Here are some common problems that our head tutor, Isaac, notices when he grades AWA essays as the tiebreaker for our Brightest Minds contest:
- Understanding that the prompt does not ask for an opinion. The strongest essay writers focused on unpacking the author’s argument and using alternate situations, examples, and counterexamples to show why his or her logic was flawed.
- Leaving time to proofread essays for spelling or grammatical errors. While essay graders shouldn’t really be marking down for spelling, if essay clarity is compromised, your score will suffer.
Here are two short sample responses to our scholarship competition’s essay prompt, followed by a breakdown of the differences between the successful response and the one that falls flat.
Prompt: “The following appeared in a memorandum written by the Dean of Sciences at Wilmark University to employment offices nationwide:
In the past year, it has been observed that the incidence of anxiety episodes in psychiatric patients falls dramatically after dance therapy classes. Therefore, and as based on such findings, the opening of further and significantly higher enrolment in dance therapy courses would be wise, as would the rise in music therapy courses. Consequently, the findings also mean there will be further employment in the field of therapy, which can only mean more money for the university and great success rates in pairing students with fantastic jobs in the field of therapy.
Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.”
The Dean of Sciences at Wilmark University is clearly enamored by dance therapy’s potential benefits for psychiatric patients. However, the Dean has also taken a micro-level view on dance therapy, ignoring the fact that each psychiatric patient is unique and requires programming tailored specifically to his or her needs. Therefore, the sweeping assumptions the Dean makes about the effectiveness of dance therapy cannot be applied to all psychiatric patients.
As I alluded to earlier, each psychiatric patient requires a customized program tailored to his or her needs. While patients suffering from PTSD or recovering from childhood trauma might respond well to dance therapy, patients who are introverted in nature may be resistant to dance therapy and overwhelmed by the experience. Additionally, decreased incidences of anxiety episodes is a finding that only applies to individuals suffering from anxiety in the first place.To assume that all patients will respond well to dance therapy is an error the Dean of Sciences simply cannot make.
Furthermore, the success of one method of therapy does not guarantee an increase in the demand of that form of therapy, let alone any consequential increase in university enrollment by aspiring dance therapists to meet such anticipated demand. The population of individuals suffering from conditions that dance therapy benefits may never even become aware that this method of therapy works in the first place. And even if demand for dance or music therapy increased, how can the Dean know that Wilmark will be the school whose enrollment will benefit from such demand?
Based solely on the findings of one study, it is not reasonable for the Dean of Sciences to jump into such a direct cause-and-effect assumption of the profitability of bolstering of the university’s dance therapy curriculum. If the Dean had also taken additional studies into account, demonstrated specific instances in which dance therapy is and is not successful, and found a demonstrable link between the success of one therapy method and Wilmark University’s ability to generate increased revenue by offering more classes on such therapy methods, then he or she might have been more persuasive. Until the Dean does so, the assumptions he or she made are simply not enough to support the argument for additional dance therapy classes.
The assumption that dance therapy has a direct correlation to a decrease in anxiety episodes in psychiatric patients is extremely flawed. The Dean at Wilmark University has made a number of assumptions that do not stand up on their own, nor do they support the argument that opening further dance therapy courses would be a good idea.
Firstly, the Dean’s findings are flimsy and clearly are not substantial enough to support this argument for one simple reason: he does not include the findings in this memorandum. If the findings were as groundbreaking as he alludes to, there would be no need to keep them from the reader. Therefore, it is impossible to conclude that the findings are a good enough reason to move forward with adding additional dance therapy classes, which will only cost the university money it likely does not have.
Secondly, I don’t think dance therapists make enough money. I would never get a degree in a career that doesn’t promise a lot of money, and I don’t think other potential therapists would either. If nobody wants to be a dance therapist, nobody will enroll in these new dance therapy classes.
Therefore, the Dean of the university has made a costly and faulty assumption that adding dance therapy classes will benefit the university. Not only are there no specific findings, but even if the findings were true I don’t think anyone will want to be a dance therapist.
Both sample responses are shorter than your official GMAT essay should be, but the first response is by far the strongest. You’ll find that, although the author of Response 1 should add another supporting paragraph or two, the writer has done a better job of backing up their argument by countering the logic of numerous assumptions implicit in the Dean’s original proposal. By questioning the applicability of the study’s findings to a larger population and any implied consequences on demand of therapy in general or at the university in particular, the author has successfully used multiple logic-based arguments to write their essay.
On the other hand, the author of Response 2 attempts to refute the Dean’s assumptions by relying on opinions and assumptions of their own. Rather than addressing the logic behind the Dean’s cause-and-effect argument, this essayist leaned on less relevant details (whether or not the Dean’s findings were laid out in the prompt) and their own career preferences. We can’t emphasize enough how common it is for essayists to slip into opinion-based arguments in these essays, and how important it is to avoid this common pitfall.
