Looking for ways to improve your GRE analytical writing scores? In this post, we’ll teach you some simple GRE essay tips to give you an edge over the competition – backed by real graded essay data.
There are a lot of opinions out there on what makes a good GRE essay, but we wanted to know for sure. Studying for the GRE is stressful enough, and you deserve to know exactly how to ace every section. So, we paid several GRE instructors to hand score 1,000+ GRE essay examples and determined empirically, without a doubt, the keys to writing the perfect GRE essay.
Using these GRE analytical writing examples, we trained a machine learning model capable of accurately predicting your score and letting you know exactly how you can improve.
Here are the top 5 keys our model said have the biggest impact on getting a top analytical writing GRE score:
In this article, we’ll outline the process we took to build the machine learning-backed essay grader and answer the question of how to write a great GRE essay once and for all.
Essay writing can be a difficult skill to master, and to ace the GRE you’ll need to write two: the argument essay and the issue essay. These essays test your critical thinking and analytical writing skills, your ability to communicate complex ideas, develop logical arguments, and maintain a focused discussion. Although the GRE issue essay and the GRE argument essay follow different GRE essay prompts, the criteria they’re graded on and the way to write these essays are basically the same.
With only 30 minutes to complete each essay, you need to be efficient. But what if you had analytical writing GRE tips that could basically guarantee a high essay score, because they were reverse-engineered using machine learning? It would make getting that perfect 6.0 GRE analytical writing score Achievable 😉
Each GRE analytical writing section consists of a topic of discussion and specific instructions on how to respond. In the allotted 30 minutes, GRE takers must be able to analyze the prompt, plan a relevant response, and write an organized and coherent issue essay or argument essay supported by evidence.
Needless to say, every second counts. To help set up Achievable’s GRE course customers for success, we’ve built a machine learning-based essay grading system trained on thousands of professionally graded GRE essays, using real GRE essay prompts. Let’s dig into how it works and how we learned the most important factors for getting that perfect 6.0 GRE essay score.
The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the creators of the GRE, provide some information on how to score a perfect 6.0 on the essay sections. They mention that writers should “articulate a clear and insightful position”, “develop the position fully”, give “compelling reasons and/or persuasive examples”, and “convey ideas fluently and precisely”. It’s great that ETS is trying to give students some direction on how to get a good GRE essay score, but none of these tips are quantifiable. How do you know if an argument position is “clear and insightful,” or if an example of an issue is persuasive?
We don’t like leaving things to chance or rule-of-thumbs, and in building our GRE essay grader we dug into the details to figure out what issue essay and argument essay characteristics are empirically, data-backed, and without a doubt, the keys to getting the best score on the GRE essay sections.
We hired professional GRE instructors from different firms to hand score our essays, and analyzed the results to determine the key features leading to a high GRE essay score. Using a variety of different technologies, we built a best-in-class GRE essay grading tool that can help take your GRE essay writing skills from a 0 to a 6. We want to share the details of our process so that you can feel confident in using the Achievable platform to pass your exam without breaking a sweat.
Let’s take a look under the hood.
The first step in building our GRE essay grader was to comb through every resource the ETS had on GRE analytical writing. Since our GRE essay grader is tailor made to help you score high on the GRE writing sections, the information provided by the creator of the test is by far the most valuable.
We poured through ETS GRE resources, looking for the characteristics that make up a great GRE essay. We did the boring work so you don’t have to, reading through every single line of their GRE issue essay examples, their GRE argument essay examples, and the result was a document almost twenty pages long detailing our findings.
We looked at everything from the obvious characteristics (also called traits or features) like word count, to details like the number of adjectives used. Of course, at this point we were making intelligent guesses about what was important. The real judge of what to focus on when writing a GRE essay response would be our machine learning model.
Having twenty pages of notes was a great start but the next step would be the major challenge. We needed a reliable way of extracting these traits from a piece of English writing. Unfortunately for us, computers don’t understand English, which meant we needed to dive into the field of Natural Language Processing (NLP).
NLP is a subfield of linguistics, computer science, and artificial intelligence that is helping to bridge the gap between the language used by humans, and the way computers process information.
Luckily, we love to learn here at Achievable, and after a whole lot more research we were ready to build software that could take an essay and dissect it into a list of features. This process, called key entity extraction, was fundamental to building our GRE essay grader. Now that we could reliably process GRE essays and get our feature data out the other end, we were almost ready to train our model.
The last step before training was to prepare the extracted data. Machine learning is very good at one thing, and that’s discovering relationships between sets of data – otherwise it’s not as smart as you’d think. Outliers in the dataset can skew the results, especially when the outliers are very large or very small compared to the average. This meant that the data provided to the ML algorithm had to be pre-processed, or normalized.
Data normalization usually involves rescaling the data such that all values are between 0 and 1. Using the results of our previous analysis, we determined lists of trait values that could be used to normalize the data.
