The GRE Argument Essay does not need to be difficult. It certainly does not need to inordinately tax you before you even begin the test itself (remember both the Argument and the Issue come before the verbal and math sections).
To make sure you finish the essays with confidence—and not a racing pulse and heavy breathing—you want to learn what to do, and what not to do, for the GRE Argument Essay.
1. Do not agree with the argument
The Argument essay gets its name not only from the fact that you must analyze an argument, but also because you must provide your own argument. Specifically, you are arguing how the argument is terrible (in a scholastic manner, of course!) and filled with logical fallacies. You must in no way agree with the argument. It is there for you to skewer with your logical and rhetorical abilities.
2. Don’t belabor the introduction
The intro should be short and sweet. Many forget this and instead try to craft an eloquent and attention-grabbing first sentence. Do not be seduced by such a temptation! Instead, be as dry and formulaic as possible (the Issue statement, it should be noted, allows for a little more flair).
3. Follow a rigid organizational scheme
Organization is key to scoring well on the GRE AWA. The good news is that the Argument has an even more cookie-cutter template than the Issue. Essentially, you want to open with a quick intro stating how the paragraph is weak for a variety of reasons. You can mention those issues, before elaborating on them in the body paragraphs.
Begin each body paragraph with a topic sentence that states the specific fallacy you are attacking. The second sentence should provide your reasoning. The third sentence can elaborate on the second sentence by providing specific examples. Your fourth sentence can be something like, “Had the argument taken into account…”, “Had the argument not assumed X…then….”
The final sentence can recap the paragraph (think of it as a mini-conclusion that is paragraph-specific).
4. Find the right balance
The GRE argument paragraph is a bar of Swiss cheese, the holes gaping logical fallacies. It is easy to get carried away and try to enumerate all of the logical inconsistencies in the paragraph. Doing so, however, detracts from your ability to develop your criticism of any one logical inconsistency or questionable assumption.
At the same time, you could just as easily pick out one of these glaring assumptions and write a really long paragraph, describing why an assumption is unwarranted and ways to make the argument stronger.
The key is finding the right balance between highlighting specific fallacies and developing a thoughtful and sustained (but not too sustained) dismantling of one of the holes in the bar of Swiss cheese.
The magical number is three. Make sure you find three separate logical fallacies in the paragraph. These fallacies of course should be the ones that you feel detract most from the legitimacy of the argument.
5. Brainstorm/outline before you write
Simply rushing through the paragraph and writing whatever comes to mind is probably not going to end well. Take a few minutes to digest what the argument is saying. Often, one of the most glaring assumptions, the one that the argument really hinges on, might escape you on first reading.
Once you’ve written down a few of the logical fallacies think to yourself how you might develop a sustained attack. One great way is to consider how the argument would have been made stronger had it not assumed X, Y, and Z.
Finally, thinking about what you write before you write will help you score big points for organization—a critical part of your AWA score.
Check out this breakdown of a sample argument essay.
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A Sample “6” Argument Essay
Below is our sample argument topic, which we’ve been working with throughout this chapter:
Studies show that, as we’ve become more technically advanced, our health has deteriorated rapidly. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virtually every major ailment are far more common today than they were thirty years ago. The primary reason for this deterioration is the sedentary lifestyle associated with today’s high-tech jobs. Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances.
As you read the sample response, notice how we’ve marked certain sentences and paragraphs to illustrate where and how the essay conforms to our template. The info in brackets should remind you of what your own Argument essay needs to include.
