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Of Course It's Flawed: The Argument Essay

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One of the key differences between the college entrance exams (SAT, ACT) and the graduate level exams (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc) is that by the time you’re ready to apply to graduate school, colleges and universities expect you to have developed a deep ability to reason critically and to think logically.  After all, one of the fundamental skills in graduate school is learning how to tear apart not only everyone else’s work, but also—and perhaps especially--your own.  To do well in most master’s or doctoral programs, you’ll need to critically evaluate, identify inconsistencies and flaws, and identify limitations.  And that’s why, even though it may seem like just a simple yet annoying exercise, the GRE Argument Essay is so important.

What’s the argument essay?  Basically, it’s a simplistic, severely flawed, one- or two- paragraph premise.  Your task on this essay is twofold: First, recognize how poor the argument actually is, and second, explain how and why.  There’s a method to this dissection, and it really does work across the board for GRE argument essays.  If you can internalize the process, It’s really a simplified version of the same skill-set you’ll be using throughout graduate school, and afterwards!

OK, so what is this process?  First, reduce the premise.  Try to restate in a sentence or two what the argument is trying to say.  Let’s look at an example from ETS:

"Over the past two years, the number of shoppers in Central Plaza has been steadily decreasing while the popularity of skateboarding has increased dramatically. Many Central Plaza store owners believe that the decrease in their business is due to the number of skateboard users in the plaza. There has also been a dramatic increase in the amount of litter and vandalism throughout the plaza. Thus, we recommend that the city prohibit skateboarding in Central Plaza. If skateboarding is prohibited here, we predict that business in Central Plaza will return to its previously high levels."

Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be answered in order to decide whether the recommendation is likely to have the predicted result. Be sure to explain how the answers to these questions would help to evaluate the recommendation.

OK, there’s our premise.  Now let’s reduce it: it’s essentially a version of “You kids get off my lawn!” That’s it!  Central Plaza is blaming skateboarders for a decline in business, and implies that these ruffians are trashing the joint.  If that’s true, then getting rid of skateboarders should boost business again. 

Except that the argument presents very little solid evidence that this is, in fact, true. 

This reduction of the premise and realization of how weak it is should form the basis of your introductory paragraph.  When you begin to write your essay, devote this intro paragraph to demonstrating that you understand what the argument is trying to say, but stress that you recognize that the premise is deeply flawed.  How and why is it flawed?  That’s the rest of the essay.

The next step is to identify specific weaknesses in the argument—and these can be both formulaic and a bit creative.  Most of these arguments will have common flaws: for example, there’s almost always an overly small sample size.  In this case, we’ve looked at Central Plaza.  That’s one shopping center. It’s an anecdote, not data.  What about other malls?  Do skateboarders hurt business elsewhere?  Wouldn’t the argument have been stronger if the analysts had considered 20 such mall/skater relationships?  A sample size of one is never a strong basis for an argument.

Another classic flaw is that CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION!  Just because things happen concurrently does not prove that one has caused the other.  Maybe skaters and trash have both increased, but there’s no evidence given here to demonstrate any causal relationship.  It’s simply a baseless assumption that the crotchety management at Central Plaza is invoking to blame these skaters.  This kind of flawed premise occurs regularly in these prompts, so be on the lookout!

Next, consider other factors the argument might have missed.  WHY is business down?  Is there an economic downturn?  Maybe skaters have increased because there’s a drop in youth employment and people have more free time?  You can be a bit creative when considering these “other factors”.

Once you’ve written the analysis, which should probably be about 2-3 paragraphs following the intro, you’re ready to wrap-up.  Conclusions for the argument essay really aren’t too intimidating—it’s a good idea to frame it around what the argument could have improved upon.  As with the intro, demonstrate that you know what they were after, but they missed a few key things.  For example:

While the Central Plaza management failed to present a strong case that skating is taking a toll on their business, it is not difficult to see how their concerns may have arisen.  Central Plaza would have had a much stronger argument had they conducted a more robust study, one that looked at several case studies, and fully addressed external socio-economic factors that could have helped them better understand their own business.

For additional information on writing an Argument Essay from The Economist, click here!