The GRE Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) section comprises two essay tasks: the Issue essay and the Argument essay. Test takers are allotted 30 minutes for each essay. The Issue essay asks you to respond to a statement or a claim that relates to politics, education, technology, or culture. Essentially, you have to take stance on the given claim and defend your stance. The Argument essay asks you to find the flaw in the logic behind an author’s position. The position is provided in a paragraph or “the argument” and thus requires a thorough reading of the given argument.

How are the essays scored?

Each essay receives a score by a human grader and an e-rater score on a scale of 0 to 6. If these scores differ by less than 0.5, the human score stands. If they differ by more than 0.5, a second human scores the essay, and the two human scores are averaged to get a final score. The e-rater score won’t supplant the human score(s).

What do the graders look for?

Your essay needs to be clear, coherent, and cogent.

You must express your stance and ideas in a clear manner. If you jumble your words or simply throw in unnecessary words or your ideas are ambiguous, you will get a low score. Your essay should have a set of ideas [ideally 3 arguments that will make up the 3 main body paragraphs] that logically connect to one another. That is when your essay is coherent.

Secondly, you should provide convincing evidence to back up your thesis/claim. You can throw in some vague, hypothetical example, but doing so won’t make your essay cogent. Give an example that is a verifiable fact or a relevant personal anecdote.

The other factors that the human grader assesses are:

Style – an essay, albeit with good arguments and examples, with broken or run-on sentences and unsophisticated vocabulary will be scored lower than an essay with proper syntax and GRE-level vocabulary. However, make sure you do not make ill-use of the diction. Use a word only if you are sure of its actual and/or contextual meaning.

Grammar & Spelling – Even though the graders won’t nit-pick at grammar, grave grammatical errors will cost you points. Incorrect subject-verb agreement, improper use of pronouns, and misspelled common words can negatively impact your score. However, one or two minor grammatical mistakes won’t stop an essay from getting a perfect score, as long as everything else about the essay is perfect.

Note that the graders take around 30 seconds to grade an essay. They scan to make sure that you have clearly organized your information and that your paragraphs begin with a topic sentence, explain your argument, and flow into examples that support your argument. The graders make sure you have written a conclusion that summarises and re-iterates what you’ve already stated.

How long do my essays have to be?

Believe it or not, of two essays that are identical, except for the length, the longer one will receive the higher score. That doesn’t mean you should scribble away, giving unnecessary, irrelevant information, hoping that a 1000 word essay will automatically give you a 6. Substance matters. Ideally, you should write a five-paragraph essay with an introduction para, three main body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The ideal word limit for Issue essays in between 550 and 650 words and for Argument essays is between 500 and 600 words.

Note that six short paragraphs of 4 sentences each do not mean a long essay. The length of the paragraph matters. Each paragraph should be of approximately 100 words, and each of those paragraphs has to flow logically and defend your thesis.

The E-rater

The e-rater evaluates how you write, not what you think. It will, primarily, asses and score you on the following criteria:

  1. Grammar (subject–verb agreement, etc.)
  2. Usage (then vs. than, etc.)
  3. Mechanics (spelling and capitalization, etc.)
  4. Style (redundancy and passive voice)
  5. Organization (thesis statement, main points, supporting details, examples, conclusions)
  6. Development (main points precede details and examples)
  7. The use of vocabulary

However, the e-rater doesn’t understand the meaning of your essay nor does it make a reasonable judgment about the essay’s overall quality. Hence, to get a higher score from an e-rater, make sure your grammar and diction are proper. For instance, in the Argument essay, instead of writing “The manager says that…”, write “The author of the argument concludes that…”. Use words such as author, conclusion, premise, reasoning, justification, assumption, insufficient evidence, etc. to boost your scores.