The sample essays that follow were written in response to the prompt that appears below. The rater commentary that follows each sample essay explains how the response meets the criteria for that score. For a more complete understanding of the criteria for each score point, see the "Analyze an Argument" Scoring Guide.
In surveys Mason City residents rank water sports (swimming, boating and fishing) among their favorite recreational activities. The Mason River flowing through the city is rarely used for these pursuits, however, and the city park department devotes little of its budget to maintaining riverside recreational facilities. For years there have been complaints from residents about the quality of the river's water and the river's smell. In response, the state has recently announced plans to clean up Mason River. Use of the river for water sports is therefore sure to increase. The city government should for that reason devote more money in this year's budget to riverside recreational facilities.
Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on the assumptions and what the implications are if the assumptions prove unwarranted.
Note: All responses are reproduced exactly as written, including errors, misspellings, etc., if any.
Essay Response — Score 6
While it may be true that the Mason City government ought to devote more money to riverside recreational facilities, this author's argument does not make a cogent case for increased resources based on river use. It is easy to understand why city residents would want a cleaner river, but this argument is rife with holes and assumptions, and thus, not strong enough to lead to increased funding.
Citing surveys of city residents, the author reports city resident's love of water sports. It is not clear, however, the scope and validity of that survey. For example, the survey could have asked residents if they prefer using the river for water sports or would like to see a hydroelectric dam built, which may have swayed residents toward river sports. The sample may not have been representative of city residents, asking only those residents who live upon the river. The survey may have been 10 pages long, with 2 questions dedicated to river sports. We just do not know. Unless the survey is fully representative, valid, and reliable, it can not be used to effectively back the author's argument.
Additionally, the author implies that residents do not use the river for swimming, boating, and fishing, despite their professed interest, because the water is polluted and smelly. While a polluted, smelly river would likely cut down on river sports, a concrete connection between the resident's lack of river use and the river's current state is not effectively made. Though there have been complaints, we do not know if there have been numerous complaints from a wide range of people, or perhaps from one or two individuals who made numerous complaints. To strengthen his/her argument, the author would benefit from implementing a normed survey asking a wide range of residents why they do not currently use the river.
Building upon the implication that residents do not use the river due to the quality of the river's water and the smell, the author suggests that a river clean up will result in increased river usage. If the river's water quality and smell result from problems which can be cleaned, this may be true. For example, if the decreased water quality and aroma is caused by pollution by factories along the river, this conceivably could be remedied. But if the quality and aroma results from the natural mineral deposits in the water or surrounding rock, this may not be true. There are some bodies of water which emit a strong smell of sulphur due to the geography of the area. This is not something likely to be afffected by a clean-up. Consequently, a river clean up may have no impact upon river usage. Regardless of whether the river's quality is able to be improved or not, the author does not effectively show a connection between water quality and river usage.
A clean, beautiful, safe river often adds to a city's property values, leads to increased tourism and revenue from those who come to take advantage of the river, and a better overall quality of life for residents. For these reasons, city government may decide to invest in improving riverside recreational facilities. However, this author's argument is not likely significantly persuade the city goverment to allocate increased funding.
Rater Commentary for Essay Response — Score 6
This insightful response identifies important assumptions and thoroughly examines their implications. The essay shows that the proposal to spend more on riverside recreational facilities rests on three questionable assumptions, namely:
- that the survey provides a reliable basis for budget planning
- that the river’s pollution and odor are the only reasons for its limited recreational use
- that efforts to clean the water and remove the odor will be successful
By showing that each assumption is highly suspect, this essay demonstrates the weakness of the entire argument. For example, paragraph 2 points out that the survey might not have used a representative sample, might have offered limited choices, and might have contained very few questions on water sports.
Paragraph 3 examines the tenuous connection between complaints and limited use of the river for recreation. Complaints about water quality and odor may be coming from only a few people and, even if such complaints are numerous, other completely different factors may be much more significant in reducing river usage. Finally, paragraph 4 explains that certain geologic features may prevent effective river clean-up. Details such as these provide compelling support.
In addition, careful organization ensures that each new point builds upon the previous ones. For example, note the clear transitions at the beginning of paragraphs 3 and 4, as well as the logical sequence of sentences within paragraphs (specifically paragraph 4).
Although this essay does contain minor errors, it still conveys ideas fluently. Note the effective word choices (e.g., "rife with . . . assumptions" and "may have swayed residents"). In addition, sentences are not merely varied; they also display skillful embedding of subordinate elements.
Since this response offers cogent examination of the argument and conveys meaning skillfully, it earns a score of 6.
