In Focus: Arrive Prepared for the AWA Issue Essay

GRE prep | Analytical Writing

Book of Hours Illuminated Manuscript c1410 (Public Domain)Details, Details:

When you sit down in your testing center to take your computer-based GRE, the first section you will encounter is the Analytical Writing Assessment, specifically the Issue Essay task, for which you have 30 minutes to write a response to a prompt. While the instructions for the issue essay vary from prompt to prompt, let's consider the portion of the instructions that is common to (almost all) issue essays:

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position...

The instructions that follow the last phrase ("In developing and supporting your position"), the authors of the test give instructions specific to the point at issue. These additional instructions are usually quite brief and can be summed up as a directive to attend to both sides of the issue and to use pertinent and compelling examples. Let's remark this idea of examples because we will return to it shortly.

Now let's jump ahead to scoring criteria for essays that receive a score of 6 (the top score):

Sustains insightful, in-depth analysis of complex ideas; develops and supports main points with logically compelling reasons and/or highly persuasive examples (emphasis mine); is well focused and well organized; skillfully uses sentence variety and precise vocabulary to convey meaning effectively; demonstrates superior facility with sentence structure and language usage, but may have minor errors that do not interfere with meaning.

Notice again the criterion of persuasive examples is front and center in the scoring rubric. This emphasis on examples is not accidental. To write a persuasive response to an issue essay, one that receives a top score, it is essential that you include specific, compelling examples to support your thesis and that you include details germane to the topic. While you might consider this obstacle nearly insuperable—after all, how could one possibly be expected to know examples for everything—below the jump we will discuss how to arrive equipped with excellent, detailed examples to use on your test. 

Gare des chemins de fer du Cambrésis (Public Domain)I Often Dream of Trains:

My father used to tell me a story, probably apocryphal, about a Harvard student who made it all the way through undergrad writing essays and term papers about only one subject, trains. This guy knew the railway through and through: the headstocks, the buffers, the crank pins; shunting and kicking and cutting; tenders and garratts and ballasts.

He knew trains in such detail that he could make a railroad metaphor for any topic, any assignment. While trains probably made an imperfect example at best for a botany paper, a vivid imagination and looming deadline make possible extraordinary feats of bull (and not the papal variety).

While I would not advise a similar strategy for your work or school assignments, for the purposes of the AWA Issue Essay, it would be wise to consider why this student's strategy was successful. As noted above, as a prerequisite for a top score, you must support your thesis "with logically compelling reasons and/or highly persuasive examples." While I suppose it's possible to write an exceptional essay that illustrates only mastery of Hegelian dialectics or abstract deductive reasoning in support of a thesis, I have yet to encounter such an essay. 

Far more common and effective is the use of persuasive examples. However, one of the most common obstacles students encounter when writing these "issue" essays (on both the SAT and GRE) is a bewildering struggle to find "perfect," appropriate examples to support their arguments. With the time constraints and no access to outside sources, it is all but impossible to find such "perfect" examples.

Instead, you should plan to follow the model of our aspiring locomotive engineer, at least insofar as you should come prepared with your own examples aspects of which you will use to support your argument. It is important to play to your strengths. There are probably at least one or two subjects that you know in detail. Think of something that you could talk about for half an hour—you know what I mean—your friends' eyes start to glaze over; they try to change the subject; "there she goes again." This subject, whatever it is, is the source of one example for your essay. 

For example, imagine you are a big movie fan, perhaps of a particular director or actor, perhaps of a certain genre or time period. Let's say you are a big fan of mid-20th century film noir. Now let's take this expertise and apply it to an unrelated hypothetical AWA Issue essay topic:

Issue Essay SampleEven before you choose your position on the topic, consider how potential examples might support one side or the other of the issue. In this case, since you are a film noir maven, you are probably familiar with the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code), a set of standards imposed by the Big Five studios and the motion picture trade association to enforce standards of "decency" and moral guidelines. How might you use this example to support one side of this health care argument? You might use the Hays Code as a cautionary tale to illustrate the law of unintended consequences. While the Hays Code might have been well-intentioned, it was unevenly enforced and created strictures that might have seemed "moral" at the time but in fact codified moral values that would seem anything but today, such as the prohibition of portrayals of miscegenation or white slavery, while portrayals of black slavery were permitted.

