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How to Prepare for the GRE Essay Section

Try to make the most of the time you have to prepare for the GRE Analytical Writing (the two GRE writing tasks). Write practice essays under exam conditions, take notes on a variety of official essay topics, and brainstorm ideas for Issue essays by exploiting other resources. This page provides details about each strategy.

Practice, Practice and More Practice

You could study many "model" GRE essays and review every available essay-writing tip, yet still perform poorly on the actual exam. That's because there’s no substitute for putting yourself to the task under simulated exam conditions.

Compose as many practice essays as you reasonably have time for, responding to the official GRE essay prompts and following these guidelines:

  • Always practice under timed conditions. Unless you're put under the pressure of time, you really won’t be ready for the test.

  • Select prompts that vary in terms of their directives. [Review the six Issue directives and seven Argument directives.]

  • Always practice under timed conditions. Unless you're put under the pressure of time, you really won’t be ready for the test.

  • Always use a word processor for your practice tests. Be sure to use only the GRE word processor's limited editing functions.

  • Evaluate your practice essays. After composing an essay, evaluate and score it based on the official criteria. Then reflect on your weaknesses and concentrate on improving in those areas the next time. Don’t worry if you don’t produce perfect models. Concentrate instead on improving your performance next time.

Take Notes on a Variety of Official Issue Topics and Arguments

Download the current lists of Issue and Argument prompts via the official GRE website. Select at least ten Issue prompts covering diverse themes and directives, and one or more Argument prompts covering each of the seven directives. For each prompt, spend about 5 minutes brainstorming and making notes. Even if none of the prompts you select appears on your exam, this exercise will go a long way toward ensuring that you don't find yourself paralyzed, or "stuck," during the actual exam.

Dig Further for Issue-Analysis Ideas

During your exam, the testing system will select your Issue topic randomly from its large pool. What if the testing system deals you an unfamiliar card? Keep in mind that, according to the test makers no special knowledge about any Issue topic is needed to score high on the Issue essay. Keep in mind also that the specific reasons and supporting examples you cite in your Issue essay are only one of several scoring criteria, and they are by no means the most important.

But if you have ample time to prepare for the exam, by all means go the extra mile. Explore periodicals and websites that focus on the same sorts of issues covered in the GRE pool of Issue topics. Here are just a few periodicals that feature articles covering frequent GRE Issue themes:

  • U.S. News and World Report: notable current events
  • The Economist: political and economic ideology
  • Reason: ideology and culture (loads of cross-discipline articles)
  • The New Yorker: arts, humanities, sociology, popular culture
  • The Futurist: cultural and technological trends

Don't forget about those notes you took during for your undergraduate classes. Dust off those notes; you might be surprised at what you’ll find that you can recycle into a GRE Issue essay.

Consult My GRE Writing Skills Workbook

If your analytical-writing skills need significant improvement, further help is available in my book Writing Skills for the GRE-GMAT (published by Peterson's). The book places special emphasis on building rhetorical writing skills, organizing your two GRE essays, and avoiding or correcting common language, grammar and other writing problems.

The book also explores additional (less frequent) reasoning problems with Arguments in the official pool. Finally, to help improve and polish your analytic and writing skills, the book contains a variety of reinforcement exercises for each writing task.

NOTE: The book's example prompts and sample essays are for the previous GRE Analytical Writing format, not for the current (revised) format. Nevertheless, the basic skills you'll learn from the book are fully applicable to the current exam format. [Book updates]