How to Structure your GMAT AWA Essay for Maximum Impact

by Maximilian Claessens
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How to Structure your GMAT AWA Essay for Maximum Impact

The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) section of the GMAT is one that many students find the most intimidating. The fact that it asks candidates to write a free-form essay – in contrast to the multiple-choice natures of the Quant and Verbal sections – can seem overwhelming, particularly to the many non-native-speaking candidates of the GMAT.

But the fact is that the AWA is, deceptively, almost as structured as its multiple-choice counterparts. Sure – you can theoretically write anything on that paper. But the fact is that, due to the constraints of long-form-essay structures, and the general format followed by AWA questions and answers, your answer will generally follow a very specific structure.

Mastering that structure will give you a strong chance of getting the score that you want on the AWA. This means that with the right preparation, the right GMAT essay length and the right kind of formatting, you can tackle pretty much any question you’re likely to face.

What is the GMAT AWA?

The Analytical Writing Assessment (often simply called the “GMAT essay”) comprises one single question. You’ll be presented with a single argument and a supporting paragraph that will detail how you should approach analyzing and critiquing that argument. You’ll then have 30 minutes in which to craft your response.

The AWA can either be the first or last section of the overall test, depending on your particular preference. If you find that you’re a confident and strong essay writer, it may be best to tackle the AWA first thing, so you can get it out of the way and go into the multiple-choice sections on a high. Conversely, if you find essay writing difficult or you have trouble organizing your thoughts, it may be a good idea to do the AWA last, after you’ve got the Verbal and Quant sections out of the way and you’ve built your confidence up a little more.

You have 30 minutes to complete the AWA. This includes reading the argument and supporting text, and any time you take to prepare your answer. There is no official word count, but the nature of the 30-minute time limit will inevitably limit how much you write.

The GMAT AWA Prompt  

The AWA always features a prompt, which is an argument of some kind related to marketing, education, social issues, politics, the environment, economics, and other areas of general social interest. You’re not required to have specialist knowledge of esoteric fields of study, but you are expected to have reasonably strong general knowledge.

The prompt is always flawed in some way, and it will be your task to identify and analyze these flaws. We’ll get into the exact nature of these flaws a little later.

Following the prompt itself are the directions you’ll need to follow. These directions are always the same, and can be found in the verbatim below:

“Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion.

You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.”

The fact that these directions are always the same is a massive boost when it comes to preparing for the AWA and thinking about how to structure your response. It means that the underlying structure of your essay will always be the same: analyze the argument, identify any flaws in its reasoning, and expose them. You may also offer examples that counter the argument, and make suggestions as to how the argument might be made stronger.

What You Need to Know About the GMAT AWA Prompt
What You Need to Know About the GMAT AWA Prompt

How is the GMAT AWA Section Scored?

The AWA is scored from 0-6, in half-point increments. Thus you may get a score of 2.0 or 2.5, but never 2.6, 2.7 etc.

The test is marked both by a human examiner and a computer. The human examiner is usually a university professor with extensive experience of marking essays. The computer, on the other hand, uses a sophisticated algorithm to analyze and mark any given essay. This algorithm enables the machine assessor to recognize and assess typical features of any given essay (such as having introductory, body and conclusion paragraphs) and assesses the suitability of your choice of grammar and vocabulary, as well as your syntax, sentence structure and use of keywords.

If there is more than a point of discrepancy between the human and machine examiner, a second human examiner will be brought in to re-mark the essay. In this way, the scoring is as rigorous and fair as possible.

What is a Good Score on the GMAT?

The GMAC defines their scores as follows:

  • 6: outstanding
  • 5: strong
  • 4: adequate
  • 3: limited
  • 2: seriously flawed
  • 1: fundamentally deficient

Thus, a 4.5 or higher is generally considered to be a ‘good’ score on the test.

How do you get an Outstanding Score on the GMAT AWA?

If you’re shooting for a perfect 6.0, it’s a good idea to look at how the AWA rubric defines such a score.

