GRE: Suggested Approach to the Analytical Writing Section

The Analytical Writing Assessment presents you with two distinct tasks: (1) to present your perspective on an issue and (2) to analyze an argument. To present your perspective on an issue, the test asks you to take a position on the given issue and to support your position with relevant details or examples.

Selecting your Topic

At the testing site you will be given a choice between two topics. Since your allotted time of 45 minutes starts when you first see the two topics, you should make your decision carefully, but quickly. In making your selection, you should consider the following:

  1. Which topic is more interesting to you?

  2. Which topic do you know more about?

  3. On which topic do you have any stronger opinions or more knowledge?

  4. On which topic could you find better examples or reasons to support your position?

Considering these questions should help you select your topic quickly.

The Writing Process

For any timed writing task, you should envision three steps leading to the finished product:

  1. Preparing to write (prewriting)

  2. Writing

  3. Proofreading (editing)

Preparing to Write

Before you begin analyzing the topic itself, you should make yourself aware of the amount of time allotted for the assignment as well as the space available. For the Analytical Writing Assessment, you receive 45 minutes for the Issue task and 30 minutes for the Argument task. You will have the equivalent of about three pages to complete your response for each task. Use the provided scratch paper to organize your writing before you begin inputting or writing your response.

Next, read and understand the topic. Giving too little time and attention to this task is a major mistake. Remember that if you address the topic incorrectly, or even partially, your score drops significantly, no matter how well you organize, support, and write the response. Therefore, you must spend adequate time carefully reading and understanding the topic and its exact requirements.

Pay special attention to key words in the directions, like describe, compare, explain, and contrast. Be aware that or requires a choice. For example, "Present your opinions for or against . . ." means take one point of view, not both. Be careful to assess completely all the tasks required. You may find reading the topic several times helpful, focusing on the key words or tasks.

Be sure to discriminate between required and optional tasks. If the instructions use the word may, you may omit that task or a part of it.

Remembering, inventing, and organizing information at short notice can be difficult unless you are prepared with an effective technique. Writing your response immediately after reading the topic often results in a poorly organized, haphazard response. Take time to organize your thoughts on paper before writing.

  • Brainstorming: The process of creating and accumulating ideas, examples, and illustrations is called brainstorming. Brainstorming simply entails jotting down on scratch paper as many thoughts, ideas, and possibilities as you can remember, invent, or otherwise bring to mind to address the topic. Neatness, order, and spelling do not matter at this point.

  • Organizing: After generating as many illustrations as you can within the time allotted, assess  your ideas. Remember that development relies on specific examples: Decide which examples best enable you to support your points. Eliminate (cross out) those you don't want to use, and number those you'll want to address in your response. Add any notes regarding more specific details or new thoughts that come to mind. However, don't worry about developing everything completely, because only you use these planning notes. Your time will be better spent developing these points in your writing and not in your notes.

Writing Your Opening Paragraph

A strong opening paragraph provides an essential component for a well-developed response. One easy-to-master, yet extremely effective, type of introduction is a GENERALIZE-FOCUS-SURVEY structure. In this three- to four-sentence paragraph, the first sentence generalizes about the given topic, the second sentence focuses on what you have chosen to discuss, and the last one or two sentences survey the particulars you intend to present.

An effective first paragraph tells your reader what to expect in the body of the response. The GENERALIZE-FOCUS-SURVEY paragraph points toward the specifics you will discuss and suggests the order in which you will discuss them.

Writing the Body of Your Essay

Writing the body of the response involves presenting specific details and examples that relate to the aspects you introduced in the first paragraph. The body may consist of one long paragraph or several short paragraphs. If you choose to break your discussion into several paragraphs, make sure that each paragraph consists of at least three sentences. Very short paragraphs may make your response appear insubstantial and scattered.

Be realistic about how much you can write. Your readers do not give more credit for longer responses. Although they want you to support your points adequately, they understand that you must write concisely to finish in time.

Providing at least one substantial example, or "for instance," is important for each aspect you discuss in the body of your response.

Formulating Your Conclusion

As you prepare to write the conclusion, you should pay special attention to time. Having a formal conclusion to your response is unnecessary, but a conclusion may function to (1) complete your response to the question, (2) add information that you failed to introduce earlier, or (3) point toward the future.

Proofreading

Always allow a few minutes to proofread your response for errors in grammar, usage, and spelling.

One Approach: The "Why" Format

One good way to approach a question that asks you to explain, analyze, or evaluate is to use a "why" format. You build a "why" response around a thesis sentence. The thesis sentence begins with your opinion followed by the word because and then a list of the most important reasons the opinion is valid, reasonable, or well founded.

The "why" format could look like this:

Paragraph "Why" Response Format
1 Introduction: Thesis Sentence
2 Reason 1
3 Reason 2
4 Reason 3
5 Conclusion

Each paragraph should contain at least three to five sentences. The introduction invites the reader to read on. Your reasons (three are often sufficient) should give examples or evidence to support each reason. Your concluding paragraph summarizes your reasons and restates the thesis statement.