TIf you’re taking the GMAT, you probably have some questions about the AWA section — and with good reason. Your scores on the GMAT argument essay get sent with your score reports to your intended business schools. However, AWA doesn’t get nearly as much attention in test prep resources as Quantitative and Verbal do, leaving many test takers unsure of how to approach this elusive section. In this article, we’ll give a quick overview of the GMAT argumentative essay section, then give 7 argument essay tips for a high AWA score.
What Is the Argument Essay?
The AWA, or Analytical Writing Assessment, section of the GMAT is made up of one short piece of writing called the “Analysis of an Argument” essay. This 30-minute writing task can be taken with the Integrated Reasoning section either before or after the Quantitative and Verbal sections. In this section, test takers are presented with a short argument (usually a type of proposal), not dissimilar to the stimuli presented in Critical Reasoning questions. After the argument, the same prompt is always given, asking the test taker to evaluate the argument:
“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 essay is scored by one trained evaluator as well as an electronic system, whose scores are then averaged. The main qualities that both the human and computer scorers look for are the organization of your ideas, the quality of the ideas themselves, the strength and relevance of the examples, and your grasp of standard written English. According to GMAC, the “Analysis of an Argument tests your ability to formulate an appropriate and constructive critique of a specific conclusion based on a specific line of thinking.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few helpful argumentative essay tips:
Tip #1 | Remember: You Already Know Your Thesis
As previously mentioned, the argument essay prompt is always the same — to “discuss how well-reasoned you find the argument”. Some test takers take this first sentence of the prompt to mean that the argument may be well-reasoned as is or that they should focus on elements of the argument they think are particularly sound. But this misses the point of all the extremely negative language in the other sentences of the prompt: in AWA, the argument is always flawed, and your argumentative essay should focus on an analysis of those flaws.
This means that no matter what argument you’re given, your thesis is essentially, “the argument is flawed.” All you have to do to round off your thesis is outline which examples of those flaws you will discuss in your body paragraphs. It’s that simple!
Many test takers waste time coming up with a complicated, nuanced thesis that both wastes their time and fails to adequately address the prompt. Which leads us to the next of our argument essay tips …
Tip #2 | Leave Your Facts and Opinions at the Door
One of the reasons test takers spend so much time on their theses is that they try to convey their own thoughts on the argument. But this isn’t an opinion essay — it’s an argument analysis essay. AWA graders don’t care if you agree or disagree with the argument being made. They care if you can analyze the logical structure of that argument.
This means that it doesn’t matter if you think the proposal being made is a good or a bad idea, or even if the alternative conclusions you bring up to weaken the argument are good or bad ideas! As an example, let’s take a look at an argument from the GMAC website:
“Most companies would agree that as the risk of physical injury occurring on the job increases, the wages paid to employees should also increase. Hence it makes financial sense for employers to make the workplace safer: they could thus reduce their payroll expenses and save money.”
Is it good to think about your employees safety in terms of how much it costs? Probably not! But it doesn’t matter — this is an argument about money, and its flaws lie in its logic, not in its morality. It doesn’t matter what you personally think about the situation. It just matters that the argument being made isn’t necessarily valid.
Similarly, what is actually true in the real world doesn’t actually matter. For instance, in the argument above, you don’t need real facts or statistics about the financial implications of workplace safety. You just need to know that those facts and statistics aren’t in the argument, and thus could be anything, potentially impacting the validity of the argument. You’re free to make up all kinds of hypothetical scenarios for your argument essay (whether they’re accurate or not), so don’t feel pressured to be a subject matter expert.
Tip #3 | Treat It Like Critical Reasoning — Find the Gaps
So how do we successfully analyze an argument? Remember how we said the argument is a lot like a Critical Reasoning stimulus? The process of evaluating it is a lot like the one we use for Critical Reasoning stimuli too.
For strengthen/weaken questions (and subtypes like assumption, evaluate, paradox, etc.), there is always a gap in the argument — something that doesn’t quite connect between the premises and the conclusion. Most often, this gap is an assumption the argument wants us to make that isn’t necessarily true. This gap can either be bridged to strengthen the argument or widened to weaken the argument. To adequately predict an answer for strengthen/weaken questions, we need to identify the gap. To come up with talking points for our argumentative essay, we need to do the same.
Each gap in the argument is a flaw in the argument: it’s a place where the argument could potentially be weakened. So to evaluate the argument, we need to point out and dig into these gaps. As in Critical Reasoning, a good way to do this is to identify assumptions that the argument makes that aren’t guaranteed to be true. For instance, the argument above assumes that paying employees more to work in less safe conditions will cost employers more than making the workplace safer. If this weren’t true and the costs of making the workplace safer exceeded the expense of higher pay for a less safe workplace, making the workplace safer would actually cause employers to lose money. This would destroy the conclusion, so this assumption is a major flaw in the argument. (Again, is this a moral way to think about things? Probably not. Doesn’t matter. Is this something that is true in any real-world industry? Who knows! Doesn’t matter.)
