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How to Study for the GREs – Part 1: Writing

Back in November, I took the GRE (GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination, though the test’s longer name is almost never used) tests in preparation to go to graduate school next Fall. According to the results given immediately after the test, I scored a 780 on Verbal and a 790 on Quantitative.

Since my method of studying worked, at least it worked for me, I thought I’d share it in a three part series about studying for the three sections of the GRE: Writing, Quantitative (Math), and Verbal. Today’s subject is Writing.

What Is the Writing Section on the GRE?

The GRE writing section is the only one with no right or wrong answers. It consists of two subsections, each an essay. One is an “Issue Essay” and the other is an “Argument Essay.”

The Issue Essay

For the Issue Essay, you are given a choice between two topics. Each one is a statement (one or two sentences) about a generally well-known issue. Your job is to take a position on the topic and convincingly explain why you took that position. This isn’t a test of your trivia knowledge, though it does require a certain amount of knowledge on general subjects, the questions are such things as “Nuclear disarmament is an important step toward creating a more peaceful world.”

Your job in this essay is to decide whether or not your think that’s true (or which side you’d like to argue for, you’re not supposed to be judged on which side you choose but how well you argue) and then present a convincing argument with supporting real-world examples or generalized arguments which support your position.

You are allowed 45 minutes to plan and write the essay. Since the test is computerized, you can write a table of points, organize them the way you want, and then write from an outline.

The Argument Essay

In the Argument Essay, your job is not to develop your own argument but to critique someone else’s. First you identify and analyze the points made in the essay, then you write your own analysis and critique of those points, supported by examples as necessary. You don’t get a choice between two, like with the Issue Essay. Whatever you get, you’re stuck with.

In my case, I was given a letter to the editor which had been printed recently in a national newspaper. I can’t tell you what it was really about (the GRE people take that seriously), so let’s pretend it was an argument that the homeless in America are better off now than the lower middle class. The letter-writer made several points, made references to a study which I didn’t have the benefit of reading, and concluded that the newspaper’s position was wrong.

After I had determined the main arguments, I had to figure out whether the person was right or wrong. The writer in question might have been right, assuming the referenced study was right, but made a number of logical errors and didn’t account for alternative possibilities.

So I wrote a short introduction explaining the person’s position and that they had done an insufficient job of proving it. Then I took each argument as a paragraph and explained why it wasn’t good enough.

You get 30 minutes to plan and write this section, 15 minutes less than on the Issue Essay.

How Is the Writing Section Graded?

The people grading the Writing section of the GRE are looking for two things. First, they want to see solid reasoning and organizational skills. It doesn’t matter which side you take in either essay, what matters is that you back it up with a series or organized arguments–arguing your own position in the first and analyzing someone else’s argument in the second.

Second, the people grading the Writing section are looking at your skill in executing the essay. Can you spell? Are you familiar with the rules of English grammar? Are your sentences intelligent and do they contribute to your point?

You will receive a grade of 0-6, depending on how well you succeed on each point. You won’t get a 0 unless your essay is off-topic gibberish. 1 is Fundamentally Deficient and 6 is Outstanding. 4 is considered Adequate.

How Do You Study for the Writing Section on the GRE?

The Writing section of the GRE is the hardest one to study for. I read through the information in my Kaplan GRE Verbal Workbook about the Writing section. It’s much more in-depth than the basics I include above (I suggest looking for the book at your local library, which should have a copy).

In my opinion, the best way to study for it is to write. Specifically, the best way to study for it is to write blog posts. I don’t yet know my score for it, but I think I did well–either a 5 or a 6. I went into the exam feeling a bit stressed from some issues I’d had earlier that day. The writing section was the first I encountered and for a moment, my brain froze. Then I suddenly realized all I had to do was write a blog post and I was relaxed enough to complete both essays in good time and score highly on the rest of the test.

Why Writing Blog Posts is Great GRE Preparation

The first, simplest reason that writing blog posts is great preparation for the GRE Writing section is that blog posts & GRE essays are similar in length. You’re not writing a 2-page or 5-page paper for the GRE. You need the be concise. This is a rather long post, but it’s not my normal style.

The second reason blog posts are excellent GRE prep is that many blog posts are doing exactly what you do on a GRE essay. A number of posts on my blog follow one of the two GRE formats (and others are just about information, like this one).

Most are like the Issue Essay. You’re writing about your position on a particular issue such as “why budgets are terrible/awesome.” You formulate a series of supporting arguments, try to provide at least a basic answer to some arguments against it, and then you wrap up.

Sometimes, blog posts are written as a response to an opposing point of view, such as someone else’s post on why budgets are terrible/awesome. In that case, you’re writing the Argument Essay.

Of course, the language used in blogging is a little less formal than the language you might want to use on the GREs. I suggest using stronger phrasings, paying careful attention to punctuation, and proofreading several times before you turn it in.

Not a blogger? You can write them as guest posts for a blogger, you can write them as fake blog posts that’ll never see the light of day, or you can start a free blog somewhere like wordpress.com or Blogger. There’s no substitute for actually writing, which is why I recommend it so highly.

Stay tuned for posts on studying for the Quantitative/Math section and the Verbal section


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December 15, 2009 at 10:05 pm

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Thirtysomething Finance December 7, 2009 at 9:08 am

Nice work, Mrs. Micah! I studied for, took, and nailed the LSAT 7 years ago (I got a 174). As I’m sure you’ll get to re the math and verbal sections, standardized tests like these are formulaic; and once you can hack the formula, they’re very beatable.

The LSAT contained an essay similar to the “issue essay” on the GRE, where you had to choose one of two options and argue why it was better than the other. My strategy was to assess the goals underlying each of the options, then show how one of the options would achieve the goals of both of them. Just one man’s $0.02 — congratulations on your success!
.-= Thirtysomething Finance´s last blog ..How I Unfroze My HELOC — OR I Fought the Bank and the…Bank Lost! =-.

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