Essay Response — Score 5
The author of this proposal to increase the budget for Mason City riverside recreational facilities offers an interesting argument but to move forward on the proposal would definitely require more information and thought. While the correlations stated are logical and probable, there may be hidden factors that prevent the City from diverting resources to this project.
For example, consider the survey rankings among Mason City residents. The thought is that such high regard for water sports will translate into usage. But, survey responses can hardly be used as indicators of actual behavior. Many surveys conducted after the winter holidays reveal people who list exercise and weight loss as a top priority. Yet every profession does not equal a new gym membership. Even the wording of the survey results remain ambiguous and vague. While water sports may be among the residents' favorite activities, this allows for many other favorites. What remains unknown is the priorities of the general public. Do they favor these water sports above a softball field or soccer field? Are they willing to sacrifice the municipal golf course for better riverside facilities? Indeed the survey hardly provides enough information to discern future use of improved facilities.
Closely linked to the surveys is the bold assumption that a cleaner river will result in increased usage. While it is not illogical to expect some increase, at what level will people begin to use the river? The answer to this question requires a survey to find out the reasons our residents use or do not use the river. Is river water quality the primary limiting factor to usage or the lack of docks and piers? Are people more interested in water sports than the recreational activities that they are already engaged in? These questions will help the city government forecast how much river usage will increase and to assign a proportional increase to the budget.
Likewise, the author is optimistic regarding the state promise to clean the river. We need to hear the source of the voices and consider any ulterior motives. Is this a campaign year and the plans a campaign promise from the state representative? What is the timeline for the clean-up effort? Will the state fully fund this project? We can imagine the misuse of funds in renovating the riverside facilities only to watch the new buildings fall into dilapidation while the state drags the river clean-up.
Last, the author does not consider where these additional funds will be diverted from. The current budget situation must be assessed to determine if this increase can be afforded. In a sense, the City may not be willing to draw money away from other key projects from road improvements to schools and education. The author naively assumes that the money can simply appear without forethought on where it will come from.
Examining all the various angles and factors involved with improving riverside recreational facilities, the argument does not justify increasing the budget. While the proposal does highlight a possibility, more information is required to warrant any action.
Rater Commentary for Essay Response — Score 5
Each paragraph in the body of this perceptive essay identifies and examines an unstated assumption that is crucial to the argument. The major assumptions discussed are:
- that a survey can accurately predict behavior
- that cleaning the river will, in itself, increase recreational usage
- that state plans to clean the river will actually be realized
- that Mason City can afford to spend more on riverside recreational facilities
Support within each paragraph is both thoughtful and thorough. For example, paragraph 2 points out vagueness in the wording of the survey: Even if water sports rank among the favorite recreational activities of Mason City residents, other sports may still be much more popular. Thus, if the first assumption proves unwarranted, the argument to fund riverside facilities — rather than soccer fields or golf courses — becomes much weaker. Paragraph 4 considers several reasons why river clean-up plans may not be successful (the plans may be nothing more than campaign promises or funding may not be adequate). Thus, the weakness of the third assumption undermines the argument that river recreation will increase and riverside improvements will be needed at all.
Instead of dismissing each assumption in isolation, this response places them in a logical order and considers their connections. Note the appropriate transitions between and within paragraphs, clarifying the links among the assumptions (e.g., "Closely linked to the surveys …" or "The answer to this question requires...").
Along with strong development, this response also displays facility with language. Minor errors in punctuation are present, but word choices are apt and sentences suitably varied in pattern and length. The response uses a number of rhetorical questions, but the implied answers are always clear enough to support the points being made.
Thus, the response satisfies all requirements for a score of 5, but its development is not thorough or compelling enough for a 6.
Essay Response — Score 4
The problem with the arguement is the assumption that if the Mason River were cleaned up, that people would use it for water sports and recreation. This is not necessarily true, as people may rank water sports among their favorite recreational activities, but that does not mean that those same people have the financial ability, time or equipment to pursue those interests.
However, even if the writer of the arguement is correct in assuming that the Mason River will be used more by the city's residents, the arguement does not say why the recreational facilities need more money. If recreational facilities already exist along the Mason River, why should the city allot more money to fund them? If the recreational facilities already in existence will be used more in the coming years, then they will be making more money for themselves, eliminating the need for the city government to devote more money to them.
According to the arguement, the reason people are not using the Mason River for water sports is because of the smell and the quality of water, not because the recreational facilities are unacceptable.
If the city government alloted more money to the recreational facilities, then the budget is being cut from some other important city project. Also, if the assumptions proved unwarranted, and more people did not use the river for recreation, then much money has been wasted, not only the money for the recreational facilities, but also the money that was used to clean up the river to attract more people in the first place.
