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How Important is the GRE Analytical Writing Measure?

A high GRE Analytical Writing score won’t help you get admitted to a top graduate program, but a below average score can keep you out of one.

The Analytical Writing measure assesses critical thinking and analytical writing capabilities. It evaluates your ability to communicate and support complicated ideas, design and test arguments, and engage in a clear and intelligible discussion of an issue. It doesn’t assess how much you know about a specific topic.

While an above average score on the Analytical Writing measure is unlikely to really help you with an admissions committee, a below average score can be a big problem. Why? Because a below average score on the Analytical writing measure suggests to a graduate program’s admissions committee that the applicant will have trouble either developing or communicating complex arguments and ideas in writing (one of the core activities you must perform in any graduate program).

In this article, we’ll first provide an overview of the GRE analytical writing measure, then explain how its scored.  Finally, we’ll argue that unless you are scoring below average, you should focus the time and energy of your GRE prep, whether you are working with a GRE tutor or not,  on the GRE quantitative reasoning or GRE verbal reasoning sections.

What are the components of the GRE analytical writing measure?

The Analytical Writing measure consists of two specific analytical writing tasks:

The Issue task presents an opinion on some issue (it could be economic, political, historical, etc.) You are then asked to respond to it. You must evaluate the issue, consider its nuances, and develop an argument, supported by clear rationale and examples, to support your perspective.

The Argument task requires you to evaluate an argument according to specific instructions. You are asked to evaluate the logic of the argument rather than agree or disagree with the position it presents.

The two tasks complement one another in that one requires you to construct your own argument by assuming a position and offering reasons in support of your perspective. The other task asks you to evaluate someone else's argument by evaluating its logic and supporting evidence.

Practice prompts for the GRE Analytical Writing measure

There are a variety of free and low cost ways to prepare for the GRE analytical writing measure. ETS itself publishes free issue topics and argument topics. ETS also offers guidance on effective Analytical writing measure test taking preparation, such as understanding the different task types and objectives in advance, reviewing sampling topics, understanding what is being measured and how responses are scored, and budgeting your time.

However, there are also some low cost materials available on Amazon that go into more detail about what the ETS scoring system is looking for and which provide more structured practice.

Interested in a Free Intro Discussion with an Expert GRE Tutor?

What is a good score on GRE analytical writing measure?

Although the GRE® Analytical Writing measure consists of two separate tasks, ETS reports a single score. It considers one score more reliable than a score for either task by itself. The test assesses "analytical writing," which essentially means the combination of critical thinking skills (ability to reason, compile evidence in support of a position and communicate multi-faceted ideas), control of grammar, and the “mechanics” of writing (i.e., spelling or flow).

Scores are reported in half-point increments between 0 and 6. As mentioned earlier in this article, a score of 5.5 or 6.0 on the Analytical Writing measure is very good, but it’s unlikely to really “help” your application a whole lot.

However, a score of 3.0 or lower begins to be problematic, because as we’ll see below, it suggests at least one major flaw in your ability to construct and communicate analytical arguments. That flaw could involve your ability to develop an argument, organize ideas, or structure sentences and make effective use of language. But in any case, it indicates that your responses were vague or unclear. And this is a red flag for admissions committees trying to determine if you can succeed in a rigorous graduate school environment.

Below are the scores you might receive:

  • 0 to 5.5 – this should be considered an excellent score. It means you sustained insightful, in-depth analysis of complex ideas with well-structured sentences structure and clear and appropriate use of the English language.
  • 0 to 4.5 – this should be considered a very good score. The difference between this range and the “top” range is really about level of insight and depth analysis, or complexity of sentence structure and language usage. A “5.0 to 4.5” score probably elicits a response from the grader along the lines of “yes, good points. That all makes sense.” A 6.0 score might make the grader think more along the lines of “wow, that’s an airtight argument, very well-put.”
  • 0 to 3.5 – this should be considered a good, acceptable score that you probably don’t need to be worried about. The ETS web-site uses language like competent, adequate, and satisfactory to describe this score range.
  • 0 to 2.5 – this is an OK score. It suggests that you displayed general competence in analytical writing, but your responses were flawed in one of the following ways: analysis of an argument, organization of ideas, sentence structure or language usage.
  • 0 to 1.5 – this is a below average score. It indicates a noticeable weakness in analytical writing that will catch the eye of the admissions committee. It means the writing was seriously flawed in one of the following ways: lack of argument development, idea organization, sentence structure, or usage of language.
  • 0 to 0.5. This is a very low score that means the grader found the writing fundamentally confusing or mostly irrelevant.
  • 0 – this means the writing doesn’t appear to address the assigned tasks and can’t be evaluated.

How should you incorporate GRE Analytical Writing measure practice into your GRE prep?

The GRE has three sections: 1) Quantitative reasoning, 2) Verbal reasoning and 3) Analytical Writing. However, this does not mean that your study plan should allocate 33% of your time to quantitative reasoning, 33% to verbal reasoning, and 33% to Analytical Writing. The impact of increasingly higher quant and verbal reasoning scores are far more “linear” than they are for Analytical Writing.

As your quant or verbal score increases and your overall percentile scores increase from 70% to 75% to 80% to 85%, your admissions chances increase accordingly.  Schools will differentiate between a 70th percentile GRE quant score and a 90th percentile GRE quant score. One is just demonstrably better and indicates a higher level of quantitative reasoning skill.

But how is an admissions committee supposed to interpret a score of 5.5 or 5.0 vs. a score of 4.5 or 4.0 on the Analytical Writing measure? Yes, 5.5 is clearly better than 4.0. But a 4.0 clearly indicates you can communicate ideas in writing. There are two entire other sections of the test that measure your logic, critical thinking, and verbal reasoning skills. A 5.5 vs. a 4.0 score just doesn’t score you that many “points” with the admission committee.

This is the sense in which the Analytical Writing scores vs. admissions chances are far less “linear” than they are for the other sections. On GRE quant and GRE verbal, higher is better. On GRE Analytical Writing, of course a higher score is better. But really, it’s more of a “are you above the threshold or not?” with the “threshold” being a score of 3.5. If you are at 3.5+, you are probably OK. But if you are below 3.0, you may have just raised a red flag with the admissions committee.

The best way to think about the GRE Analytical Writing measure, in our perspective, is to put scores into three buckets:

  1. Above average scores (4.0+) – limited additional prep time is required. If you are scoring at a 4.0 level or above, you probably should limit the amount of time you spend on writing practice GRE AWM essays and invest in other sections of the GRE.
  2. Average scores (2.5 to 3.5) – you should be allocating some prep time to GRE Analytical writing prep, but there is no cause for concern or need for intense focus on improving your score.
  3. Below average scores (<2.0) – scoring in this range on the official GRE will raise a red flag with the admissions committee. You should allocate substantial prep time to this section, perhaps even consider a GRE analytical writing tutor, if you are scoring in this range.

In other words, early on in your GRE prep plan, you should take and score a practice Analytical writing measure essay. If you, right off the bat, are scoring >3.5, you can really deemphasize this relative to other sections of the GRE as you design your GRE study plan. On the other hand, if you are scoring at 3.0 or below, you need to build ample time to work on GRE essays into your GRE prep.