Prospective graduate students covet a score of 6 on the analytical writing section of the Graduate Record Examinations, but many consider it the most daunting of the GRE's three sections. Although you'll have only half an hour to compose each essay in the analytical section, a thorough understanding of the test and diligent practice can help you maximize your time so that your answers rate a high score.
Understand the Scoring Criteria
To get a high score on the analytical section of the GRE, it's crucial to understand the difference between the two essay prompts you'll see. The "Analyze an Issue" task requires you to persuade your reader to accept your perspective. The "Analyze an Argument" task requires you to evaluate the logic of someone else's argument. The Educational Testing Service publishes scoring criteria for each task and for the analytical writing section as a whole. Read through the criteria carefully, and look at the sample essays and the scorer comments that accompany them.
Each task will have one of several possible instructions, which are listed on the ETS website. For example, a possible prompt for the argument task reads, "Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument and explain how the evidence would weaken or strengthen the argument." Review all these prompts ahead of time and make sure you understand what each one asks you to do. You'll save time on the test if you can just glance at the instructions, rather than having to interpret them then and there. On test day, be sure to account for all portions of the question -- for instance, the example above tells you both what your main points should focus on and what kind of rationale you must provide.
Be Clear and Specific
Both portions of the analytical writing section require you to take a clear position and to present specific evidence that supports your claim. Much of the scoring depends on your abilities to make a claim about the issue or the argument's logic, to offer main points for your claim supported by reasons and examples, and to connect your ideas logically. Consider creating a brief outline of your main claim and main points once you read the prompt, but before you start writing, since mapping out your answer will give you a better sense for where to insert transitions and evidence in your essay. Try to provide more than one reason or example to support each main point you make.
Once you understand the expectations and parameters for the analytical writing section, nothing will improve your score more than practice will. The ETS website actually includes all of the possible issue prompts and argument prompts that you could see on the GRE, along with instructions for each one. The only difference is that on test day, the GRE might pair each prompt with different instructions than the website does. Because there are so many possible prompts, you're relatively unlikely to get tested on one that you've practiced, but your facility with both tasks will increase with even a few practice essays. If possible, have an instructor or writing center staff member at your school look over your answers and discuss how you could make them stronger.
- Educational Testing Service: Scoring Guide for the Issue Task
- Educational Testing Service: Scoring Guide for the Argument Task
- Educational Testing Service: Introduction to the Issue Task
- Educational Testing Service: Introduction to the Argument Task
- Educational Testing Service: Score Level Descriptions for the Analytical Writing Measure
- Educational Testing Service: Pool of Issue Topics
- Educational Testing Service: Pool of Argument Topics
Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.