Rater Commentary for Essay Response — Score 4
This competent response identifies two unstated assumptions:
- that cleaning up the Mason River will lead to increased recreational use
- that existing facilities along the river need more funding
Paragraph 1 offers reasons why the first assumption is questionable (e.g., residents may not have the necessary time or money for water sports). Similarly, paragraphs 2 and 3 explain that riverside recreational facilities may already be adequate and may, in fact, produce additional income if usage increases. Thus, the response is adequately developed and satisfactorily organized to show how the argument depends on questionable assumptions.
However, this essay does not rise to a score of 5 because it fails to consider several other unstated assumptions (e.g., that the survey is reliable or that the efforts to clean the river will be successful). Furthermore, the final paragraph makes some extraneous, unsupported assertions of its own. Mason City may actually have a budget surplus so that cuts to other projects will not be necessary, and cleaning the river may provide other real benefits even if it is not used more for water sports.
This response is generally free of errors in grammar and usage and displays sufficient control of language to support a score of 4.
Essay Response — Score 3
Surveys are created to speak for the people; however, surveys do not always speak for the whole community. A survey completed by Mason City residents concluded that the residents enjoy water sports as a form of recreation. If that is so evident, why has the river not been used? The blame can not be soley be placed on the city park department. The city park department can only do as much as they observe. The real issue is not the residents use of the river, but their desire for a more pleasant smell and a more pleasant sight. If the city government cleans the river, it might take years for the smell to go away. If the budget is changed to accomodate the clean up of the Mason River, other problems will arise. The residents will then begin to complain about other issues in their city that will be ignored because of the great emphasis being placed on Mason River. If more money is taken out of the budget to clean the river an assumption can be made. This assumption is that the budget for another part of cit maintenance or building will be tapped into to. In addition, to the budget being used to clean up Mason River, it will also be allocated in increasing riverside recreational facilites. The government is trying to appease its residents, and one can warrant that the role of the government is to please the people. There are many assumptions being made; however, the government can not make the assumption that people want the river to be cleaned so that they can use it for recreational water activities. The government has to realize the long term effects that their decision will have on the monetary value of their budget.
Rater Commentary for Essay Response — Score 3
Even though much of this essay is tangential, it offers some relevant examination of the argument’s assumptions. The early sentences mention a questionable assumption (that the survey results are reliable) but do not explain how the survey might have been flawed. Then the response drifts to irrelevant matters — a defense of the city park department, a prediction of budget problems and the problem of pleasing city residents.
Some statements even introduce unwarranted assumptions that are not part of the original argument (e.g., "The residents will then begin to complain about other issues" and "This assumption is that the budget for another part of city maintenance or building will be tapped into"). Near the end, the response does correctly note that city government should not assume that residents want to use the river for recreation. Hence, the proposal to increase funding for riverside recreational facilities may not be justified.
In summary, the language in this response is reasonably clear, but its examination of unstated assumptions remains limited and therefore earns a score of 3.
Essay Response — Score 2
This statement looks like logical, but there are some wrong sentences in it which is not logical.
First, this statement mentions raking water sports as their favorite recreational activities at the first sentence. However, it seems to have a ralation between the first sentence and the setence which mentions that increase the quality of the river's water and the river's smell. This is a wrong cause and result to solve the problem.
Second, as a reponse to the complaints from residents, the state plan to clean up the river. As a result, the state expects that water sports will increase. When you look at two sentences, the result is not appropriate for the cause.
Third, the last statement is the conclusion. However, even though residents rank water sports, the city government might devote the budget to another issue. This statement is also a wrong cause and result.
In summary, the statement is not logical because there are some errors in it. The supporting setences are not strong enough to support this issue.
Rater Commentary for Essay Response — Score 2
Although this essay appears to be carefully organized, it does not follow the directions for the assigned task. In his/her vague references to causal fallacies, the writer attempts logical analysis but never refers to any unstated assumptions. Furthermore, several errors in grammar and sentence structure interfere with meaning (e.g., "This statement looks like logical, but there are some wrong sentences in it which is not logical").
Because this response "does not follow the directions for the assigned task" and contains errors in sentence structure and logical development, it earns a score of 2.
Essay Response — Score 1
The statement assumes that everyone in Mason City enjoys some sort of recreational activity, which may not be necessarily true. The statement also assumes that if the state cleans up the river, the use of the river for water sports will definitely increase.
