GMAT Essay: Format, Scoring, and Tips for the AWA

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The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) can be one of the most intimidating sections of the exam for test-takers. Many students feel unsure of what is expected of them on the GMAT essay or how it’s scored. But there’s nothing to fear as long as you prepare!

In this article, I’ll go over the basics of the GMAT essay, the structure of the prompt, and how the Analytical Writing Assessment is scored. I’ll also give you plenty of GMAT essay tips and strategies to help you ace the Analytical Writing on test day.

 

The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment

The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), frequently called the GMAT essay, consists of a single question. The AWA prompt will ask you to read a brief passage that presents an argument. In your essay, you will explain and critique the argument and the reasoning behind it. The GMAT AWA measures your ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written English, to think critically, and to analyze an argument.

The AWA is always the first section of the GMAT. It is the only section of the GMAT that is not multiple choice. You have 30 minutes to complete your writing sample, and there is no specific word count minimum or maximum.

 

You'll have 30 minutes to complete your GMAT essay.
You’ll have 30 minutes to complete your GMAT essay.

 

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The GMAT AWA Prompt

The basic structure of the GMAT essay prompt is the same on every test. You will always be given an argument and asked to analyze it. You won’t be asked to give your own opinion.

GMAT AWA prompts don’t require any business know-how or any outside knowledge of a specific topic. They cover subjects such as economics, politics, leadership, education, social issues, marketing, and the environment, among many others.

Here’s a sample AWA essay prompt:

Directions

In this section, you will be asked to write a critique of the argument presented. You are NOT being asked to present your own views on the subject.

Question 

The following appeared in the editorial section of a monthly business news magazine:

“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.”

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.

Note that the directions and the two paragraphs after the quoted section will appear on every AWA prompt. They won’t change at all from test to test. The passage in quotes is the argument itself that you’re being asked to critique. Remember, you’ll never be asked for your personal opinion on the subject at hand, only your critique of the flaws in the argument being presented.

You can find a successful sample response here. Note that the author of the high-scoring sample response begins by paraphrasing the original argument and explaining its basic reasoning and conclusion. The author analyzes a different specific flaw in the argument in each body paragraph (four in total). He examines several false assumptions in the original argument that render it invalid. In the conclusion, the author restates the major flaws in the given argument. This writing sample is a great template for your own practice essays.

You can find a lengthy list of actual past GMAT essay prompts here. I highly recommend practicing with them! Analysis of an Argument prompts are very similar from test to test, so past prompts perfect for GMAT prep.

 

Practicing with official past AWA prompts at home will help prepare you for the real thing.
Practicing with official past AWA prompts at home will help prepare you for the real thing.

 

How Is the GMAT AWA Scored?

For the Analytical Writing Assessment, you’ll receive a score between 0 and 6, scored in half point intervals (so you could get a 5.5, for example, or a 5.0). You’ll be scored on your ability to express ideas effectively, to give examples to develop those ideas, to analyze the given argument accurately, and to demonstrate your grasp of written English.

Your final score is based on the average of two independent scores, one from a reader and one from an electronic scoring engine. The essay-scoring engine analyzes structural features (related to essay organization, such as having an intro, conclusion, and body paragraphs) and linguistic features (which may include the vocabulary, grammar, spelling, key words, and sentence structure used in the essay). The other reader is a trained expert GMAT essay scorer, usually a university faculty member. If there is a disparity of more than one point between the two scores, a third reader will score the essay as well.

The Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) defines a score of six as ‘outstanding,’ a score of five as ‘strong,’ a score of four as ‘adequate,’ a score of three as ‘limited,’ a score of two as ‘seriously flawed,’ and a score of one as ‘fundamentally deficient.’ A score of zero is ‘unscorable,’ which you’ll only get if you don’t write in English or write a clearly off-topic essay.

