7 Tips for a Perfect GRE Issue Essay

If you get a perfect score on the GRE’s Issue Essay (a 6), it can really boost your graduate school admissions chances! The best schools want good Verbal and Quantitative scores, but also students who are clear, competent writers. Lots of students have excellent transcripts and are good at taking tests – but not everyone can demonstrate impressive writing skills! Here are 7 tips to take your Issue essay to that perfect 6.

[ RELATED: What is a good GRE score? ]

  • Write at least three practice essays.

    Practice makes perfect! You can study for the GRE online by looking up the AWA prompts and practicing writing several of them within the 30-minute guideline. The only way to get comfortable with the time constraints is to practice them, so set up test-like conditions and get to work. If you’re a good writer, you might be tempted to take the GRE essay portion without practicing. That’s not a great idea–the issue essay is a different kind of essay than you’ve probably had to write in school, and you might miss the mark if you don’t practice. On the issue essay you’re not writing literary criticism or rhetorical analysis, but rather something more akin to a very direct, concise email to a very busy boss or professor. Get used to the idea that the issue essay isn’t about how well you make things flow or how pretty it sounds; it’s about how clearly you can get information across.

  • Don’t waffle.

    You don’t have time to argue both sides of an issue on the GRE issue essay. Even if you don’t believe in the side you choose, you’ll only have time to argue one side effectively. If you take a middle-of-the-road approach you won’t sound as confident or clear. Remember, according to ETS, the “readers are evaluating the skill with which you address the specific instructions and articulate and develop an argument to support your evaluation of the issue.” Which side you choose to defend is less important than how you defend it!

  • Choose very specific real-world examples.

    Don’t be general! Hypothetical arguments are easily refuted. The easy counter to any “what-if” argument is to challenge that the hypothetical scenario would ever actually happen. Instead, use specific examples: Mitt Romney, the War of 1812, Keynesian economic theory, an anecdote about your Uncle Ralph the compulsive gambler, etc. are all concrete examples you can use to drive home a point. 

  • BUT, make sure your examples are relevant to the topic.

    You can choose examples from a wide range of subjects, including personal experience, pop culture, history, sports, literature, current events, politics, etc. But, don’t let your examples take over the essay. For instance, if you’re using a historical example, be careful that you don’t let the bulk of your essay become a summary of that event or a history paper equivalent. Your whole goal on the issue essay is to prove a point, so only use an example if it’s going to back up your argument.

  • Avoid first-person and self-reference.

    In general, you should avoid writing in first person on the issue essay. Saying things like “I believe” or “in my opinion” adds unnecessary words since the reader already knows that the issue essay is written from your perspective. First-person pronouns should ONLY appear in a body paragraph if you are using personal experience as an example. Never use “I” in your introductory or concluding paragraphs.

  • Make strong, declarative statements.

    Being direct doesn’t leave any room for miscommunication or misinterpretation. Part of the reason this is so important is because while one of your graders is human, the other is a computer. If you’ve ever talked to your GPS or Siri, you’ve probably experienced some miscommunication from time to time. Avoid this on the GRE issue essay by making strong, declarative statements.

  • Refute the opposing view in your conclusion.

    Many GRE students wonder what to do in their conclusion. Try introducing the opposing viewpoint, showing that you recognize that in fact some people do not support your position. Then refute their argument in 1-2 sentences, and reinforce the validity of  your own thesis.

BONUS: Know how the GRE Analytical Writing Essays are scored

Your GRE essays will be scored by half-point increments, from 0 to 6 (highest). Two graders will score this issue essay. A third grader will also score your essays if your two initial graders’ scores differ by more than one point. The graders base scores on their overall impression of your essay — holistically — rather than deducting points for specific errors.

The GRE testmaker, Educational Testing Service (ETS) reports a single score rounded up to the nearest half-point. This score makes up the essay portion of your overall GRE score.

You can read more from ETS on specific score level breakdowns here.