How to Maximize Your GRE Essay Score

By Ron Woldoff, Joseph Kraynak

Essay writing (and scoring) on the GRE is subjective to some degree. There’s no right or wrong answer, and every essay is slightly different, based on the test-taker’s perspective, knowledge, experience, writing style, and so on. Evaluators, however, have a checklist of specific criteria for grading your essay. To perform well, be sure to do the following:

  • Follow the instructions. The prompt tells you what to do. For example, an Issue Analysis prompt may ask you to consider ways in which the statement may or may not hold true, or it may instruct you to describe circumstances in which taking a certain course of action would or would not be best. To score well, you need to follow those instructions and write about what the prompt asks for.

  • Take a clear stand in your essay. Although arguing both sides of an issue or discussing strengths and weaknesses is fine, you must — must — make your opinion or position clear. Don’t expect the evaluators to infer your position. (Infer means to draw a conclusion based on evidence and reasoning rather than from an explicit statement.) State whether you agree, disagree, or acknowledge the validity of both sides of an issue — just be sure to declare that in your introduction and be consistent throughout your essay.

  • Back up your stance with specific examples. Anyone can state a position, but you must support your position with specific examples. For example, if you describe why mass-produced goods are both higher quality and less expensive, include a case study, such as how your $40 factory-made Casio wristwatch outperforms your uncle’s $7,000 handmade Patek Philippe. You don’t have to be right, but you do need to provide solid support for your claim.

    Make sure your examples aren’t easily refutable. For example, if you’re claiming that mass-produced goods are both better and cheaper, don’t compare your mass-produced Civic to your grandfather’s hand-built Model T. In this case, the improved technology, not the method of production, is obviously the reason for the Civic’s superior performance and reliability. This comparison is a poor example because it’s too easily refuted.

  • Get to the point in each paragraph. The evaluator will always look for your point in the first two lines of each paragraph, so don’t try to be clever and write a paragraph with a surprise ending or twist. State clearly and unequivocally in the first line of each paragraph the point of that paragraph. Then spend the rest of the paragraph supporting that point.

  • Stay on topic. After stating your position in the introductory paragraph, make sure each succeeding paragraph supports that position instead of wandering off topic. If the issue is about low commodity prices versus quality of workmanship, for example, and you’re discussing factory output, don’t go off topic and start talking about offshore labor. Each paragraph should have a sentence (preferably at the end) that ties the paragraph directly to your position statement.

  • Avoid fluff. Though longer essays typically earn higher scores, the higher scores are due to the fact that the essay provides sufficient support, not because it rambles on and on. Your essay won’t be judged on word count; it will be judged on how sufficiently you explore the topic.

  • Maintain a professional tone. The essay section isn’t for creative writing. It’s more like business writing, so avoid off-color language, slang, and inappropriate humor. Creativity, done well, will be appreciated by the evaluators, but be appropriate.