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GMAT Essay Strategies — What Makes for a High-scoring Essay?

In this tutorial you'll first learn what skills the AWA section is designed to measure. Then you'll learn how GMAT essays are evaluated by the readers and rated by E-Rater. Later you'll review some useful GMAT-essay strategies; specifically, you'll learn how best to prepare for the AWA section and how to organize and write an essay that will earn you a high score by making a distinctly positive impression.

Q: How does the AWA, in which your task is to analyze and argument, differ substantively from the Critical Reasoning questions you'll find on the exam's Verbal section?

A: The official term for the AWA writing task is Analysis of an Argument. And as the term suggests, your task during the 30-minute AWA section is to critique a stated argument, pointing out problems with the evidence and line of reasoning used to draw a conclusion. So the GMAT writing task is essentially an exercise in critical thinking — very much like analyzing arguments on which GMAT Critical Reasoning questions are based.

One key difference, of course, is that the AWA also gauges your writing skills — specifically, how effectively you organize and your present your ideas. Another key difference is that for the writing task you need to provide your own analysis rather than simply pick from among five choices.

As for which is more difficult — Critical Reasoning or Argument Analysis — most test takers find the latter more challenging because essay writing is inherently open-ended. Just deciding what to say and how to organize your thoughts can be very challenging if you haven't adequately prepared for the task. Most test takers are more comfortable with the Critical Reasoning format because there is a correct answer right in front of you, among five choices; your job is simply to recognize it as such. Nevertheless, some GMAT test takers are actually quite comfortable writing critical essays; so it's a very individual matter.

Q: Evaluating an essay inherently involves a degree of subjectivity. How does the testing service minimize subjectivity in the scoring process — to ensure fairness?

A: GMAT readers, who are college and university faculty hired by the testing service for this purpose, evaluate GMAT essays on a 0-6 scale. (6 is the highest possible score.) The criteria for each score (0-6) are listed in the official GMAT Bulletin. What they boil down to, though, are four basic criteria:

  1. Content — the strength, relevance, and persuasiveness of your ideas (and supporting examples)

  2. Organization — how clearly your ideas flow and connect together from one to the next

  3. Language — your facility with the vocabulary of the English language

  4. Mechanics — grammar, syntax (sentence structure), spelling, and so forth

None of these four areas is most important per se. The testing service instructs the readers to evaluate GMAT essays holistically — to look at an essay as a complete package, without undue emphasis on any single criterion. So an essay that demonstrates competency in all four areas will probably earn a higher score than an essay that contains brilliant ideas but rambles incoherently from one awkward sentence to the next.

It might be useful here to draw an analogy to the scoring system for the Quantitative and Verbal sections of the GMAT. The scoring system for those two sections accounts for the range of cognitive abilities covered among your correct responses — so all else being equal between two test takers, the one who demonstrates a broader set of skills will score higher. The same goes for the GMAT essay, even though it's a human who is evaluating the essay, and no mathematical formulas are employed in the essay-scoring process.

Q: Aren't GMAT essays also graded by a computer program? How is this possible, and does this suggest any test-taking strategies for composing a GMAT essay?

A: Yes, every GMAT essay is evaluated not only by a human reader but also by a computer program, which the testing service refers to as E-Rater. This program evaluates each essay for grammar and spelling errors, syntax, repetitiveness, as well as sentence and paragraph length — much like the grammar-checkers and spell-checkers built into word-processing programs, except a bit more refined.

E-Rater obviously can't evaluate your ideas or how well you've organized those ideas. But test takers must not assume that content should be of secondary concern to mechanics in composing GMAT essays. The best way to think of E-Rater's role is as a way for the testing service to flag an errant score awarded by a human reader. If E-Rater's score for an essay differs from the human reader's score by more than one point (on the 6-point scale), a second human reader will read and grade that essay, and the final AWA score will be the average of the two human readers' scores. Thus the testing service's use of E-Rater should simply not enter into a test taker's strategy when it comes to composing his or her GMAT essay.

Q: Given that E-Rater checks spelling, doesn't the test discriminate against poor typists, especially considering the time pressure involved during the test? For that matter, aren't slow typists, as well as people who are not proficient at using word processors, at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to the GMAT essays?

A: Yes, and that's one of the chief criticisms of the GMAT essay section. Slow and inaccurate typists are at an inherent disadvantage. But it's important not to make more out of the spelling issue than you should. The testing service has assured test takers that they will not be penalized for occasional misspellings, and that spelling problems will adversely impact your score only if those problems substantially interfere with the reader's understanding of your ideas, Besides, a human reader can tell the difference between words that are inadvertently misspelled — such as the word "between," which many people often inadvertently type as "bewteen" — and words such as "fallisy," instead of the correct "fallacy," which show that the test taker is a poor speller. E-Rater's computerized spell-checker is also programmed to make this sort of distinction, at least for commonly used words.

Your GMAT reader(s) will pay far more attention to how you use words (your diction) than to how you've spelled those words. And don't think for a second that GMAT readers don't notice poor diction. Since E-Rater cannot detect most kinds of diction errors, the human readers look closely for two types of diction errors:

  • Improper word choice — for example, the use of the superlative "best" where the comparative "better" is proper, or vice versa

  • Improper word usage — the use of vocabulary in context that shows that you misunderstand the word's meaning

No matter how impressive a GMAT essay might be otherwise, if it contains frequent word-choice and usage errors it's unlikely to earn a score of 6 — or even 5.

