We begin a new series on the Analytical Writing Assessment ("AWA") portion of the GMAT, otherwise known as "the essays." Because they do not feed into the overall score out of 800 (they are scored separately, on a scale of 6 points), they are often neglected. They do serve a purpose, though, and you need to take them seriously, even if they do not warrant the bulk of your study time.

The essays are the first section of the exam. You have 30 minutes for each of two essays, for a total of one hour before the quantitative section begins. So if you do not write essays during at least one of your practice exams, you will probably find it surprisingly tiring the day of the exam when you have to head into the math section after an hour of writing.

First, you should be aware of the two types of essay you will be required to write. One is known as "Analysis of Issue." The other is known as "Analysis of Argument." They demand different approaches and need to be understood in their particularities. Let's talk first about "Analysis of Issue."

In "Analysis of Issue", you will given a statement (the "issue"). For example,

"Responsibility for preserving the natural environment ultimately belongs to each individual person, not to government." (This is an actual GMAT topic and is property of GMAC which is no way affiliated with Manhattan GMAT.)

Your task now is to decide whether you agree with the statement. There is no "right" answer to this: either position (pro or con) is perfectly valid. The only reaction that is not valid is to sit on the fence. You must take a side and defend it. If you waffle or remain uncommitted, you will lose points. The point of "Analysis of Issue" is to see how well you can defend a policy position. You must state a clear opinion, but you must also back it up with relevant evidence. In other words, your opinion does not speak for itself. You must show how you arrived at that opinion. You may use facts or experiences (either your own or those you have observed elsewhere) to explain your position. A good "Issue" essay brings up three or so reasons in favor of OR against the statement and explains why each of those reasons is grounded in fact or experience.

What if you do not have any relevant experience or do not know any relevant facts? Make them up. The exam readers are not going to verify that your facts are correct and they have no way to know whether your experiences are true. Moreover, they do not really care. They simply want to see that you understand the nature of the task at hand. You must also acknowledge the merits of the other side, all the while maintaining your commitment to your own position. This is basically a polite nod to your opponent. Even though the other side may have some validity, it is still the wrong side.

Why is the "Issue" essay on the GMAT? The primary reason is that B-schools want to see whether you can write coherently under time pressure without the help of an editor. But beyond that, the "issue" essay specifically allows you to demonstrate your ability to learn from experience, either your own or someone else's. Good businesspeople learn their lessons and carry that knowledge into their future endeavors. By the time you have been working for 20 or so years, you will have accumulated a wealth of experience that can guide you through complicated situations. Business schools want to see upfront that you have at least a glimmer of this skill. People who do not learn from mistakes are destined to repeat them.

Analysis of Argument

This essay differs significantly from the other type (Analysis of Issue) and needs to be approached in a very different way.

In Analysis of Argument, you will be presented with - what else? - an argument and asked to evaluate its merits. The argument will resemble a Critical Reasoning argument: it will have premises and a conclusion. Your task is to determine whether the premises (think of these as pieces of evidence) logically support the given conclusion. Once you make your determination, you must explain your stance. These arguments are always written so that one can argue that the premises do NOT support the conclusion. In fact, it is wiser to take that position rather than argue that the argument is valid. The test writers specifically created their arguments to see whether you could spot the flaws. If you declare the argument valid, you are basically admitting that you have not evaluated the argument critically.

As mentioned above, the basic flaw in all these arguments is that the premises do NOT support the given conclusion. The difference from one argument to another is in the specifics of why not. The flaws generally fall into two categories: that the author has made a suspect assumption - i.e., he relies on unstated information that cannot be taken for granted; or that he misinterprets the information that he does explicitly include. Your job is to figure out which of these scenarios - possibly both - is going on in the given argument. Once you figure out the flaws, you must explain how they affect the argument and how they can be remedied. It is not enough simply to point them out.

Imagine that your boss gives you a business plan for your company and asks for your opinion. If you come back and simply say "No good", you probably will not be seeing too many bonuses or promotions in your future there. Instead, your boss will expect you to explain what the problems are and to offer ways to fix them. This is exactly what is behind the Analysis of Argument essay. Business schools want to see whether you can pick apart a flawed proposal and suggest improvements to it. Stating only that a proposal (i.e., argument) is flawed without explaining why and how to fix it does not demonstrate the skills that make businesspeople successful.

Here is an example of an actual AWA argument from the GMAT. (This argument is property of the Graduate Management Admissions Council which is in no way affiliated with Manhattan GMAT.):

The Cumquat Cafe began advertising on our local radio station this year and was delighted to see its business increase by 10 percent over last year's totals. Their success shows you how you can use radio advertising to make your business more profitable.