Tie this analogy into health care regulation. You could argue that while in an ideal world, health care could be considered a human right, in reality attempts to regulate and enact a system of universal coverage might do more harm than good and actually be counterproductive.

Now from the strength of this example, derive the thesis and introductory paragraph that could best be supported by this train of thought:

"Whether or not health care is a human right is immaterial to the practical consideration of public policy. It is likely that attempts to enact a system of universal coverage could end up causing more harm than good. If it is a human right, then non-governmental remedies must be pursued to expand access. If it is not a human right, then the moral questions of access to health care are unresolved, but efforts to expand access to health care must nonetheless eschew indiscriminate programs that could exacerbate the problem they intend to solve. Consider for example the Motion Picture Production Code..."

If you have one or two subjects about which you are already an expert, use this expertise! From this beginning, you can brainstorm one or two more examples, ideally ones about which you know a couple key details, which you can use to make your writing more concrete.

Let's discuss what you can do to prepare a couple potential examples to have "in-the-bag" before taking the test.

Exemplary Example Template:

While you are pursuing your GRE preparation, keep your eyes and ears open. If you are studying something for a college class, keep this subject in mind for the Issue Essay. If you encounter a news or magazine article that engages you, read it. If there's an ongoing current event that you wish to follow, do so. If you're reading a book for leisure, this is a potential source too! One key to having a working knowledge of a couple potential Issue Essay examples should be clear: follow the model of your existing interests. Choose topics that engage you. This process should not be a chore. 

If you wish, you may keep a "Brainstorming Journal" in which you make a note of some of these topics. Consider following the model below:

Topic: French Presidential Election, 2017

Key Terms, Ideas, People: Benoît Hamon, Manuel Valls, Socialist Party, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon, Republican Party, Marine Le Pen, National Front

Overview: While like many other recent political contests the French Presidential Election of 2017 is shaping up to be a referendum on the political status quo, in some respects this contest is a replay of a longstanding dynamic in French politics: a three-way struggle between the socialists, the center-right, and far-right nationalists. The contest this year pits leftist upstart Hamon against the scandal-plagued center-right Fillon and the firebrand nationalist Le Pen, daughter of iconic National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Faced with low favorability and a weak government, the current president Hollande declined to run for reelection, but his potential center left successor Valls fell to Hamon in the primaries, in some respects mirroring the dynamic between former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his successor in the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. The implications of the French Election will be far-reaching, for international relations, the direction of French society, and the future of NATO and the EU.

You can repeat this template for multiple topics, crystallizing your command of these subjects that already engage you. Equipped with five or six such topics, you should be on your way to writing a vivid and compelling Issue Essay.


With thirty minutes to write, time is of the essence. Remember a couple key points:

  • Play to your strengths. Take ownership of the essay topic; don't let the topic own you.
  • It doesn't matter what you actually think! Take a stance on the topic that will be easy to defend with your vivid examples.
  • Keep your pencil moving on your scratch paper. Note some potential examples that come immediately to mind, even if they seem somewhat unrelated. Then make connections between a couple of these examples and the topic.
  • Your work will snowball. One of the biggest challenges of writing these essays is just getting started. Once you get the ball rolling, if you approach the essay in an orderly, premeditated fashion, you can write a compelling essay, even if you know nothing at all about the topic.

If you have questions or observations you wish to share, please comment below. I would also like to encourage you to visit our GRE Forums, where you can search our extensive existing database of question explanations and jump in with questions of your own. Our GRE experts monitor the forum and will respond to your inquiries. If you wish to pursue your GRE preparation with PowerScore, please consider one of our excellent GRE prep options.