GMAT AWA Essay Writing: Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

by Maximilian Claessens
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GMAT AWA Essay Writing - Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The AWA for many is one of the most intimidating section of the GMAT, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the idea of having to write an entire essay in a mere 30 minutes – especially if you’re a non-native speaker.
There are many ways that you can prepare for the AWA, including doing practice tests, participating in discussions on GMAT forums, hiring someone to tutor you on how to ace the AWA, and many more. One of the most effective ways to prep is to identify common GMAT AWA mistakes and make sure you avoid making them yourself. During the course of this article, we plan to highlight the most commonly made GMAT essay writing mistakes, what makes them wrong, and how to avoid making them in the first place.

What is the GMAT AWA?

The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) section of the GMAT is a 30-minute section in which you’re tasked with analyzing an argument, identifying any flaw or flaws therein, and expounding upon why those flaws fatally weaken the argument. There is no given word count, but you are necessarily constrained on that front by the 30-minute time limit.

The AWA is scored from 0-6, in half-point integers. Thus you may get a score of 3.0 or 3.5, but never 3.6. In general, a score of 4.5 or higher is considered to be a ‘good’ score by most business or grad schools, so this is what you should be aiming for.

The AWA is double-marked – once by a human examiner, and again by a machine algorithm. If there is a discrepancy between the two scores of 1.0 or greater, a second human examiner is brought in to mark it again.

Let’s now take a closer look at the most common GMAT AWA mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.

Commonly Encountered GMAT AWA Mistakes – and How to Avoid Them

Examiners tend to see the same sorts of mistakes crop up on the AWA all the time. Some are of the more obvious variety (spelling and grammar, chiefly) but others are a little more pernicious – and a little less obvious to the candidate themselves.

With enough practice and dedication, however, you can train yourself to head these common GMAT AWA mistakes off at the pass before they come to occur.

Commonly Encountered GMAT AWA Mistakes
Commonly Encountered GMAT AWA Mistakes

Insufficient Familiarity with Potential Topics

A surefire way to quickly run into trouble on the AWA is a lack of preparation regarding potential topics. If you’re not familiar with the sorts of arguments GMAC are likely to put on the test, then you’re putting yourself at a massive disadvantage.

The argument within the prompt tends to be related to general knowledge in some way, meaning that no specialized or esoteric knowledge is required. You’re not going to be ambushed with a prompt that requires an in-depth knowledge of metallurgy or Keynesian economics, for instance.

Potential topics that might crop up are general statements about politics, environmentalism, social issues, health issues, education, or areas of interest to businesses, such as marketing. Again – you’re not expected to be an expert in any of these areas, but you are expected to have a solid foundational knowledge of these areas.

This means that you should try to keep up to date with current events. Read the news daily and make sure you’re familiar with the big issues affecting everyone. Ensure that you’re familiar with arguments on both sides of the aisle. A strong grasp of current affairs can only help you on the AWA (and with life in general).

Finally, it’s a great idea to look at a list of past questions and potential future ones. These can be a massive help in understanding the way GMAC word their prompts.

Offering Personal Opinions

A common mistake made by AWA candidates is that they let their own personal views get in the way of the job they’re supposed to be doing. The task of the candidate is to analyze the argument given, not give their own opinion.

Avoid falling into this trap by sticking to the facts. Point out logical fallacies within the argument, then provide evidence that substantiates this assertion. Point out the next fallacy or weakness (if applicable) and, again, support it with evidence. Rinse and repeat.

This might seem easy, but many a candidate has gone off-track and allowed their personal views to adulterate the quality of their answer. Don’t be one of them. 

Worrying about Word Count

Take this one with a pinch of salt (don’t turn in a 50-word essay, for example), but in general you don’t need to be worrying about your word count. It’s not how long it is; it’s how good it is.

There is no minimum or maximum word limit on the AWA, so you won’t be penalized for an answer that’s either too short or too long. This also means that there’s no point in fixating on whether your answer is the right length; focus instead on the caliber of your response.

