Ace the Essays? No, Thanks!

by on December 30th, 2009

TypingWe all know that the essays on the GMAT are scored separately and that the schools don’t care as much about the essay scores. We also know we have to write the essays first, before we get to the more important quant and verbal sections, so we don’t want to use up too much brain-power on the essays. Still, we can’t just bomb the essay section; the schools do care about the essays somewhat. So how do we do a good enough job on the essays without expending so much energy that we’re 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 won’t 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:

  • 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’ve worked out in advance of the official test. In addition, we will need slightly different templates for the two different kinds of essays, so take note of the differences below.

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 below sections. The information does not need to be presented in the given order below, 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 below is the minimum necessary info; you can certainly add more where appropriate.

First Paragraph

  • Summarize the issue
  • State a thesis
  • Acknowledge that the other side does have some merit
  • Introduce your examples

The first paragraph should contain a brief summary of the issue at hand in your own words (don’t just repeat what the essay prompt said). For an Argument essay, briefly summarize the conclusion of the given argument. For the Issue essay, briefly summarize the issue upon which the prompt has asked you to convey your opinion. For either, you don’t need more than a one to two sentence summary.

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’s 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.”

DON’T USE THAT EXACT SENTENCE. They’re going to get suspicious if hundreds of people use the same sentence. (Besides, that’s my sentence. Come up with your own! :) )

Note the opening clause: “While the argument does have some merit.” This is what’s called “acknowledging the other side.” We don’t 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).

On the Issue essay, you won’t be able to write your thesis statement ahead of time, but you do know you’ll have to do two things: (1) establish one clear position for yourself and (2) acknowledge the other side. (“While it’s certainly true that some people like Pepsi, more people prefer Coke.”)

Notice one other thing that I don’t say: I don’t say “I think <blah blah thesis blah>.” I state my thesis as though it is fact and reasonable people surely agree with me. That’s a hallmark of a persuasive essay.

Finally, the first paragraph needs to introduce whatever examples we’re going to use in the body paragraphs below. Don’t launch into the examples fully; that will come later.

Body Paragraphs

You can choose to use either 2 or 3 body paragraphs. (I use 2 body paragraphs, personally. Remember, we just need to be “good enough!”)

Argument essay:

  • Introduce one flaw
  • Explain why it is a flaw
  • Suggest ways to fix the flaw

Issue essay:

  • Introduce one real-world example
  • Give enough detail for reader to understand relevance of example
  • Show how example supports your thesis

The body of an essay is where we support our thesis statement. For the argument essay, your support will come from the prompt itself: brainstorm several flaws from the argument (try to find the biggest, most glaring flaws). Each flaw gets its own paragraph, so you’ll need either two or three, depending upon how many body paragraphs you want to write. Explicitly explain why this flaw makes the conclusion less valid in some way, and then discuss how the author might fix that flaw.

For example, let’s 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. 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 reduce productivity, hurt morale of the remaining employees, and so on. The author of such an argument could bolster the claim by, for example, showing evidence that half of the employees are fully redundant and firing them wouldn’t affect the company adversely (if such evidence actually exists, of course!).

For the issue essay, your support will come from your brain: you’ll have to brainstorm some real-life example (something that actually happened in the past) in order to support your thesis. That example could be something from your own life (work history, school, friend of a friend) or from the broader world (business, history, and so on). Stating that Coke’s market share is higher than Pepsi’s, for example, would bolster your claim that more people prefer Coke.

There is no inherent advantage to a personal example versus a broader world example, but if you use a personal example, be sure to provide enough detail that the reader can understand the relevance. When you use real-world examples that the readers are likely to know, you don’t have to worry about, for example, explaining what Coke and Pepsi are.

Finally, make sure to tie your example specifically back to your original thesis. Don’t make the reader connect the dots: tell him or her exactly how this example supports your thesis.