So what does it take to get a perfect score on the GMAT writing section? Here are the official GMAC scoring guidelines for an essay that should receive a perfect score of six:

A cogent, well-articulated critique of the argument, demonstrating mastery of the elements of effective writing, and displaying the following characteristics:

  • Clearly identifies and insightfully analyzes important features of the argument
  • Develops ideas cogently, organizes them logically, and connects them smoothly with clear transitions
  • Effectively supports the main points of the critique
  • Demonstrates superior control of language, including diction and syntactic variety and the conventions of standard written English. There may be minor flaws.

As you can see, the four main aspects of your essay that will be evaluated by your reader are the quality of your analysis, the development of your ideas, the effectiveness of your support (i.e., the examples you give you back up your ideas), and your mastery of writing in English. An essay scoring 5.0 or 5.5 might clearly explain and analyze the argument at hand, for example, but demonstrate a less sophisticated ability to communicate that analysis, or one idea may not flow logically into the next.

The rest of the GMAT AWA scoring guidelines can be found here.


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The business schools you select on exam day will receive your AWA writing sample itself as well as your AWA score, if they so choose. You can learn more about how business schools will use your AWA scores here.

 

Your AWA score will depend partly on your mastery of written English.
Your AWA score will depend partly on your mastery of written English.

 

The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment Word Processor

On test day, you’ll use a basic word processor to write your essay. If you’re familiar with any standard text editor like Word or GoogleDocs, it should feel fairly comfortable to you.

You’ll see the prompt at the top of the screen as you write. You’ll be able to type with a standard keyboard, cut, paste, and undo your previous action. However, there are no keyboard shortcuts. (Control +X won’t allow you to cut text, for example.)

I recommend that you write as many practice AWA responses as you can using the actual GMAT word processor, available in the GMATPrep software or GMATWrite, both provided by GMAC. This will help you to prepare for the actual circumstances of exam day and to feel more confident with any AWA prompt you get. If you don’t want to use the official materials, at least try to type your practice essays rather than writing them out by hand in order to simulate test conditions as closely as possible.

 

You'll use a word processor to complete your AWA essay.
You’ll use a word processor to complete your AWA essay.

 

How to Study for the Analytical Writing Assessment: 6 Strategies

  • Study logical fallacies. Every argument in a GMAT essay prompt will have several flaws in its premise, or its underlying reasoning, which you’ll need to be able to diagnose in order to score well on the essay. These flaws in reasoning are known as logical fallacies. Familiarize yourself with the most common kinds of logical fallacies (here’s a great list), so you can identify and discuss them on test day. Common logical fallacies in GMAT AWA prompts include the straw man, the insufficient sample, ad hominem, non sequitur, and circular reasoning, but you’ll find many others.
  • Practice writing timed AWA samples with real topics under simulated test conditions. Use the GMATPrep software or the official list of real former GMAT essay prompts to practice writing essays as a regular part of your exam prep. Try to simulate testing conditions as much as possible: take no more than 30 minutes, don’t use any outside sources, and use a basic text editor. If you want to go a step further and have your practice essays scored by expert readers, you can use GMAC’s official writing tool, GMATWrite.
  • Learn the art of breaking down arguments. Your job in the GMAT writing section is to break down a given argument into its various parts. What is the foundational reasoning of the argument, and what’s the conclusion that the author reaches? Why is that reasoning flawed, and/or why doesn’t it logically lead to the author’s conclusion? What would need to change about the argument in order for it to be logically sound? You can practice doing this with any kind of argument. Read editorials, newspaper articles, and other forms of persuasive writing and try to analyze them. Find the holes in their logic, if you can. Here’s a good guide to the parts that make up an argument.
  • Have someone proofread your practice essays. This tips is particularly if you are a non-native English speaker or have trouble with technical errors, since you want to spot these issues and resolve them. Don’t just learn from your corrections on a single practice essay. Instead, try to find patterns. Do you repeatedly spell a certain word incorrectly? Do you regularly have trouble with run-ons or fragments? Take note of these issues, brush up on any grammar concepts you need to, and make sure you routinely correct your mistakes as you write practice essays.
  • Read sample essays by fellow GMAT test-takers. You can find and learn from plenty of high-scoring sample GMAT AWA responses at blogs like the GMAT Club.  Evaluate the essays honestly as you read. Why do you think they scored well? What is lacking in your own writing samples that these essays achieve? The more you understand about what readers look for when scoring your essay, the better you’ll be able to plan your approach to writing it.
  • Create a template for how you plan to format your essay. The GMAT essay is not the time for creativity, especially since one of your graders is an automated essay-scoring engine. Choose a template and stick to it every time you practice, including the number of body paragraphs you want to use and how you want to structure your introduction and conclusion.

