vandalism throughout the plaza. Thus, we recommend that the city prohibit skateboarding in Central Plaza. If skateboarding is prohibited here, we predict that business in Central Plaza will return to its previously high levels.”

Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be answered in order to decide whether the recommendation is likely to have the predicted result. Be sure to explain how the answers to these questions would help to evaluate the recommendation.

Unlike the Issue Essay, you are not asked to share your opinion about the argument. Instead, you must analyze the argument, paying special attention to unproven assumptions and logical fallacies. (Every argument will be flawed or incomplete in some way.) For example, the decrease in shoppers at Central Plaza might be due to factors that have nothing to do with skateboarders. To investigate this, the shop owners might look at what has happened to other businesses in their area that are not a popular hang-out for skateboarders.

How is it scored?

Each essay is graded on a scale from 0-6, with 0 being a blank or completely incoherent essay and 6 being a superlative essay. They are graded holistically, meaning they are given an overall score without using a rubric. According to the Score Level Descriptions published on the ETS Web site, a score of 5.5 or 6 “sustains insightful, in-depth analysis of complex ideas; develops and supports main points with logically compelling reasons and/or highly persuasive examples; is well focused and well organized; skillfully uses sentence variety and precise vocabulary to convey meaning effectively; demonstrates superior facility with sentence structure and language usage, but may have minor errors that do not interfere with meaning.”

ETS essay graders work quickly, so they probably scan the essays rather than reading them carefully. After a human grader assigns it a numeric value, the essay is put through an “e-rater,” a special computer program developed by ETS; the computer also assigns a score. If the scores are close, the human score is used. If the scores “disagree by a significant amount,” then the essay is graded by a second human scorer and the two scores are averaged. To get a high score, your essay must clearly answer the question and show good writing skills during a quick read.

How does the word processing program work?

If you are taking the computerized test, you will type your essay into a simple program that shows the question on the left side and gives space for your answer on the right side. You can delete, copy, and paste text and use the mouse to click around, but there is no spelling and no grammar check. If you have experience typing and using standard word processing programs, like Pages and Microsoft Word, you shouldn’t have a problem with the logistics of the program. If you type slowly or are not savvy with word processing, a little practice can greatly improve your score. 

How should I pace myself during the test?

Your essay will literally disappear from view when the thirty-minute time limit runs out. For some test takers, this won’t be a problem, but for others it can be very challenging. Don’t deal with the time limit by writing a short essay: the consensus is that longer essays score better than shorter ones, even when the writing quality is equal. As with all sections, the key to pacing is practice. The more timed practice essays you do, the better you will get at allotting time for planning, writing, and proofreading, to get the highest-scoring essay possible.

Do spelling, grammar, and punctuation count?

Officially, ETS essay graders are instructed to ignore minor errors of spelling and grammar. But although an essay with a couple minor errors can still get the highest score (with the quick grading time, the grader might not even notice), significant or even moderate errors will make the essay more difficult to understand, which will significantly hurt your score. If you have challenges with grammar and spelling, addressing them now can only help you, because good writing skills are important for graduate school and employment.

What is the best way to prepare for the Analytical Writing section?

The best way to prepare is focused practice with meaningful feedback. ETS releases several resources to help you, including sample essays with scores and topic pools. Practice is not nearly as effective, however, without meaningful feedback from a knowledgeable expert. LA Tutors has well-trained, highly qualified tutors who help you develop a practice plan and give you the feedback you need to take your writing to the next level, on the GRE Analytical Writing section and beyond.

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