The GMAT AWA Scoring System: How it Works and How to Interpret Your Results

by Maximilian Claessens
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The GMAT AWA Scoring System - How it Works and How to Interpret Your Results

The AWA section of the GMAT is one that many candidates find extremely intimidating. A huge part of this – particularly for non-native candidates – is the fact that you need to write an essay from scratch that analyzes and critiques a faulty argument that’s provided in the prompt.

Not only does the AWA test your ability to use logic and refute faulty assumptions and arguments, but you’re also expected to demonstrate considerable ability in written English. This, inevitably, leads to much consternation among many students.

An important part of preparing for this section is understanding the GMAT AWA scoring system. How are candidates’ essays scored? What sort of scores are desirable to business and postgrad schools? And how can you interpret your scores once you’ve got them?

Let’s take a look at the GMAT AWA scoring system, and the role it plays in the overall GMAT scoring system.

How is the GMAT AWA Scored?

All GMAT AWA essays are marked at least twice – once by a human examiner, and once by computer.

Human Examiner

The human examiners employed by GMAC are generally college-level (or higher) professors. They have extensive experience in marking essays – not just the AWA, but college-level essays submitted by students from any number of the courses they’re involved in. Needless to say, they’re very experienced and know exactly what they’re looking for when it comes to critical essays such as the type found on the GMAT.

That said, human examiners are – well, human. They have a lot of these essays to mark, and anybody who’s ever sat down to a pile of ungraded essays knows how time-consuming they can be. Consequently, most essay markers are not intensively reading the papers they grade – they’re referring to the rubric and looking at the structure and overall clarity of them.

What does this mean for you? It means that, ultimately, the specific content of your essay doesn’t matter quite as much as you might think. The important thing is that you nail the structure (introduction, body text, body text, conclusion) and that your writing is clear and free of major spelling/grammar errors. If you can do this, then you stand a good chance of getting strong GMAT AWA results.

Machine Examiner

The exact nature of the GMAT’s machine algorithm that’s used for double-marking AWA essays remains a closely-guarded secret. According to GMAC, the machine algorithm used for the GMAT AWA scoring system assesses the “structural and linguistic features” of an essay by evaluating organization, “syntactic variety”, and analysis of the topic at hand.

GMAC ensures the quality of the machine algorithm by routinely selecting essays at random to be audited by a human assessor. The assessor will check the algorithm’s grading and ensure that it meets both GMAT and ACT standards, and “upholds the integrity of the AWA section score”.

The test is marked by both a human examiner and the machine algorithm, in order to ensure fairness and consistency. If there is a discrepancy between the two scores greater than a point, then a second human examiner will be brought in to re-mark the essay. In this way, you can be assured of as fair a score as possible.

What Aspects of Your Essay Are Considered When Scoring it?

Essays are not marked according to the whims of the examiner, and the AWA is no different. A rubric is strictly followed throughout, and this rubric will inform the examiner’s grading by having them focus on several key areas of your essay. Let’s look at those areas.

Writing Style

This refers to your ability to write in an engaging way. Your choice of words and sentence variety are important when it comes to your writing style score.

A big part of your writing style score is your ‘syntactic variety’. Though this phrase sounds quite oblique and mysterious, all it basically means is how much you vary your sentences throughout your essay. “Syntax” is how words and phrases are arranged in a sentence; the more variety you show in your sentences, the better your essay will score.

It’s better to use syntactically complex sentences wherever possible. If you constantly use short, simple sentences, then you’re not going to score as well. Consider:

The company is not doing well. It needs to invest more money in marketing.

As opposed to:

Because the company is not doing well, it needs to invest more money in marketing.

Or better yet:

Due to the fact that the company is not doing well, it would be a good idea for it to invest more money into marketing.

It’s easier not to repeat yourself and demonstrate syntactic variety if you’re using complex sentences rather than simple ones. It’s therefore a good idea to make your sentences more, rather than less, complex.

Finally, the examiner will take into account your ‘diction’. This simply means your choice of vocabulary. As with syntax, mixing up your vocabulary choices and trying not to repeat yourself will serve you well here.

Grammar and Usage

This rubric is used to assess the technical aspects of your writing, and basically boils down to spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If you consistently misuse ‘they’re’, ‘their’ and ‘there’, for instance, then it’s going to affect your grammar and usage score (rather than writing style).

