45 minutes of your entire exam will be devoted to the Issue Writing task, so even though it may not be the most famous section of the test, do not take it lightly. Do not assume that, because this is simply a timed essay, you do not have to study for it. Though practicing writing may be an even bigger pain than practicing multiple choice questions, you still have to do it to increase your chances of a high score.
Your job in Issue Writing is to present your perspective on an issue. The Issue will consist of two elements: a statement of your task and a 1-2 sentence topic which is a statement of opinion on an issue. Your statement of task will always be the same: “present your perspective on the following issue; use relevant reasons and/or examples to support your viewpoint.” The topic might look like this: “The objective of science is largely opposed to that of art: while science seeks to discover truths, art seeks to obscure them.”
Essay Instructions and Topics
Before you see your topic, the testing system will present you with more directions specific to the task;
- Writing on any topic other than the one presented is unacceptable.
- The topic will appear as a brief statement on an issue of general interest.
- You are free to accept, reject, or qualify the statement.
- You should support your perspective with reasons and/or examples from such sources as your experience, observation, reading, and academic studies.
- You should take a few minutes to plan your response before you begin typing.
- You should leave time to reread your response and make any revisions you think are needed.
What’s the most important detail in these lengthy directions? You are free to “accept, reject, or qualify the statement.” Don’t feel compelled to take a firm stance on the issue. As long as have an intellectual argument that is on topic, you’ll be fine; just make sure your evidence comes from “experience, observation, reading, and academic studies,” and not something you totally made up.
The topics for the Issue come from an official pool of questions. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of possible topics. On the other hand, the topics share many common themes. Here is a pretty comprehensive list of what you might expect:
- Practicality and utility versus creativity and personal enrichment
- The importance of cultural identity (customs, rituals, and ideals)
- Keys to individual success and progress
- Keys to societal progress, and how we define it
- How we obtain or advance knowledge, and what constitutes knowledge or advancement of knowledge
- The objectives and methods of formal education
- The value of studying history
- The impact of technology on society and on individuals
- The sorts of people society considers heroes or great leaders
- The function and value of art and science (for individuals and for society)
- The proper role of government, business, and individuals in ensuring the wellbeing of society
- Conformity and tradition versus individuality and innovation
Though the Issue task seems dauntingly broad, there really are only about twelve different topics to write about. Don’t be fooled by the abundance of quotes–you’ll soon learn how to quickly break down a quote into one of the twelve basic topics above. Fortunately, you’ll have your choice of two prompts to choose from. You do not need to have a specialized knowledge in any one of these disciplines, but if you do, it will undoubtedly facilitate your writing and ideation. So, if there is one or two topics you want to avoid, chances are you’ll have your chance to avoid them. Always remember, you may agree with, disagree with, or qualify the given statement, but you must defend your perspective with evidence and a convincing argument. ETS has provided a pool of issue sample prompts to review and practice with.
The Writing Process
Now, let’s look at the writing process. Beginning a timed essay will probably be the most intimidating part, so make sure you develop a system for writing them. Here’s the first and most important, step for writing the essay:
As soon as you decide which of the two choices you’d like to write on, begin the brainstorming process. Jot down some reasons for and against the issue. You may already have a personal opinion about the issue, but set that aside. Let your ability to reason an argument do the choosing for you. Based on the reasons you brainstorm, you may want to argue for the issue, against it, or qualify it.
When brainstorming, it is important to stay on track. Always keep that quoted statement in mind, and reread it to come up with new ideas. Before you jump into pro and con arguments, briefly sum up the statement’s argument on paper. For example, let’s look at an actual prompt from the GRE website: “Over the past century, the most significant contribution of technology has been to make people’s lives more comfortable.”
What’s the author trying to say? Simply put, the argument is that in the 20th century, the most important accomplishment of technology has been to make people more comfortable. Immediately, you should think of important technological accomplishments that don’t fit into this narrow category. Advances in medicine, for example, allow people to live longer. Yes, you may concede that certain drugs have been engineered to reduce human suffering and thus make people more comfortable, but on a grand scale, medicine has accomplished much more than comfort. Don’t forget, you’ll want to acknowledge what statement’s argument. Technology has indeed made people comfortable: automated machines have reduced the monotony of factory labor, computer engineering has allowed for the construction of safer and more efficient vehicles, roads, etc, and the internet has allowed us to more easily keep in touch with distant friends and families. Certainly these facts fall into the author’s argument, but it’s your job to assess their “significance” in the face of other technological achievements.
Brainstorming is all about parsing the author’s statement into manageable parts that inspire ideas. The statement tells you what to include and exclude in your essay. Never assume that you can just write an essay about ‘technology’ and avoid the statement’s argument. Each statement is specific, and your response should be the same.