Irrelevant Bloat

In a similar vein, you need to make sure that you don’t start adding meaningless content to your essay simply for the sake of padding it out and making it longer. The examiners don’t care how long your essay is – and they will not look kindly upon padding out an essay for the sake of it.

In order to avoid this, make sure you stick to the point. Identify flaws in your introduction, write a paragraph breaking down each flaw, and repeat as necessary. Finish your essay with a conclusion that restates the argument and why its flaws weaken it irreparably.

Anything beyond this is irrelevant at best, and detracts from the key points of your argument at worst. Resist the temptation to pad things out.

Poor Spelling and Grammar

You don’t have to be Shakespeare to get a 6.0, but you do need to have a good grasp of correct spelling and grammar. The examiners are understanding of the fact that a good number of candidates are not native speakers, but that only goes so far.

In order to get used to writing in the style expected on the AWA (and expected in essay writing in general), read articles in broadsheet newspapers as often as you can, and read AWA answers that scored highly.

Most importantly – clarity and structure are valued more highly than linguistic flourishes or particularly fancy words. Don’t overcomplicate things by using words or structures that are beyond the requirements of the test – particularly if you’re likely to trip yourself up by doing so.

If you’re a non-native speaker, the challenge can be even higher – but not insurmountable. Most mistakes made by ESL candidates of the AWA are simply grammar mistakes that they would immediately recognize if attention were drawn to it, but is simply not a natural part of their native language.

Common examples of this include missing out articles (‘a’/‘an’ and ‘the’), the plural ‘s’, and the possessive ‘s’. An example might be “author doesn’t see problem here” or “Many student have trouble with this part”. Another common problem is forgetting to use the correct tense (e.g. “yesterday I go to the supermarket”).

Most of these common mistakes on the GMAT AWA essay can be fixed with a simple re-read of your work after finishing. As mentioned, many students will be able to spot and correct simple grammar mistakes; when writing quickly, however, they’re easily made.

Starting your Answer without Thinking it Through

A major mistake made by many AWA candidates is that, in their nervousness and their eagerness to get started quickly, they don’t think their answer through. This can rapidly result in catastrophe, as they realize halfway through paragraph three or four that they’re rambling and digressing. By this stage, it can often be too late to pull it back.

This is relatively easily avoided. You’re given scratch-paper for a reason – use it to sketch out the general outline of your essay before you begin. Write a brief sentence for your introduction, each paragraph (2-3 is advisable) and your conclusion. Once you’ve finished, you can work from this and use it to inform your response.

For a more in-depth look at how you can structure your essay before getting started, take a look at our extensive guide here.

Poor Use of Punctuation

Punctuation can be a tricky beast, and this is as true for native speakers as for non-native ones. It can be very difficult to figure out when you need an apostrophe and where the apostrophe should go; similarly, when to opt for a period or a comma can confuse many candidates.

The easiest way of tackling this is to do what we suggested earlier, and read plenty of professionally written articles. Such articles (for instance, in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or any other respected publication) are extremely well written and use punctuation in a diverse – but most importantly, accurate – way.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with the fundamentals of punctuation. If you don’t know the difference between a semi-colon and a comma, then you need to read about what each one is and how it’s used. Only then can you understand when to use each one.

Using Overly Elaborate or Incorrect Synonyms

Many guides for the AWA will advocate using synonyms as often as possible in your essays, and in general, this is great advice. You’ll notice that professional writers often use synonyms in order to keep their writing feeling fresh and varied, and it definitely helps with flow and readability.

That said: it’s also easy to go overboard and end up using synonyms that may look and sound sophisticated, but are exceedingly florid or – worse – don’t make sense within the context used.

Avoid this by sticking to words that you’ve seen in use before, and that don’t require masters in English Lit to understand. “Pulchritudinous” may be a long word, but using it doesn’t make you look smart – it makes you look as if you’re trying too hard. It also makes your writing less clear and more difficult to read, as the reader needs to stop and puzzle out what you’re trying to say.

To summarize: use synonyms wherever possible, but keep them relatively simple, and make sure you’re using them right.

