While it’s certainly not the score you care about most, the Analytical Writing Assessment can bring with it some stress and even despair. Why? For one, it comes first on the test, and for two it’s the only section that isn’t multiple choice. The answer isn’t already in front of you, but rather you have to create it yourself. And like this blog post (author’s note – I’m attending a conference with the folks from the Graduate Management Admissions Council and have a dinner in an hour with some of our partners in the industry before the conference, so I have 30 minutes to write something intelligible here), the AWA can lead directly to that panic you’ve likely felt on blue book exams and the night before book reports: writer’s block.
How can you combat that on the AWA?
1) Remember that there’s no (well, some but not a ton) shame in leaving an AWA essay “incomplete”.
The graders and schools know that the AWA is a bit artificial; it’s a writing sample but in the real world you’ll have plenty of time to edit your work, research topics, pass it along to a colleague for a review, and use the Microsoft Word thesaurus feature to make it sound smarter. But on the AWA you have exactly 30 minutes in a higher-stress environment. Your grade will reflect that – a few typos here and there won’t hurt you, and if you have to hastily write a conclusion to wrap it up it’s not going to be devastating to your score. In fact, the worst thing you can do is let the AWA cause you undue stress for the rest of the exam. Relax and know that your essay is going to be shorter than you’d probably want it if you were presenting to the board at your company and you’ll realize later that you could have used a better phrase or example. The AWA is, by design, a short examination, so don’t worry.
2) Plan ahead.
Writer’s block comes when you don’t know what to say next, so make sure you *do* know what to say next. Before you begin writing, jot down 3-4 problems with the argument in question (all AWA essays ask you to “analyze an argument”) so that your body paragraphs are already brainstormed before you get there. Then write based on those notes. Much like a blue book exam, as long as you know the general topic (e.g. “one assumption the author makes is that current trends will continue”) you can write circles around it to come up with what looks to be a decent paragraph (e.g. “but suppose, for a second, that the growth rate were to dramatically slow down, bucking the conventional wisdom. That would force the organization to dramatically change its strategy…”). Even if it’s not ideal, it will give the reader a glimpse of your writing ability and a chance to show that you can craft/organize an argument on the fly. Sure, you should be able to do better, but in terms of disaster management at least you won’t hit a point 15 minutes into the essay at which you don’t know what to type next.
3) Use a template in your practice tests and then replicate it on test day.
In many ways, more than half your AWA essay should be mentally written before you even get to the test center. The instructions are always the same, and the format should therefore always be the same. Your first paragraph should be an introduction, the last a conclusion, and between should be three body paragraphs each exposing a problem with the argument. And since most of your job is to show clear organization, you can have the transitions between paragraphs (e.g. “Another assumption the author makes is that ______________________. This may not be the case, however, as _______________________. Therefore, the author should take care to _____________________________.”) pre-selected so that all you have to do is fill in some content items from the prompt and you’re all set.
4) Don’t let “perfect” get in the way of “good enough”.
The AWA is the gateway to the rest of the test. If you stay relaxed, confident, and efficient you’ll turn over into the Integrated Reasoning section and then the rest of the test with your mind sharp, your demeanor calm, and your potential high. A 5 (or even a 4.5) on the AWA won’t keep you out of any schools that a 6 would have gotten you into, so don’t try to be perfect. Your job is to get it done adequately and save the stress for the sections that matter more (or, really, to just not stress at all, but obviously that’s tough to avoid).
Rest assured that a pretty well-written essay can easily be written in less time than it takes Domino’s to make and deliver your pizza. This blog post is (we hope) living proof. Good luck out there!
By Brian Galvin