Rater Commentary for Essay Response — Score 1
The brevity of this two-sentence response makes it fundamentally deficient. Sentence 1 states an assumption that is actually not present in the argument, and sentence 2 correctly states an assumption but provides no discussion of its implications. Although the response may begin to address the assigned task, it offers no development. As such, it is clearly "extremely brief ... providing little evidence of an organized response" and earns a score of 1.
How does the GRE essay work?
The GRE essay section, also known as the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), actually comprises two parts: the Issue essay and the Argument essay. You are allotted 30 minutes for each essay. Both test your ability to write a cogent thesis statement that you must defend over the course of several paragraphs.
What is the difference between the Issue and the Argument essays?
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As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position
The Issue essay asks you to respond to and analyze a general statement, like the ones above, that relates to politics, education, or culture. Essentially, you are taking a position on a complex matter.
Woven baskets characterized by a particular distinctive pattern have previously been found only in the immediate vicinity of the prehistoric village of Palea and therefore were believed to have been made only by the Palean people. Recently, however, archaeologists discovered such a “Palean” basket in Lithos, an ancient village across the Brim River from Palea. The Brim River is very deep and broad, and so the ancient Paleans could have crossed it only by boat, and no Palean boats have been found. Thus it follows that the so-called Palean baskets were not uniquely Palean.
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.
The Argument, by contrast, asks you to dissect the logic behind a position. The position is provided in a paragraph, and thus requires a little more reading than the Issue task.
Where can I find sample topics?
Good news! ETS publishes the entire pools of Issue topics and Argument topics on its site. The topics you see on your test will be drawn from those pools, so this is an essential resource.
How are the essays scored?
Deep in a dark room far, far away resides a poor soul who must sort through an interminable stack of GRE AWA essays. In a mere thirty seconds, that person must award a score from a 0.0 – 6.0, based on 0.5 increments. The grader is typically a university literature/writing professor who, according to ETS, has undergone rigorous training in order to qualify.
But that’s only half of the story.
This next part sounds a little nefarious — so hold onto your seats. Over the course of the last decade or so, ETS has developed–and it would say refined–the “E-rater”, an automated essay grader.
While it may seem that HAL, the diabolical talking computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has been unleashed to wreak grading havoc on your essays, the “E-rater” is only used as a second “grader” to ensure that the human grader isn’t napping at the job. If the “E-rater’s” score differs by more than one point (on the half point scale) from the human grader’s score, your essay is sent to another human grader, the master grader–who, presumably, resides in an even darker room.
Your final score is the average of the two essays, rounded up to the nearest .5. At least for now, HAL has not completely taken over — the “E-rater” serves only as a check on human error. That is not to say that one day the two human graders will emerge from their dark rooms as anachronisms (as far as GRE essay grading goes). Let’s hope that such a day never comes, the day in which admission to a top-notch grad school hangs in the precarious balance of a robot grader.
How does the GRE AWA scoring range work?
What exactly does it mean to get a 0.0, or for that matter a 6.0 on GRE Analytical Writing? Well, a 0.0 means you fell asleep, your forehead planted firmly on the keyboard, an endless series of gobbledygook forming on screen. A 6.0 is a consistently insightful and well-crafted essay, running a good 80-plus lines.
You may think I’m jesting with the 0.0, but really I’m not: those essays are deemed “Ungradeable.” Hence, very few students end up getting a 0.0, or, for that matter, a score below a 2.0. Indeed, the vast majority of students fall between a 3.0 and a 5.0.
So what exactly does it mean to get a 3.0 vs. 4.0, or a 4.5 vs. a 5.0? For me to really answer that it would take at least several pages, including example essays. Instead, have a look at the scoring guidelines on ETS. Or, to really get a sense of how the scores work, have a look at a few sample essays. You may even want to compare them to any mock essays you’ve written, to get a rough sense of where you would score.
ETS has full descriptions of what an essay of each score looks like on its Score Level Descriptions page. The links to the sample essays are included below.
Is there anywhere I can get my essays graded?
While there is no better teacher than feedback, having someone give you an honest critique of your essay is difficult. ETS offers a service to grade your GRE AWA essays. But that is all you will get. A simple score. No feedback. People have tried, apparently, but nobody at ETS will provide feedback (apparently, the “E-rater” has not yet evolved to this level of sophistication).
Luckily, things aren’t quite as bleak as that. Over the years, I’ve seen many students asking for feedback on the forums (urch.com, thegradcafe.com) and munificent souls (usually GRE test takers with strong writing skills) provide insightful analysis. While that may not sound all that reassuring, remember that this feedback is free of charge and there really isn’t much else out there in terms of essay feedback.
More creative ideas on how to get your essay graded here. Let us know if you have any others, we’d love to hear them! 🙂
What do the graders look for?