Using Overly Esoteric or Localized Examples

You may have thought of the perfect example of why an argument is flawed, and that example revolves around a local politician who fell afoul of the same flawed reasoning. Why not use him or her in your counterpoint?

The problem with giving a localized example in a rebuttal to a generalized problem is the same as using inaccessible synonyms – your reader may have no idea what you’re talking about. And if you’re losing the reader (your assessor, in this case) then you’re not going to get a good score.

This is not to say, however, that you cannot use the example of that politician. It just means that you need to properly contextualize your example. Who is this person, and how does their story resonate with the point you’re trying to make? What about their tale reinforces your argument?

If you put things in context and explain them clearly, then it’s fine to use them. But don’t assume prior knowledge on the part of your reader(s).

Using the Same Fallacies as the Prompt Itself

This problem happens more often than you’d think possible, but many candidates end up falling into the same logical fallacies as the argument that they’re trying to critique.

Examples of such include the following:

  • Use of weasel words. Weasel words are phrases that are used to create the impression that concrete information has been given, when in fact nothing substantive has been offered. Examples include “most people”, “many sources”, “it’s argued by some” etc.
  • Inappropriate comparisons. This refers to comparing two things without sufficiently accounting for all the differences between them. For instance, you might claim that because both children and dogs respond well to treats given as rewards, dogs should be given chocolate if they behave well. This fails to account for the fact that dogs and children do not respond to exactly the same kind of treats (and that chocolate is poisonous to dogs).
  • Correlation and Causation. People falling prey to this fallacy assume that because two things have a relationship, one causes the other. For instance, because sunburn and ice-cream sales tend to rise at the same time, you might assume that ice-cream causes sunburn. Obviously, this does not account for the fact that both of these occur when it’s hot and sunny.
  • Inappropriate or sloppy sample usage. This is the practice of using statistics incorrectly or not exercising due diligence when using them. For instance, assuming that because 80% of mall-goers objected to a new parking law, the parking law is unpopular with the general public. Those mall-goers can hardly be said to be representative of the public as a whole, and so such statistic use is inappropriate.

Naturally, if you’re making the same sort of logical or statistical errors that the author of the original argument made, you’re hardly in a position to accurately critique it. It’s therefore crucial that you do not fall into the same traps, and that all your critiques and rebuttals are logically sound and solidly made.

Not Correctly Identifying the Premise and Conclusion of the Argument

Some candidates may have trouble identifying the premise and conclusion of an argument in the first place, which is actually quite a common mistake on the GMAT AWA. In such instances, this misunderstanding can be fatal to the entire essay. Consider the following example:

The following appeared as part of a campaign statement for Velazquez, who is seeking election as alderman in the town of Barchester:

“Under Police Commissioner Draco, the city of Spartanburg began jailing people for committing petty crimes such as littering, shoplifting, and spraying graffiti. Criminals in Spartanburg must have understood that lawlessness would no longer be tolerated, because the following year Spartanburg saw a 20% drop in violent crimes such as homicide. Our town should learn from Commissioner Draco’s success, and begin a large-scale crackdown on petty crime.”

Discuss how well reasoned[…]’

In the example given, some candidates focused on the fact that Velazquez was seeking re-election as alderman, and addressed this as if it were the conclusion of the argument. This is, of course, mere context for the argument, and irrelevant to its premise and conclusion, which is that jailing people for petty crime results in a drop in violent crime.

If you’re not able to correctly parse the argument given, then the fact is that you’re not going to get a good score. Your entire essay will be constructed around an irrelevancy, and thus you will fail to address the argument in any meaningful way.

Conclusion

If you’re able to identify the kinds of mistakes you’re likely to make early on, it will make it much easier for you to work on ameliorating (or avoiding entirely) those mistakes in the future. It’s simply a matter of establishing that in the first place – perhaps by hiring a tutor, or submitting your practice answers on GMAT forums for your peers to review. Whatever the nature of your mistakes on the GMAT AWA, bear in mind that they’re almost certainly fixable. With enough practice and self-reflection, you’ll soon be ready to step into that test room and ace the AWA.

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