GRE Argument Essay: How to Get a Perfect 6 Score

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Of all the various types of questions on the GRE, Analytical Writing questions can seem like the trickiest ones to answer perfectly. Not only do you have to write hundreds of words to answer the Argument essay GRE question, but there’s also no one set correct answer that you can give and automatically get it right.

So how do you reliably score well on the GRE Argument essay? In this article, we’ll focus in on what goes into a high-scoring response and offer some GRE Argument essay tips to help you consistently write essays that meet those standards.

 

Do You Need a Perfect GRE Argument Essay Score?

Practically speaking, no, you don’t need a perfect 6.0 on the Argument essay. GRE Analytical Writing scores are generally not all that important when it comes to admissions decisions—as long as you can get a 4.5, you’ll be set for most schools.

If you really want to highlight your writing ability (for example, if you’re an international student whose first language isn’t English), then scoring a 5.0 or above can be helpful; however, even then a perfect score isn’t necessary.

Some writing intensive programs do have GRE Writing score cutoffs, but none of these cutoffs are going to be above a 4.5. You can get a better idea of what GRE Writing score cutoffs for different programs are with our article about what makes a good GRE Writing score.

There are a few doctoral programs (e.g. UChicago’s PoliSci Ph.D.) that have higher average GRE scores, but that’s more of a side-effect of the applicant pool than because that’s something the admissions committees look for. Students applying to top-notch doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences will need to have strong analytical writing skills, yes, but this is usually presented through writing portfolios or other materials required by grad schools.

 

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What Makes a Perfect-Scoring GRE Argument Essay?

To get the most accurate picture of what goes into a perfect GRE Argument essay, we’ll turn to the official scoring rubric. This is the chart that the human GRE essay graders use for scoring the Argument essay on the real test, so it’s the best standard against which to hold your own practice essays.

Below, I’ve done a side-by-side comparison of the different criteria needed to get a 4.0 vs. a 6.0 on the Argument essay GRE question.

Score of 4 (Adequate) Score of 6 (Outstanding) Major Differences
In addressing the specific task directions, a 4 response presents a competent examination of the argument and conveys meaning with acceptable clarity. In addressing the specific task directions, a 6 response presents a cogent, well-articulated examination of the argument and conveys meaning skillfully. A 4 essay accomplishes the bare minimum of inspecting and breaking down the argument in a clear fashion. A 6 essay not only meets this bar, but also analyzes the argument insightfully and thoroughly explains the major points of the argument under the umbrella of the task.
identifies and examines aspects of the argument relevant to the assigned task, but may also discuss some extraneous points clearly identifies aspects of the argument relevant to the assigned task and examines them insightfully A 6 essay delves into the argument’s structure and its implications more deeply, staying focused on the parts of the argument that relate back to the task at hand.
develops and organizes ideas satisfactorily, but may not connect them with transitions develops ideas cogently, organizes them logically and connects them with clear transitions A 6 essay not only develops ideas, but does so logically (and connects them to each other in a way that makes sense).
supports its main points adequately, but may be uneven in its support provides compelling and thorough support for its main points A 4 essay supports all its main points, but may only delve into the complexities of the points in some cases, whereas a 6 essay has equally strong and thorough support for all its main points.
demonstrates sufficient control of language to convey ideas with reasonable clarity. Generally demonstrates control of the conventions of standard written English, but may have some errors conveys ideas fluently and precisely, using effective vocabulary and sentence variety. Demonstrates superior facility with the conventions of standard written English (i.e., grammar, usage and mechanics), but may have minor errors A 4 essay conveys its meaning clearly enough, while a 6 essay is extremely well written. If you want to achieve a 6, you’ll need to vary your sentence structure and use advanced vocabulary accurately and appropriately.

I know there is a lot of information to process in that chart, so I’ve summarized it below by extracting the most important points. A good GRE Argument essay:

  • Must limit its discussion to identifying and explaining the parts of the argument that are relevant to the essay task
  • Must develop its ideas logically
  • Must be organized and connect ideas smoothly
  • Must include support for the main points of the author’s analysis
  • Must be well-written

To get a perfect score on the Argument essay, you must display mastery with each one of these items.

 

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Official GRE Argument Essay, Analyzed

Now that we’ve gone over the rubric in the abstract, it’s time to apply it to a high-scoring essay. By taking the rubric criteria and looking at how they are exemplified by a real essay, you’ll be able to get a better feel for what exactly it takes to get a perfect score.

