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The ABCs of the Analytical Writing Section of the GRE Test

You don’t have to be an English professor at a top university or a literary critic for the New York Review of Books to ace the analytical writing portion of upcoming revised general test of the Graduate Record Exam. But you do need to know exactly what it tests and how best to prepare for it to score well.

This section—which always occurs first–tests your critical thinking and analytical writing skills. It assesses your ability to articulate and support complex ideas, construct and evaluate arguments, and sustain a focused and coherent discussion. It does not assess specific content knowledge.

You’re given an hour to complete the analytical writing section, half of that time devoted to analyzing an issue while the other half is devoted to analyzing an argument.

The Issue task presents an opinion on an issue of general interest followed by specific instructions on how to respond to that issue. You’ll be required to evaluate the issue, consider its complexities and develop an argument with reasons and examples to support your views.

The Argument task requires you to evaluate a given argument according to specific instructions. You’ll need to consider the logical soundness of the argument rather than agree or disagree with the position it presents.

The two tasks are complementary: one requires you to construct your own argument by taking a position and providing evidence supporting your views on an issue, and the other requires you to evaluate someone else’s argument by assessing its claims and evaluating the evidence it provides.

SIMPLE STRATEGIES TO PREPARE FOR THE ANALYTICAL WRITING SECTION.

To prep for this portion of the exam, you should review strategies, sample topics, essay responses and reader commentary to get a better understanding of how readers evaluate essays. It is important to budget your time. Within the 30-minute time limit for the Issue task, you’ll need to allow enough time to consider the issue and the specific instructions, plan a response and compose your essay. Within the 30-minute time limit for the Argument task, you will need to allow sufficient time to consider the argument and the specific instructions, plan a response and compose your essay. You want the result to be the best possible example of your writing that you can produce under the testing conditions. It’s also wise to save a few minutes at the end of each timed task to check for obvious errors. Although an occasional spelling or grammatical error will not affect your score, severe and persistent errors will detract from the overall effectiveness of your writing and lower your score accordingly.

Individuals taking the computer-based test will use a basic word processor developed by ETS. The basic word processor contains the following functionalities: insert text, delete text, cut-and-paste and undo the previous action. Tools such as a spell checker and grammar checker are not available in the ETS software, largely to maintain fairness with the test takers who must handwrite their essays for the paper-based exam.

The tasks in the Analytical Writing measure relate to a broad range of subjects — from the fine arts and humanities to the social and physical sciences — but no task requires knowledge of specific content.

HOW ETS SCORES THIS SECTION OF THE REVISED GRE.

The top score you can get on either portion of the analytical writing section is a six. The lowest score is a zero. What merits the best score? ETS explains that you have to present “a cogent, well-articulated analysis of the issue and convey meaning skillfully” to warrant the top score of six. “A typical response in this category,” according to ETS, “articulates a clear and insightful position on the issue in accordance with the assigned task; develops the position fully with compelling reasons and/or persuasive examples; sustains a well-focused, well-organized analysis, connecting ideas logically; conveys ideas fluently and precisely, using effective vocabulary and sentence variety, and demonstrates facility with the conventions of standard written English (i.e., grammar, usage and mechanics), but may have minor errors.

What kind of answer would get a zero? ETS says that your answer would have to be off topic, providing no evidence of an attempt to addresse the topic, merely copies the topics, or is illegible or nonverbal. If you answer is in a foreign language, expect the zero.

What about the answer that would get you a score of one? A 1 response demonstrates fundamental deficiencies in analytical writing. Your answer would have one or more of the following characteristics, according to ETS. It would provide little or no evidence of understanding the issue; provide little or no evidence of the ability to develop an organized response; has severe problems in language and sentence structure that persistently interfere with meaning, or contains pervasive errors in grammar, usage or mechanics that result in incoherence.

EXAMPLES OF ISSUE TOPICS.

During the revised test, you’ll be given one issue topic, composed of a statement or statements followed by instructions that explain how to respond to the issue. Here are a few examples, provided by ETS.

1) 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.

2) To understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities.

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.

3) Claim: Governments must ensure that their major cities receive the financial support they need in order to thrive.

Reason: It is primarily in cities that a nation’s cultural traditions are preserved and generated.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim and the reason on which that claim is based.

4) Claim: In any field—business, politics, education, government—those in power should step down after five years.

Reason: The surest path to success for any enterprise is revitalization through new leadership.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim and the reason on which that claim is based.

5) In any field of endeavor, it is impossible to make a significant contribution without first being strongly influenced by past achievements within that field.

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.

EXAMPLES OF ARGUMENT TOPICS.

Each Argument topic consists of a passage that presents an argument followed by specific task instructions that tell you how to analyze the argument. The wording of some topics in the test might vary slightly from what is presented here. Also, because there may be multiple versions of some topics with similar or identical wording but with different task instructions, it is very important to read your test topic and its specific task directions carefully and respond to the wording as it appears in the actual test.

1) The following appeared as part of a letter to the editor of a scientific journal.

“A recent study of eighteen rhesus monkeys provides clues as to the effects of birth order on an individual’s levels of stimulation. The study showed that in stimulating situations (such as an encounter with an unfamiliar monkey), firstborn infant monkeys produce up to twice as much of the hormone cortisol, which primes the body for increased activity levels, as do their younger siblings. Firstborn humans also produce relatively high levels of cortisol in stimulating situations (such as the return of a parent after an absence). The study also found that during pregnancy, first-time mother monkeys had higher levels of cortisol than did those who had had several offspring.”

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.

2) 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.

3) Nature’s Way, a chain of stores selling health food and other health-related products, is opening its next franchise in the town of Plainsville. The store should prove to be very successful: Nature’s Way franchises tend to be most profitable in areas where residents lead healthy lives, and clearly Plainsville is such an area. Plainsville merchants report that sales of running shoes and exercise clothing are at all-time highs. The local health club has more members than ever, and the weight training and aerobics classes are always full. Finally, Plainsville’s schoolchildren represent a new generation of potential customers: these schoolchildren are required to participate in a fitness-for-life program, which emphasizes the benefits of regular exercise at an early age.

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.

4) The following appeared as part of an article in a business magazine.

“A recent study rating 300 male and female Mentian advertising executives according to the average number of hours they sleep per night showed an association between the amount of sleep the executives need and the success of their firms. Of the advertising firms studied, those whose executives reported needing no more than 6 hours of sleep per night had higher profit margins and faster growth. These results suggest that if a business wants to prosper, it should hire only people who need less than 6 hours of sleep per night.”

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.

5) According to a recent report, cheating among college and university students is on the rise. However, Groveton College has successfully reduced student cheating by adopting an honor code, which calls for students to agree not to cheat in their academic endeavors and to notify a faculty member if they suspect that others have cheated. Groveton’s honor code replaced a system in which teachers closely monitored students; under that system, teachers reported an average of thirty cases of cheating per year. In the first year the honor code was in place, students reported twenty-one cases of cheating; five years later, this figure had dropped to fourteen. Moreover, in a recent survey, a majority of Groveton students said that they would be less likely to cheat with an honor code in place than without. Thus, all colleges and universities should adopt honor codes similar to Groveton’s in order to decrease cheating among students.

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.