Ace the Essays? No, Thanks!
By: Stacey Koprince
We all know that the essays on the GMAT are scored separately and that the schools don’t care as much about the essay scores. We also know we have to write the essays first, before we get to the more important quant and verbal sections, so we don’t want to use up too much brain-power on the essays. Still, we can’t just bomb the essay section; the schools do care about the essays somewhat. So how do we do a good enough job on the essays without expending so much energy that we’re negatively affected during the multiple-choice portion of the test?
We need to develop a template, an organizational framework on which to “hang” our writing. The template will not, of course, tell us exactly what to write. For that, we need the actual essay prompt, which we won’t see until we take the test. We can, however, determine how to organize the information ahead of time, as well as the general kinds of messages we need to convey at various points throughout.
The template should tell us:
- how many paragraphs to use
- the primary purpose of each of those paragraphs
- the kinds of information that need to be conveyed in each paragraph
The template will vary a little bit from person to person; the important thing is to have a consistent template for yourself that you’ve worked out in advance of the official test. In addition, we will need slightly different templates for the two different kinds of essays, so take note of the differences below.
As a general rule, essays should have either four or five paragraphs total. The first paragraph is always the introduction, the last paragraph is always the conclusion, and the body (middle) paragraphs are for the examples we choose to use.
Each paragraph should contain certain things; these are listed in the below sections. The information does not need to be presented in the given order below, though; just make sure that each paragraph does contain the necessary information in some sort of clear and logical order. In addition, the information listed below is the minimum necessary info; you can certainly add more where appropriate.
- summarize the issue
- state a thesis
- acknowledge that the other side does have some merit
- introduce your examples
The first paragraph should contain a brief summary of the issue at hand in your own words (don't just repeat what the essay prompt said). For an Argument essay, briefly summarize the conclusion of the given argument. For the Issue essay, briefly summarize the issue upon which the prompt has asked you to convey your opinion. For either, you don’t need more than a one to two sentence summary.
The first paragraph should also contain a thesis statement. The thesis is typically one sentence and conveys to the reader your overall message or point for the essay that you wrote. For the Argument essay, you can write most of your thesis sentence before you get to the test! You already know that the Argument will contain flaws, and that you will be discussing how those flaws hurt the author’s conclusion. Guess what? That’s your thesis!
“While the argument does have some merit, there are several serious flaws which serve to undermine the validity of the author’s conclusion that XYZ.”
DON’T USE THAT EXACT SENTENCE. They’re going to get suspicious if hundreds of people use the same sentence. (Besides, that’s my sentence. Come up with your own!)
Note the opening clause: “While the argument does have some merit.” This is what’s called “acknowledging the other side.” We don’t say, “Hey, your argument is completely terrible! There’s nothing good about it at all!” We acknowledge that some parts may be okay, or some people may feel differently, but our position is that the flaws are the most important issue (that is, our thesis is the most important thing).
On the Issue essay, you won’t be able to write your thesis statement ahead of time, but you do know you’ll have to do two things: (1) establish one clear position for yourself and (2) acknowledge the other side. (“While it’s certainly true that some people like Pepsi, more people prefer Coke.”)
Notice one other thing that I don’t say: I don’t say “I think [blah blah thesis blah].” I state my thesis as though it is fact and reasonable people surely agree with me. That’s a hallmark of a persuasive essay.
Finally, the first paragraph needs to introduce whatever examples we’re going to use in the body paragraphs below. Don’t launch into the examples fully; that will come later.
You can choose to use either 2 or 3 body paragraphs. (I use 2 body paragraphs, personally. Remember, we just need to be “good enough!”)
- introduce one flaw
- explain why it is a flaw
- suggest ways to fix the flaw
- introduce one real-world example
- give enough detail for reader to understand relevance of example
- show how example supports your thesis
The body of an essay is where we support our thesis statement. For the argument essay, your support will come from the prompt itself: brainstorm several flaws from the argument (try to find the biggest, most glaring flaws). Each flaw gets its own paragraph, so you’ll need either two or three, depending upon how many body paragraphs you want to write. Explicitly explain why this flaw makes the conclusion less valid in some way, and then discuss how the author might fix that flaw.
For example, let’s say that an argument claims that firing half of a company’s employees will help the company to reduce costs and therefore become more profitable. While it’s certainly true that chopping half of your payroll will reduce costs, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the company will become more profitable! That loss of personnel may reduce productivity, hurt morale of the remaining employees, and so on. The author of such an argument could bolster the claim by, for example, showing evidence that half of the employees are fully redundant and firing them wouldn’t affect the company adversely (if such evidence actually exists, of course!).
