How to Improve your GMAT (AWA) Writing Score

gmatheadYou’ve worked for a few years, climbed the ranks in your company and have decided it’s time to go back to school for your MBA. The problem is that now you need to take the GMAT, and–much to your significant other’s dismay–it requires a good month or two practice (after work and on weekends). One particular section of the GMAT that a lot of people have trouble with is the writing section. Want to make sure you are on the right track? You’re just one click away.

Why are you qualified to write this?

Because I scored perfect on the GMAT writing (6.0), I am not an English major, and YES, I was accepted to a top 20 business school. I do not consider myself to be a genius, and thus hope to speak to you in layman’s terms.

What is the GMAT writing?

We will let GMAC define this for us, since they created the test:

“The GMAT exam begins with the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA). The AWA consists of two separate writing tasks—Analysis of an Issue and Analysis of an Argument. You are allowed 30 minutes to complete each one.” – GMAC

What Is Measured?

“The Analysis of an Argument section tests your ability to formulate an appropriate and constructive critique of a specific conclusion based on a specific line of thinking.” -GMAC

Well, there you have it. To help improve your score and write a great response, I have split this guide into the following sections:

  • Analyze an issue (or argument)
  • Form an opinion
  • Choose your sources
  • Outline your essay (optional: I will explain later)
  • Articulate your argument in a grammatically correct way
  • Structure your sentences and paragraphs for maximum effect

Also, although there are two types of questions (analysis of an issue and argument), I will only review one example. The reason is because both responses can be constructed using a slightly altered method of what you are about to learn.

Assumptions

Before we get started, I am going to assume some of the following about you (the reader). Because this section is subjective, many different methods will “work.” My method is just one of the many that may work for you.

  • Your proficiency of the English language is at least of that of a high school level.
  • You understand that these are my opinions and are what helped me to get a perfect score. It may not work for your particular writing style. I will do my best to articulate my method in this post.

With that out of the way, let’s plow forward.

Analyze the issue

As this is the first thing you will do, you need to make sure you do it correctly. To do this, you will need to know what “analyze” means (because it isn’t just reading the question and thinking about it for 5 minutes). I use this definition:

  1. Understand the question.
  2. Gather information from the question that is useful.
  3. Think of it in terms of a real world situation (this is important, remember that this is a business exam and not a philosophy paper)

I will use the following sample question from GMAC for this and the rest of the post:

“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.”

Now, let’s apply our analytical skills.

First let’s understand the question. To do this, pick out the important information and bullet point it.

  • Most companies agree that if the risk of physical injury occurring on the job increases, so should the wages employees receive
  • Because companies agree that higher risk should result in higher wages, to save money it makes sense for companies to make the workplace safer
  • By making the workplace safer, companies will save money

Next, let’s figure out what information is useful to us. We can simplify our bullet points even further:

  • Higher risk equals higher pay
  • To reduce costs, companies should make the workplace safer

Think of how this information applies to a real world situation.

This is easy, but being under pressure can cause a mind blank. Using a real world situation is very important because it helps frame your answer (and it always helpful to know how you will write your answer up front rather than 10 minutes into the essay).

Some tips: Think back to newspaper articles you read, TV shows you saw, or work. Because this is a classic “risk vs. reward” problem there are numerous examples.

  • Stock Market
  • Army (get paid college tuition)
  • Becoming a doctor (many college loans, but you get paid a lot!)

Form an opinion

Now that we understand the question, let’s form an opinion.  Because the question asks how well reasoned YOU find the argument, you MUST take a stance and BACK IT UP with evidence. If you say, “Yes, I do agree that this is a well reasoned argument” – be prepared to cite examples from various sources as to WHY you believe it is well reasoned. There are, again, 3 parts.

  1. Introduction – Write a thesis and set the stage for your argument. For help writing an effective thesis, see Kelly’s article on thesis statements.
  2. Content – Be prepared to write at least 2 paragraphs supporting your claim.
  3. Conclusion – Wrap it up nicely by referring back to your thesis and how your content proved your point.

Kelly has a great post on introductions and conclusions that you might want to check out here.

Choose your sources

Again, this is important. Use REAL sources, do NOT make them up. For the best effect, mix some personal experiences with academic research or news articles. Most importantly, choose your sources carefully and make sure they support your thesis statement (do NOT choose examples or sources to “fluff” your piece. A common misconception is that you need to have 20 examples and 5 paragraphs of supporting information to get a perfect score. You don’t). A common way to do this is to refer back to your argument at the end of every paragraph in order to reinforce your point.

Outline your essay

Now before I say that – this is optional. The reason I say this is because some people are just not “outline people.” For example, during practice, I found that when I outlined things, it generally ended up wasting time. For those of you that live and die by structure, read on. For the rest of you with a “P” in your Myer Briggs score, skip to grammar.

Luckily, Kelly posted a great guide to outlining a paper. Check it out for more detailed information. If you don’t have the time, read on for the quick and dirty version. Because you generally have about 5 minutes to outline your answer before diving in, you really just want to create a skeleton of what you are going to talk about. Using the above question as a guide let’s do an example:

  • INTRO: Yes, this is well reasoned. Talk about risk vs reward concept and examples of professions where this applies.
  • CONTENT 1: Discuss risk vs reward and how this subject corresponds to supply and demand.
  • CONTENT 2: Give examples of professions where this is true.
  • CONCLUSION: Use the points you made in your content sections to drive home your point.

Grammar

Ah, everyone’s favorite subject. As a potential business major, you should already have good grammar. If you do not, you should be reading through this website on a daily basis. I know that this may be an issue for ESL students, and if it is an issue for you, spend time brushing up on your elementary and high school grammar. If you DO have good grammar, however, try to leave some time to proofread at the end. You aren’t going to get points off for one typo, so don’t freak out.

Structure

When you look at essays that are graded a 4 vs that of a 5.5 or 6 you will notice a big difference in the way the response is structured. I know this is a little bit of Kelly’s influence talking but your writing needs to “flow.”

  • Don’t use sentences that have the same structure consecutively
  • Try to vary the length of your sentences (Don’t use five 10 word sentences in a row)
  • TRANSITION from one paragraph to another. This is very important. If there is any takeaway for this section it is transitions are the difference between a good response and a great one. Read Kelly’s “transitional statements” post for a detailed explanation on how you can make this work for you.

Final Thoughts

A perfect score on the GMAT is not out of your reach. In fact, a perfect score is on par with about 12% of the people who take the test. Just remember to practice, as it can be the difference between a so-so and great response. Do not listen to people who say that they didn’t practice and still got a perfect score. There is always “that guy” who just gets a perfect score on everything. If that isn’t you, then this post should provide you with a good baseline to improve your score. If you are “that guy,” you probably aren’t reading this.

Some last, parting advice: Remember that you have 30 minutes for each essay. Time management is extremely important. Do not “waste time” thinking about what to write or wondering how good your source is. These distractions can kill you on the test. And MOST importantly – don’t freak out!

Good luck!

Posted in Writing Wisdom.

4 Comments

  1. “If you DO have good grammar, however, try to leave some time to proofread at the end.”

    LOL, really? Try proofing that again. Generally a decent high level intro, but no value to help me on my way.

    • I think that sentence is very valid–many times, higher level writers have this misconception that they are infallible and unable to make grammatical errors. This is simply not true. As such, it is important–even if you’re a grammatical genius–to quickly skim through your paper and proofread. As Charles mentions, a few typos will not kill you. However, repeated spelling errors, abbreviations, or colloquialisms (things students are much more apt to do in today’s society) will lower your score.

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