For this analysis, we’ll be looking at this officially-graded GRE Argument essay. Here’s the prompt the essay was written in response to:

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.

The sample Argument essay we’ll be looking at discusses and disputes three different assumptions made by the argument:

  • That the survey is a reliable measure of preferences and should be used as a source of information to inform budget planning.
  • That there is a link between the river’s odor and pollution and the lack of residents’ recreational use of the river.
  • That plans to clean up Mason River will be effective.

To analyze this essay, I’ll highlight places where the essay fulfills each of the criteria for the 6.0 GRE Writing score level. The first of these rubric criteria is a description of what a perfect-scoring Argument essay should look like overall:

Rubric description: In addressing the specific task directions, a 6 response presents a cogent, well-articulated examination of the argument and conveys meaning skillfully.

This description of what a perfect Argument essay should look like is much more general than the rest of the other rubric items and is more meant as a summary of what the other four items indicate than as a specific criterion in and of itself. If an essay meets all of the other four rubric requirements for a 6.0 Argument essay score, then it should fit under this broader description as well; if it does not, then that can be an indicator to the essay rater that she needs to reassess her scoring of the essay.

 

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Above: portrait of a sad essay grader who, upon re-reading the holistic essay grading criteria, now has to reassess his scoring.

 

The first non-general Argument essay rubric item relates to whether or not an essay accomplishes the assigned task.

Rubric description: A 6 essay clearly identifies aspects of the argument relevant to the assigned task and examines them insightfully

The sample essay succeeds in meeting both parts of this criterion. In the essay, the author pinpoints three different assumptions of the argument (survey is reliable, water being dirty is why people don’t use it for recreational sports, and cleaning it will work). Each of these claims is a key assumption upon which the argument depends, since if any one of these three claims proved unfounded, then the argument becomes illogical.

The author also “examines [the assumptions] insightfully” by discussing the implications of each assumption and what it would mean for the argument were the assumptions to prove false. If the author had merely identified the key elements of the argument without this kind of discussion, the essay would have received a lower score. Below is an excerpt from the essay that illustrates an instance of the author fulfilling this criterion:

“If the river’s water quality and smell result from problems which can be cleaned, [that a river clean up will result in increased river usage] may be true… But if the quality and aroma results from the natural mineral deposits in the water or surrounding rock, this may not be true.”

In this excerpt, the author points out an assumption of the argument (that the quality and smell problems from the river can be dealt with) and presents the implications if the assumption is unwarranted (if the problems are from mineral deposits, quality and smell change might not be possible). The clear way in which the author gets to the point (if A, then B may be true…but if not A, then B may not be true) and the insight she uses in determining why the assumption might not be true and what effect that might have all contribute to this essay achieving a 6-level score.

 

"You don't have to be a detective to write the essay, but it helps*!" *does not actually help. All you need is adequate preparation.
“You don’t have to be a detective to write the essay, but it helps*!”
*does not actually help. All you need is adequate preparation.

 

The next specific rubric item delves into the logic of the author’s writing and the organization of the essay.

Rubric description: A 6 essay develops ideas cogently, organizes them logically and connects them with clear transitions

While the previous rubric item is concerned with the author’s ability to pick apart the logic of the argument in the prompt, this item focuses in on the author’s own writing style and her ability to logically develop and connect ideas in the Argument essay. GRE guidelines for both the Issue and Argument essay place a premium on clear logic and organization, both in terms of how ideas are linked within a paragraph as well as on a larger scale.

For the Argument essay, it makes sense to group your discussion of each assumption into its own separate paragraph. However, if you want to get a perfect essay score, you can’t just throw in information about the assumption and its implications willy-nilly, without a care for its organization. Instead, you must make sure that each of your points about the assumption is directly followed by support for that point. This clarity of development allows the reader to follow your logic more easily, which in turn makes your essay that much more persuasive and effective.

In the Argument essay, organization and logic are also important when it comes to ordering the paragraphs of your essay and transitioning between ideas. Here’s an example of a transition that connects the ideas of two consecutive paragraphs:

“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.”

This sentence begins the fourth paragraph of the essay and logically transitions to the new assumption about to be discussed (“river clean up will result in increased river usage”) by referencing the idea just discussed in the third paragraph (“residents do not use the river due to the quality of the river’s water and the smell”). The sentence structure “building upon the implication that…the author suggests that” connects the two ideas skillfully, strengthening the link between the two paragraph by framing it as a logical progression.