For the issue essay, your support will come from your brain: you’ll have to brainstorm some real-life example (something that actually happened in the past) in order to support your thesis. That example could be something from your own life (work history, school, friend of a friend) or from the broader world (business, history, and so on). Stating that Coke’s market share is higher than Pepsi’s, for example, would bolster your claim that more people prefer Coke.
There is no inherent advantage to a personal example versus a broader world example, but if you use a personal example, be sure to provide enough detail that the reader can understand the relevance. When you use real-world examples that the readers are likely to know, you don’t have to worry about, for example, explaining what Coke and Pepsi are.
Finally, make sure to tie your example specifically back to your original thesis. Don’t make the reader connect the dots: tell him or her exactly how this example supports your thesis.
- re-state your thesis (using new words)
- re-acknowledge the other side (using new words)
- briefly summarize how your examples supported your thesis (using new words)
- minimum 3 sentences; ideally 4 to 5
Are you noticing a theme within the above bullet points? Basically, the conclusion paragraph isn’t going to contain much new information. It’s a conclusion; the major points should already have been made earlier in the essay. What you’re doing now is tying everything together in one neat package: yes, the “other side” has some merit, but here’s my point-of-view and, by the way, I proved my case using these examples.
Before you go into the real test, you should have a fully developed template, so that all you have to do is come up with your two examples and your thesis statement, and then “hang” your words on your framework. Practice with the above as a starting point until you develop something with which you’re comfortable. Don’t forget to leave some time to proof your essay; it’s okay to have a few typos, but systematic errors will lower your score.
If you’re preparing for the GMAT, you’ve probably spent countless hours reviewing math concepts and mastering grammar skills. You’ve likely also spent time studying for the newer integrated reasoning section, too. But have you thought about the analytical writing assessment part of the GMAT?
If your answer is no, don’t worry! You’re not alone. Many test-takers go into test day without spending a lot of time preparing for the essay section of the GMAT, especially since it’s unclear how much (or even if) the GMAT essay even matters for getting into business school.
In this article, I’ll shed some light on the oft-forgotten GMAT AWA section. First, I’ll give you an overview of what’s actually on the AWA section. Next, I’ll discuss whether or not that score really matters for your admission to business school. Finally, I’ll tell share the top GMAT essay tips that are guaranteed to boost your GMAT essay score.
GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment Overview
The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment is designed to measure your ability to think critically about a topic and then communicate your ideas about that topic. During the AWA section, you’ll be asked to analyze and critique an argument and judged on your ability to do so clearly, thoroughly, and thoughtfully.
The GMAT AWA section consists of one writing task: a 30-minute essay. You’ll complete the AWA portion of the GMAT first, before every other test section.
For your GMAT essay, you’ll be asked to think critically about an argument that’s presented to you. You’re not supposed to give your opinion on the subject itself.
GMAT AWA scores range from 0 to 6, in half-point intervals. Every GMAT AWA response receives two independent scores. According to MBA.com, one of your scores may be performed by an essay-scoring engine. At least one of your GMAT AWA scores will be determined by a GMAT essay reader.
Your AWA score doesn’t affect your GMAT total score and is generally considered the least important of your GMAT scores.
The 6 Best GMAT Essay Tips
If you’re looking to achieve a GMAT essay score that’ll help you get into business school, these six GMAT Analytical Writing tips will help you achieve success.
#1: Follow the Directions
One of the most important GMAT essay tips is to understand the directions of the AWA section.
The AWA section specifically asks you to critique an argument on its strengths and weaknesses. AWA graders aren’t looking for a well-written, thoughtful opinion piece about the topic discussed in the prompt. They’re looking for you to analyze whether or not the argument itself was sound, and to back up that analysis with evidence from the text, and they’ll judge you on how well you accomplished that specific task. If you don’t follow the directions, you won’t achieve a high score.
#2: Develop a Clear Structure
Another one of the important GMAT writing tips is to take the time to set up your essay in a clear way.
You don’t need to write the most interesting or lengthy essay in the world to score well on the AWA section, but you do need to give your essay an easy-to-follow structure. Usually, that consists of an introduction, three to four well-developed body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Your introduction should restate the main argument of the prompt, then highlight the flaws in the argument that you’ll discuss in the body of the essay.
Each of the body paragraphs should focus on a specific flaw in the argument. First, you should highlight the flaw itself. Next, you’ll need to explain why that particular flaw is a flaw. Finally, you should highlight how the argument could’ve been made more clearly or more successfully.
