Your GMAT essays are unlikely to be the linchpin of your application. Although I don’t like to say “never,” I personally have not heard of a student getting in to B-School because of his or her GMAT essays. It certainly seems possible, though, that your essays could keep you out, if your entire application package is borderline and you write one or two truly awful essays. For that reason, it’s important that you keep the AWA in perspective: it shouldn’t take up much of your prep time, but it’s certainly to your advantage to spend some time familiarizing yourself with what makes for a good essay, and getting some feedback from a qualified source, whether that is a professional mentor, a professor, or a test-prep specialist.
Of the two essays you’ll be expected to write, the Analysis of an Argument is likely to be the more challenging, if only because the task is not a familiar one to most business school candidates. The easiest format to use in writing this essay is the classic 5-paragraph style, and a simple, effective format will look something like this:
Paragraph 1: Brief recap of argument and statement that the argument has merit but also contains multiple flaws. Also include a “roadmap” of the points that you will make, in the order that you will make them.
Paragraph 2: Explanation of first flaw– this paragraph should have a strong topic sentence and then several sentences explaining the flaw in detail.
Paragraph 3: The second flaw gets the same treatment here as the first one did in the previous paragraph.
Paragraph 4: The third flaw is explained here in the manner established in the previous two paragraphs.
Paragraph 5: Briefly recap the flaws you’ve presented and diplomatically explain how those flaws could be remedied to present a stronger argument.
A good rule of thumb is that your reader should be able to get the gist of your entire argument just by skimming the first sentence of each paragraph. Remember, your reader is probably going to devote no more than three to five minutes to your essay. Take a few minutes at the beginning of your AWA to outline the five sentences that will begin your paragraphs; this strategy can make your reader’s job far easier, and a happy reader is probably more apt to make those tricky 4/5 line calls in your favor. Similarly, the e-reader is programmed to assess organization, and well-written topic sentences that use transition words and clearly state the point of each paragraph are a big help in creating the kind of organizational structure that earns you points on test day.
To start your essay on the right note, make sure that your first paragraph does what it needs to do (recap the argument, state your position, and map out your three points) without any attempts at rhetorical bells and whistles. At some point in high school or college, a composition instructor may have told you to use an “attention-getting” opening to really draw your audience in, but your GMAT AWA reader doesn’t need to be “drawn in;” she is getting paid to read your essay, and wants to do her job as efficiently as possible. She’s likely to regard literary flourishes as a waste of your energy and her time. Now, let’s look at a sample prompt and opening paragraph:
WPTK, the most popular television station in Metropolis, does not currently provide traffic updates to viewers. Since Metropolis is located in a Midwestern state with serious winter weather road delays 4 months out of the year, WPTK would significantly reduce the incidence of auto accidents on Metropolis-area roads by providing traffic updates.
The argument, which states that WPTK’s broadcast of traffic updates would reduce the incidence of auto accidents on Metropolis-area roads, has merit. However, the argument also exhibits several serious flaws which could limit its persuasiveness. The author weakens his claim by assuming that televised traffic updates would be timely enough to impact drivers’ actions, by failing to explicitly state how the updates would affect auto accidents, and by predicting a “significant” reduction in Metropolis auto accidents without specifying what kind of a reduction would be deemed “significant.”
As you can see, the opening paragraph responds to the prompt by taking a clear position, referring back to the issue briefly, and outlining the points that the essay will be addressing. Let your concise, informative opening paragraph set the tone for your essay, and look for an upcoming article on common flaws in Analysis of an Argument prompts!
Four Tips to Raise Your Scores on GMAT Argument Essay
TIP 1: DON’T LIE. EVER.
Made up statistics and facts won’t impress the GMAT graders, but strong organization, logical arguments, and specific supportive examples will. Don’t be tempted to make up data because you are not an “expert” in the subject matter.
TIP 2: BE CLEAR, NOT PEDANTIC.
Focus more on conveying your argument succinctly and forcefully than on sounding scholarly. Don’t include long-winded sentences that go nowhere in the hopes of sounding more intelligent. The argument essay needs to be formal, but more importantly, forceful.
TIP 3: YOU ALREADY KNOW YOUR THESIS.
No matter what the prompt, your thesis is essentially, “the argument is flawed.” All you have to do is come up with solid logic backed by specific examples that show why.
TIP 4: CRITICIZE THE WORDING OF THE ARGUMENT.
An easy way to find fault in the structure of the argument is to pick apart its diction. Just how many is “many”? Exactly what does the author mean by “benefits”? Look for vague wording and qualifying language to attack. It will be there!
At some point in your academic career, you’ll need to know how to analyze an argument properly. Here, tutor Andrew P. shares his guide to success…
As a college student, you’ll be expected at some point to understand, restate, comment on, or discuss someone’s assertion (strongly stated position).
An argument is a reason(s) for a conclusion.
- He is dense (reason); therefore, I won’t talk with him (conclusion).
- I won’t talk with him (conclusion) because he is dense (reason).
When asked to analyze an argument, you are expected to explain how and why something works or does not work.
- My car will not start. I realize that I left the interior lights on overnight (“you stupid idiot”)—no analysis necessary.
- My car will not start. The battery is fairly new, and the engine started right up yesterday. So, I open the hood. As soon as I begin probing to search for the reason, I am analyzing (whether or not I find the answer).
To analyze an author’s argument, take it one step at a time:
- Briefly note the main assertion (what does the writer want me to believe or do?)
- Make a note of the first reason the author makes to support his/her conclusion
- Write down every other reason
- Underline the most important reason
Here’s an example, with the analysis of the argument following:
Part of my philosophy is that a life worth living involves taking reasonable risks, whatever that may mean to a person. Without that openness, responsiveness, a person sees very little possibility for change and can sink into a rut of routines. I have known many who define themselves by their routines–and little else. These are the people an American educator spoke of when he said, “Many people should have written on their tombstones: ‘Died at 30, buried at 60.'” How sad! I think that one of the most horrible feelings a person must have is to be on the deathbed, regretting the many things never tried, and many things done that cannot be undone. I live my life to minimize possibilities of regrets, as I hope you do. Did you ever see the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days? She plays an alcoholic in a destructive relationship with a guy who wants only to have fun. A staff person at the clinic where she is sentenced to spend 28 days for rehab explained: “Insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting different results.” Maybe more people should watch that movie. The world may not go out of its way to help you–the world does not owe us fairness–but the world is there with more possibilities than most of us imagine. If we are responsible to ourselves–and response-able, we can continue growing in directions that are good for us. We do not need to understand the future, which, after all, does not exist, has not yet been created.
Main assertion: Worthwhile life = taking reasonable risks
- Being open to possibilities vs rut of routines
- Dying with regrets for actions and inactions is horrible
- Repeating same behaviors will prevent change
- Ability to respond to new possibilities, including risks, results in growth
You can now summarize the author’s position and, if required, agree or disagree in part or in whole, offering examples from your own experiences.
Complicated, huh? Yes, it is, until you get used to developing such a reaction paper. A writing tutor can be very helpful in guiding you through this process of how to analyze an argument, step by step, until you feel confident working with this important college skill.
Andrew P. teaches English and writing in Milton, VT, as well as through online lessons. He taught English courses at colleges and universities in five states for 35 years before retiring in 2013. Learn more about Andrew here!
Photo by LOLItsLloyd