GRE Issue Essay: 4 Steps to a Perfect Score

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Of all the different kinds of questions on the GRE, the GRE Issue essay question can seem like the most daunting to answer completely correctly. Instead of choosing from a selection of already-made answers or filling in a numerical solution, you must write hundreds of words in an attempt to fulfill rubric criteria, knowing that there is no one right answer to the question.

To help make this Herculean task more manageable, we’ll go over the Issue essay GRE rubric in depth and offer our top GRE Issue essay tips to help you score highly every time.

Feature image credit: Bruce Berrien/Flickr

 

Do You Need a 6 GRE Writing Score?

In general, your GRE Writing score is the least important of your GRE scores. No grad school will require you to get a 6.0 on the essay. A 4.5 is a good GRE writing score for most schools and programs, regardless of the discipline. Even programs that have cutoff scores for writing-heavy programs, like UNC’s Media & Journalism graduate degrees, don’t require anything above a 4.5.

If you’re looking to emphasize your writing skills (for example, if you’re an international student whose first language is not English and you want to show that you can write well in English), a higher score (5.0+) can help. However, even in those instances, a perfect 6.0 score isn’t going to be necessary.

Some doctoral programs, like Harvard’s Education Ph.D., might have higher average scores, but that’s a function of the students applying being strong writers (which you have to be to make it to the doctoral level), rather than the program itself requiring certain scores. For Ph.D. programs, you’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate your analytical thinking skills in other ways that are weighted more heavily than your GRE Analytical Writing score.

Learn more about what you’ll need to get into grad school with our article on grad school requirements!

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Walt Stoneburner/Flickr.
Walt Stoneburner/Flickr

 

What Goes Into a 6-Scoring GRE Issue Essay?

The best way to determine what is needed for a perfect Issue essay score is to take a look at the official rubric and go over how the human essay grader is rating your essay.

To show the differences between a passable Issue essay and a perfect Issue essay, I’ve created a side-by-side comparison of the criteria for a 4-scoring and 6-scoring Issue essay on the GRE.

Score of 4 (Adequate) Score of 6 (Outstanding) Major Differences
In addressing the specific task directions, a 4 response presents a competent analysis of the issue and conveys meaning with acceptable clarity. In addressing the specific task directions, a 6 response presents a cogent, well-articulated analysis of the issue and conveys meaning skillfully. The 6 essay provides a logical and precise analysis of the issue. Rather than being merely clear in its meaning (as the 4 essay is), a 6 essay is insightful and richer in its explanations.
Presents a clear position on the issue in accordance with the assigned task. Articulates a clear and insightful position on the issue in accordance with the assigned task. Both essays include a clear thesis, but the thesis of a 6 essay demonstrates a deep understanding of the issue and discusses its complexities and/or implications.
Develops the position with relevant reasons and/or examples. Develops the position fully with compelling reasons and/or persuasive examples. A 4 essay provides relevant support for its position, while a 6 essay provides comprehensive support that is not only relevant, but also persuades the reader to the position of the essay.
Is adequately focused and organized. Sustains a well-focused, well-organized analysis, connecting ideas logically. A 6 essay is not only organized, but the organization enhances the logic and precision of the essay, while a 4 essay is only organized adequately enough not to detract from the essay.
Demonstrates sufficient control of language to express ideas with acceptable 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 is clear enough, while a 6 essay is written extremely well. If you want a 6, you’ll need to vary your sentence structure and use advanced vocabulary accurately and appropriately.

 

To summarize the information above, a perfect 6 Issue essay:

  • Must make sense logically
  • Must be precise in its discussion of the issue and the author’s stance on the issue
  • Must include support for the author’s position that persuades the reader to the author’s point of view
  • Must be organized and flow smoothly from idea to idea
  • Must be well-written

In order to achieve a perfect score on the Issue essay, you must excel in every one of these areas.

 

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Official GRE Issue Essay Example, Analyzed

Now we’ll take a look at a sample GRE Issue essay that’s already been assigned a score of 6 and find all the ways in which it fulfills the rubric. Doing this analysis will help show how the rubric is applied by taking the abstract criteria and showing concrete examples.

For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll be using excerpts from this officially-scored essay. Here’s the prompt the essay is addressing:

As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.

