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Grad School Feed - May 15th, 2008
Conquering the GRE for Your GRE-aduate DeGREe: Part I
By Steve Ander

Remember taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to get into college? The analogies, the geometry, the reading comprehension, the algebra – eesh, what a pain! You got through it without any scars, and now it’s just a thing of the past, right? Well, to be honest, it isn’t, because you have to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as a requirement for your application to graduate programs. Fortunately or unfortunately, the GRE is much like the SAT: they cover similar material, they take a similar amount of time, and your scores are graded on similar scales. But this time, I assure you, you are going to have more fun with the GRE, and consequently you will do better.


You may have lost sleep over the SAT, being a requirement for your college applications, but there is much less reason to worry about the GRE. In a series of articles, I will break down the test and give you some prime tips to help you succeed and obtain a score you and your targeted schools can applaud.

In this article, I will go through the first component of the GRE, the Analytical Writing Section’s (AW) “Issue” topic. The AW comprises two essay topics as a warm-up, and tests not only your writing and communications skills but also your thought processes, organization, and overall mental aptitude. The overall AW section has very intelligible prompts and allows for 45 minutes for the first “Issue” essay and 30 minutes for the second “Argument” essay. Lucky for you, today’s technology provides that the entire GRE is on the computer, so you won’t have to worry about writers’ cramps.

The first essay is called the “Issue” topic that asks you to agree or disagree with an assertion. In these essays you can bring in your own opinions based on past experiences, prior learning, or logic. To get you into the mood of taking a 3+ hour test, the GRE provides you this relatively open format. In fact, they even give you a choice of topics, so you have some free reign. Moreover, since the prompt is just an assertion and you can choose to agree or disagree with it, there is no right or wrong answer. For your success, here are some good tips to knock the “Issue” topic out of the park:

  • Choose wisely – Don’t pick the question you think makes you look smart, or the one that you think the graders want you to pick. Choose the one you are passionate about. Typically, though, the testers make either both questions quite compelling or quite banal, so it’s a wash for you.
  • Budget time – The process of writing an essay involves reading the prompt, re-reading the prompt (perhaps re-reading even a third time), brainstorming ideas, organizing them, outlining, writing, and finally revising. Before you go into the test, split up your 45 minutes according to your usual work style. I would recommend the following as a starter:
    • 5 minutes to read, re-read, choose, and re-read (again!) to really understand the prompt
    • 3-5 minutes to brainstorm and jot down your thoughts
    • 3-5 minutes to organize and connect your points
    • 3-5 minutes to outline your essay in detail from your previous organization
    • 20-27 minutes to write
    • 3-5 minutes to revise
  • Prep yourself – You have a few options here to get the best results. Some people need to simulate the experience, so they time themselves in similar conditions. Some people just like to cogitate on something for a while. You know your own personal learning style by now and however it is that you get your best results, do that. Many GRE sites and books give you practice prompts, and those can be a big help. However, if you are not ready, willing, or able to drop the money on a GRE book, all you need to do is collect opinions. Read op-eds, watch editorial programming, pick the brains of your friends and family, etc. Once you get this bank of opinions, take one at a time and think about if you agree and why.
  • Articulation concerns – Because you are under real constraints, it is impossible to write the imagery and symbolism of the next Moby Dick. Nor should you want to, or expect the testers to want that. Don’t get caught up trying to remember a better synonym for “think” or “says.” Moreover, don’t distract yourself with flowery language and descriptions. Those are all niceties, but remember the reason you are sitting in that chair: To show how think and communicate. Your highest priority is to convey your points, the rest are only perquisites.
  • Loquacity concerns – You are not given credit for how many words you write. Stellar essays are not necessarily 1,000 words; trashy essays are not always 100 words. Fortify your essays with strong thoughts rather than lengthy, unnecessary sentences and phrases. Use your editing time to consider making sentences more effective. It is my belief that great essays with serious thought and polish come out to be between 400-550 words. Take this only as a range not as a limit in either direction.


As was mentioned, the “Issue” topic is only the beginning of the test. It is probably the most innocuous section of the test to just get you in the zone, so have fun with it. If you follow my tips, you will not only be more open to writing the “Issue” topic, you may GREatly enjoy it.

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