We all know that the GMAT essay is scored separately and that the schools do not care as much about the essay score. We also know we have to write the essays first thing, before we get to the more important Quant and Verbal sections (or even Integrated Reasoning), so we do not want to use up too much brainpower on the essay. Still, we cannot just bomb this section; the schools do care about the essay somewhat. So how do we do a good enough job without expending so much energy that we are negatively affected during the multiple-choice portion of the test?
We need to develop a template, an organizational framework on which to hang our writing. The template will not, of course, tell us exactly what to write. For that, we need the actual essay prompt, which we will not see until we take the test. We can, however, determine how to organize the information ahead of time, as well as the general kinds of messages we need to convey at various points throughout.
The template should tell us the following:
- how many paragraphs to use
- the primary purpose of each of those paragraphs
- the kinds of information that need to be conveyed in each paragraph
The template will vary a little bit from person to person; the important thing is to have a consistent template for yourself that you have worked out in advance of the official test.
As a general rule, essays should have either four or five paragraphs total. The first paragraph is always the introduction, the last paragraph is always the conclusion, and the body (middle) paragraphs are for the examples we choose to use.
Each paragraph should contain certain things; these are listed in the following sections. The information does not need to be presented in the given order, though; just make sure that each paragraph does contain the necessary information in some sort of clear and logical order. In addition, the information listed here is the minimum necessary info; you can certainly add more where appropriate.
First, read the essay prompt. It will look/feel just like the Critical Reasoning (CR) arguments we see on the Verbal portion of the test, so tackle it in the same way! The argument will most closely resemble Assumption Family arguments, so find the conclusion and make sure you understand how the author is trying to support their conclusion. Next, brainstorm any assumptions* that you can think of and jot these down (or type them into the essay response area).
*Note: if you have not started studying CR Assumption Family questions yet, assumptions are unstated pieces of information that the author is assuming must be true to draw their conclusion.
Next, articulate flaws. Any assumptions are automatically flaws, because the author has not established that those assumptions are, in fact, true. You may also think of other flaws along the way.
Finally, pick your two or three best flaws; these will form the basis of your essay.
This whole process should take roughly three to four minutes. Many people find this the hardest part of writing an essay; you can practice by opening up the essay chapter of your Official Guide book and simply brainstorming for one essay prompt. Do not write the whole essay—just do the brainstorming portion once a day (only five minutes out of your day!) for a week or two, and you will become much more skilled at this step.
- summarize the issue
- state a thesis
- acknowledge that the other side does have some merit
- introduce your examples
- three to five sentences total
First, briefly summarize the conclusion of the given argument in one to two sentences. Make sure to write using your own words (do not simply quote the exact language from the essay prompt, though using the same word here or there is fine).
The first paragraph should also contain a thesis statement. The thesis is typically one sentence and conveys to the reader your overall message or point for the essay that you wrote. For the argument essay, you can write most of your thesis sentence before you get to the test! You already know that the argument will contain flaws, and that you will be discussing how those flaws hurt the author’s conclusion. Guess what? That is always your thesis!
“While the argument does have some merit, there are several serious flaws which serve to undermine the validity of the author’s conclusion that XYZ.”
DO NOT USE THAT EXACT SENTENCE. They are going to get suspicious if hundreds of people use the same sentence. (Besides, that is my sentence. Come up with your own!)
Note the opening clause: “While the argument does have some merit.” This is what is called acknowledging the other side. We do not say, “Hey, your argument is completely terrible! There’s nothing good about it at all!” We acknowledge that some parts may be okay, or some people may feel differently, but our position is that the flaws are the most important issue (that is, our thesis is the most important thing).
Notice one other thing that I do not say: I do not say, “I think.” I state my thesis as though it is fact and reasonable people surely agree with me. That is a hallmark of a persuasive essay.
Finally, the first paragraph needs to introduce whatever examples we are going to use in the body paragraphs. Do not launch into the examples fully; that will come later. Do, though, mention the two or three flaws that you plan to discuss in the essay.
Each flaw gets its own paragraph, so you will write either two or three body paragraphs of four to six sentences each. (I personally pick my two best flaws, so I write two body paragraphs. Remember, we just need to be good enough!)
Your goal here is to support your thesis statement. In each paragraph,
- introduce one flaw (do not repeat the exact language from the prompt)
- explain why it is a flaw (how does this make the conclusion less likely to be true?)
- suggest ways to fix the flaw (you are fixing the flaw, not changing the conclusion; what could the author do to strengthen their argument?)
For example, let us say that an argument claims that firing half of a company’s employees will help the company to reduce costs and therefore become more profitable. What is the conclusion, what supports that conclusion, and what assumptions is the author making?
While it’s certainly true that chopping half of your payroll will reduce costs, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the company will become more profitable! That loss of personnel may negatively impact revenues, reduce productivity, hurt morale of the remaining employees, and so on. The author is assuming that no such adverse effects will result from this action; that’s a flaw in their thinking.
The author of such an argument could bolster the claim by, for example, presenting evidence that half of the employees are truly deadweight and firing them would not affect the company adversely. (Do not worry about whether this is likely, whether such evidence actually exists, or even whether this is the best way to improve profitability. Your job is only to strengthen the author’s existing argument a little bit. If the author could actually produce evidence showing that there would not be adverse effects from such layoffs, then their conclusion would be strengthened. Period.)
- restate your thesis (using new words)
- reacknowledge the other side (using new words)
- briefly summarize how your examples supported your thesis (using new words)
- three to four sentences
Are you noticing a theme within these bullet points? Basically, the conclusion paragraph is not going to contain much new information. It is a conclusion; the major points should already have been made earlier in the essay. What you are doing now is tying everything together in one neat package: “Yes, the other side has some merit, but here is my point-of-view and, by the way, I proved my case using examples X and Y.”
Before you go into the real test, you should have a fully developed template, so that all you have to do is come up with your two examples and then hang your words onto your framework. This does not mean prewriting and memorizing actual sentences, but do know in general the kinds of points you want to make in each paragraph. Practice with the above as a starting point until you develop something with which you are comfortable. Do not forget to leave some time to proof your essay; a few typos is okay, but systematic errors will lower your score.
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