The sample essay we’ll be discussing argues against this statement, taking the position that rather than fearing technology will make human thinking obsolete, we should embrace the possibilities and human potential unlocked by technology.

I’ll next go over how each of the rubric criteria applies to this particular sample essay. The first item in the rubric is a holistic description of a perfect-scoring GRE Issue essay:

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

This item is meant to be an umbrella under which the next four criteria can fall; if an essay meets each of the four non-general criteria listed in the rubric, then it will exemplify this holistic description. The above description is also useful as a catchall reminder of what a perfect-scoring essay should look like, since essay graders aren’t necessarily going through the rubric item-by-item for each essay.

 

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A possible Issue essay GRE grader in the wild.

 

The first of the non-general rubric items has to do with how well an author makes her point of view clear throughout the essay.

Rubric description: A 6 essay articulates a clear and insightful position on the issue in accordance with the assigned task

The sample essay successfully meets this requirement in a couple of different ways. In the essay, the author’s position on the issue (a counterargument to the prompt) is articulated in a series of logical steps over the course of the entire essay as well as in a final thesis statement.

Starting with the acknowledgement that “technology has revolutionized the world” in the first paragraph, the author goes on to make the argument that “reliance on technology does not necessarily preclude the creativity that marks the human species” (paragraph three), demonstrating a firm grasp of the issue through a nuanced, rather than absolute, position.

With each succeeding paragraph, the author continues to develop her position on the issue with clarity and insight. The author expands the initial argument to claim that “technology frees the human imagination” (paragraph four) and “By increasing our reliance on technology, impossible goals can now be achieved” (paragraph five).

The author’s final statement on the issue condenses the author’s point of view into a single sentence: “There is no need to retreat to a Luddite attitude to new things, but rather embrace a hopeful posture to the possibilities that technology provides for new avenues of human imagination.” This last sentence is not only the logical conclusion to the author’s clearly stated position, but is in itself a clear statement of the author’s position.

 

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The next rubric item is concerned with how well an author develops and supports her points.

Rubric description: A 6 essay develops the position fully with compelling reasons and/or persuasive examples

As I noted in the discussion of the first rubric description, the author’s basic position in this essay is that we should not fear technology because it is new and unknown, but instead embrace it because of the possibilities it offers for our future. In addition to developing her position through an insightful position articulated through the essay, however, the author also does an excellent job of supporting her points with examples and reasoning. Here’s an excerpt from the essay that illustrates this development and support:

“The car, computer and phone all release additional time for people to live more efficiently. This efficiency does not preclude the need for humans to think for themselves. In fact, technology frees humanity to not only tackle new problems, but may itself create new issues that did not exist without technology. For example, the proliferation of automobiles has introduced a need for fuel conservation on a global scale. With increasing energy demands from emerging markets, global warming becomes a concern inconceivable to the horse-and-buggy generation.”

In the above excerpt, the author develops her point with three actions:

#1: She presents examples to support her point that efficiency is enabled by technology (car, computer, and phone).

#2: She explains what the existence of these examples implies (efficiency doesn’t mean lack of thinking).

#3: She follows up with further reasoning about new issues created by technology (technology means humans can tackle new problems, including new issues created by technology). This reasoning is then backed up by more examples (cars and increasing energy demand), starting the cycle over again.


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The examples and reasoning the author employs in her essay are compelling not just because they are logically consistent with the author’s argument, but because they are explained in a way that makes this link clear. If the author has said “In fact, technology frees humanity to not only tackle new problems, but may itself create new issues that did not exist without technology. An example of this is the automobile and increasing energy demands because of it,” the examples would have still been present, but not explained in a compelling or persuasive way.

 

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The third non-general rubric item drills down even deeper into the logic of the author’s writing and analysis.

Rubric description: A 6 essay sustains a well-focused, well-organized analysis, connecting ideas logically

While with the previous rubric item I discussed the necessity of having a logical connection between the author’s position and the support for that position, this item refers to the author’s skill in connecting different ideas throughout the essay.

In addition to having a logical progression of the analysis (which is captured under the first rubric item to some extent as well), a perfect-scoring Issue essay must also have logical transitions between ideas. A good example of this occurs in this essay in the transition between the end of paragraph two and the beginning of paragraph three:

“Technology short circuits this thinking by making the problems obsolete.

However, this reliance on technology does not necessarily preclude the creativity that marks the human species.”