Q: Speaking of word usage, what about vocabulary level? Is it to a test taker's advantage to impress the reader with a strong vocabulary?

A: Only to a point. There's nothing wrong with demonstrating a strong vocabulary in your GMAT essay by using the sorts of words that only well-read, highly educated people are likely to use. But don't overdo it; using too many such words can wave a red flag to the reader that you're attempting to use high-brow words as a smokescreen — to divert attention from what is otherwise a poor essay. Also, if you use high-brow words you'd better be sure you know what the words mean and that you're using them properly in the context of your essay. In other words, your diction had better be proper. Otherwise, in your attempt to impress the reader you'll shoot yourself in the foot instead.

Q: You indicated that one of the basic criteria for scoring GMAT essays is organization. In preparing for the test, should test takers devise some sort of organizational template for their essay?

A: Organizational templates are useful only up to a certain point. When it comes to the GMAT essay, developing and implementing a template is fairly straightforward: in each paragraph you discuss a distinct problem with the argument. (Most such problems have to do with unsubstantiated assumptions that are needed in order for the argument's conclusion to be readily inferable.) And each paragraph should connect logically from one to the next. This usually isn't a problem; in most cases, you can just discuss the argument's flaws in the order they arise in the argument.

Beyond this basic organizational approach, though, it's dangerous to try to create a preset structure for your essay — especially some sort of fill-in-the-blank template. This approach is inflexible, and a template-based essay can easily come off as canned or awkward. GMAT readers know when a test taker is relying on form over substance, and the readers won't hesitate to lower your score accordingly.

Q: In preparing for the GMAT writing task, should test takers attempt to memorize model responses to as many of the official GMAT essay topics as possible?

A: At its website, GMAC has pre-disclosed well over 100 Argument Analysis prompts from its official pool. The computerized testing system will select your prompt randomly from this pool. So memorizing model responses for every topic is not only an unrealistic exercise, but probably a futile one as well.

That said, by all means read as many well-crafted GMAT essays as you reasonably have time for — not to memorize them but rather to glean, in a more general sense, good ideas for content, organization, writing style, transition and rhetorical phases, and so forth. There's an osmosis process that occurs when you read many well-written GMAT essays; the elements that go into a good essay slowly become part of your own writing style, merely by repeated exposure to them. A good analogy would be the immersion method of learning a new language, by which you internalize a new language simply through continual exposure to it.

Q: You've suggested that test takers develop an inventory of transition phrases for the GMAT writing task. What do you mean by this? Can you provide some examples?

A: Transition words and phrases are the ones that glue together the ideas of your essay — that help the reader follow your train of thought and line of reasoning, and recognize the organizational structure of your essay. Having an arsenal of your favorite transition phrases is quite useful for the GMAT writing task — which calls for a linear line of reasoning. Here are a few examples:

"The argument depends on a series of unsubstantiated assumptions, which render it wholly unpersuasive."

"Unless the author provides better evidence that..., I cannot be convinced that..."

"Even if the author can substantiate all of the foregoing assumptions,..."

"In sum, the argument is unconvincing as it stands. To strengthen it the author must..."

Developing an arsenal of these phrases is useful in two ways. First, it speeds up the writing process considerably. The biggest time-waster during a timed GMAT essay section is to sit at the keyboard with your ideas in mind, but without the right words and phrases to get those ideas across to the reader. You can waste considerable time during the exam groping around for the right way to make your point.

In order to develop a useful arsenal of transition phrases, read some high-quality sample essays, highlighting these phrases as you read. Then begin to incorporate them into your practice essays. Of course, you can adopt your own phrases to fit your overall style. And be sure that the transitions you use fit the grammatical and substantive context in which you use them. As already noted here, GMAT readers can easily spot form over substance and will lower your score accordingly.

Q: In screening applicants, B-schools don't factor in AWA scores during the first cut, do they? If not, why should test takers take the GMAT essay section seriously?

A: You're correct that at most schools the initial cut is based only on combined Verbal-Quantitative score, your Integrated Reasoning score, and you undergraduate GPA. But this is hardly reason for test takers not to take the GMAT essay section seriously. Think about it this way: B-school rankings are very important to most applicants, whose main objective in the process is to gain admission to a highly-ranked school. But the best school you'll gain admission to is the one where you'll be a borderline candidate, right? And when you're near the acceptance-rejection borderline, where the school must make difficult choices between similarly qualified candidates, the admissions committee will look closely at your GMAT essay scores. So strong writing skills will set you apart from the many candidates who have high GPAs and Verbal-Quantitative GMAT scores.

Besides, with the growing number of foreign applicants to U.S. B-schools, writing and verbal skills are becoming an even more important factor for B-schools in the admissions decision. Why not the contrary, so as not to discriminate based on nationality of ethnicity? Think about it. If the B-schools respond to this trend by placing less emphasis on English communication skills, the admission process would be reduced to seeking the best mathematicians. And strong quantitative skills is only a small part of what successful MBA students and success in business management require.