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The Analytical Writing Section: What is it and should I care?

As it turns out, the GRE has a writing section. We don’t like it but there it is. Here’s everything you need to know about it:

Structure of the Writing Section:

  1. “Issue Task”: You get 45 minutes to express your view on an “issue” randomly selected from a pool of “issues.” The “issues” in question will be pretty similar to what you might remember from the SAT Writing section; probably you’ll see something like: “Do you think individuals determine their own lives, or do you think that they are influenced by society?”
  2. “Argument Task”: You’ll be presented with an argument on a random topic and asked to evaluate it and suggest how its logic might be improved. This section takes 30 minutes.

The Writing Section is Scored by a Cyborg

Okay, not exactly a cyborg. Your essay will be scored by (1) a “trained grader” (probably a semi-employed grad student), and (2) a computer program. It’s scored on a scale from 0 to 6 in 0.5-point increments. If the computer and the grad student agree on your score, that’s the score you’ll get; if they disagree, it will be sent to another human for re-evaluation. Think about this for a minute: Your essay is graded in such a way that a computer can grade it. This is a pretty good indication that nuanced critical thought is not what they’re testing here.

Tips on the GRE Writing Section:

  1. It’s really, really not that important. Grad schools have all sorts of ways to evaluate your writing, and they’re well aware that standardized tests aren’t a great way of doing it. Assuming you don’t freeze up and run out of the room crying, your writing score probably won’t determine whether you get into grad school. So don’t spend too much time preparing; write a couple of timed practice essays, make sure they’re not incoherent and move on.
  2. Go for simple, solid argument and don’t try to be too clever! You have very little time to write these essays, so you won’t have time to come up with anything particularly good. Plus, your writing will be graded by someone who reads thirty of these things a day and probably hates her job; odds are she won’t be interested in tracing out the nuances of your argument.
  3. Remember those five-paragraph essays you learned to write in high school and unlearned to write in college? Learn to write them! Read the topic, quickly choose a simple point to make about it, figure out a couple of examples, write an outline and get going. Be very clear about what you think and why. Don’t use vocabulary you’re not sure how to spell or sentence structures you’re not comfortable with; you won’t have time to edit, and you want to look as competent as possible.

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Photo credit Markus Rödder under a Creative Commons license.