The GMAC describes a 6.0-scoring essay as being “cogent” and “well-articulated”. It will display a mastery of the various elements of strong writing, and will take steps to do the following:

  • Clearly identify the key features of the argument, and write about these features with insight and intelligence.
  • Present ideas and critiques clearly and in a logically organized manner. These should be seamlessly connected with fluid and clear transitions.
  • Demonstrate a near-flawless command of the English language, with excellent use of syntax, grammar and punctuation. There may be a few minor flaws.
  • Effectively supports their ideas and critiques with corroborating evidence.

All told, then, a good essay will feature strong analysis, well-developed ideas that are backed up with strong supporting evidence, and a masterful command of written English. Check out our article on how you can prepare to get a full 6.0 score for the AWA section of the GMAT.

Establishing an AWA Template

As previously mentioned, the structure of your GMAT AWA essay will always take the same basic format. It’s therefore a good idea to establish an essay template and stick to that template throughout all of your practice runs at the AWA. That way, by the time you step into that test room, writing your response should almost be a case of muscle memory.

While your AWA template can’t help out with effective use of grammar and vocabulary, it can really streamline the process of crafting your essay. A good template will feature the following:

  • A paragraph-by-paragraph structural outline of your essay;
  • What the general content of each paragraph will be;
  • Pre-written sentence stems that can be plugged in as and when needed.

Your essay doesn’t need to be particularly creative or innovative; remember that there is a standardized rubric followed by both the human and machine examiners, so they’re not particularly interested in being wowed by fresh new approaches. In fact, most of the top-scoring essays are very formulaic in their approach, having very similar structures and arguments throughout. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel with yours.

A good template, used effectively, takes a lot of the mental busywork out of writing your AWA essay, allowing you more time to think about the actual content of your response, rather than its structure.

Examples of AWA Essay Templates  

There are a number of approaches you can take when deciding upon the best AWA essay structure for you. Whatever approach you choose, be sure to get plenty of practice by answering lots of sample AWA questions

The “Flaw-by-Flaw” Template

This template identifies a number of flaws in the argument, then dedicates a paragraph to fully breaking down each of those flaws. Suggestions for improving each argument are found within each of those body paragraphs, rather than summarized elsewhere.

The basic structure is as follows:

Introduction (2-3 Sentences)

  • Restate the argument (e.g. “the argument claims that…”)
  • State the ways in which you find the argument flawed, in the order in which you’ll discuss them
  • Optional: acknowledge parts of the argument that work in spite of the flaws

Body Paragraphs (2-3 Paragraphs, Each of 4-5 Sentences)

  • Restate one of the flaws you introduced in your first paragraph
  • Explain the nature of the flaw (e.g. insufficient evidence, correlation does not equal causation, etc.)
  • Optional: offer counterexamples that work to undermine the argument
  • Suggest improvements that may work to strengthen the argument

Conclusion Paragraph (3-4 Sentences)

  • Restate the fact that the argument is flawed (“all in all, we can see from the flaws in this argument that…”)
  • Optional: restate any merit the argument has despite its flaws
  • Restate your line(s) of reasoning, ensuring not to use the same wording.

Pros and Cons of the “Flaw-by-Flaw” Template

This template is great for providing a detailed breakdown of the argument in a clear, controlled and well-organized manner. However, it can be easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of each paragraph to the detriment of the overall essay – particularly due to the fact that you’ll be offering suggestions for improvements as you go, rather than summarizing them elsewhere.

It’s therefore a tricky template if you’re already struggling with the strictures of the 30-minute time limit, and requires a considerable amount of practice to use properly and efficiently.

The “Summarized Improvements” Template

With this template, you’ll summarize any improvements that can be made to the argument in a separate paragraph, rather than addressing them on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis.

