With a little preparation, writing a GRE essay can be the easiest part of the test. These seven tips will help you stay relaxed and confident while writing the GRE issue essay and the GRE argument essay.
GRE Essay Tips
1. Simple, strong, and supported.
Regardless of which GRE essay you’re writing, keep the structure and rhetoric simple. Your essay should have a clear, separate introductory paragraph in which you explicitly introduce your main point. Each body paragraph should have one clear and simple main point, which is given explicitly somewhere in the paragraph. Avoid making an overly complex argument: “In some situations this approach is right, and in other situations it’s wrong.” In the real world, the truth is often somewhere in the middle—but on the GRE essays, you’ll get a higher score if you keep your argument simple.
Make strong, direct, clear statements in your GRE essay. Don’t ask a bunch of rhetorical questions or soften your reasoning with maybes and possiblys.
Finally, support and explain every claim that you make. Never just say that something is true, or that something is a weak point in an argument. Explain why it’s true, even if you think it should be obvious. One thing the GRE scores you on is the development of your argument. Here’s an example that comes from the ETS’s own website. This paragraph has strong development:
Building upon the implication that residents do not use the river due to the quality of the river’s water and the smell, the author suggests that a river cleanup will result in increased river usage. If the river’s water quality and smell result from problems which can be cleaned, this may be true. For example, if the decreased water quality and aroma is caused by pollution by factories along the river, this conceivably could be remedied. But if the quality and aroma results from the natural mineral deposits in the water or surrounding rock, this may not be true. There are some bodies of water which emit a strong smell of sulfur due to the geography of the area. This is not something likely to be affected by a cleanup. Consequently, a river cleanup may have no impact upon river usage. Regardless of whether the river’s quality is able to be improved or not, the author does not effectively show a connection between water quality and river usage.
Take note of what the author does here. She doesn’t simply say that a river cleanup might not increase usage. Instead, she elaborates using specific examples. Then, she clearly explains why the sulfur example supports her point: a strong sulfur smell is unlikely to be affected by a cleanup, so a cleanup may not increase usage. Compare this to a paragraph from a lower-scoring essay:
Closely linked to the surveys is the bold assumption that a cleaner river will result in increased usage. While it is not illogical to expect some increase, at what level will people begin to use the river? The answer to this question requires a survey to find out the reasons our residents use or do not use the river. Is river water quality the primary limiting factor to usage or the lack of docks and piers? Are people more interested in water sports than the recreational activities that they are already engaged in? These questions will help the city government forecast how much river usage will increase and to assign a proportional increase to the budget.
The author of this GRE essay makes the same point: cleaning up the river might not actually improve usage. However, instead of supporting her point, she asks a series of rhetorical questions and never answers them! Her essay would be stronger if she explained more clearly how a lack of docks and piers might affect river usage, and how one might tell whether this was a limiting factor. Don’t assume that your reasoning is clear to your readers! One well-supported, thorough point is much better than a lot of weaker ones.
2. Don’t be a showoff on your GRE essay.
The test graders know that you only get 30 minutes to plan and write your GRE essay. That’s a tiny fraction of the time you’ll get to spend on your writing in graduate school, so they aren’t expecting graduate-level writing quality! Your writing should be grammatically correct and clear, and should avoid misspellings and punctuation errors as much as possible. However, you can absolutely still score a 6 on the GRE essay with a few mistakes.
What will hurt you, though, is trying to throw in GRE vocabulary and super-elaborate sentence structures to show off your skills. If you don’t have a great command of the vocabulary and structures you use, this will just hurt the clarity of your argument and won’t impress the graders.
Instead of showing off, try adding in clearer and more logical transitions between the ideas in your argument. The GRE loves it when you can show a clear transition from one idea to the next, both within a paragraph and between paragraphs. How does your next point relate to your previous point: is it a contrast, is it similar, is it tangentially related? How does one idea relate to the previous idea: is it an example, a counterpoint, a related concern? Having very clear logical transitions is a good way to “show off” your writing skills on the GRE essay.
3. Check out the official resources.
All of the GRE essay prompts are published online! That’s right: the essay prompt you’ll see on test day will come from a publicly-available online pool. Here are the essay prompts for the GRE argument essay, and here are the prompts for the GRE issue essay.
There are hundreds of prompts in this pool, so you won’t be able to read all of them. But skim through them to learn what to expect. We’ve picked out a few of our favorite practice prompts in this article if you want to try writing some essays ahead of time!
The ETS has also publicly posted their scoring guidelines for the GRE issue essay and the GRE argument essay. Read these to take the mystery out of how you’re being graded. However, for a more concrete sense of what you have to do to earn a great GRE essay score, check out the official sample essays as well. The ETS has provided a full set of example responses for the issue essay and for the argument essay, one for each possible score from 1 to 6.