The first sentence of paragraph three (“However…species”) connects the ideas of paragraphs two and three. The author forges a link between the two ideas by restating the last-discussed idea from paragraph two (technology does take away some problems) in a way that sets up the idea to be discussed in the next paragraph (reliance on technology doesn’t mean humans won’t think for themselves). Specifically, the author does this by using a transition word (“However”) to link a reference to previously discussed ideas (“this reliance on technology”) with a reference to what’s coming next (“technology does not necessarily preclude creativity”).

The tightness of the logical connection between the two paragraphs and ideas also means that the essay stays organized and focused on the task at hand (presenting the author’s position on and analysis of the issue).

 

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Make sure your writing keeps to the point of your essay.

 

The last rubric item assesses the writer’s overall skill in use of language and standard, error-free 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 final set of criteria has less to do with the topic being discussed and more on the writer’s ability to indicate precise meaning through appropriate use of language. The final sentence of the essay provides a good example of this:

“There is no need to retreat to a Luddite attitude to new things, but rather embrace a hopeful posture to the possibilities that technology provides for new avenues of human imagination.”

This sentence uses effective language (Luddite, avenues of human imagination) that precisely conveys meaning. For instance, “Luddite” is a term that is generally used to mean resistance to technology, but more specifically has its origins in a group of people who were worried about what advances in technology meant for human workers, so it is particularly appropriate for this essay about the effects of technology on human abilities.

Another reason I chose to use this excerpt is because while the author uses effective language, there are still some minor errors (as the rubric description allows for). In this sentence, “but rather” is used incorrectly because it refers back to the subject “There,” which makes no sense with the “but rather” phrase. One correct way to say this would be, “We should not retreat into a Luddite attitude toward new things, but rather embrace a hopeful posture to the possibilities that technology provides for new avenues of human imagination.”

In a way, this rubric area is the “icing on a cake” domain—you can have a reasonably clear and insightful essay without a high level of skill in this domain, but if you don’t use language skillfully your cake of an essay is not going to taste as good and won’t score a perfect score. And if you try to load your essay with advanced vocabulary words without care for whether or not they make sense in context, you’ll end up with lumpy frosting that makes the cake worse than it would’ve been without the icing.

 

Don't let your words be the uneven frosting on the delicious banana cake of your essay! Tim Pierce/Flickr
Don’t let your words be the unevenly applied frosting on the delicious banana cake of your essay! Tim Pierce/Flickr

 

4 Steps to a Perfect GRE Issue Essay

As a summing-up of all the information in this article, I’ll go over the four essential GRE Issue essay tips to reliably achieve a high score.

 

#1: Include a Clear Thesis

To fulfill the basic requirements of any GRE Issue essay task, you need to make your position on the issue clear. The easiest way to do this is with an introduction paragraph, or at the very least an introductory sentence at the beginning of your first paragraph, that outlines the issue and where you stand on it.

There is no explicit requirement on the rubric that you include an introduction and conclusion in your essay, and in fact ETS encourages students to be as freeform as fits the topic and task at hand. However, if you don’t start your essay with some kind of introduction and wrap up your points at the end with some kind of conclusion, you run the risk of being unclear about your position. Not only can this be a problem for the reader, but without a clear thesis statement at the beginning of your essay to keep you focused, you may find yourself meandering off topic, resulting in a disorganized and inconsistent essay.

Thus, we strongly recommend beginning your essay with at least an introductory sentence and wrapping it up with a conclusion statement. You don’t have to have entire paragraphs devoted to each, but it is useful to bracket your essay between an introduction and conclusion to keep your thesis front and center.

 

Keep your position as clear as possible in your essay. bazzadarambler/Flickr
Keep your position as clear as possible. bazzadarambler/Flickr

 

#2: Preplan Opinions and Examples

ETS has published all prompts it will ever use for GRE Analytical Writing, which in the case of the Issue essay comes out to 152 unique topic/task combinations. Now, obviously it’s not feasible to write a practice essay for every one of the 152 possible Issue essays and memorize it in preparation for the test. On the other hand, it is very possible to prepare some examples and evidence ahead of time, as long as these examples and pieces of evidence are flexible enough to be useful for multiple different prompts.