The graders look for the three C’s: clarity, coherency, and cogency.
First off, you must express your ideas in a clear manner. If you jumble your words, or simply throw in unnecessary words, doing so compromises clarity. But your essay is not just one sentence with a clearly expressed idea; it is a set of ideas that should logically connect to one another. That is coherency.
Next you want to provide convincing evidence to back up your thesis. You can throw in some vague example, but doing so means your essay will probably lack cogency. Develop an example that cogently reinforces your thesis is key to a high essay score.
There are some other factors that play into the human grader’s assessment. Style is important; an essay with choppy sentences and unsophisticated vocabulary will be awarded a lower score, all other things being equal, than an essay with mature syntactical development and GRE-level vocabulary deployed felicitously.
There is also the issue of grammar. Even though the graders doesn’t set out to nitpick at grammar, as soon as you make the tiniest mistake, he or she will notice. Anything from improper use of pronouns to misspelling common words can negatively impact your score. At the same time, a grammatical flub or two won’t preclude an essay from getting a perfect score, as long as everything else about the essay is top-notch.
I should note that the essay grader takes around 30 seconds to grade an essay. He or she scans to make sure that you have clearly organized your information, and that your paragraphs start with a topic sentence and flow into specific examples that support your analysis. The grader looks to make sure you have a conclusion that articulates what you’ve already stated. He or she gives you a score and they move on to the next essay.
How long do my essays have to be?
Without running afoul of the censors–size matters. Believe it or not, out of two essays that are identical, save for length, the longer will receive the higher score. That doesn’t mean you should frantically scribble away, hoping that a seven-paragraph essay will automatically confer the much coveted ‘6’. Substance matters greatly. But as long as all the parts of your essay are there, you should shoot for a five-paragraph essay: an intro, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
I should also point out that six paragraphs a long essay do not make. Paragraph length matters too. And, of course, don’t forget that each of those paragraphs has to flow logically and clearly from your thesis.
How do I practice for GRE Analytical Writing?
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Essay writing is tough. Practicing for the GRE Analytical Writing Assessment–given that it’s difficult to get feedback–makes things even more unpleasant: you write and write without knowing if you are really improving. But do not despair–there are sample essays, friends and family, and the ETS essay grading service.
By simply writing often you will be able to write with greater command and facility. With diligent practice, words will not seem submerged deep in your hippocampus, but will spring to life on the page.
2. Don’t forget to outline/brainstorm
You must think about what you are going to write before you write. I’m sure many amongst you subscribe to the school of thought that if you write, they will come: the words, the compelling examples, and the nuanced logic. When practicing for the GRE, you must avoid this tendency and instead spend a few minutes coming up with a roadmap (either in your head or on the computer screen). At first this step will slow you down and you will want to go back to the old method. Be patient. Once you become adept at outlining, the essay will write itself.
3. Spend lots of time editing your practice essays
Though you won’t get much of an opportunity to edit your essay test day, sedulously editing your practice essays will make you more aware of your mistakes, both grammatical and logical. Correcting these mistakes will not only help you anticipate them in the future, but will also make the writing and logic in your future essays clearer.
4. Constantly read sample essays
By reading other students’ essays, you will develop a sense of what ETS is looking for. You’ll also be able to better judge your own essays. Throughout practice sessions you should keep tweaking your essays, so they get closer and closer to the next score up. So if you started at a ‘3’, then focus on getting to a ‘4.’ Once you think you’ve done so, shoot your essay over to the ETS grading service.
5. Improve grammar
ETS explicitly states that it is looking for the quality and clarity of thought, and not grammar per se. Yet the two are closely related. So if you struggle to articulate something–and in doing so break a grammatical rule (or three!)–you will sacrifice clarity. Even minor grammatical errors (faulty pronouns, subject/verb agreement) will mar the overall quality of your writing.
How do I improve my grammar and style?
Between grammar and style, grammar is much easier to improve. Great style is much more elusive. Indeed, many writers have cultivated their prose style over years of assiduous practice. Rest assured though–to score well on the GRE your prose does not have to be fit for The New York Times. You do want to avoid choppy sentences by varying up your sentence structure. You shouldn’t be averse to trading a simple word for a more complex one as long that word is appropriate for the context.
A great book that offers writing advice, from dangling modifiers to how to construct compelling, dynamic sentences, is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
For a more stern approach to writing, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style has helped students for over half a century.
The only reason I mention both of these books is they focus not only grammar but also on style. Many grammar books should suffice, as far as grammar goes–but they are short on teaching writing style, which is a great skill to have for the GRE (and beyond!).