Finally, if you want to predict your score ahead of time, try out ScoreItNow!. It costs $20 and will allow you to write eight practice essays and have them scored by the e-rater algorithm. This algorithm isn’t identical to a human grader, but it’s been found to give very similar scores to human essay graders.
GRE Argument Essay Tips
1. Read the entire prompt.
GRE argument essay prompts are all similar: they ask you to evaluate the reasoning in an argument. However, they aren’t all identical, and the differences matter. Here are some different types of GRE argument essay tasks:
Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument and explain how the evidence would weaken or strengthen the argument.
Write a response in which you discuss one or more alternative explanations that could rival the proposed explanation and explain how your explanation(s) can plausibly account for the facts presented in the argument.
Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be answered in order to decide whether the recommendation and the argument on which it is based are reasonable. Be sure to explain how the answers to these questions would help to evaluate the recommendation.
To respond to any of these GRE essay prompts, you’ll need to address problems with the argument and add your own thoughts on how to improve the author’s reasoning. However, the first prompt asks you to focus on additional evidence, the second asks for alternative explanations for a phenomenon, and the third asks you to focus on questions the author should ask. Don’t go on autopilot while writing the GRE argument essay—make sure you’re focusing on the right aspect of your analysis.
To really master the art of analyzing arguments for the GRE, check out the Logical Reading Comprehension chapter of the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems.
2. Get critical!
The easiest way to start your argument essay brainstorming is by getting critical about the argument. This is true even if the prompt doesn’t specifically ask you to weaken the argument! Once you’ve read the argument, think of every way that the scenario in the argument could go wrong. Here’s an example:
The following appeared in a memo from a vice president of Quiot Manufacturing.
“During the past year, Quiot Manufacturing had 30 percent more on-the-job accidents than at the nearby Panoply Industries plant, where the work shifts are one hour shorter than ours. Experts say that significant contributing factors in many on-the-job accidents are fatigue and sleep deprivation among workers. Therefore, to reduce the number of on-the-job accidents at Quiot and thereby increase productivity, we should shorten each of our three work shifts by one hour so that employees will get adequate amounts of sleep.”
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 these assumptions and what the implications are for the argument if the assumptions prove unwarranted.
What could go wrong? Pause now and list as many possibilities as you can. Here’s our list:
- Employees could decide not to use the extra time away from work to catch up on sleep.
- Shortening shifts could cause employees to rush, which would increase accidents.
- Quiot Manufacturing could actually have a lower accident rate for reasons totally unrelated to sleep deprivation, such as training or equipment.
- Reducing the shifts by one hour might not be enough to significantly reduce fatigue among employees. Maybe they’re only getting five hours of sleep per night, and six hours still isn’t enough.
- Maybe employees will start taking extra shifts to make up for having fewer work hours at Quiot, which could actually increase sleep deprivation.
There are others—did you think of any? Any of these issues could be a good starting point for a paragraph in your GRE argument essay.
GRE Issue Essay Tips
1. Longer is better (mostly).
Longer essays typically earn higher scores from the automated e-rater grading system. However, there’s an important caveat to that. We don’t know whether these essays earn higher scores because they’re longer (probably not), or whether they just go into more detail and include more interesting ideas, naturally leading to a higher word count.
When you’re writing your GRE issue essay, don’t fixate on the word count. Instead, focus on fully explaining and developing all of your ideas, and on clearly transitioning from one idea to the next. Don’t simply mention a point and then move away from it. Explain how and why it supports your main thesis.
By doing this, your GRE essay will naturally end up being longer, even though you’ve brainstormed the same number of main points. It will also naturally get a higher score for development and organization.
2. Practice your brainstorming.
It’s not easy to brainstorm for the GRE issue essay, particularly when the issue is very broad or is something you haven’t given a lot of thought to in the past. However, the brainstorming process is critical. One important part of writing a great GRE issue essay is clearly and consistently supporting one side of the issue, rather than waffling back and forth between them or making an unclear argument. To do this, you’ll want to have two or three strong points that clearly support the same side of the issue.
It might be easier to support one side of the issue than the other. The easier side to support will often be the one you personally agree with, but that isn’t necessarily the case! Think through your points before you begin writing. If you don’t, you might start arguing for one side and then realize that you’ve run out of ideas.
Brainstorming is a quick and easy skill to practice. Just click on the list of official issue essay prompts, choose one at random, and set a five-minute timer. Brainstorm points for both sides, then choose one and jot down a few notes about how you’d develop them. (You can even practice this skill when you can’t take notes, like while on the bus or waiting in line!) If you develop your quick brainstorming abilities before test day, you’ll buy yourself some extra time to write a long and thorough GRE essay without stress. 📝
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.