Conclusion Paragraph

  • Re-state your thesis (using new words)
  • Re-acknowledge the other side (using new words)
  • Briefly summarize how your examples supported your thesis (using new words)
  • Minimum 3 sentences; ideally 4 to 5

Are you noticing a theme within the above bullet points? Basically, the conclusion paragraph isn’t going to contain much new information. It’s a conclusion; the major points should already have been made earlier in the essay. What you’re doing now is tying everything together in one neat package: yes, the “other side” has some merit, but here’s my point-of-view and, by the way, I proved my case using these examples.

Okay, get to work!

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 your thesis statement, and then “hang” your words on your framework. Practice with the above as a starting point until you develop something with which you’re comfortable. Don’t forget to leave some time to proof your essay; it’s okay to have a few typos, but systematic errors will lower your score.


  • Thanks a lot stacey :)

    I am gonna start working on my AWAs with an attitude similar to the one you explained it with :)

    Thankyou :)

  • Dear Stacey,

    Thanks for your article! Very helpful!

    I have one question, while I am practicing AWA section by myself, could you recommend any way to get feedback and review on my practices???

    Looking foward to your reply.

    Thank you.

    Best regards,

    • Great question! There are a couple of things you can do. First, GMAC (the group that makes the test) offers a service called GMAT Write. You submit essays and they will score the essays using the same scoring software used on the real test, and they will also give you feedback in terms of how you could improve.

      Second, if you have the Official Guide 11th or 12th edition, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the essays. They tell you what you need to do to get certain scores, and they also show sample essays for the different scores. You can use that material to self-grade and figure out how you can get better.

    • Really helpful!!!! your answer is the one I was looking for!!
      Thank you.

  • Thanks Stacey !

  • Thanks Stacey! really helpful.

  • thanks Stacey. as usual, am a fan of your articles


  • Thanks Stacey.

    Really, its excellent explanation. I appreciate it.

    Can we have one example of each essays with explanation that why you have done so?

  • Thanks for your post Stacey.
    I took a printout of your post ( not very env friendly i know) but your post has been the single most useful source for me to "Ace the Essays".. LOLz

    I scored a 6.0 on my essays (I know its not something to boast of considering the limited role essays play) but nevertheless, I could not have done so without your help.

    Thanks again for writing incredibly useful articles.
    Please keep helping the BTG members as you always have done !!

    • 6.0 - that's awesome! Congrats! I hope the rest of the test went well, too. :)

    • a really modest 710 (q48,v40) with an incomplete quant section..

  • what is up with people and their "modest" 700ish scores! really?! get over yourself! they are EXCELLENT scores that some people dream of.

  • Dear rockrock,
    I will take your comment as a compliment..
    But coming from an overrepresented pool has a lot of disadvantages and there are no guarantees that a 700+ score will get me to my dream school.
    Hence, the modesty.

    Hope you rock your GMAT, rockrock!!

    • I hear you and I'm no admissions expert, but I just find it hard to believe that the adcoms use GMAT alone when deciding between two otherwise similar candidates in an overrepresented pool. The GMAT is not what makes you unique, thats where ackground/experience/essays - the soft factors come in. I'm pretty sure that with a 710 - your concern is not the few questions you missed that could've bumped your score to a 730... but instead how to differentiate yourself in other ways. The GMAT in itself (being a standardized test by definition) is just a benchmark, not a key differentiator...

      710 is well within the average for top 10 B-schools. If I were you, I would consider that box "checked" with enthusiasm!

  • RockRock.. now that I am in the thick of the application process, I agree with you COMPLETELY..
    a 700+ is just a tick in the box..
    it all depends on the rest of the 'package'
    numbers alone dont take ppl to b-school ..
    Lessons learnt :)

  • Thanks a ton stacey....I was looking for a while over the net to get a decent AWA structure that i can follow and my search ends here. thanks again

Ask a Question or Leave a Reply

The author Stacey Koprince gets email notifications for all questions or replies to this post.

Some HTML allowed. Keep your comments above the belt or risk having them deleted. Signup for a Gravatar to have your pictures show up by your comment.