Is this a logical argument? No, of course not. If it were, it would not be useful for the AWA. But what specifically is wrong with it? There are many flaws in the above argument. One of them is that the author assumes that the increase in business was the direct result of the radio ads. We cannot know this from the information given. We need to know whether the cafe also ran ads in local papers or on local television. One way to find out whether the increase in business is the result of the radio ads would be to ask customers where they heard about the cafe. You get the point. Success on the Argument Essay hinges on your ability to evaluate and rectify, not just criticize.

Scoring Process

This process is necessarily different from that used for the quantitative and verbal sections of the exam, since the nature of the task in the AWA is quite different.

The two essays of the AWA are not included in your overall GMAT score out of 800. Instead, the essays receive their own separate score on a scale from 0 to 6 points, with 6 the best. According to the Official Guide for GMAT Review, the point values correspond to the following assessments (details can be found in the back of the Guide itself):

6 - Outstanding
5 - Strong
4 - Adequate
3 - Limited
2 - Seriously Flawed
1 - Fundamentally Deficient
0 - Did Not Follow Assignment (wrong topic, in a foreign language, gibberish, etc.)
NR - Did Not Submit Essays

Top business schools generally want to see at least a 4 on the AWA. Scores lower than 4 will make admissions committees wonder about your ability to write at the graduate level. This is especially true when your application essays are polished but your AWA score is low - committees might wonder if you received help on your application. Of course, the higher the score, the better, but schools are not looking for the next Hemingway here: they simply want to see that you can write a persuasive essay on an assigned topic. While it is not likely that a high AWA will convince a committee to accept you if the rest of your application is borderline, it is possible that a low AWA score will convince a committee to reject you if the rest of your application is not totally up to snuff. Remember that business schools receive so many applications that they need to weed people out fairly quickly in the admissions process. Scoring poorly on the AWA can give schools a reason to say no.

You do not receive your AWA score immediately upon finishing the exam, as you do your overall GMAT score. You will have to wait until you receive your official score report to find out how well you did on the AWA. After you finish the exam, your essays are sent for grading. Each essay is graded twice: once by a human grader and once by a computer program. Both look for structure and grammar, but only the human can really know whether your arguments are persuasive. With that in mind, you should gear your essays to the computer. This means making sure that your essays have a clear structure and are grammatically sound.

Each grader assigns a score out of 6 points. If the two scores for an essay differ by more than a point (say, 3 and 5), the computer's score is deemed suspect and the essay is sent to a second human grader. When both essays have been scored, all four scores (two for each essay) are averaged and rounded up to the nearest half-point. So if you received scores of 6, 5, 4 and 4, for example, your overall score for the AWA would be 19/4 = 4.75 = 5. It is possible to receive overall AWA scores in half-point increments (3.5 or 5.5, for example).

Essays that receive the highest marks are those that have a clear and logical structure, a clear and well-supported position on the assigned topic, and are free of grammatical and stylistic mistakes. As any one of these parameters weakens in the essay, the score will drop accordingly. By far the main reason test takers lose points in the AWA is failure to support their claims with evidence. Another common flaw is failure to take and maintain a clear stance. Write your essays as if your job depended on convincing someone of your position.

How to Back Up Assertions with Evidence

Failure to do so is one of the main reasons test takers lose points on the AWA. It is not enough simply to state a claim. You must also explain why that claim is valid. Keep in mind that your final position on the issue or argument is not the totality of the task. The GMAT is more interested in your thought process - how did you arrive at your conclusions?

In Analysis of Issue, your task is to decide whether you agree or disagree with a given statement. It does not matter which position you take - in favor of or against - as long as you are able to explain why you have chosen that side. You will be expected to justify your position "using relevant reasons and/or examples from your own experience, observations, or reading" (quoted from the Official Guide for GMAT Review). In other words, back up what you say. If you cannot think of anything in your life that seems relevant to the given issue, make something up. It is only an exercise; no one really cares whether what you say is factually true. Try not to go crazy with it (do not claim you were once Prime Minister of New Zealand, for example), but feel free to create relevant evidence if you need to.

Let's say the topic is "Employees should not be allowed to smoke in the workplace." Whatever your stance on the issue, you will have to explain how you came to that position. It would not be enough to claim that it is "just rude," for example. If your main objection to smoking at work is a perceived lack of consideration on the part of the smokers, you could explain that you once worked with someone who smoked all day despite your complaints and that it affected your productivity. Or you could cite a study from the Royal Tobacco Institute of Copenhagen that pointed out the harmful effects of secondhand smoke and perhaps even claim you know of a nonsmoker who developed lung cancer from working in a smoke-filled environment. If you disagree with the issue, your main contention may be that workers who feel oppressed by management are less productive. But this would be a mere assertion. How do you know this is so? You could claim that you once worked someplace where smokers were required to stand outside in the cold in the winter and they all ended up resenting the management, resulting in lower productivity and decreased revenues. Or you could claim that smokers are addicts and forcing them to abstain during work hours is medically harmful, as shown by an experiment conducted by the University of West Podunk. The key here is to select examples from your experience (or imagination) that directly and persuasively support your position.

