Studying for the GRE: Analytical Writing: Overview

This is one of several posts that I prepared in fall 2011, as further described in another post. This and the two others that it leads to are all incomplete and posted much after the fact.  (I briefly posted this and several related items in my Improving Higher Education blog, but I believe they belong here instead.)

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I was preparing for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) General Test in its revised form (effective August 1, 2011). One part of that preparation involved the exam’s Analytical Writing component. ETS, makers of the GRE, had produced a 31-page PDF called An Introduction to the Analytical Writing Section of the GRE® revised General Test. That PDF appeared to contain a version of the material presented in Chapter 2 (pp. 11-42) of the ETS book, The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test. (At this writing, that official guide was available for about 50% of list price.) It seemed that the relevant ETS webpage also contained, or linked to, much of the same information. This post presents a summary of key points presented in those ETS sources.

The Analytical Writing component of the GRE was the first component that test-takers would confront. In other words, after arriving at the test site and going through the preliminaries, the test-taker would begin the Analytic Writing section. This component consisted of two 30-minute sections. One component, apparently the first to be given, called upon the test-taker to “Analyze an Issue.” The other required him/her to “Analyze an Argument.” The difference was that, in the issue analysis, s/he would make a persuasive argument in support of a viewpoint on a specified topic, whereas the argument analysis would require him/her to critique someone else’s argument. The issue analysis would require the test-taker to take sides and argue in favor of one view rather than other views. The argument analysis would require the test-taker to do more or less the opposite: don’t take sides, but instead just evaluate the pluses and minuses of the stated viewpoint.

There seemed to be no end to the number of websites offering advice on how to write a good analytical essay. What I got out of my Princeton Review book was that it would be pretty natural to write four or five paragraphs: one or two to state and discuss each divergent position, one or two to address additional considerations, and then a conclusion.

While the Official Guide emphasized that there was no single right way to approach the task of writing an essay, it also offered a Scoring Guide (pp. 37-40) that explained what an analysis of an issue or argument would ideally include. For the most part, there was nothing unexpected there: be clear, organized, and logical; use good vocabulary and grammar; and support your points with reasons and/or examples. Making your writing pleasant to read (e.g., good transitions, sentence variety) would also be helpful. In the Official Guide (and also on the website), ETS offered a few test-taking strategies. These were, in essence, to review the graded sample essays (like the several five- and six-point essays mentioned above), budget your time, and save a few minutes at the end to check your work. ETS also advised taking a look at their lists of sample topics for the Issue and Argument analyses. Those lists seemed to be the place where I would want to focus my attention.

From this starting point, I wrote up two further posts on the analytical writing portion of the GRE, regarding the argument evaluation and issue essay sections.

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