The clear and logical way in which the author develops her points within each paragraph and the tight organizational connections between paragraphs are how the essay exemplifies this rubric item.

 

On the other hand, a dirty river means more residents on the river trying to clean it up, so...at least there's that? Gabriela Avram/Flickr.
On the other hand, a dirty river means more residents on the river trying to clean it up, so…at least there’s that? Gabriela Avram/Flickr.

 


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The third non-general item on the GRE Argument essay rubric is focused entirely on how well the author supports her points.

Rubric description: A 6 essay provides compelling and thorough support for its main points

Essentially, this rubric item is all about determining whether or not an author properly supports her ideas and their development throughout the essay. Correctly identifying assumptions and examining them in a logical and organized way is all very well and good and satisfies the first two rubric criteria, but if you don’t support your analysis with either scenarios from the argument or hypothetical scenarios that could also explain assumptions made in the argument, you’re not going to get a perfect score.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay that demonstrates an instance of “compelling and thorough support”:

“Additionally, the author implies that residents do not use the river for swimming, boating, and fishing, despite their professed interest, because the water is polluted and smelly. While a polluted, smelly river would likely cut down on river sports, a concrete connection between the resident’s lack of river use and the river’s current state is not effectively made. Though there have been complaints, we do not know if there have been numerous complaints from a wide range of people, or perhaps from one or two individuals who made numerous complaints.”

The first sentence of this excerpt lays out the assumption made in the argument: the reason people don’t use the water for sport is because it’s dirty and odiferous. The next two sentences support the author’s claim that this assumption is unfounded in two important ways:

#1: The author singles out a particular way in which the argument is flawed, stating that “a concrete connection…is not effectively made” between two specific claims linked in the argument.

#2: The author explains why the argument is flawed by presenting relevant details, like the fact that the source of the complaints is unknown and could potentially be just a few people.

The reasoning and support used by the author in her essay are effective because the author explains clearly the ways in which they support her points. If the author had just said, “There is no clear connection between the lack of river use and the river’s polluted state because it could just be a few people complaining,” the link between the number of people complaining and why this matters for the validity of the complaints would’ve been unclear and the support would be less compelling.

 

It turned out that it was just Fry the cat complaining about the river water all along. Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr.
It turned out that all the complaints about the river water were coming from Fry the cat the whole time. Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr.

 

The final rubric area for the Argument essay has to do with how skillfully an essay is written and how well it adheres to the standards of written English.

Rubric description: A 6 essay conveys ideas fluently and precisely, using effective vocabulary and sentence variety. Demonstrates superior facility with the conventions of standard written English (i.e., grammar, usage and mechanics), but may have minor errors

This last group of items on the Argument essay rubric gets into the mechanics of how well the author writes. The two ways in which this is effected are through the precise use of language and general dearth of errors. Here’s an example of an effective use of language in the sample essay:

“While a polluted, smelly river would likely cut down on river sports, a concrete connection between the resident’s lack of river use and the river’s current state is not effectively made.”

The precise language in this sentence successfully differentiates between the “likely” correlation that is made in the prompt and the “concrete connection” that is not made. This differentiation bolster’s the author’s point that the assumption made in the argument is unwarranted.

The second part of this set of rubric items has to do with the author’s ability to write in standard English without making too many errors. This is demonstrated throughout the mostly error-free sample essay; the errors that do remain, like “afffected” in paragraph four, do not impede the reader’s understanding of what the author is trying to say.

This last point is a good distillation of what all the rubric items for a perfect-scoring essay are trying to capture: a 6.0 GRE Argument essay is one that is clear and precise, whether in ideas, analysis, support, development, organization, or language.

 

Get it get its "current" state but it's also a river so it has its own current so...you know what, I'll just see myself out. Karyn Christner/Flickr.
The river’s “CURRENT” state, get it? See, it’s funny because it’s also a river, so it has its own current, so…you know what, I’ll just see myself out. Karyn Christner/Flickr.

 

6 Steps to a 6.0: GRE Argument Essay Tips

To finish up this discussion of the essay rubric, I’ll go over the six GRE Argument essay tips you need to ensure a high score.

