Most students in college will have already written the closest thing to the GRE essay in high school, when they wrote the essay for the ACT or the SAT (RIP). The ACT and SAT essays themselves are very different from the type of writing that students do in school, and it only gets weirder: the GRE Analytical Writing section is as different from the ACT/SAT essays as the ACT/SAT essays are from English papers. If you’re looking to improve your score on the GRE writing section, you’ll need to know what you’re up against. Here’s an overview of the GRE writing section that should get you started.
How the GRE Analytical Writing Section is Different: Format
The first thing that a GRE student will notice about the GRE’s Analytical Writing section is how drastically the digital format changes the test. Unlike most other timed tests you’ll take in your life, the GRE is entirely digital. You’ll plan, organize, and write your essay entirely in text editor software. Until you try this, it’s hard to explain how different it is from writing an essay on paper. You can still organize your thoughts graphically on the paper, but then you’ll need to transfer all of that to the text editor. The digital format allows you to write faster, since typing is faster than writing by hand for most people; however, you probably won’t think as much while you’re writing, since typing is less mentally involved for many people as well.
For most GRE writing section test-takers, this means you’ll still want to organize your thoughts on paper initially, but you should focus on transferring them to the text editor as soon as possible. It’s much easier to rearrange and edit things in a text editor than on paper (delete, cut, and paste are your friends!), so take advantage of that. Getting your thoughts into digital form earlier means easier and faster organization and therefore more time to write.
Of course, any GRE writing overview would be incomplete if it didn’t mention the fact that there are two essays back to back. There’s not much to say about that in terms of approach: you’ll pretty much just do one and then the other. Remember, though: it’s a lot of writing all at once, so don’t be afraid to take a short break and reset your focus before the second essay.
How the GRE Analytical Writing Section is Different: Substance
The GRE writing section requires a strange combination of writing fast and writing smart. There’s not enough time to write a truly thorough essay, and the topic often isn’t juicy enough to warrant that anyway; however, you’re given just enough time that you will need to actually make a compelling point in your essay. Here’s a GRE writing overview of how to tackle each of the two tasks you’re given.
Analyze an Issue
In this task, you’ll read a short paragraph about a topic that the GRE has deemed to be of “broad interest”. This topic can range from whether chefs should strive to use local ingredients to how we should organize society. After reading the paragraph, you’ll need to take a position on the issue and develop an argument that takes into account its complexities. This lightning-speed “form an opinion” format is like most essays you’ve written in school, except for the very bare-bones text on which you’re basing your opinion in this case. The prompts in this task can be shockingly short; in fact, they’re often only a single sentence. That means the real exercise is in the planning, as you’ll need to dream up your own opinion based on very little substance.
Remember: you don’t have to believe what you’re arguing in order to argue effectively! Pick a strong stance and stick to it—it will be easier to say more that way.
Analyze an Argument
This is the task that most students have more trouble with. Especially coming off of the previous task, it’s easy to interpret this task as “evaluate an argument’s stance”. But that’s not actually what the task is. It’s to “consider the logical soundness” of an argument, not to decide if you agree or disagree with what the argument is saying. If you miss this crucial point, you’re sure to get a low score because you won’t have adequately addressed the prompt.
Rather than stating your position on the issue, as in the previous task, consider the evidence that is presented in the prompt and the way the argument is constructed, then critique those aspects based on their effectiveness.
Remember: always keep in mind what the assignment is, and answer the question as written. Don’t write the essay you’re used to writing, but the unfamiliar one demanded by the prompt.
GRE Writing Help from a Pro
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