For example, most GRE issue essay templates and GRE argument essay templates follow the conventional essay writing advice of using a 5 paragraph essay structure. This GRE essay template format includes a thesis, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Normalizing the paragraph count by 5 would create a trait that the ML algorithm could use to work its magic. If we provided more traits to the model, such as the paragraph count normalized by 3, and also by 10, the model could give us more information, and a high degree of confidence, whether 5 paragraphs is the way to go to get a high score. Following this approach, we normalized our dataset of GRE essays and provided hundreds of traits for the machine learning model to analyze.
With our key entity extraction software ready to go, and our sample GRE essay data normalized, we were ready to train a machine learning model using the thousands of hand scored, real-world GRE issue essay examples and GRE argument essay examples.
We built our machine learning model using TensorFlow, and in the training stage, passed huge amounts of data through neural networks resulting in a model that could reliably predict the score of a GRE essay. Using a variety of data science tools we generated charts to help describe the results. These charts help illustrate how each trait affects the predicted score of an GRE essay. We can see which traits have the most significant effect, and by how much, making it very clear how to write a GRE essay.
The chart shown below is called a beeswarm plot and it represents the combined results of the thousands of GRE essays graded by the machine learning model. Here’s how to read it:
Now with that explained, here is the beeswarm plot results from our GRE essay research:
For example, we can see from the plot that the total number of words used in the essay had the biggest impact on the score. Because the impact of a feature increases as the distance of the dots from the zero-impact-line increases, the blue dots extending far to the left indicate that low essay word counts have a large negative impact on score. On the other hand, the red dots tend to cluster slightly to the right of the zero-impact-line, indicating that writing a longer essay can help, but the impact is much smaller. The takeaway here is that you should avoid writing too short an essay, rather than trying to write a very long one.
The chart below is called a force plot and it gives a general idea of how each feature affects the machine learning model’s predicted result for a specific GRE essay.
Examining the force plot quickly tells us about the rough impact of each feature and if any stand out. We can see that the weight distribution is fairly gradual, with no single feature having an extraordinary impact. The force plot gives us a good summary of a specific GRE essay scored feature results, but isn’t very actionable. Our next chart, the waterfall plot, gives us a much more detailed explanation.
The chart below is called a waterfall plot and it gives us a more detailed view of how each feature affects the predicted score for a specific GRE essay.
For this GRE essay, we can see that a low spelling error rate, i.e. having a low number of spelling mistakes, had a significant positive impact on the score (+0.11). On the other hand, a low word count (-0.11) essentially neutralized the positive contribution of the low spelling error rate. Similarly, a good usage of nouns throughout the essay positively contributed (+0.07) to the score, while a low word count for the body paragraphs (-0.07) basically negated this impact.
Our top findings for what you can to do impact your GRE essay score, listed in priority order:
The following is an example of a high scoring GRE essay submitted by an Achievable user. Our human GRE instructors, as well as our machine-learning GRE essay grading system, score this as a perfect 6.0.
Here is the GRE issue essay prompt:
The surest indicator of a great nation is not the achievements of its rulers, artists, or scientists, but the general well-being of all its people. Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position.
And the corresponding GRE essay example:
The names of the greatest rulers, artists, and scientists is what is taught in most history classes. Little attention is given to the common people. Despite the fact that the most prolific and talented members of a society have a profound effect on their nations, it is the common people that truly embody the nation and it is them who keep it running. From the plumber, to the lawyer, to the homeless person; they all contribute their grain of salt to the identity and strength of the nation. The purpose of a nation is to create a just society in which every individual can enjoy the wealth and resources of the nation. A nation without a solid base will never be able to allow artists and scientists to create their most innovative and creative master pieces. Without the combined effort of all its people, there will be no Albert Einstein or Mozart, because there will be no resources to encourage these geniuses to develop their talents to their highest potential. The only way a nation can have a solid base is by guaranteeing the well-being of all its citizens. With happy citizens, nations have the solid foundation needed to produce the greatest achievements humanity can accomplish. Thus, the greatest of all nations are those in which the general well-being of its population is at its highest because happy citizens are more productive, more generous to each other, and more knowledgeable.
First, citizens living in a society that ensures their well being become much more productive than in a nation in which their well-being is not guaranteed. Dr. Friedman, in Berlin in the year 1975, conducted a controlled random experiment in which he tested the effects that well-being had in the production level of the subjects of the experiment. He created a control group and an experimental group, and assigned members to each group randomly. The experimental group was in a room that was very hot, whereas the control group was in a well ventilated room. Next, both groups were given simple tasks such as cutting squares out of circles and coloring an image. After 30 minutes had passes, Dr. Friedman evaluated who was able to complete most tasks in the 30 minute time window. He noticed that the experimental group completed only 80% of the tasks compared to the control group, which completed 100% of the tasks. As per Dr. Friedman: “the results of this experiment show how well-being has a negative effect on the productivity of individuals”. Less productive individuals are going to achieve less at work, meaning companies in general will be less productive and less competitive in the global market. In an increasingly competitive world, less productive companies will bring less resources to the nation, making it less likely to invest in the talent of its people.