Adopt a position / Articulate your thesis
When you look down at the overflowing mass of ideas you have written, your first step is to identify each idea as “agreeing with” or “disagreeing with” the prompt statement. In our previous example statement, “Over the past century, the most significant contribution of technology has been to make people’s lives more comfortable,” you might have jotted down “advances in medicine,” “automotive safety,” “machines relieve factory worker of monotonous work,” and “internet allows for ease of communication.” To quickly identify the stance of these ideas, write down “pro” or “con” next to each; “pro” indicates that the idea supports the statement, and “con” indicates that it opposes the statement. “Advances in medicine,” for example, deserves a “con” since it argues that there are more prodigious technological achievements than those that make us comfortable. “Machines relieve factory worker of monotonous work,” however, is an example in favor of the statement, so it deserves a “pro.” After you have labeled your pieces of evidence, organize these ideas into body paragraphs. Try to see where ideas cohere; if some ideas are weak, don’t use them. Fewer, finely tuned arguments are better than a bulk of crude ones.
After you organize your ideas, you should start to see a coherent argument forming. Remember, your argument can be one-sided, or it can qualify the conditions of the prompt statement.
Your introduction should first clearly articulate the argument in the given statement. Show the reader that you understand the implications of the issue at hand. Then, articulate your stance on the issue, indicating your agreement, disagreement, or qualification of the statement’s argument. Don’t get too specific with your evidence here, but do give an informative outline of your main arguments.
Your thesis, which is essentially a sentence or two that outlines your argument, should go at the end of the introduction. Ideally, your thesis statement should be organically integrated into your introduction. The purpose of your introduction is to build up to your argument, so we don’t want the thesis seem forced or out of place.
Don’t worry too much about refining your thesis statement at this stage. In fact, you may choose to write the thesis after you’ve written your body because your argument may slightly change during the writing process. If you’re taking a computer-based exam, this is no big deal. No need to leave a chunk of blank space—the magic of word processing takes care of this.
These two stages of the writing process should take about 6 minutes; when combined with the initial brainstorming stage, it should take about 9 minutes tops. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but you really want to devote the bulk of your time to the body paragraphs. Not only are the body paragraphs the most important and most heavily weighted part of the essay, but the process of writing them will help you refine your own ideas. Very often, writing the body paragraphs leads to a more fine-tuned thesis, so do not strictly limit your argument before you begin writing.
Starting the Body
If you have written a solid outline of your essay, then, by all means, follow it. If you haven’t yet figured out the order of your ideas, but you have grouped them into coherent sections, then begin with what you feel is easiest to write (a paragraph that is easy to write is often convincing and logical). Remember, if you realize that a different order of body paragraphs would make more sense, then you can arrange them later. Taking a computer test has its perks—take advantage of them.
Each one of your body paragraphs should begin with a topic sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about. Since the essay graders are not spending much time on each essay, make their lives easier by providing a roadmap to follow. A clear essay makes a happy grader; a happy grader makes a happy test-taker.
If you decide to qualify the prompt statement and choose to present opposing sides of an argument, then paragraph order is very important. For example, if you’re evaluating the argument that “political leaders should withhold information from the public,” you might want to argue that while political leaders cannot be expected to divulge the embarrassing minutia of their personal lives, they must remain honest in order to avoid falling into demagoguery and to uphold the values of democracy. What I’ve done with this thesis is concede a point to my opposition, which I will acknowledge in the beginning of my essay, but then I will end strong with my “honest is the best policy” argument. It would be nonsense to end my evidence with a concession. The last body paragraph is the one that will most strongly resonate with your reader, so if you opt for a thesis like this one, start with your concession and move into your strong argument.
No matter how tired you are after writing the body paragraphs, you must write a conclusion. Some may argue that the conclusion paragraph is often superfluous or redundant, but it is still a convention that you adhere to—at least for the GRE. The conclusion is meant for you to remind the reader of the main thrust of your essay. In your conclusion, restate your thesis, preferably in different words. If you can, try to think of a larger implication of your argument. Ask yourself “so what” after you’ve written these 500 words, and maybe a broader implication will come to you. If it doesn’t, don’t worry: an insightful flourish at the end of an essay may help put you into 6 territory, but don’t stress about forcing brilliance if it’s not coming naturally.
Allow yourself around 8-10 minutes to revise your essay. Watch out for awkward phrasing, inappropriate diction, and poor grammar. While you are reading through for these mechanical errors, think about the logical flow of your essay. You do have that copy/paste function to rearrange sentences and paragraphs, so use it to your advantage. When rereading your essay, keep these things in mind:
For many students, the first looming question about an essay assignment is length. Most authorities suggest that the issue writing task be at least 400 words, which, in 45 minutes, is rather brief. That being said, length is never really the main goal. A concise, well-articulated essay of 400 words will be better than a wordy, redundant, and trite essay of 700 words. At the same time, a 700 word essay with many convincing examples and articulate prose will be better than a vague 400 word essay without concrete examples. In the end, length should not be on your mind: clear writing, convincing examples, and a solid argument should be your focus.