Analytical writing is one of the three sections of the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, a standardized test required by many graduate school programs. The analytical writing section is designed to measure your ability to develop and analyze arguments and express complex ideas through writing. It contains two tasks; the first asks you to analyze an issue while the second asks you to analyze an argument. You have 30 minutes to complete each task.
The issue task provides a quotation or general opinion and instructions on how to evaluate the opinion, such as how to explain why you agree or disagree with it. The opinion might relate to arts, sciences, humanities or other fields, but it won't require you to have specific knowledge about a topic. Instead, the task tests your ability to construct an argument and back it with reasoning and examples. There's no right or wrong answer, just strong and weak arguments.
The argument task provides an argument, such as the case made for a certain action, and requires you to analyze its logic. Like the issue task, the argument task doesn't require specific knowledge, and you don't have to decide whether you agree or disagree with the argument. The task instead tests your ability to write persuasively and think critically. For example, you must examine the evidence supporting an argument, the argument's unstated assumptions and the logical conclusions that can be drawn from the information given.
Each of the tasks is scored by trained readers on a six-point scale. The essays are scored holistically, so readers evaluate the impact of your essay as a whole rather than your use of individual skills such as grammar or vocabulary. Your scores on the two essays are averaged and rounded to the nearest half-point to determine your overall score for the section.
If you take the computer-based GRE, you will write both tasks on a word processing program developed by Educational Testing Service, the maker of the test. The program lets you cut and paste text and undo previous actions, but it doesn't have spell-check or grammar-check features. If you take the paper-based GRE, you will write your essays on paper.
Educational Testing Service recommends that all test-takers prepare in advance for the analytical writing section. Read prompts and sample responses from past tests and take practice tests. For example, one issue prompt included the quote, "As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate." The task then asked test-takers to "Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement above and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how those considerations shape your position." During the test, budget your time carefully. Ensure you leave time to brainstorm ideas, write your response and proofread for mistakes.
Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at tolerance.org. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.