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AWA Issue Strategies

You’ve spent arduous months studying for the new GRE. You’ve mastered your math fundamentals, you’ve built up an impressive vocabulary, and you reading speed is twice as fast as when you first started prepping. Nonetheless, if you prep little for the Analytical Writing Assessment, then the first hour can be a stressful one indeed. (You will have to spend 30 minutes writing the Issue task, and another 30 on the argument). If you think you did poorly on the essays, that knowledge could very well affect your performance on the rest of the test.

Out of the two essays, the Issue tends to be more difficult for most students. Part of the reason is it is far more difficult to “wing it” on the Issue task than it is on the Argument Task. So today’s post will be focused on the more difficult of the two writing tasks: The Issue Prompt.

The Issue Prompt requires you to respond to a simple statement, by developing a position, and supporting it with convincing examples. To be able to do so you will want to “keep” the following points in mind.

Keep it organized

Nothing reflects strong essay writing skills like organization. Even an impassioned, cogent response falls apart if it is not bundled into essay form: the introduction, a few body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

The Intro should not be needlessly long, as you try to stuff in everything you want to say. The Intro serves (unsurprisingly) to introduce the topic. Most importantly, the Intro must have a clearly defined thesis statement. Often it is easiest for the writer—and the reader—if the last sentence in the Intro is the thesis.

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The body paragraphs should develop your thesis. Finally, the conclusion should recap what’ve you said (don’t try to add any new information).

Keep it focused

Within the paragraph it is easy for us to lose our way. Perhaps we summarize needlessly, forgetting that the essay requires our analysis of an issue. Maybe our sentences do not link together logically, and we find ourselves rambling. Or, we may find ourselves juggling several hypothetical examples, never really making a compelling case.

So stay focused on analyzing the issue. Make sure your sentences link together, and be sure to develop an example, so that by the end of the paragraph you can persuasively—and clearly—show how your example supports your thesis.

Keep it engaging

Repetitive sentence structure makes for repetitive reading. Vary up the way you write—don’t be afraid to use a colon (or a dash), drop in a semi-colon, and vary up the syntax. Noun followed by verb followed by adjective implies that you are a hesitant writer. Regardless of your analysis and organization, the overall impression your essay leaves on the graders is a resounding meh.

Keep it specific

Hypotheticals are fine, if you can use them to convincingly back up your point. However, that’s the tough part; “some people,” “mankind,” or “you” are dull, vague abstractions. If you trying to show that knowledge can sometimes be used for destructive ends, “Oppenheimer’s knowledge of nuclear fusion allowed him to create the most destructive weapon the world had ever known” is far more impactful than, “scientists can sometimes use knowledge to hurt us.”

Keep it on topic

Perhaps the most important (lest you wonder why you received a ‘1’ on your essay) is to keep your essay on topic. Imagine you had to write on the mock prompt on knowledge I used above. If you begin talking about how technology is destructive because smartphones cause us to become insular… you have totally forgotten to answer the question, “Knowledge can sometimes be used for destructive ends.”

Keep practicing

Writing well is very difficult. It takes a lifetime of diligent practice. Luckily, the GRE essays graders are not judging whether we could be New Yorker staff writers. Even ‘6’ essays are not perfect; while commanding and sophisticated, these essays are not beyond the grasp of many native speakers.

Even as a non-native speaker, with a little practice you can go from a ‘3’ to a ‘4’ and from a ‘4’ to a ‘5’. But the key is practice. Writing an essay and feeling utterly deflated because it would score below a ‘3’ is fine…as long as you can pick yourself up and tackle another essay prompt, knowing that you can—and will—improve with more practice.

And non-natives don’t despair. Two of the preeminent prose stylists of the English-language novel were both non-native-English speakers. Joseph Conrad didn’t learn English until he was 18 (though his Heart of Darkness will confound most native speaking 18-year olds). And Vladimir Nabokov wrote in both French and Russia before ever committing his pen to English at the ripe age of 25. The first page of Lolita alone makes even New Yorker staff writers crimson with envy.


Okay, enough with the pep talk. For practical advice on practicing: the link below provides access to hundreds of essay prompts by ETS. Better yet, the actual prompt you see test day may be one of these essays.

So set yourself a goal (say, an essay a day) and practice. And remember, your mood coming out of the essay will affect your performance on the other sections. So (for non-native speakers) do Nabokov proud, and for natives with enough practice maybe you’ll be able to show those New Yorker staff writers a thing or two.


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