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Ten General Guidelines for the GRE AWA – Part I

Want to learn a game? It’s a writing game, based on general rules of English—grammar and style—but with its own idiosyncrasies. It may not be the most fun game in the world, depending on your proclivities, but if you are up for the game, then, like any game, you must learn the rules.

The good news is you can learn the rules pretty quickly; the bad news is you may not have a choice. The game I speak of is the AWA writing section, which is the first thing you will see when you take the GRE.

I think it instructive to think of the AWA as a game with certain ground rules. First off, you may get frustrated, thinking that the AWA is biased and not a good measure of your ability to write academic-level stuff. In this respect, you may very well be right; but by thinking of AWA as a game and not a measure of your innate ability to write you are less apt to fight the whole process.

Secondly, the AWA is very learnable. Indeed, the essay structure is probably very similar to what you high school English teacher taught you.


1. Write, write, write

Open up the Official Guide to the essay section and you will see several sample essays. If you turn to the lowest scoring essay—the one awarded a ‘1’—what is most notable about it isn’t necessarily the egregious syntax: the essay is only one sentence long.

Now I highly doubt you will receive a ‘1’. Even if you hammer out a paragraph of barely discernible prose, you are likely to get higher than a ‘1’. The key point here is length matters. And it doesn’t just make the difference between a ‘1’ and a ‘2’; the ‘6’ essay is notably longer than the ‘5’ essay. Sure the ‘6’ essay is of a general higher quality, but had the ‘6’ essay been the length of the ‘5’ essay it might have received a ‘5.5.’

So don’t think you can just fast and furiously scribble your way to a ‘6’. But as you work to improve the quality of your essays, keep in mind that the more high quality stuff you write the better.


2. Pay attention to the directions

Each Issue prompt and each Argument prompt comes with specific directions, which follow the prompt and are written in non-italicized letters. Make sure to read the directions; do not gloss over them. In your essay, if you do not directly address what the question is asking, your score will take a hit. Let’s take a look at two different directions that follow an Issue prompt.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the recommendation and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, describe specific circumstances in which adopting the recommendation would or would not be advantageous and explain how these examples shape your position.

You’ll notice that the directions begin very similarly but then veer away from each other. Nonetheless, both ask you to what extent you agree or disagree with the argument. The first set of instructions asks you to consider possible objections to your point of view (which implies you want to show how those objections are somewhat lacking). The second set of instructions asks you to offer up specific instances in which the recommendation either holds true or doesn’t.

Much of this can seem frustratingly abstract. The good news is I will write a few different issue essays taking into account the specific instructions. In the meantime, read the sample essays that ETS has released. You can see how the ‘6’ response effectively addresses the instructions.

The other piece of good news is that the instructions don’t create entirely different essays. Oftentimes, being true to the instructions entails nothing more than a few well-deployed sentences in the conclusion or at the end of a body paragraph.

Finally, the excerpts above are only two possible directions for the Issue prompt. Out of the 150 Issue prompts available on the ETS site, there are about half a dozen directions. Learn to become comfortable with each direction prompt. That of course means that you’ll have to knock out quite a few practice essays. Remember, the AWA game may not be the most fun in the world, but becoming good at it can make a big difference in how your GRE scores are interpreted.


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