I’m going to do something bold here: I’m not going to include one of the most common–if not the most common–essay writing tips. And that is organization. Surely, you contend, that must be one of the top three tips. Arguably so. But it is also the one that many GRE students internalize and obsess over, often to the exclusion of other, arguably, more important aspects.
Additionally, most of us (let’s be honest: practically all of us) have had the five-paragraph structure hammered into our heads long before we were able to legally drive a car. The AWA, though, has its own rules, which many are aware of, stuff that can impress the graders (just writing a standard paragraph essay isn’t one of them). The following three tips will shed insights into what the graders are looking for.
Read real sample essays
Both essays are graded from 0.0 to a 6.0. A zero score essentially means that you decided to fall asleep, your forehead pressed on the keyboard, a torrent of gibberish appearing on the screen. A 6.0 is a well-crafted essay, full of analysis, nuanced thinking, specific examples, and stylistic, sophisticated writing. There’s even a specific rubric describing exactly what each 1-point increment on the six-point scale means.
But I would recommend skipping this part. Interpreting the descriptions of those scores is too subjective. Really, what does “stylistic, sophisticated writing” mean to the GRE grader?
Well, to get that answer all you have to do is read the sample essays of actual student responses. This can be found online or in the GRE ETS Official Guide. You’ll get to see the kind of response that merits a ‘2’, a ‘4’, and a ‘6’. Below each response, the GRE graders themselves have given an analysis of the essay: what it did well, and what it could do better. When you go to write your own practice essay, you’ll already know what the GRE graders are looking for–and aren’t looking for.
Work on sentence construction
One thing the graders love is logical flow. Your sentences should have key transition words (“for example,” “however,” “therefore,” etc.) that allow you to persuasively make your point. When you lack that logical flow, even if you have the right ideas coursing through your brain, your writing becomes muddled, and the test graders become confused.
To avoid this, go back to the basics: sentence construction. What is the difference between an independent and a dependent clause? What transition words most effectively link ideas within–and between–sentences?
This is the kind of logical organization that gets overlooked in favor of holistic organization: intro, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. But as long as you have a clear topic sentence for your paragraph, and your ideas logically flow from that first sentence and end with a clear statement of your point at the end of the paragraph, it isn’t that big of a deal whether you write two body paragraphs or four body paragraphs. (Though make sure you do have a clear intro and a conclusion–neither of which, by the way, has to be more than a few sentences.)
Don’t time every practice essay
When learning a new skill, or even refining an old one, you have to practice or develop it under non-stressful conditions. Otherwise, it is difficult for such learning to take root. However, many mistakenly assume that it is always a bad idea to write the AWA essays without having a time limit. Unless, the essay is two days off and there really isn’t much time for “learning to take root,” begin without a timer. (I’d recommend at least 30-days to prep for the GRE–check out this helpful GRE study guide.)
For example, if you’ve been practicing clause construction by writing simple example sentences (“Because I gave myself plenty of time to prep for the GRE, I felt prepared. Nonetheless, I arrived 15 minutes late to the test center”), you’ll want to give yourself time to apply what you’ve learned about clauses when writing a practice essay. Or, if you’re just learning how to identify logical fallacies in the Argument essay, you’ll want to give yourself time to identify these fallacies and express them logically. Conversely, starting the timer will put you in a “flight or fight” mode and you are likely to fall back into your old habits (which for many is to write whatever comes to mind).
Once you’ve noticed improvements in your writing, give yourself a “soft” time limit. Keep practicing until you are writing comfortably within this time limit. Then put a slightly more aggressive time limit in place, until you are finally down to the allowed time. Your final score will thank you.
Chris Lele is the GRE Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 8 million views.
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