Of course, it’s important to aim for a good GRE score in the Quants and Verbal sections but you shouldn’t forget to prepare for the AWA. Make sure that you understand the official score level descriptions for AWA. Also, take some time to build the key skill to succeeding on the GRE AWA: prewriting.
When starting your AWA essays, it can be tempting not to do any prewriting. It certainly seems like you could finish the essays more quickly if you start writing it immediately. However, prewriting can actually save you time… when done correctly. And it’s an important step in creating a well-organized, top-scoring essay.
Let’s look at some prewriting strategies to improve your time and score in AWA.
On the GRE AWA, you have just 30 minutes to write a fairly sophisticated short essay. On the Argument AWA, you must deeply analyze an intellectual argument, carefully weighing the argument’s reasoning and evidence. And on the Issue AWA Task, you must construct and fully justify your own argument on an important social issue. Both tasks require a lot of writing. Typically, a high-scoring AWA essay will have at least 500 words.
Needless to say, on the GRE, time is precious. One of the biggest time-eaters in GRE AWA is the act of stopping to think about what you should write next. Pre-writing can minimize the pauses you need to make as you write out your AWA response. By having a good game plan before you start typing your essay onto the test keyboard, you ensure that the actual essay will unfold quickly and smoothly. In fact, with a really good foundation of pre-writing, you may not need to stop and think at all once you start writing your response. Prewrite well, and the actual essay will practically write itself.
One good prewriting strategy is to start with brainstorming. In the initial brainstorming phase, you should let your ideas fly, rapid fire. Write the first ideas that pop into your head regarding the task. Remember that you are writing down ideas, not fully developed statements. Jot down words or phrases, not full sentences. At this stage, complete sentences aren’t just unnecessary– they’re actually harmful. Complete sentences in the brainstorming phase waste time. You don’t absolutely need to write complete sentences until your prewriting is done and you’re writing your actual AWA response.
In good, time-saving prewriting, your second step is to make an outline based on your brainstorming. To make this outline, look at the ideas you’ve brainstormed. Quickly choose the brainstorming ideas that you think you’ll use. You can mark these “probably useful” ideas by putting an asterisk (*) next to them, underlining them, or circling them. Don’t cross out the ideas you think you won’t use– you want these ideas to remain clearly readable, in case you later decide to use them after all.
From there, start numbering the good ideas in the order that that they’ll appear in your essay. Write sequential numbers next to the selected ideas in your brainstorming notes. Once the ideas are numbered, then you’re ready to start re-writing them in outline form. Your outline will be the direct basis for the final essay you create. As you start to really develop your ideas in the outline, it can be useful to have some short complete sentences. But continue to use shorter phrases whenever possible.
Once you have you outline, your AWA prewriting process is complete. Using your outline for reference, you can start to type your essay with confidence.
Strategic prewriting is a matter of working smarter, not harder. Smarter working doesn’t just save you time; it also facilitates smarter writing.
To ensure that your prewriting is truly smart writing, you need to strategically orient yourself toward specific goals in the prewriting process.
On the GRE AWA, the goal of both tasks is to think critically about an argument. As you critique an argument or construct your own, think about information that would strengthen the argument and information that might weaken it. This strategic approach will ensure that you think up good, useful ideas during the brainstorm phase of your prewriting.
Remember too that organization of ideas is just as important as quality of ideas. As you select and number ideas for your outline, focus on the logical progression of your ideas. The most important ideas should be mentioned early in your essay. These key ideas are foundation. Narrower ideas go on top of this foundation, while the smallest details bring your essay to a final, focused point.
Now that I’ve walked you through the basics of strategic GRE AWA prewriting, let’s look at example prewriting for a specific task. For my example prewriting, I’ll use a sample Argument AWA question from the official GRE website. Go to the link to read the full prompt. Then read my brainstorm prewriting notes below. These notes include the marking and numbering that’s added in the outline stage of prewriting.
people too old for river sports
number of pollution complaints* (3)
smelly water? natural causes?* (5)
better waterfront nearby
location of people surveyed* (2)
survey sample size
reason for no activity = not stated* (4)
survey design/validity* (1)
Next, we’ll look at the outline. Notice that some of the numbered items you see in my brainstorming phase change a little bit. Most notably, “employee morale/public relations” from brainstorming changes to “employee relations, morale and efficiency” in the outline
Intro: funding for river recreation not justified
Conclusion: clean safe river good, may/may not increase water activities
You may feel both my brainstorming and my notes do not have 100% clear meaning. And that’s actually OK. Your prewriting only needs to be understandable to you. Remember, you’re the only one who will see your AWA notes and outline! Your thoughts don’t need to become understandable to anyone else until you write the essay based on your notes.
So what would a fleshed out essay look like, based on the brainstorming and outline notes above? I’m glad you asked. To see a full sample essay based on my brainstorm and outline return to the sample GRE Argument AWA task I linked above. Scroll down and you’ll see an example top-scoring response to the prompt. This prompt corresponds to the prewriting notes you see here.
Use this automated online GRE AWA essay grader to test your practice essays.