This essay template takes the following format:

Introductory Paragraph (2-3 Sentences)

  • Summarize the argument
  • Enumerate the ways in which the argument is flawed, in the order in which you’ll discuss the flaws
  • Optional: acknowledge parts of the argument that work despite its flaws

Body Paragraphs (2-3 Paragraphs of 4-5 Sentences)

  • Introduce one of the flaws
  • Identify the nature of the flaw (e.g. which specific logical fallacy it’s an example of)
  • Optional: offer counterexamples that weaken the argument

Concluding Paragraph (5+ Sentences)

  • Recapitulate the argument and the flaws thereof
  • Restate your analysis of the flaws
  • Summarize the ways in which the argument could be improved or strengthened
  • Optional: restate that the argument may not be completely without merit

If you cannot find three or more flaws in the argument, you can instead dedicate the third paragraph to potential improvements, moving them up from your concluding paragraph and leaving that dedicated to recapitulating the argument and your critiques thereof.

Pros and Cons of the “Summarized Improvements” Template 

This template is much better for giving your essay a laser focus that the “flaw-by-flaw” template can lose if you’re someone who gets bogged down in the details. It ensures that you have a clear and focused essay finished by the time your thirty minutes are up.

On the other hand, it may lack the specificity and detail of the other essay template. If you’re an accomplished and speedy essay writer with an eye for detail, it may be best to eschew this template in favor of the “flaw-by-flaw” one. 

Creating your own GMAT AWA Essay Template

The abovementioned essay templates are suggestions only, and you may indeed find that they don’t work for you or your needs. If this is the case, then you should take a stab at crafting your own template.

This can be a little difficult if you don’t have much experience with the format of the AWA, however, and so it’s probably best to practice with the given templates to start with. You can then grade your practice tests (whether self-grading or using other methods) and see what’s working for you and what isn’t.

Once you’ve finished and have graded your essay, analyze the essay on both a macro and micro level. What worked about the essay as a whole? What didn’t, and why? Was your conclusion weak because you spent too much time on each individual paragraph? Did you forget to include suggestions for improvements because you ran out of time?

Once you have an idea of the areas you need to work on, you can work on a template that works for you. Perhaps you’d do better to offer counterexamples and improvements in each paragraph as you go. Perhaps these details are distracting and you’re getting bogged down trying to think of clever ways to end each paragraph; in this case, it might help to have a few more canned sentence stems so you don’t waste too much time on this.

Whatever the case, once you’ve established a template, stick with it for a few practice tests, then reassess the situation. If you find that something still isn’t working, you can alter your template as you see fit. Keep going until you’ve found an approach that works for you and your essay-writing habits.

Altering Your Template on the Fly

While having a template is a massive help in giving you a general outline of how your essay is going to be structured, in rare instances you’ll find that your predetermined template simply doesn’t work.

For instance, some arguments that crop up on the AWA are so weak that they don’t really have flaws as such to examine. They may, for instance, be all conclusion with no assumptions to analyze at all. In this case, rather than analyzing weaknesses in the argument, you may instead need to base the entire essay on what information you might need before you could even begin to assess the effectiveness of the argument.

This could be done by simply expanding your “improvement” paragraph into 3-4 paragraphs, with each paragraph introducing an improvement that could be made to the argument, and why that improvement would help the argument better make its point.

The general point here is that your template should be robust and flexible enough to survive a structural change or two and still work; if it’s too rigid and you’ve geared it towards one particular approach to the exclusion of all others, you could run into trouble on test day.

Using Canned Sentence Stems

Pre-written sentence stems are of use in any essay, and can be massively useful when it comes to the GMAT AWA essay structure. There are a number of phrases that are readily associated with formal essay writing, and they remove the headache of trying to come up with new and inventive ways to introduce, expound upon, and conclude your ideas.

For a great list of useful sentence stems, check out our guide on what to do to get 6.0.

Conclusion

Knowing how to structure your GMAT AWA essay can’t get a 6.0 for you, but it does put you on the right path. It can speed up your response time, increase your GMAT essay length (as you’ll spend less time worrying about the structure) and help to present your ideas in a coherent and clear manner.

Even if you’re a non-native speaker, sticking to a template and using pre-written discourse markers ensure that you are equipped with all the tools necessary to acing the AWA. It’s just a case of making effective use of them. 

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