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GRE Analytical Writing: How to Best Prepare

written by: •edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 11/21/2011

Worried about the Analytical Writing section on the GRE? Learn how the writing section is arranged and get tips for writing a good opinion or argument essay.

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    What is the Anaylitcal Writing Section?

    This section is intended to test your ability to argue and analyze arguments. These are important skills for graduate students because you will be working at a level where you will need to analyze arguments and present, clearly, your own perspectives on issues. Because of this, the GRE Analytical Writing Section consists of two parts: A 45-minute segment where you will be asked to write your perspective on an issue, and a 30-minute segment where you will analyze an argument. This section of the GRE is scored on a six-point scale where a score of 0 means you didn't even attempt to answer the question given and a score of 6 means that you possess mastery over the analytic writing task.

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    Presenting a Perspective on an Issue

    "Education is a privilege for the few, not a right for the many."

    Above is a statement that you may agree or disagree with. When you are working on the GRE Analytical Writing section, you will be asked to choose between two statements and either agree or disagree with the position expressed. In graduate school, you will be taking many seminars. Unlike your undergraduate experience, you will not be expected to simply regurgitate facts. Instead, you will need to know whether you agree or disagree with the point of view expressed in your reading assignments. It's not enough to agree or disagree, you also will often need to be able to express your assent or dissent with a particular statement in essay form. The task of presenting your perspective on an issue tests and evaluates your likelihood of success in performing this task in graduate school. You will learn more on how to undertake this task in the third part of this series. For now, know that it's not enough to simply agree or disagree. You will need to be able to back up your statement with solid arguments.

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    Overview of Argument Analysis

    "Ice cream is good for you. It tastes good. It smells good. It is made with milk. Everybody should eat ice cream."

    While most likely you will not have the above argument to analyze on the GRE Analytical section, you will have an argument that needs analysis. Argument analysis differs from the position paper in that you are analyzing the soundness and validity of someone else's argument. If their argument is unsound or invalid, you will need to point it out in your essay. You will also need to point out why it is unsound or invalid. Finally, you will want to point out what will have made it a stronger argument. This is an activity you will be participating in a lot once you get into graduate school, so the sooner you can learn how to do it, the easier the adjustment from undergraduate work to graduate work will be.

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    Scoring

    Before you begin preparing for the GRE Analytical Writing section, take time to familiarize yourself with what the scores mean. A 6 or 5.5 on the writing section means that you effectively were able to communicate in an insightful and in-depth manner. It also means that you were able to use the English language in a manner that is superior to peers. A 5 or 4.5 means that your analysis was general and developed, with good control, but minor errors. A 4 or 3.5 means that you were competent at analyzing the ideas, but there are some errors effecting the readability. A 3 or below means that your competence at analysis is in question. Naturally the goal is to get at least a 4.5 on the exam. Read on to find out how to do this.

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    What Makes a Good Opinion Essay?

    You Can't Just Say "I Agree"

    It might seem obvious, but you can't simply agree or disagree when you are presenting your personal perspective on an issue to the person reading and scoring your GRE. Instead, the best opinion essays are those that understand that there is another side to the issue and respond to it. For example, if you are given the statement "Education is essential to a bright future," posing both sides of the argument and stating why your position holds more strength will score higher. If you simply argue that education is essential to a bright future, without considering your potential opponent, your argument won't be as strong.

    Start with an Outline

    It is essential to take the time to outline your opinion essay. This way, you can outline your argument in your introductory paragraph. A good essay will tell your audience what you are going to say, then tell them, then conclude by reiterating your position. Think of a good essay as being like a sandwich. Your introduction and conclusion are the slices of bread. Each point you wish to make gets a separate paragraph and is a separate filling of the sandwich. All parts of your essay have to fit together. If you write a paragraph that strays from your main point it's like putting pickles or anchovies in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

    Follow the Rules of Good Logic

    Before taking the GRE, spend some time boning up on argument forms and fallacies. Common fallacies include Straw Man, Ad Hominem, Begging the Question, Slippery Slope and more. It's not enough to study various fallacies, make sure you don't commit them in your opinion essay! For a list of 42 common fallacies, you may want to read Michael Labossiere's article at Nizor.

    Next, you will want to make sure that any assumptions have been clearly stated in your essay. This will make it easier for your reader to understand your argument. It will also make clearer your premises (supporting statements of an argument) and uphold your conclusion better.

    Finally, make sure you are following the rules of logic. In part three of this series, I discuss the common forms of valid arguments. Be sure you don't make an invalid argument such as affirming the consequent:

    • If it rains, I'll go to the movies.
    • I go to the movies.
    • It rains.

    The above argument is invalid. Why? Because it might be the case that I went to the movies and it didn't rain. With a conditional, the only time it is false is if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false (i.e. it does, in fact rain, and I didn't go to the movies.) The antecedent of an argument is the first part of a conditional statement - the "if." The consequent of an argument is the second part of a conditional statement, the "then" part. Another common invalid argument form is denying the antecedent. This is when you say:

    • If it rains, I'll go the movies.
    • It doesn't rain.
    • I don't go to the movies.

    This is invalid for the same reasons the first argument is invalid - it might rain, and I might still go to the movies. The two arguments stated in this section are two of the most common invalid argument forms. Learn them and avoid them to make your opinion essay strong.

    Proofread

    Finally, make sure before you hit that "submit" button on your essay that you spend a little time proofreading for errors. You never know when a "tehir" instead of a "their" may derail your efforts. Also, it almost goes without saying, check your grammar and spelling. Remember, if either of these is off enough to make your writing unclear, you will receive a lower score than you want.

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    What Makes a Good Argument Analysis?