 

#1: Focus on the Task

One of the core skills you must master in order to score at all well on the GRE Argument essay is being able to analyze the structure and logic of the arguments, rather than getting caught up in whether you agree or disagree with the points being made.

It may be difficult to do this at first, as it can be hard to be objective when the subject being argued about is one you have firm opinions on or when the logical flaws of the argument are so obvious it drives you crazy. Part of practicing and preparing for the GRE Argument essay task, though, is learning how to channel that irritation and outrage into an unflinching analysis and explanation of how the argument works and where it falls apart.

 

Focus on the flaws of the argument.
Focus on the task at hand. In this case, the task is a swan, staring at you with its cold, swan-y eyes. Beware.

 

#2: Hit Major Points Only

Making sure you analyze the argument (rather than agreeing or disagreeing with its position) is only the first step to writing a successful GRE Argument essay, though. You’ll also need to make sure that in your dissection of the argument, your main focus stays on the major features of the argument that add (or detract from) the argument’s effectiveness.

With only 30 minutes to complete the argument task, your job is not to be comprehensive, but to analyze the points that matter. Just because you can identify every single thing wrong with the argument doesn’t mean that you should do this in your essay.

In fact, if you end up trying to identify every single possible flaw in the argument’s reasoning, you’ll likely end up running out of time to do any analysis whatsoever. And while finding the flaws in the argument is an important part of the GRE Argument essay, an equally important part is explaining in a coherent and unified way why the flaws matter.

Let’s consider the Mason City riverfront prompt again as an example.

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.

There’s a lot of information in the prompt to mull over, and it can be tempting to leap into analyzing the first problematic assumption you notice, even if isn’t a major issue. Don’t fall prey to this temptation! It may be true that the prompt assumes that water sports can only be perpetrated on a river (rather than in a pool or the ocean), but the argument depends on this fact far less than it does on the assumption that the river’s bad smell and quality is why Mason City residents rarely use the Mason River for water sports.

The importance of keeping your analysis to major points is supported by the ideas and analysis rubric item: a 4-scoring essay “may also discuss some extraneous points”, while a 6-scoring essay only covers “aspects of the argument relevant to the assigned task.”

 

Boating in a pool is totally possible. These guys get it. Baltimore RecNParks/Flickr.
Boating in a pool is totally possible. These guys get it. Baltimore RecNParks/Flickr.

 

#3: Keep Your Essay Organized

Because the GRE Argument essay involves critiquing someone else’s argument, rather than building your own, it may be difficult to see at first how you can keep your essay organized. In this case, as with many other types of essay, the five-paragraph essay form is your friend.

To start your essay, you will need to introduce the bare bones of what the argument is arguing. For the sample argument we went through above, those bare bones are that the Mason City government should spend more money this year on riverside recreational facilities. You must also include at least a general description of the thrust of your analysis (whether or not the argument is supported, if there are holes in the argument, or if the argument is more true than not). Ideally, these two points will connect to each other in a lean fashion, like in the introduction of this sample essay:


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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.

In each of the three body paragraphs of your essay, you should discuss the three major components of the argument that go to prove your point. Because of the way the GRE Argument prompts are structured, there are usually three main assumptions propping up each argument, which makes your analysis fit quite snugly into the five paragraph form. If you only end up discussing two major questions or assumptions from the argument, it’s perfectly fine to end up with two body paragraphs, but you should keep in mind that if you have time, there might be a third avenue of the argument that’s worth exploring.

Finally, conclude your essay with a reference to your introduction and incorporation of some of the points you made. This conclusion can be short, depending on how you’re doing for time and brainpower by the time you get to it, but including at least some sort of conclusion statement is an important part of keeping your essay organized.

 

Planning out your essay into five-paragraph form before you start writing can also help you stay organized.
Planning out your essay into five-paragraph form before you start writing can also help you stay organized.

 

#4: Do Mock Analyses of Real GRE Essay Prompts

There are 176 possible topics you’ll be asked to write about on the GRE Argument essay, and all of them are available for free online. Because of this wealth of real essay topics, it’s unlikely that you’ll run out of prompts you can write practice essays on (unless you’re planning on spending 88 hours doing practice GRE Argument essays). Therefore, it’s safe to do practice outlines, rather than entire practice essays, for a portion of these prompts.

