GRE For High Scorers, Part 7: GRE Argument Essays

A quick primer on writing great GRE argument essays

Before I get started, I can't stress strongly enough how important it is to read and think about what ETS tells us about the GRE Argument Essay Task. Please make sure you follow my essay advice:

"Actions: read Chapter 2 and all sample essays and commentary in The Official Guide, as well as those in the Verbal Practice book. These are great models for your writing since you can see what the ETS graders reward. Pay very close attention to the grader commentary.

Read and brainstorm the topics for the GRE Argument essay. Write essays untimed, then timed. Compare them to the sample essays in the ETS books. I highly recommend getting a good writer to look at your essays. They Say, I Say is the best book I know of to improve your writing, since it quickly allows you to incorporate academic writing structures into your own writing."


Ok - assuming you've gotten started on that, let's take a look at a sample argument prompt from ETS's website and analyze a GRE argument essay written in response to that prompt:

"In surveys Mason City residents rank water sports (swimming, boating and fishing) among their favorite recreational activities. The Mason River flowing through the city is rarely used for these pursuits, however, and the city park department devotes little of its budget to maintaining riverside recreational facilities. For years there have been complaints from residents about the quality of the river's water and the river's smell. In response, the state has recently announced plans to clean up Mason River. Use of the river for water sports is therefore sure to increase. The city government should for that reason devote more money in this year's budget to riverside recreational facilities.

Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on the assumptions and what the implications are if the assumptions prove unwarranted."

Things Argument Essay Graders Like


In order to get a really high score, think about conveying the following to the essay graders:

    1. Understand the argument. This is usually first done in the introduction to your essay. Here's an example intro from the 6 response to the above prompt:

"While it may be true that the Mason City government ought to devote more money to riverside recreational facilities, this author's argument does not make a cogent case for increased resources based on river use. It is easy to understand why city residents would want a cleaner river, but this argument is rife with holes and assumptions, and thus, not strong enough to lead to increased funding."

Notice that this introduction shows understanding of what the argument is arguing for: devoting more money to riverside facilities. It also touches on the part of the argument that pertains to the river clean up. It's not necessary to provide a comprehensive summary of the argument - just give enough context so that the reader senses you get its gist.

2. Analyze the argument. This is the main task your essay will accomplish. As ETS puts it, you will be "(discussing) the logical soundness of the author's case... by critically examining the line of reasoning".

To me, this comprises two things:

First, discussing evidence or scenarios that, if true, would weaken the argument. Again, here's an example from that 6 response:

"Citing surveys of city residents, the author reports city resident's love of water sports. It is not clear, however, the scope and validity of that survey. For example, the survey could have asked residents if they prefer using the river for water sports or would like to see a hydroelectric dam built, which may have swayed residents toward river sports. The sample may not have been representative of city residents, asking only those residents who live upon the river. The survey may have been 10 pages long, with 2 questions dedicated to river sports. We just do not know. Unless the survey is fully representative, valid, and reliable, it can not be used to effectively back the author's argument."

Notice that this writer talks about several potential scenarios that would weaken the argument if they were true. There is nice breadth here. I advise striking a balance in your essay between offering several scenarios and going more deeply into one.

Secondly, discussing how a breakdown in the line of reasoning used by the author would affect the argument. Here's an example from that same essay:

"Building upon the implication that residents do not use the river due to the quality of the river's water and the smell, the author suggests that a river clean up will result in increased river usage."

Here, the writer has noticed that the author of the argument uses a conclusion about residents' use of the river to support cleaning up the river. In doing so, the writer conveys to the reader that he or she understands the argument's structure - how the author of the argument has constructed a line of reasoning to support the argument's conclusion. Try looking for places in an argument in which the author is making a conclusion based on a premise - these are sometimes indicated by transitions that indicate cause and effect (therefore, in response).

Be sure to explain the implications of your analysis of the argument's reasoning to the efficacy of the argument. This can be done along the way, or you can save it for the conclusion. By doing this, you evaluate the argument - the final ability the graders are looking for.

Just like the Issue essay, the more compelling and insightful your writing is, the better your grade will be. Again, think about a mixture of breadth and deeper elaboration.

Also, hey - did you know I am available for essay grading / essay help? Just contact me if you'd like some personalized feedback.

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