 

Have a friend help you proofread your essays as you practice (maybe an age-appropriate one, though!).
Have a friend help you proofread your essays as you practice (maybe an age-appropriate one, though!).

 

5 Top GMAT Essay Tips for Test Day

  • Create an outline. You may feel like an outline is a waste since your time is so limited, but a brief outline will save you time and energy in the long run. Write your outline on either the provided GMAT scratch paper or in the AWA text editor itself (but make sure to erase when you’re done!). Take notes as you read the prompt on the logical fallacies you see in the argument. Next, choose the topics of your 2-4 body paragraphs and list them. Select a supporting example to back up your ideas in each body paragraph. This will be your blueprint for yourself as you write.
  • Stay on topic. The AWA rubric requires you to stay on topic and respond to the specific question. This may seem obvious, but it can be easy to stray under time pressure. You can make it clear to your readers that you are staying on topic by directly quoting or using key words or phrases from the prompt.
  • Use standard essay structure. Your GMAT essay should follow standard 4-5-paragraph essay structure: introduction, 2-4 body paragraphs, and conclusion. Each body paragraph should clearly address a specific (and different) aspect of the prompt. For example, you might address a different logical fallacy in each body paragraph. Also, every GMAT AWA response should contain an introduction, in which you should explain the main points of the argument at hand (without a too-extensive summary) and introduce the flaws you’ll be discussing in your critique, and a conclusion, in which you restate and paraphrase your main points, linking all your ideas together. Your introduction and conclusion should both be more concise than your body paragraphs, which should be more developed.
  • Use transition words and phrases to give examples or to move on to a new concept. Each time you provide an example, shift between ideas or body paragraphs, or introduce an idea, it’s a good idea to use a transition word or phrase such as ‘for example,’ ‘similarly,’ ‘in the same vein,’ ‘in conclusion,’ or the like. Practice using them in your essay prep. Here is a good list of effective transition words and phrases.
  • Leave time to proofread. Leave at least three minutes, but preferably five, to proofread your GMAT essay for technical errors in spelling, grammar, or structure before you submit your writing sample.

 

Make sure to leave time to check over your essay!
Make sure to leave time to check over your essay!

 

Review: Everything You Need to Know About the GMAT Essay

Let’s review the key points you need to know about the GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment.

  • The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment requires you to write an essay, using a basic word processor, that critiques a provided argument. It is the first section of the GMAT and is to be completed in 30 minutes.
  • The AWA is scored by two readers in half-intervals on a scale of 0-6. You’ll be scored on your analysis, the examples you use, the development of your ideas, and your ability to write cleanly and effectively in English.
  • To prepare for the AWA, you should familiarize yourself with logical fallacies, practice writing timed AWA responses under simulated test conditions with real GMAT prompts, practice breaking down arguments in other forms of persuasive writing, have someone you trust proofread your work, read sample high-scoring essays, and create a template for how you plan to format your essay on exam day.
  • In order to do your best on test day, try the following GMAT essay tips: create an outline before writing, stay on topic, use standard essay structure, use transition words and phrases in your essay, and leave time to proofread.

 

You can do it!
You can do it!

 

What’s Next?

To learn more about the format of all the GMAT sections, check out our complete guide to the GMAT format.


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If you’re nervous about the AWA and Verbal sections of the GMAT, our articles on GMAT verbal question types and GMAT vocabulary will definitely help you prepare.

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Author: Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart is a Ph.D. student at UC San Diego. She has taught and tutored hundreds of students in standardized testing, literature, and writing.

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