Keep practicing your writing skills, but also make sure to supplement your study plan with outside reading (The Economist is a great place to start) that illustrates the composition of effective logic-based arguments. Additionally, review these AWA essay tips.
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While there is no way to predict which topic you’ll see on test day, by following the same process and using the same template for each practice essay you write, you’ll be well-prepared. You can download a list of topics here. The topics may change, but your approach never will. Let’s look at one of the official GMAT topics:
The first step towards strong essay examples is to understand the two sides of the issue. You must either strongly agree or strongly disagree with the presented issue. Unlike real life where most of your opinions are probably a mix of gray, the GMAT Issue essay requires you to take a strong stand on one side of the issue. You won’t be able to adequately argue a middle-of-the-road approach in 30 minutes, and you risk appearing indecisive and muddling your essay.
First state the two sides of the issue in your own words:
TRUE: More violence should be incorporated into entertainment.
FALSE: More violence should NOT be incorporated into entertainment.
Now you can begin to brainstorm examples for both sides. Look at the language of the prompt. It mentions “television programs, movies, songs and other forms….” Those are big clues to some of the areas from which you can draw examples!
Examples of successful popular culture entertainment that incorporate violence:
- TV: WWF programs, MXC on SpikeTV, Gordon Ramsey on Hell’s Kitchen (he throws plates!)
- Movies: Kill Bill series, adaptations of graphic novels like Sin City, the Saw franchise
- Songs: rappers like Eminem, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, etc.
- Other forms: videogames like Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, etc.
Remember that you won’t use every single one of these examples, but making a list and expanding upon the topic will help you brainstorm what points you’d ultimately like to make. Now it’s time to decide how you’d like to use these examples. Do you want to say that Saw and Grand Theft Auto are detrimental to society or do you prefer to argue that they represent harmless escapism? Don’t simply choose the side with which you agree. Let the examples and your own knowledge and background dictate which side you support.
For example, someone with a lot of knowledge about psychology may argue persuasively that exposure to violence leads to increased violent behavior in children, whereas a history buff may put forth that violence as entertainment has historically always been a normal part of human expression. You will not be scored on your opinion, but on how clearly and forcefully you make and defend your argument. Choose one or two main points based on your own knowledge, and then choose specific examples from your brainstorm list to support your conclusions.
To score well on the GMAT, you’ll have to impress the readers with your essay’s content, structure, style. We’ve heard quite a bit about content and structure: have a clear argument, provide concrete examples, build your essay like a hamburger, etc. What about style, a.k.a. writing well? What does that even mean? To start with the obvious, writing “well” means the difference between saying “writing good” and “writing well”–in other words, grammar. To be honest, though, you could write a perfectly grammatical essay with concrete examples and clear focus, and it still might not cut it. Check out this example below:
“The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century had both negative and positive consequences. The Industrial Revolution caused child labor and poor working conditions. The Industrial Revolution then led to reforms that amended these injustices.”
Clearly, this short paragraph is not written well. But, how can that be? The sentences are grammatical, the information is factual, the writing is clear, and the vocabulary is apt. The problem is sentence variation.
Varying sentence structure often comes naturally to many writers; after all, we certainly do not talk in the manner of the Industrial Revolution paragraph. In my example, each sentence begins with the same subject, “The Industrial Revolution,” and each sentence has the exact same subject-verb construction, which makes reading laborious and tiresome. If you notice that you tend to repeat sentence structures when you write, try getting used to inverting or rewording the sentence.
For example, look at these two sentences which have the same structure:
“People rarely observe grammar rules when speaking because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication. People just say what they mean instead of carefully crafting sentences.”
Notice that, like our earlier example, the writing is unnecessarily repetitive. What options do we have for inverting the sentences?
Sentence 1: People rarely observe grammar rules when speaking because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication.
Inversion: Because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication, people rarely observe grammar rules when speaking.
Sentence 2: People just say what they mean instead of carefully crafting sentences.
Inversion: Instead of carefully crafting sentences, people just say what they mean.
To improve sentence variation, just change one of the sentences to its inversion.
Option 1: People rarely observe grammar rules when speaking because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication. Instead of carefully crafting sentences, people just say what they mean.
Option 2: Because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication, people rarely observe grammar rules when speaking. People just say what they mean instead of carefully crafting sentences.
Notice that both options sound significantly better than the original, though the exact same clauses are used. Sentence inversion is one very simple way to improve sentence variation. When you write or even when you read, try inverting the sentences to see what combinations you can come up with. Remember, trust your ear! If a certain phrasing sounds like an improvement, it probably is.