    Not Just Saying "They're Wrong"

    In graduate school, when you disagree with an author it won't be enough to say that you believe the author is flawed. Instead, you will be expected to analyze the arguments the author provides and demonstrate whether you think their argument is valid and sound.

    Valid arguments are those that follow this law: It is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false. For example, if I say, "All horses are mammals. Mr. Ed is a horse. Therefore, Mr. Ed is a mammal." I have given a classic valid argument. If, on the other hand I say something like "If it snows, it will be cold. It snows. Therefore it is hot," I have created an invalid argument. Before taking the GRE, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with basic logic.

    Sound arguments are those that are both valid and have all true premises. For example, if I say, "Either cats are reptiles or cats are amphibians. Cats are not reptiles. Therefore, cats are amphibians." I have created an unsound argument. This is actually a fallacy - a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is when only two options are given when there are more options available. A good book to learn fallacies from is Anthony Flew's A Rulebook for Arguments.

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    More About Argument Validity

    There are eight basic argument forms:

    1. Modus Ponens (If P then Q, P, Q) For example, If it's raining I'll go to the movies. It's raining. I'll go to the movies. I would be lying to you if it were raining and I didn't go to the movies.

    2. Modus Tollens (If P then Q, Not P, Not Q) For example, If you build it they will come. They did not come. You did not build it. I would be lying if they did not come, but you built it.

    3. Simplification (P and Q, P) There was an election and John McCain did not win. There was an election. It wouldn't make sense if I made the first statement and then denied the second statement.

    4. Argument by Elimination (Either P or Q, Not P, Q) Either John McCain will win or Barack Obama will win. John McCain did not win. Thus, Barack Obama won. I would be lying if neither one won.

    5. Hypothetical Syllogism (If p then q, if q then r, if p then r) If you do not study you will not pass the test. If you do not pass the test you will not pass the class. If you do not study you will not pass the class. This follows the rules also of 1 and 2.

    6. Contraposition (If P then Q, If not Q, then not P). If you study you will pass the class. If you do not pass the class you did not study.

    7. Equivalence (P if and only if Q, Not P, Not Q) Jack will fall if and only if Jill comes tumbling after. Jack did not fall. Jill did not come tumbling after.

    8. Addition (P. P or Q) The president flies on Air Force One. The president flies on Air Force One or cows jump over the moon. This is only false if The president does not fly on Air Force One.

    When studying, also study the invalid argument forms such as affirming the antecedent (P then Q, Q, P) some of the arguments you will analyze on the GRE will have invalid argument forms.

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    Constructing a Good Analysis

    When writing the argument analysis essay, you will want to check for validity and soundness. You will also want to analyze the argument for the possibility of alternative explanations of events (if a cause and effect relationship is being asserted), challenge any assumptions the argument author has made, or pose counterexamples for statements in arguments. For example, to disprove my statement, "All horses are brown," you would point out that you know of a white horse (or show me a photo).

    Finally, make sure you understand the argument being presented to you. Identify the conclusion and each of the premises (the statements backing up the argument). Identify any assumptions that must hold for the argument to hold. Finally see if there are counterexamples. Your goal in this task is to show the person scoring your essay that you have a mastery over analytic writing.

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    But I Won't Know the Topic!

    No, you won't know the topics you will be asked to write about on the GRE analytical writing section. But, you will know that you can choose from two issues presented randomly from the "Pool of Issue Topics" and "Pool of Argument Topics" provided by ETS. You may be familiar with some of the issues you will be asked to discuss, but then again you might not be. Don't let this freak you out. Instead, put energy into practicing your argument analysis and writing skills. If you read the newspaper often (look for a national paper like the New York Times), you will have already noticed the op-ed section where arguments are posed on different issues. This is a great place to look for practice analyzing arguments (and it will help you to be knowledgeable about controversial issues). You can even do this online.

    Another place to look for GRE preparation tips and examples is the ETS website. They offer free (!) practice questions so you can see what they are looking for. Try answering one of these questions each study session - but time yourself. You want to become good at outlining, writing, and proofreading a short piece in the time allotted to you for the test. By timing yourself you will know how much you can reasonably write in the allotted time period.

    While you might not have time to prepare an essay for each of the questions in the question pool, you can familiarize yourself with the types of issues that will be covered. It is a good idea to go through the pools so that you won't be surprised - and who knows - the topic you practice on may just appear on your test.

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    Brush up on the Basics

    Now is the time to brush up on grammar, spelling, and rules for good writing in order to properly prepare you for the GRE. It's not enough to be able to pose a compelling argument. You also have to pose the argument in a clear, concise manner. References for brushing up on the basics include: The Elements of Style, Painless Grammar, and The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need.

    You may also benefit from utilizing a tutor. If you are still in your undergraduate institution, you may find a tutor at school at the writing center. If your school doesn't have a writing center, or if you're not in school currently, you can find an academic coach to help evaluate your writing so you know what to work on to better prepare for the GRE.

    Finally, you will want to brush up on your critical thinking and argumentative writing skills. For critical thinking, Brooke Moore and Richard Parker have written a wonderful introductory text, Critical Thinking. For argumentative writing, check out the Philosophy Student Writer's Manual. This book has some wonderful tips on writing opinion essays and on analyzing arguments.

    To find these books and more, click here.

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    Turn off Spell and Grammar Check

    The final tip for GRE preparation (aside from reading the ETS's guide to the GRE Analytical Section) is to turn off the spell and grammar check on your computer. This way, when you write your practice essays, you have to be mindful of your mechanics just as you would in the exam. By doing this, you make proofreading a habit, and you can estimate how much you will be able to do in the time allotted.