Second, well-being is directly related to generosity. The more generous citizens of a nation are to each other, the more likely they are to help those in need around them. This, in turn, leads to a collective effort to lift each other up, making the nation more productive and wealthy. Thomas Frank and Imelda Seo developed a randomized experiment in which they tested the relationship between well-being and generosity. The study was conducted in Seoul in 1994 in a public university. The subjects of the test were randomly selected from different levels of the class in an effort to eliminate as many confounding variables as possible. The experimental group was told the very bad news that they had just failed their most recent test. After receiving this news, they were given a limited amount of chocolate and they were told to pick as much as they needed but to think that someone else will come after them and pick what is left from the chocolate. The person that will come later will not know how much chocolate was in the box originally. In contrast, the control group was told the same regarding taking as much chocolate as needed and to be mindful of the person coming behind them, but they were not given the initial bad news that they had failed their test. The results of the experiment show that the experimental group was 70% more likely to take all of the chocolate in the box than the control group. As per Imelda Ser: “this is indicative that when a person’s well-being is jeopardized, they are less likely to be generous.” This study shows how well-being can have a positive impact on the citizens of a nation, and this generosity can lead to citizens helping each other out more and creating a more cohesive and productive society and nation.
Third, citizens living in a nation in which their well-being is adequate are more knowledgeable. More knowledge can lead to greater discoveries. Great artists, scientists, and rulers all require proper education during their early years to achieve the success. If society as a whole is more educated, it is much more likely for a nation to be able to cultivate the talents of their next genius. For example, Amadeus Mozart was the son of a talented musical father that lived in Vienna, the classical music capital of the world at the time of this life. If Mozart would have been born in an empoverished family with no resources and no knowledge of music, who is to tell Austria would have produced such a notable musical expert. The father of Mozart lived a comfortable life that allowed him to develop his own talents, and later pass his new found knowledge to his son, who later took this knowledge to never before seen levels of musical prowess. To guarantee that the knowledge is passed on to the greatest individuals of a nation, it is necessary to ensure the general well-being of its citizens. Only then will a great nation be able to produce a Mozart, an Albert Einstein, or a Napoleon.
In conclusion, a nation can only be great if it can guarantee the well-being of all its citizenry. This is the only way a nation can ensure that the individual talents of certain prolific people can flourish. These individuals require a strong enough safety net that will allow them to pursue their dreams without having to worry about heating the house or finding the next meal. Also, citizens that are happy and living comfortable can produce more for the nation as a whole, and lift each other out of poverty, thus creating a great nation.
This GRE essay received a perfect score (f(x) = 5.999) and the waterfall plot below describes what features had the biggest impact:
In this case, the feature with the biggest impact was the number of adjectives used. If you read the essay, you probably noticed how descriptive it was. The author provided plenty of detailed examples to support his thesis.
At 1,083 words, the GRE issue essay was a good length, and this helped boost the score.
The author added excellent context to the thesis paragraph by including the names of two prominent creatives: Albert Einstein and Mozart. These names were relevant to the response and supported the idea that when a nation guards the well-being of its citizens it fosters creativity and innovation.
Using plenty of nouns relevant to the prompt, the author was able to keep the essay focused and coherent. We can also see a good use of long sentences, giving the author the space needed to elaborate on and support the thesis. An overall low spelling error rate contributed positively to the score. Interestingly, we can see that the use of places in the body paragraphs (e.g. Berlin) helped to boost the score.
The author received a minor penalty for the overuse of verbs in the thesis paragraph as well as a few spelling mistakes throughout the GRE essay. These negative contributions were ultimately insignificant compared to everything else that the author did right, clearly illustrating how focusing on the right characteristics can guarantee you a high scoring GRE essay.
The following is an example of a medium-scoring GRE essay submitted by an Achievable user. Our human GRE instructors, as well as our machine-learning GRE essay grading system, score this as a 3.5 with room for improvement.
Here is the GRE argument essay prompt:
The following is an internal memo distributed by the regional manager of Hamburger House. "Three months ago, all of the Hamburger House franchises in the Northeastern region began deep frying their french fries in canola oil rather than vegetable oil. During that period, french fry sales increased by 40%, and individual restaurants saw an average increase in unique customers of 25%. Furthermore, though Hamburger House has long prided itself on the distinctive flavor of its fries, very few customers complained about the switch. In fact, customer ratings of local restaurants on online review sites have never been higher. Consequently, we are now actively replacing oils in other dishes with canola whenever feasible, and we recommend that all Hamburger House franchises throughout the country follow suit." Write a response in which you examine what additional evidence is necessary to evaluate this argument, and discuss how inclusion of this evidence would impact the argument.