Writing mock Argument essay outlines is good practice if you’re fine with explaining your thoughts but are struggling with speedily analyzing arguments. Even if you have difficulty with both these aspects of the Argument task, creating outlines is still good practice because it will at least help you increase your analytical skills; once you’ve bolstered your ability to analyze an argument under time pressure, you can then proceed to writing full-length practice essays.

For each prompt you choose to outline, come up with at least three points of analysis and a few sentences to explain the importance of each point. These points of analysis could be assumptions made in the argument, the evidence that’s needed to successfully evaluate the argument, alternative explanations or arguments that could be made based on the facts presented in the task, and so on. Make sure, however, to follow step two above and only discuss points that are central to the argument.

 

You don't have to play through the entire piece or write an entire essay every time you practice. Sometimes, targeted practice is just as valuable. Wolfgang Lonien/Flickr.
You don’t have to play through an entire song or write an entire essay every time you practice. Sometimes, targeted practice is just as valuable. Wolfgang Lonien/Flickr.

 

#5: Analyze Sample GRE Essays

The rubric is a good way to grade your own essays, but it can sometimes be hard to know how to take the abstract criteria from the scoring guidelines and apply them to a real essay.

Fortunately, in addition to the free and publicly available sample argument essay I analyzed earlier, sample Argument essays at several different score levels are included in chapters 8 and 9 of The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test (2nd Ed.). You can maximize the value of these sample essays by not only reading them over but by also taking the GRE Argument essay rubric and applying it to them.

Use the major differences I pointed out in the 4-vs.-6 Writing score level comparison and my analysis of the 6-scoring sample GRE Argument essay to help you identify features that make the example essays so high-scoring. Make sure to note both what the authors do well and why what they do is effective. The official GRE reader commentary that goes along with each sample essay is also a valuable resource you should use to supplement your analysis and ensure you haven’t missed anything.

You should not copy exact words or phrases from the perfect-scoring essays to use in your own work (that’s plagiarism, which is not permitted on the GRE). Instead, observe how other students successfully earned high essay scores and plan out how you can emulate them.

 

Examine
Examine perfect-scoring essays so you know what standards your essays need to meet.

 

#6: Leave Time to Revise

The word processor you use to write the Issue and Argument essays on the GRE does not have the standard amenities of autocorrect, spell check, or grammar check, which means you’re likely to make typos and not notice it. You’re also going to be typing under time pressure, which may lead you to make more errors than usual. Because of this, it’s imperative you check over your essay before submitting it.

Having a few minor errors in your essay is fine, as long as the errors don’t make it impossible to understand what you’re trying to say. However, if there are too many typos and in mistakes in your essays, the essay graders (both human and computer) will have difficulty understanding what you’re trying to say and following your analysis, and so will not be able to give you a high score.

Example 1: Not revised, major errors (grammar, spelling, and punctuation)

One of ht ecornerstones of the argument is that the fewer. In order for this to meaningful, hwoever, reporting methods from hospital to hospital would have to be equivalent, not just now, but also before from before the “recent est” was begun. wihtout having a reliable baseline it, would be imposisble to know if fhte measured reduction in patient infection gy harmful bacteria was all meaningful.

Example 2: Revised, some minor errors remaining

One of the cornerstones of the argument is that the hospitals reported fewer pateint infections after using UltraClean. In order for this to matter, however, reporting methods from hospital to hospital would have to be equivalent. Furthermore, the methods of reporting patient infection would have to have been equivalent before the “recent test” was begun. Without having a reliable baseline, it would be imposisble to know if fhte measured reduction in patient infection by harmful bacteria was at all meaningful.

 

Mr. Money and Mr. Green Pentagon Head, Esq. both came down with infections after their visit to the hospital. If only the hospital had used UltraClean!
Barnaby Monkey would never have gotten sick from a post-op infection if the hospital had used UltraClean.

 

What’s Next?

Now you have a better understanding of what it takes to get a perfect score on the Argument essay, but what about on the other half of Analytical Writing? Find out with our exploration of what it takes to get a perfect score on the GRE Issue essay and our analyses of perfect scoring GRE essay samples.

How well your essay matches up with the criteria in this essay rubric is just part of the GRE essay story. Learn more about how exactly GRE Writing is scored here!

I’ve discussed in this article about how a good GRE essay score isn’t necessarily a perfect score, but the same doesn’t necessarily follow for the rest of the GRE. Read more about how to decide on what’s a good GRE score for you here.


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Author: Laura Staffaroni

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel and fulfill their college and grad school dreams.

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