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This is the original version of a piece that has since been updated. See Stacey’s latest tips on tackling the GMAT Essay.
We all know that the essay on the GMAT is scored separately and that the schools don’t care as much about the essay score. We also know we have to write the essays first thing, before we get to the more important Quant and Verbal sections (or even IR), so we don’t want to use up too much brain-power on the essay. Still, we can’t just bomb this section; the schools do care about the essay somewhat. So how do we do a good enough job without expending so much energy that we’re negatively affected during the multiple-choice portion of the test?
We need to develop a template, an organizational framework on which to hang our writing. The template will not, of course, tell us exactly what to write. For that, we need the actual essay prompt, which we won’t see until we take the test. We can, however, determine how to organize the information ahead of time, as well as the general kinds of messages we need to convey at various points throughout.
The template should tell us:
- how many paragraphs to use
- the primary purpose of each of those paragraphs
- the kinds of information that need to be conveyed in each paragraph
The template will vary a little bit from person to person; the important thing is to have a consistent template for yourself that you’ve worked out in advance of the official test.
As a general rule, the essay should have either four or five paragraphs total. The first paragraph is always the introduction, the last paragraph is always the conclusion, and the body (middle) paragraphs are for the examples we choose to use.
Each paragraph should contain certain things; these are listed in the below sections. The information does not need to be presented in the given order below, though; just make sure that each paragraph does contain the necessary information in some sort of clear and logical order. In addition, the information listed below is the minimum necessary info; you can certainly add more where appropriate.
Brainstorming Your Essay
First, read the essay prompt. It will look/feel just like the Critical Reasoning arguments we see on the Verbal portion of the test, so tackle it in the same way! The argument will most closely resemble Assumption Family arguments, so find the conclusion and make sure you understand how the author is trying to support his/her conclusion. Next, brainstorm any assumptions* that you can think of and jot these down (or type them into the essay response area).
*Note: if you haven’t started studying CR Assumption Family questions yet, assumptions are unstated pieces of information that the author is assuming must be true in order to draw his/her conclusion.
Next, articulate flaws. Any assumptions are automatically flaws, because the author hasn’t established that those assumptions are, in fact, true. You may also think of other flaws along the way.
Finally, pick your two or three best flaws; these will form the basis of your essay.
This whole process should take roughly 3 to 4 minutes. Many people find this the hardest part of writing an essay; you can practice by opening up the essay chapter of your Official Guide book and simply brainstorming for one essay prompt. Don’t write the whole essay—just do the brainstorming portion once a day (only 5 minutes out of your day!) for a week or two and you’ll become much more skilled at this step.
- summarize the issue
- state a thesis
- acknowledge that the other side does have some merit
- introduce your examples
- 3 to 5 sentences total
First, briefly summarize the conclusion of the given argument in one to two sentences. Make sure to write using your own words (don’t simply quote the exact language from the essay prompt, though using the same word here or there is fine).
The first paragraph should also contain a thesis statement. The thesis is typically one sentence and conveys to the reader your overall message or point for the essay that you wrote. For the Argument essay, you can write most of your thesis sentence before you get to the test! You already know that the Argument will contain flaws, and that you will be discussing how those flaws hurt the author’s conclusion. Guess what? That’s always your thesis!
While the argument does have some merit, there are several serious flaws which serve to undermine the validity of the author’s conclusion that XYZ.
DON’T USE THAT EXACT SENTENCE. They’re going to get suspicious if hundreds of people use the same sentence. (Besides, that’s my sentence. Come up with your own! 😋)
Note the opening clause: While the argument does have some merit. This is what’s called acknowledging the other side. We don’t say, Hey, your argument is completely terrible! There’s nothing good about it at all! We acknowledge that some parts may be okay, or some people may feel differently, but our position is that the flaws are the most important issue (that is, our thesis is the most important thing).
Notice one other thing that I don’t say: I don’t say I think
Finally, the first paragraph needs to introduce whatever examples we’re going to use in the body paragraphs below. Don’t launch into the examples fully; that will come later. Do, though, mention the two or three flaws that you plan to discuss in the essay.
Each flaw gets its own paragraph, so you’ll write either 2 or 3 body paragraphs of 4 to 6 sentences each. (I personally pick my 2 best flaws, so I write 2 body paragraphs. Remember, we just need to be good enough!)
Your goal here is to support your thesis statement. In each paragraph:
- introduce one flaw (don’t repeat the exact language from the prompt)
- explain why it is a flaw (how does this make the conclusion less likely to be true?)
- suggest ways to fix the flaw (you’re fixing the flaw, not changing the conclusion; what could the author do to strengthen his/her argument?)
For example, let’s say that an argument claims that firing half of a company’s employees will help the company to reduce costs and therefore become more profitable. What’s the conclusion, what supports that conclusion, and what assumptions is the author making?
While it’s certainly true that chopping half of your payroll will reduce costs, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the company will become more profitable! That loss of personnel may negatively impact revenues, reduce productivity, hurt morale of the remaining employees, and so on. The author is assuming that no such adverse effects will result from this action; that’s a flaw in his/her thinking.
The author of such an argument could bolster the claim by, for example, presenting evidence that half of the employees are truly dead weight and firing them wouldn’t affect the company adversely. (Don’t worry about whether this is likely, whether such evidence actually exists, or even whether this is the best way to improve profitability. Your job is only to strengthen the author’s existing argument a little bit. If the author could actually produce evidence showing that there wouldn’t be adverse effects from such layoffs, then his conclusion would be strengthened. Period.)
- re-state your thesis (using new words)
- re-acknowledge the other side (using new words)
- briefly summarize how your examples supported your thesis (using new words)
- 3 to 4 sentences
Are you noticing a theme within the above bullet points? Basically, the conclusion paragraph isn’t going to contain much new information. It’s a conclusion; the major points should already have been made earlier in the essay. What you’re doing now is tying everything together in one neat package: yes, the other side has some merit, but here’s my point-of-view and, by the way, I proved my case using examples X and Y.
Before you go into the real test, you should have a fully-developed template, so that all you have to do is come up with your two examples, and then hang your words onto your framework. This doesn’t mean pre-writing and memorizing actual sentences—but do know in general the kinds of points you want to make in each paragraph. Practice with the above as a starting point until you develop something with which you’re comfortable. Don’t forget to leave some time to proof your essay; it’s okay to have a few typos, but systematic errors will lower your score. 📝
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Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests. Check out Stacey’s upcoming GMAT courses here.