Start by reading through the complete list of Issue essay prompts and noting any common themes. Some examples of topics that seem to come up again and again in GRE Issue prompts are the roles of government and public officials, the role of technology in our lives, and the role of education and teachers.

Practice forming opinions about subsets of these topics and thinking of evidence that can be used to support those opinions. You very likely already have opinions about some of these things already, like the role of technology in education, or the importance of government support for research. To prepare for the Issue essay on the GRE, however, it’s not enough to just have opinions – you need to be able to back up your claims and point of view with evidence or reasoning.

For instance, let’s say my pre-planned opinion is that humans relying on technology to solve problems has resulted in humans being able to think for themselves even better than before. In order for this position to be worth anything in a GRE essay, though, it needs to be backed up by reasoning or evidence.

For this particular case, then, I might preplan the evidence that the expansion in size and complexity of the human brain’s cerebral cortex occurred around the same time as humans began to use tools, which could suggest that as humans relied more on tools (technology), their brains actually had to become bigger and better at thinking than before. I could also choose to preplan reasoning to back up my point, like the fact that relying on technology to solve smaller problems pushes us to use our thinking to attack larger scale issues, whether philosophical or practical.

Even if prompts on the role of technology, or on other topics you’ve practice explaining support for, don’t show up when you take the test, you’ll be better equipped to tackle the GRE Issue essay because of your experience explaining how evidence supports your point. You’ll also likely be able to use at least one or two of the examples you’ve been writing about, even if you have to explain their support of your point of view in a different way than you’ve practiced.

 

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#3: Analyze Sample Essays

Scour the sample essays ETS has publicly released to understand at a deep level what is required for a 6-scoring GRE Issue essay. In addition to the essay briefly discussed in this article, perfect-scoring sample Issue essays can also be found in chapters 8 and 9 of The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test (2nd Ed.).

To get the most out of these exemplars of perfect essay scores, you should analyze these sample essays using the scoring rubric. Use the points we focused on above in the 4-vs.-6 rubric score comparison and the sample Issue essay breakdown as guidance to find specific ways the sample essays fulfill the rubric scoring guidelines. The essays in the Official GRE Guide also include reader commentary on the essays, which are good sources of further insight into the thought processes of essay raters.

The goal of performing these analyses of sample high-scoring GRE essays is for you to understand what makes the essays high-scoring and then be able to replicate this high level of essay writing in your own Issue essay on the GRE. This doesn’t mean that you should copy the exact words or phrases from the essays (that’s plagiarism, which is both wrong and against the GRE’s code of conduct), but it does mean you should observe the ways other students have successfully met the rubric requirements.

 

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#4: Leave Time to Revise Your Work

Sadly, the word processor you’ll use on the GRE has no autocorrect, no spellcheck, and no grammar check. Since you’re trying to type as much as possible in a timed situation, it’s very likely you’ll make some errors.

It’s fine to make a few small mistakes on your essay as long as the typos or other mistakes don’t make your essay difficult to understand. If there are systematic typos or grammatical errors, however, that will have a negative effect on your score, because it will obscure your logic and make it more difficult for the graders (human and computer) to understand your thinking.

Example 1: No editing, systematic errors

Choosing a college major based on the avilablility of jobs in the field is a foolish endaevor at best. There’s no guarantee that Just because there are a lot of positions open in the field when you choose your undergraduate major, it doesn’t necessarily follow: this will continue ot be the case after you graduate from college, or even when you’re looking for a job.

 

Example 2: Edited, minor errors remaining

Choosing a college based on the availability of jobs in the field is a foolish endaevor at best. Just because there are a lot of positions open in the field when you choose your undergraduate major, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this will continue ot be the case after you graduate from college, or even when you’re looking for a job.

 

OER Africa/Flickr
Follow our GRE Issue essay tips and you’ll be typing as happily as this person. (OER Africa/Flickr)

 

What’s Next?

After reading this article, you’ve gained some clarity on what kind of GRE Writing score you need to succeed, but how well do you need to do on the other sections of the test? Learn what makes a good (or a bad) GRE score with this article.

Looking to get more clarity into the whole essay-scoring process? We have a guide to how the GRE essay is scored that explains it from start to finish, including how computerized grading plays into your essay score.

Want even more in-depth analyses of high-scoring GRE essays? Then be sure to check out our article analyzing perfect- and high-scoring Issue and Argument essays.


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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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