Organization

This rubric is used to assess the overall structure of your essay. It takes into account your ability to organize your thoughts in a clear and coherent way, as well as how effectively you are able to link your ideas and make smooth transitions from paragraph to paragraph (and sentence to sentence).

Transitions can be another concept that throws candidates, but in practice it simply means using appropriate linking phrases. These include phrases like “however”, “for example”, “in addition” etc. By using these appropriately and effectively, you can improve your organization score considerably.

It’s also important to stick to the basic structure of a good AWA essay. Such a structure is as follows:

  • Introduction: establish the flaws in the argument and lay out how you will respond to those flaws.
  • Body paragraph: address a flaw and break it down.
  • Body paragraph: as above.
  • Optional: offer suggestions/improvements for the argument.
  • Conclusion: restate your belief that the argument is flawed. Recapitulate your arguments.

If you’re able to follow this basic structure each and every time, chances are your ‘organization’ score will be high.

Quality of Ideas

If your writing style, grammar/usage, and organization are the bones of your essay, then ‘quality of ideas’ is the meat on those bones.

The quality of your ideas refers to the actual content of your AWA essay. How have you addressed the argument given at the start of your essay? What position have you developed, and how have you supported that position? How persuasive and/or compelling are the points that you have made?

This is the most subjective portion of the AWA rubric, and the part that may see the most variety in scores from marker to marker.

What is the Score Range on the GMAT AWA?

The AWA is assigned a score from 0-6, with scores given in half-point increments. Your AWA score is not part of your main GMAT score (which consists of the Verbal and Quant sections), but is considered separately.

In general terms, the scores on the GMAT can be seen as follows:

  • A score of 6.0 is outstanding.
  • A score of 5.0 is strong.
  • A score of 4.0 is adequate.
  • A score of 3.0 is limited.
  • A score of 2.0 is seriously flawed.
  • A score of 1.0 is fundamentally deficient.
  • A score of 0.0 is essentially unattainable; this means that you wrote absolutely nothing at all during the test.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the different scores and what they mean.

How to Interpret GMAT AWA Scores

0: Unscorable (0th Percentile)

If you get a score of zero, you’re notable in that you’ve achieved something that nobody else ever does! A score here basically means that you have written nothing, or else that what you have written is completely illegible.

0.5-1: Fundamentally Deficient (1st Percentile)

A paper that scores this low betrays a profound misunderstanding of the subject matter and an inability to use analytical writing skills. Furthermore, it:

  • Demonstrates an inability to organize thoughts in a clear and coherent manner;
  • Has severe and persistent errors in spelling, grammar, and/or punctuation;
  • Demonstrates repeated misuse of language and sentence structure.

1.5-2.5: Seriously Flawed (2nd-3rd Percentile)

Such an essay demonstrates severe weaknesses in analytical writing skills. It is characterized in the following ways:

  • Repeated grammar and usage errors that are serious enough to interfere with the comprehension of the essay;
  • Sentence composition and language use is severely flawed;
  • Few supporting arguments are used, if any at all;
  • Ideas are not developed or are disorganized;
  • Does not identify or analyze the main points of the argument, though some analysis is present.

3.0-3.5: Limited (4th-11th Percentile) 

An essay at this level demonstrates some competence in addressing the argument, but is still flawed in several obvious ways. In this type of essay you can expect to see:

  • Limited analysis of the argument, though the most important aspects thereof are missed;
  • Frequent minor grammar and usage errors, or a lesser number of major errors;
  • Support for analyses is offered, though it is limited in scope and not particularly effective;
  • Organization and structure is present, but not well developed;
  • Sentences are repetitive and language is imprecise or unclear.

4.0-4.5: Adequate (17th-42nd Percentile)

An essay at this level offers a competent analysis of the argument, and shows an acceptable level of control over the technical and stylistic aspects of written English. It also:

  • Demonstrates a solid grasp of conventional written English, though minor errors persist;
  • An adequate control over syntactic variety and diction; sentences could, however, be more varied;
  • Supports its critiques with appropriate evidence and/or arguments;
  • Demonstrates a solid understanding of structure and organization, but does not always use transitions effectively;
  • Identifies key features of the argument and assesses them competently.

