The GRE Writing Sample asks you to write an essay in 35 minutes. It is wise to invest a few hours in preparation for your essay. Those who don’t prepare at all often write terrible essays. These essays might even be bad enough to endanger a student’s admission chances. Spend a few hours looking at sample essays to avoid any unnecessary mistakes.
The essay section is designed to test how well you can (1) organize a compelling argument using sound reasoning and supporting evidence and (2) express your thoughts clearly in written form. The essay section is NOT meant to test how many big vocabulary words you know, how much you know about the business or any other specific topic, or really even how creative you are.
The writing sample is a much lower priority than GRE prep, so we suggest that you jump ahead to the GRE course. Otherwise, you can divert about 20 minutes to review this page to review this content now or circle back to review it later.
What will the topic be?
You won’t be asked to write about a specific topic so much as you’ll be asked to respond to a specific scenario. The scenario will always be presented in the same form. Here’s a watered-down example (keep in mind that the scenario on your exam will be more involved):
John wants to buy a pet. He is choosing between a cat and a dog. He only has time to care for one pet. Write an essay in which you argue for the purchase of one type of pet over the other based on the following considerations:
- John wants a pet that will be relatively maintenance-free.
- John wants a pet that will be a true, loyal companion.
The first option, the cat, is a clean pet that does not typically damage or destroy household property. While the cat does need to be fed twice per day, it does not need to be taken for daily walks. The cat is very aloof and non-responsive to human interaction, but it does grow attached to its human owner over time.
The second option, the dog, requires daily attention. The dog has been known to damage household property, and it requires walks on a daily basis. With training, the dog can learn to be relatively self-sufficient. The dog responds to human interaction and craves the attention of its human owner, but it can’t communicate very well with humans.
As mentioned earlier, the scenario will always be presented in the same way. The first part will present a choice, the second part (the bullet statements) will present two considerations that need to be weighed in making that choice, and the third part will provide more information about the two choices at hand. Notice that there is no right or wrong answer here. In fact, the scenario is presented in such a way as to make it difficult to decide which option is better! They both have their pros and cons. What’s important is NOT which option you choose, but rather how you justify, or support, the choice that you do end up making.
How should I write my essay?
The following will outline a process for planning and writing your essay. It certainly isn’t the only way to do it, but it does provide a consistent, repeatable approach that you’ll be able to rely on.
Step 1: Compile information in grid form (5 minutes total for steps 1-3)
In the test booklet, set up a table that has the two choices along the top and the two considerations along the side. In the intersecting cells of the grid, include the appropriate pros and cons using a “+” before any pro and a “-“ before any con. For our example, it might look like this:
|Relatively Maintenance-Free||+ clean
+ doesn’t destroy property
+ no walks
– needs food twice per day
|– daily attention
– damages property
– daily walks
+ can learn to be relatively self-sufficient
|True, Loyal Companion||– aloof and non-responsive
+ becomes attached to human owner
|+ responds to humans
+ craves human attention
– can’t communicate well
You’re familiar with cats and dogs, so it’s probably already obvious to you that a cat would be a good low-maintenance choice and a dog would be good for companionship. Keep in mind, however, that the scenario you will see on your exam will be much less familiar to you. Organizing the information in grid form will make it much easier for you to see the relative strengths and weaknesses of each choice.
Step 2: Decide on a “more important” consideration (5 minutes total for steps 1-3)
At this point, you want to make a decision. Is it more important for John that the pet be maintenance-free or that it be a loyal companion? Again, there’s no right answer. Even so, you need to decide which you will make more important. Choose one that you can easily justify (even if it’s a made-up justification). For example, we’ll decide:
“Having a loyal companion is more important than having a low-maintenance pet because true friendship trumps all else. If John has a true companion and friend, the daily maintenance will become a labor of love instead of a hassle.”
Step 3: Make your choice! (5 minutes total for steps 1-3)
Your decision in step 2 should lead you to a clear choice. In this case, if we deem companionship to be the more important consideration, then we’ll want to choose the dog (since the dog clearly has more compelling plusses in that part of the grid).
“John should pick the dog because it will serve as a more loyal companion than the cat will.”
Step 4: Write the essay (25 minutes)
Plan on structuring your essay the same way every time. Here’s an easy template to follow:
Essay Section Template
A. Summarize the decision to be made. “The scenario presented above puts John in a position in which he will choose between purchasing a cat and purchasing a dog.”
B. Acknowledge the complexity of the decision. “Given the considerations and characteristics of the choices at hand, this is a very difficult decision in that each choice has its merits.”
C. State your opinion. “Even so, John would be better served by choosing the dog.”
A. State why the primary consideration (the one you chose to be the primary consideration) is more important and how your choice satisfies this consideration. “First, it is more important to have a pet that serves as a loyal companion than it is to have a pet that is maintenance-free…” (justify this statement, even if it’s a made-up justification) or “The dog will be a loyal companion in that it will …” (use the information from the grid to show how)
B. State why the other choice (cat) falls short in this regard. “The cat, on the other hand, is a poor match for anyone looking for a loyal pet …” (use the information from the grid to show how)
State how your choice still does an okay job with the secondary consideration. “Furthermore, while the dog isn’t an ideal choice for someone wanting a maintenance-free pet, it can learn to be relatively self-sufficient…” (use any other information from the grid to support this)
Summarize your argument
Step 5: Proofread! (5 minutes)
Spelling errors, misprints, grammatical errors, etc. will never go over well. While a few simple mistakes won’t kill you, you want to be sure your final essay is as clean as possible.
Practice this a few times on some real essay prompts and you should be all set. Good luck!