In the conclusion, you’ll want to restate each of the reasons why the argument was flawed and summarize how those flaws affected the validity of the argument.
Following this clear, simple structure for your GMAT essay will help you achieve your goal score.
#3: Know the Common AWA Flaws
Your task for the GMAT AWA is to critique an argument given to you in a prompt. That means that you can assume the argument given is a weak one, since your job is basically to analyze its weaknesses.
GMAT AWA prompts typically have arguments that are weak in predictable ways. Be on the lookout for these common “flaws” that you’ll encounter in AWA prompts:
Causality: GMAT AWA prompts often contain errors in causality, which means that they attribute the wrong effect to the wrong cause. If you see an argument that uses causality, make sure you check to make sure that causality is correctly attributed and that there’s a provable causal relationship.
Vagueness: GMAT AWA prompts often contain vague terms or statistics that are used incorrectly to draw conclusions. For instance, a prompt might suggest that, out of a sample of 500 consumers, more are buying name-brand paper towels than generic paper towels. The use of the word “more,” in this case, isn’t specific enough because it doesn’t tell you exactly how many more people are buying name-brand paper towels. You can’t draw a definitive conclusion off of vague data.
Overconfidence: GMAT AWA prompts often contain overconfident language. You should be looking for the language in arguments to be thoughtful and well-balanced. Keep an eye out for words like “undoubtedly,” “definitely,” and “of course,” which indicate overconfidence.
One of the best GMAT essay tips is to practice, practice, practice before you actually complete the GMAT AWA section on test day. You can find real, retired GMAT AWA prompts on the GMAT website for free. You can also purchase the GMAT Write tool to receive scores on practice AWA prompts if you’re really concerned about your score.
Practicing will help you in a number of ways. First, practicing will help you master your timing. You’ll only have 30 minutes to craft a logical and well-reasoned essay on test day. The more you practice, the faster you’ll get at outlining and completing your essay.
As I mentioned in the previous GMAT writing tips, you’ll need to fully answer the correct prompt to achieve a good score on your GMAT essay. Practicing will help you get used to the structure of GMAT AWA prompts and help you get used to the types of questions you’ll see on test day.
Finally, practicing will help you get used the structure you need to employ to succeed on your GMAT essay. The more you practice, the more naturally you’ll be able to craft a complete introduction, body, and conclusion for each of your GMAT essays.
#5: Take Time to Outline
While outlining may seem like one of the more basic GMAT essay tips, taking five minutes at the beginning of the AWA section to sketch out a basic outline of your essay will really help you as you start to write.
Everyone outlines differently, but in general, I’d suggest having one to two bullet points for each paragraph that highlight the main ideas the paragraph will cover. Outlining will help you make sure you’ve covered all the main points you need to fully answer the question.
#6: Don’t Sweat the AWA Too Much
The final of my GMAT analytical writing tips is to not worry about the AWA section too much. As I mentioned in a previous section, the AWA section isn’t that important in the overall scheme of your GMAT score. It’d be a mistake to spend a lot of time and energy stressing over and preparing for the AWA section before you take the GMAT.
Spend between three to six hours preparing for the AWA, depending on how comfortable you are writing to the AWA’s structure. More often than not, that’s all the time test-takers need to achieve a solid AWA score.
Your GMAT AWA score won’t make or break your chance of admission to the business school of your dreams. An AWA score between 4-6 will sufficiently demonstrate your writing abilities to most admissions committees, and there’s not a huge advantage to scoring a perfect 6 on the AWA section.
An AWA score of below 4, however, will raise red flags for admissions committees who may question your communication abilities. So, it’s important to study for the AWA section to make sure your score is sufficient.
Feeling set on GMAT analytical writing tips, but looking for more advice on other sections of the GMAT? We’ve got tons of in-depth, high-quality guides to help you master the content you’ll see on GMAT test day. Check out our guide to the GMAT verbal section to learn how to master the three GMAT question types or read our guide to the GMAT quant section to understand exactly what math you need to know to achieve your goal GMAT score.
Looking to make an in-depth, comprehensive GMAT study plan? Our guide to GMAT study plans provides four sample study plans that you can adapt to your needs. Pick and choose between one-month, three-month, and six-month study plans that are each designed to boost your GMAT score.
Setting a realistic goal score is a hugely important part of your GMAT prep. By setting a realistic goal score, you give yourself a target to work towards and a benchmark by which to measure your progress as you prep for the GMAT. In our guide to GMAT score requirements, you’ll learn about how to set a goal that makes sense for your abilities and needs as a test-taker.