In Analysis of Argument, by contrast, your task is a little simpler in that you do not have to draw from your own life to support your assessment of the argument. Instead, you must identify the flaws of the argument and explain how they fail to support the conclusion. You cannot simply state that the author has made a false assumption, or misconstrued the meaning of a key term, or whatever else may be wrong with the argument. If the author has made a false assumption, you must explain what that assumption is, how it harms the argument, and what could be done to rectify the problem. Very often, people who receive low scores on this essay fail to explain and correct the problems they point out. Remember, part of your task is to strengthen the argument. If all you do is critique it, you will not maximize your score. You must give the reader enough information to understand why the assumption is flawed or why the term has been misconstrued. If the readers has to guess at your intent, you have fallen short of the mark. Argument essays that receive 5's and 6's are those that allow readers to draw the same conclusions that the essay writers do, based on the writers' skill in pointing out, explaining, and rectifying the arguments' shortcomings.

So, to maximize your AWA score, remember to back up all your claims with reasons and/or examples. Do not let the reader wonder how you came to your conclusions!

Common Grammatical and Structural Mistakes

Remember that your score on the AWA does not depend solely on your ability to craft a persuasive argument (though that is the primary criterion); you will also be judged on your essay's grammar and structure. There are several common mistakes test takers make, all of which can be avoided.

Let's start with grammar. A very common error is the use of "they", "them", and "their" to designate a person of unknown gender, as in "Someone who enjoys their job will be a good worker." Here, "someone" is singular, yet "their" must refer to a plural noun. A better sentence would be "Someone who enjoys his or her job will be a good worker." This sentence is longer, but grammatical. Although this use of "they" is rampant in English speech, it is not acceptable in formal business writing.

Another common grammar mistake is the incorrect use of modifiers. For example, "For such a powerful company, Fizzy Cola's directors have been timid in their plans for expansion." This sentence probably seems fine, because its error is subtle. The opening phrase "for such a powerful company" is a modifier. That is, it serves to describe the subject of the clause that follows it. However, the subject of the main clause is "Fizzy Cola's directors," which clashes with the intended subject of the modifier: the company itself. A better sentence would be "For such a powerful company, Fizzy Cola has been timid in its plans for expansion." Always pay attention to the relationship between modifiers and their intended subjects. Often, test takers do not set up this relationship properly.

Test takers also misuse certain idiomatic phrases. A common example is the use of "less" in contexts where "fewer" is needed. Remember that "less" is used only for nouns that cannot be counted. "Fewer" is used for nouns that are countable. For example, "The new regulations offer less opportunities for growth." Since opportunities can be counted, we must use "fewer" instead: "The new regulations offer fewer opportunities for growth." Keep in mind also that "amount of" and "number of" are not interchangeable. "Amount of" is used for nouns that cannot be counted, while "number of" is used for countable nouns. For example, "The amount of bankruptcies this year is expected to set a new record." Since bankruptcies can be counted, we must use "number of" instead: "The number of bankruptcies this year is expected to set a new record."

As for structure, remember that your essay will be scored by a computerized grading program that cannot use logic to deduce your intended meaning if the structure of your essay does not make the flow of your argument clear. You need to break your essay into easily digestible paragraphs that have a clear flow from one to the next. You must have an introductory paragraph, two or three main paragraphs where you make your case, and a concluding paragraph. By far the most common mistake in structure is to cram everything into one giant paragraph. Do not worry if it seems that your paragraphs are not very long; they do not need to be.

Another common structural mistake is to list examples in a way that does not clearly set them apart from the rest of the argument. This does not mean you should list them bullet-point style, just that you should advise the reader that he or she is about to read a list of examples. Compare the following paragraphs:

There are three principal reasons that the proposal will not work. It is costly. It is laborious. It offends the sensibilities of those who are fond of cheese.

There are three principal reasons that the proposal will not work. First, it is costly. Second, it is laborious. And third, it offends the sensibilities of those who are fond of cheese.


The second version offers the reader a clearer roadmap of the argument and is thus preferable to the first version. The second version clearly ties each assertion back to the original claim that there are three principal reasons that the proposal will not work. The first version requires that the reader make the connection unaided.

Pay attention to your grammar and structure on the AWA. Good grammar and clear structure are simple ways to maximize your score.

This concludes this month's strategy series.

Copyright 2005 , MG Prep, Inc.; May not be reprinted without permission.