And the corresponding essay:
More information is needed to accurately determine if the recommendation from the regional manager of Hamburger House should be followed. Information detailing the reason for changing to canola oil, the cost of canola oil, the effect canola oil has on the taste of french fries and other foods, if the public was made aware of the switch to canola oil, public’s perception of canola oil, if the customer reviews over the past two months were about the taste of the fries, any operating changes made at the company that could have affected sales, other factors that could have increased sales, Hamburger house expanding their locations and customer base, the effects on net profits are needed. Additional evidence is necessary to evaluate Hamburger House’s internal memo to franchises.
The reason for why Hamburger House switched to canola oil is the first piece of missing information needed. If canola oil was chosen because it is cheaper than vegetable oil, it would be a sensical choice to reduce costs and choose the cheaper oil. If canola oil were the more expensive option, there must be non-cost-related reasons that justify the switch. In either of the aforementioned scenarios, one must examine if the canola oil makes the fries and other foods taste the same, better, or worse. If canola oil makes all foods taste better and has a net positive effect on profits, franchises should follow the recommendation. If canola oil makes some but not all foods taste better, franchises should only use canola oil in foods that taste better and if there will be a net positive effect on profits.
The second piece of information needed to evaluate Hamburger House’s recommendation is the public’s perception of canola oil and vegetable oil and whether the public was made aware of Hamburger House’s switch to canola oil. If canola oil is perceived to be a healthier option or vegetable oil is perceived as an unhealthier option, it can be expected that the public would react positively to Hamburger House’s use of canola oil and increase foot traffic to its locations. However, if the public was not made aware of the switch in oils, information regarding the content of the positive reviews that Hamburger House has received in the past two months and if those positive reviews were all for locations that switched to canola oil are needed. If the reviews mentioned that the foods that contained canola oil tasted better, it would be reasonable for franchises to switch to canola oil to make their food taste better and, thereby, increase sales.
The third piece of information needed is whether Hamburger House expanded its locations and customer base in the past two months. An increase in french fry sales and average unique customers would naturally increase french fry sales.
The most important aspect as a business is the impact that canola oil has on earnings. It is necessary for a business to be financially profitable to survive. Therefore, if the switch to canola oil allows franchises of Hamburger House to be financially viable, franchises should make the switch if doing so if there is a positive effect compared to keeping vegetable oil.
This essay received a low score (f(x) = 3.503) and the waterfall plot below describes what features had the biggest impact:
The feature with the biggest impact for this GRE essay was the total word count (-0.29). At 526 words, this example illustrates how dramatically a short GRE essay can affect the predicted score. In fact, we can see that the argument essay is penalized for low word count in various ways by other features, such as the body paragraph average word counts, total sentence counts, etc. Writing a longer argument essay is a straightforward way to guarantee a higher score and gives you more space to elaborate on and support the position from your GRE essay topic.
The second feature in the list measures the negative impact (-0.14) of the ratio of short to long sentences in the conclusion. In this case, the author used too many short sentences resulting in a lower score. The conclusion is meant to summarize the essay’s main points and tie them together with the thesis statement, a task that typically requires longer sentences. The conclusion of this argument essay could have been improved by using longer sentences to explain specifically how the thesis and supporting points are connected in addressing the issue laid out in the prompt.
The plot shows a high thesis noun count contributing to a lower score (-0.11). If we examine the thesis we can see the author uses an extremely long sentence that repeats many of the same nouns over and over again (e.g. canola oil). While using nouns is important to keep an essay focused on the topic, the nouns should be both relevant to the GRE essay topic and varied. Simply stuffing nouns into a paragraph will not have the desired effect. This thesis could have been improved by introducing fewer points while elaborating on how each point supports the thesis statement.
While the author did a few things right, it is clear that this GRE argument essay’s low score was majorly due to a low word count, weak use of nouns, poor sentence variety, and an overall lack of focus and specificity. Catching issues like these before the exam can help you improve your writing skills and boost your score by multiple points.
So if you want to improve your GRE analytical writing essay skills, what do you need to do?
Our Achievable GRE course offers hundreds of GRE essay prompts and GRE essay topics for the GRE issue and argument essays, giving you the opportunity to practice your analytical writing skills until you are 100% confident in getting a top GRE essay score. Your work is automatically saved as you write and includes a timer to keep you on track.
Achievable’s proprietary GRE essay grading system uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze your GRE essay writing and provides instant feedback on exactly what you can do to boost your score. Backed by our vast amount of data from real-world GRE issue essay examples and GRE argument essay examples, we’ve created the smartest GRE essay grader that exists, included with your purchase of Achievable GRE.