The conclusion of this argument, “Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances,” rests weakly on three primary assumptions. [THESIS STATEMENT & TOPIC’S CONCLUSION] First, it assumes that advances in medicine will not counteract the detrimental effects of a lack of exercise. [REASON 1] Second, it requires the tacit belief that the effect of a proper diet on health is insignificant in comparison to the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. [REASON 2] Finally, it presumes that whatever holds true for the past and present will also hold true for the future. [REASON 3]
The argument assumes that the positive effects of regular exercise on health override any positive effects resulting from advances in medicine. [TOPIC SENTENCE FOR REASON 1] As society becomes increasingly high tech, we might plausibly argue that medicine will similarly develop and advance. Nonetheless, the validity of the author’s argument depends on the idea that medicine will not advance as rapidly as technology or, at the very least, on the idea that any advance in medicine will have a relatively insignificant effect on health, compared to the effects of regular exercise. But what might happen if medicine progresses such that health care can counteract the effects of a sedentary lifestyle? Might we imagine a pill or procedure that could easily and effectively combat heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases linked to lack of exercise? If this occurs, whether our lives become more sedentary as a result of technology will not matter when it comes to our health, because medicine will offset the negative effects of a lack of exercise. [FIVE SENTENCES THAT DEVELOP & ANALYZE REASON 1]
Similarly, the argument’s conclusion depends on the assumption that improvements in diet will not prevent or stave off the decline in wellness that results from working at a high-tech job. [TOPIC SENTENCE FOR REASON 2] Whether it’s reasonable to expect our diets to improve as technology advances is irrelevant to this argument; the fact remains that the author assumes that diet has little to no impact on the general well-being of a person who gets no exercise. Yet a healthy diet could negate the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, if a good diet could be shown to improve one’s health, then it would be unreasonable to conclude that a sedentary lifestyle automatically leads to poor health and increased disease in everyone. There would be no easy way to show such a correlation between exercise and health. Indeed, a sedentary lifestyle coupled with a good diet might lead to good health. [FIVE SENTENCES THAT DEVELOP & ANALYZE REASON 2]
The most significant assumption made by the author to arrive at the conclusion is that the past and present are reliable indicators of the future. [TOPIC SENTENCE FOR REASON 3] Specifically, the author assumes that since our overall health has declined as technology has improved, this pattern will continue. Such an assumption is unwarranted; many trends reverse direction entirely or eventually cease. For example, the rapid rise and success of high-tech companies in the late ‘90s eventually came to a screeching halt, almost without warning. If the trend toward technological advancements and the sedentary lifestyles with which they are associated came to a similar halt, it would be illogical to conclude that our health would also continue to decline. [FOUR SENTENCES THAT DEVELOP & ANALYZE REASON 3]
In sum, this argument relies heavily on its assumptions, perhaps too heavily. Denying any one of these assumptions results in a weakened or, in some cases, invalid conclusion. Nevertheless, the conclusion that our health is in jeopardy may in fact be true, despite its not being proven with the premises given and assumptions made by the author. [RECAP] To strengthen the argument, the author would need to not only address these three assumptions but also to more firmly establish a link between deteriorating health and technological advances. In the words of Hippocrates, “A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings.” An argument conclusively linking rising technology to failing health would be a strong argument indeed. [EXPANDS POSITION]
Why This Essay Deserves a “6”
Now we’ll take a look at what makes this essay so deserving of a “6.” First, we need to assess whether this essay contains proper structure, as well as the cast of characters needed for a “6” Argument essay. Here they are again:
- An Argument
- Varied Sentence Structure
- Facility with Language
The essay is definitely organized, with all three assumptions clearly stated in Act I and analyzed in Act II. The analyses in Act II certainly show how the implications of the assumptions might make the conclusion invalid. Finally, Act III states the essay’s thesis and explains what the author could do differently to strengthen the topic’s argument. This essay also features all the characters. Argument? Yup—this essay argues that although the topic’s conclusion might be true, the assumptions made by the author diminish the strength of the author’s conclusion. Reasons and evidence? Yes and yes. This essay clearly discusses the three unstated assumptions that weaken the argument.
Also, the essay has varied sentence structure: a semicolon here, beginning with a gerund there, and linking ideas using if . . . then and but . . . also constructions. Our writer does not take risks with unfamiliar vocabulary but instead chooses a few out-of-the-ordinary words such as tacit, detrimental, and presumes. No significant grammar errors disrupt the fluidity. The essay concludes with a well-placed quote. You may have noticed that the quote isn’t precisely the same as the original, albeit translated, version. That’s okay. The essay graders are sympathetic to the fact that you only have 30 minutes for each essay—and the quote just adds spice.
A Note on Length
Our sample essay is twenty-six sentences long. As we noted in the previous chapter, a “6” essay is not based on the particular length of the essay but instead on the quality of the writing and adherence to ETS’s grading criteria.
Now let’s look at our essay from the point of view of an essay grader by taking a look at the ETS evaluation criteria for graders and the criteria for our Argument essay template.
|ETS CRITERIA||YES OR NO?|
|Responds to the argument given in the topic||YES|
|Identifies the key features of the argument and analyzes each one in a thoughtful manner||YES|
|Supports each point of critique with insightful examples and analysis||YES|
|Develops its ideas in a clear, organized manner, with appropriate transitions to help connect ideas together||YES|
|Demonstrates proficiency, fluency, and maturity in its use of sentence structure, vocabulary, and idioms||YES|
|Demonstrates an excellent command of the elements of standard written English, including grammar, word usage, spelling, and punctuation—but may contain minor flaws in these areas||YES|
|OUR CRITERIA||YES OR NO?|
|Uses the three-act essay structure||YES|
|States conclusion in first sentence of paragraph 1||YES|
|Three reasons that support the thesis listed in paragraph 1, in the order in which they’re discussed in essay||YES|
|Topic sentence for reason 1 in paragraph 2||YES|
|Development sentences to analyze reason 1||YES|
|Topic sentence for reason 2 in paragraph 3||YES|
|Development sentences to analyze reason 2||YES|
|Topic sentence for reason 3 in paragraph 4||YES|
|Development sentences to analyze reason 3||YES|
|Conclusion (paragraph 5) rephrases thesis||YES|
|Conclusion (paragraph 5) expands position||YES|
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