The two essays for the Analytical Writing Assessment are graded holistically. This means, simply, that your grade is based on the overall impression the essay makes on the reader. GMAT essay graders don’t assign one point for good grammar, half a point for good transitions, half a point for good vocabulary, etc., and add up your score on a calculator. There is no specific weight given to any particular thing. Nevertheless, there are some consistent features that high-scoring essays have, and that you should aim for in yours. The following are five things that most high-scoring (5 and 6-level) GMAT essays have in common.
One of the most consistent correlations that can be observed is that between high scores and length. As scores go down, you usually see shorter and shorter essays. This can be seen in the GMAT Official Guide itself. The sample essays it provides at the 6, 4 , and 2 scoring levels in the Analytical Writing Assessment section get noticeably shorter as you go along. But be careful about how you interpret this correlation. Longer essays aren’t better than shorter essays, per se. There’s no value in repeating yourself to pad your essay, or using as many words as possible to describe something simple. The real issue is thoroughness. High-scoring essays treat the topic thoroughly, and it takes some length to do that properly. No matter how brilliant you are, you can’t address these essay prompts with any depth in, say, a pair of short paragraphs. So say as much as you can, and try to have something worth saying. Write as thoroughly about the subject as you’re able to within 30 minutes.
Making the reader’s job easier is always a good idea. One way most high-scoring essays do that is with organization. High-scoring essays tend to be well-organized in two different ways — one slightly superficial (but still important), and the other a bit deeper. The superficial element of organization is using basic structural features such as introduction paragraphs, body paragraphs, and conclusion paragraphs. A high-scoring essay generally isn’t one long, rambling, stream-of-consciousness paragraph. There’s a clear introduction that lays out the topic under discussion and what the author thinks about it, body paragraphs that support the author’s view, and a conclusion that wraps everything up.
The second, deeper, element of organization is a logical progression of ideas. In high-scoring essays one paragraph leads to the next, and the ideas build on each other. The examples are presented in the order they are for a reason — it isn’t haphazard. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end, not just interchangeable thoughts slapped together. Try to first be organized in your thinking, and then present those thoughts in well-organized paragraphs.
3. Competent, error-free writing
This is an essay after all, so how well you write is going to be a factor in your score. But it’s less important that many people think. This section is called the Analytical Writing Assessment, but the emphasis is more on the “analytical” part than the “writing” part. The GMAT is more interested in your thinking skill than your writing skill. So don’t worry so much about demonstrating your mastery of rhetorical form, or your sensitivity to cadence and the euphonious pattern of syllables produced as your sentences fall on the ear. Most high-scoring essays don’t earn those scores with the majesty of their prose. Write as well as you can, certainly, but don’t stop for major re-writes, and generally keep it simple. As long as you avoid errors you’ll be fine.
4. Specific, appropriate examples
Abstraction and generality are the death of lively writing. High-scoring essays make their points through specific, concrete examples that are well-chosen to illustrate what the author wants to say. It’s easy to make claims, but for these claims to be persuasive you must back them up with examples. Otherwise it’s all talk with no evidence behind it. Whether you’re backing up one of your opinions in the Issue Essay or attacking a shaky assumption in the Argument Essay, you need to deploy appropriate examples to make your point, not vague generalizations of abstractions.
How you deploy them matters too. A mistake that many people make, but high-scoring essays avoid, is to give too much detail about the example itself and not enough explanation of how the example supports their point of view. Remember that the example isn’t there for its own sake; it’s there to do useful work for you, to back up your opinion. So describe the example with only enough detail that the reader can understand how you use it to justify your position.
5. Clear point of view
This is important for both essays, but it’s most often a problem for the Issue Essay. The Issue Essay gives you tremendous flexibility. You can take any position on the issue that you like — there are no right answers. You can agree with the prompt, disagree, or fall somewhere in between. You can challenge the assumptions that the prompt is making. You can agree in some circumstances but not others. You can have any point of view you want, but you must have a point of view. High-scoring essays make clear in the very first paragraph what thesis is being argued. A non-committal approach isn’t going to work here. Essays without a clear point of view always leave the reader thinking, “Why are you telling me this? Where is this going? What is the point here?” Writing is just thinking on paper, but the thinking has to come first. You have to figure out what you intend to say, and then say it.