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About the GRE Essay
In considering the different sections on the GRE, it’s easy to wrap our heads around the Verbal and Quant sections. They’re well defined, objective and quantifiable. You’re presented a question, you analyze and solve it, enter your answer, and move on. These parameters give us comfort.
But the Analytical Writing (AW) section is open-ended and students are given limited information and guidelines in terms of essay length, structure and content. There is no maximum or minimum word count for the essay and no concrete direction on these points.
In addition, Educational Testing Service (ETS), the administrators of the GRE, have been very reluctant to share any secrets in terms of their preferences on essay length and structure. We know the essays are co-graded by a human and a computer (e-rater), but we don’t know exactly what criteria they’re looking at.
How to Write a GRE Essay
Never fear! We’ve done the hard work for you by collecting and analyzing all the available data we could get our hands on to help you optimize your essay length. Here are the main takeaways:
- Longer is generally better
- 550 to 650 words is ideal
- Scores go up with length, then drop off
Longer is Better
One of the main conclusions from our analysis is that longer essays are generally better. And this makes sense — on the whole, longer essays are more likely to be better reasoned, contain examples and support the points being made. In addition, it gives the writer more opportunity to showcase their writing skills and ability to thoroughly think through a range of issues in less time.
Give Me 600 Words
For whatever reason, the magic number seems to be around 600. To be more precise, it’s more of a magic “range,” and that window falls between 550 and 650 words. This seems to be the ideal length to most effectively draft an introduction, make and support your points with well-reasoned arguments and examples, and wrap it up with a tidy conclusion.
This also seems to be a result of the nature of GRE essay prompts. Any shorter and your essay lacks reasoning and support; any longer and you risk rambling. Which brings me to the next point…
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
While the data shows that longer is better, that only holds true to a certain point. After 650 words, the average AW score starts to drop off. It’s not a cliff drop-off, but there is a very real and significant decline in average score. Longer is better, but too long and you begin to ramble.
Your sentences turn into run-ons, your reasoned points become clouded and jumbled, and the grader loses interest. This makes sense. Students can’t be reasonably expected in 30 short minutes to read a prompt, analyze it, outline an answer, and draft a well-crafted 800+ word essay with reasoning and examples. There’s just no way.
Quality, Not Just Quantity
Now that you know more is better (up to a point), do not fall into the trap of just thinking that if you slap 600 words on a page you’ll get a decent score. That would be a serious mistake. Like many things in life, quality is equally as important (if not more) as quantity. The content of your essay must still be top notch.
To substantiate this point, check out this in-depth post from prep company Achievable on GRE essays. They took over 1,000 student essays and had them graded by multiple GRE tutors, then crunched the numbers using machine learning to determine what has the biggest impact on a GRE essay score. Their findings are packed with data and some awesome visuals. I highly suggest you check it out.
GRE Writing Tips
Clarity & Reasoning. Perhaps the most important overarching goal of the AW section is to write a coherent, well-reasoned essay with supporting points and examples. Despite everything said above, this is more important than the length of the essay. After reading the prompt, develop your positions fully and organize the essay coherently. Explain your reasoning for the positions you take. Don’t just make statements and move on, provide clear, well-reasoned arguments to support it.
Structure. There is nothing that makes an article or essay more unreadable that large blocks of text. People see a large text block and immediately fall half-asleep. Spoon-feed the reader in short, digestible, easy-to-read chunks. Start with a brief introductory paragraph, with four to six short body paragraphs making your points (i.e. the meat) and a short concluding paragraph to summarize everything. Follow this simple formula and you’ll be fine.
Diction & Sentence Variety. Toss out the thesaurus. You don’t need to use large, fancy words or scientific terminology on the GRE to get a better score. Use intelligent, to-the-point vocabulary. This will help make your writing clear and won’t give your grader pause. Additionally, break up your sentences. Don’t use the same compound sentence time and time again. Mix in short punchy sentences and different sentence structures. This will keep your writing interesting.
Spelling & Grammar. Although ETS says that small typographical and grammatical errors that do not interfere with the substance of the essay do not affect your score, I’d still recommend steering clear of relying on that assurance. Human graders are just that — human. If you have a couple errors in the first paragraph or two, they will notice this and could likely jade their impression of your writing. Take the time to make sure your spelling and grammar is on point before submitting.
Time Management. Finally, make the most of your test time by managing it properly. Read the question and specific instructions carefully to ensure your understanding of what is expected in your response. Take a few minutes to plan your response before composing it. Allow for a few minutes at the end to review, proofread and correct any spelling or grammar errors that might be a distraction to the reader.
To sum it up, keep your essay in the 550- to 650-word range, follow the tips above, and you’ll be just fine.
GRE Writing Prompts & Examples
For reference, here is one example of an issue essay question:
“We learn our most valuable lessons in life from struggling with our limitations rather than from enjoying our successes.”
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position.
Writing plan. Before writing, carefully read the issue and the specific instructions that follow it. Think about the issue. If it is broad in scope, narrow it down to something specific. Think about your own feelings and experiences and draw from them. Make notes and develop your position. When writing your response, be sure not to deviate from the question. The key is stay focused and present a cogent argument, yet still infused with reason and experience.