Tip #4 | Focus on Depth Over Breadth
Once test takers have figured out how to identify flaws in the argument, many assume that more is more, loading up their argumentative essay’s body paragraphs with as many of the argument’s assumptions as they can. However, supporting your ideas is just as important as having them, and more ideas typically means weaker support for each one.
A good rule of thumb is to dedicate one body paragraph in your argument essay to each flaw you identify. This means that for a standard 5-paragraph essay with an introduction paragraph, a conclusion paragraph, and 3 body paragraphs, you should identify 3 flaws.
Since each of these flaws gets a whole paragraph, you should be prepared to dig deep on the ones you choose: what does the argument assume? Why is that not necessarily true? What could be true instead that would widen this gap and weaken the argument? What information would we need to evaluate whether or not the assumption is true? The answers to these questions are the “analysis” in the “Analysis of an Argument” — they should make up the bulk of each body paragraph.
Tip #5 | Plan (to an Extent) Before Writing
With 30 minutes from receipt of the prompt to when your argument essay will be submitted, ready or not, this section requires very intentional time management. Often test takers assume that the sooner they jump into writing their essay, the better. However, without proper planning, you may end up wasting time crafting sentences around ideas that you haven’t reasonably thought through: there isn’t much worse than realizing you don’t have a deep enough analysis of a flaw halfway through writing a paragraph on it.
Because of this, it’s a good call to take in the ballpark of 5-8 minutes at the start of the argumentative essay section to read and take apart the presented argument, choose your three flaws, and lay out your main points on each one. Again, remember that there’s no need to waste time on reading the prompt or on constructing your thesis, as they’ll both always be the same.
A great way to save time is to do this planning process directly in the argument essay field — you can then use your prewrite as a template for the rest of your essay. Just remember to save a few minutes at the end of the section to ensure all of your notes were correctly turned into complete sentences.
Tip #6 | Write to Be Scored by a Computer
Many people are surprised that the GMAT argument essay is partially scored by an algorithm: how could a computer program capture the nuances of artful writing? The answer is … it can’t, so don’t bother with it.
Just like the argumentative essay isn’t about your opinion or real-world facts, it isn’t about particularly interesting writing. It’s about effective writing. Effective writing is conveyed with a clear paragraph structure, an obvious thesis, straightforward topic sentences, and a logical progression of ideas laid out with transition words — all things a computer can pick up on. Even more, the human scorers that read these argument essays are moving through them quickly. Make it easy for them to find your key ideas by structuring your essay as logically as possible, making that structure as obvious as possible, and avoiding fluff.
Of course, it’s a good idea to use varied sentence structures (some long, some short, etc.) and precise word choice (note that precise ≠ fancy). However, if this doesn’t come easily while you’re writing, it’s better to get the ideas on paper and save updating their presentation for the few minutes of proofreading at the end of the section. If you run out of time before you’re able to make the changes, it isn’t the end of the world.
Tip #7 | Give AWA the Right Amount of Emphasis
The argument essay deserves enough attention that you have a plan you’re relatively comfortable executing going into the section. That said, there’s a reason AWA doesn’t get as much attention as the Quantitative and Verbal sections — Quant and Verbal play a much larger part in admissions decisions than the argumentative essay does.
For most admissions committees, AWA is dual-purpose.
First, it serves as a check on your academic honesty. Business schools receive your argumentative essays along with your admissions essays in your application. Admissions committees do not expect these two types of essays to have the same quality given differences in time pressure, access to other resources, etc., but they do look for massive gaps between them that could indicate you didn’t write your admissions essays yourself. This should only be a problem for you if you did plagiarize your essay, pay for your essay, or have an editor who wanted to be more of a ghostwriter.
Second, the argument essay functions as an almost pass/fail check on your essay writing ability. Admissions committees and looking to see that you are proficient in the areas tested by the essay, and a “proficient” score (a 4 or higher) is enough to demonstrate that.
What this means for you is that aiming for a perfect AWA score is probably a waste of your time and energy. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of a higher Quant or Verbal score than you will out of a higher AWA score. Because of this, you should prioritize Quant and Verbal both in your study and on test day — save AWA and IR for last, when you’re less likely to be at your best and may lose points due to exhaustion.
Ready to try one out now that you’ve seen these argumentative essay tips? Get the list of official Analysis of an Argument prompts here!
Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We have GMAT prep courses starting all the time that cover all sections on the GMAT (including AWA!).