5.0-5.5: Strong (53rd-79th Percentile)

An essay at this level is well written, with an excellent grasp of the technical and stylistic nuances of good written English. It is a strongly-developed assessment of the argument, and demonstrates the following characteristics:

  • A strong grasp of technical written English, though some minor flaws may be present;
  • Repeated syntactic variation and excellent use of vocabulary;
  • Sensible supporting arguments and points used for all critiques;
  • Essay is well structured, with clearly defined ideas that are connected with appropriate transitions;
  • Main features of the argument are clearly identified and analyzed in a genuinely insightful manner.

6.0: Outstanding (88th Percentile)

An essay good enough to earn a perfect score on the GMAT AWA will demonstrate an excellent grasp of the stylistic and technical aspects of written English. It will also display a coherent and articulate critique of the argument, and display the following characteristics:

  • Shows an excellent command of written English, with strong syntactic variety, excellent word choice, and a complete mastery of the conventions of written English. There may be one or two minor flaws;
  • Main points are well supported with strong evidence/supporting arguments;
  • Ideas are cogently developed and well organized with clear and smooth transitionary language;
  • The key features of the argument are clearly identified and deconstructed in a thorough and intelligent manner.

What’s in a Percentile?

As we can see, below the lower scores on the AWA there are huge jumps in your percentile if you increase your score by even half a point. Consider the difference between a 5.0 (53rd percentile) and a 5.5 (79th percentile). This means that every point (or half-point) makes a massive difference.

How Should I Interpret My GMAT AWA Results?

How you should interpret your AWA results very much depends on which AWA results you’re looking at: your practice results, or your actual post-test results.

Interpreting Your Practice AWA Results

It’s a good idea to assess your practice AWA results so you can figure out what your areas of weakness are, and how you can improve in them.

There are a few ways in which you can assess your own practice results:

Self-Assessment

The most straightforward (if, arguably, the most difficult) way of assessing your practice AWAs is to download a rubric (one is available from Magoosh here) and apply it as best you can to your own essay, taking care to take each section of the rubric (quality of ideas, organization, writing style, grammar & usage) into consideration.

As mentioned, though this is quickly done, it can be a little difficult to assess your own work, and if you have difficulty with this, you might consider one of the other options.

Peer Assessment

Making use of GMAT forums and consulting with other candidates is a great way to get your practice essays checked by people who are in the same situation as you. GMAT Club has a sub-forum dedicated to the AWA, where people can post their practice essays for feedback.

Though this can give you feedback that’s much more useful than your own (and, crucially, from a different perspective), the fact is that you’ll need to wait for that feedback – and, sometimes, you’ll get no feedback at all.

Tutor Feedback

If neither of the two options above are working for you (or neither appeal), then you can always hire a professional GMAT tutor.

On the plus side, this is by the far the best option for getting high-quality, constructive feedback on your practice AWA essays. GMAT tutors deal with hundreds of such essays, and are extremely knowledgeable about the various weaknesses candidates typically exhibit, and how to fix them. What’s more – unlike peer correction – their feedback is both prompt and guaranteed.

On the other hand, personal tutors are not exactly cheap. You may get prompt, high-quality feedback, but you need to pay for that privilege.

Interpreting Your Final GMAT AWA Results

So you’ve taken your GMAT and gotten your final scores. It’s now time to look at your AWA scores and assess whether or not they’re the scores you need for the course you want.

As a rule of thumb, a generally solid score on the AWA is 4.5 or higher. If you want a guarantee of getting into pretty much any school, then you should likely aim for a 5.0. If you’ve got this kind of score, then you’ve got an excellent chance of getting the course that you want.

That said, not all business or postgrad schools have the same standards – certainly not when it comes to the AWA. Some schools (like science or engineering schools) will place a much lower priority on AWA scores. Others won’t take the AWA into account at all.

It’s therefore important that, when assessing your GMAT AWA results, you refer to the school or schools to which you’ve applied. It may well be that you already have the scores that you need – even if it doesn’t immediately feel that way.

Conclusion

The AWA scoring system may seem convoluted and impenetrable, but the fact of the matter is that it’s almost as formulaic as the multiple-choice sections – so much so, that a computer algorithm is able to mark it. This means that if you understand how it’s scored and what the various criteria taken into account are, you stand a much better chance of getting the score that you need. It’s simply a case of sitting down and making sure you properly prepare.

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