The GMAT AWA: Understanding the Format and How to Prepare

by Maximilian Claessens
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The GMAT AWA - Understanding the Format and How to Prepare

The GMAT AWA consists of a single long-form essay, and is an assessment of your ability to analyze and critique a flawed argument. It can be quite an intimidating section for many GMAT candidates, particularly those who are non-native speakers. After several sections of relatively straightforward multiple-choice questions, being asked to write a free-form essay can be extremely daunting.

If you understand the format of the GMAT AWA, however, you stand a much better chance of acing it – native speaker or not. In fact, there have been cases of non-native candidates getting 6.0 on the AWA multiple times, simply because they prepped properly and because they knew the GMAT AWA format inside out.

During the course of this article, we’ll talk you through the GMAT AWA. What is it? How is it structured? And how can you prepare for it?

What is the AWA?

AWA stands for “Analytical Writing Assessment”. The candidate is given a flawed argument, and 30 minutes in which to craft a long-form response to that argument.

The AWA is notable in several ways. Firstly, it’s not multiple choice like all other sections of the GMAT. Because it’s long-form, it’s scored in a different way to the other sections (which are easier to grade; in Quant and Verbal, you’re either right or you’re wrong). It’s actually double-marked – once by a human examiner, and once by computer. If there’s a disparity between those two scores greater than 1.0, a second human assessor is asked to re-mark it.

Secondly, your AWA score is not factored into your overall GMAT score, but is instead a discrete standalone score. It’s scored from 0-6, and is scored in half-point increments (e.g. 0.5, 1, 1.5, etc.). 

Are AWA Scores Important?

AWA scores are often considered to be of secondary importance in comparison to the main GMAT score. And while this is often the case, the AWA should not be completely disregarded. Many business schools do indeed have cutoffs for the AWA as well as the main score – often around 4.0-4.5. It’s therefore a good idea to make sure that you adequately prepare for the AWA, and that you aim for 4.5 or higher to be safe.

How is the AWA Scored?

The AWA rubric takes into account three general areas:

Linguistic Ability

The criterion that is perhaps the most unnerving for non-native speakers, this measures your knowledge of technical written English. It includes such minutiae as spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Examiners are cognizant of the fact that not everybody is a native speaker, and so there is a little leeway. However, it generally pays to be aware of these factors, and to try to ensure that your writing is as accurate as possible.

Presentation and Organization

This criterion assesses your ability to present your arguments in a clear and coherent manner, effectively use transitions, and your introduction, main body and conclusion can be readily identified. The clearer and better laid-out your essay, the higher your score will be here.

Logical Analysis

The assessor will examine the quality of your arguments when considering this portion of the rubric. They will also assess how relevant your supporting arguments and examples are to the wider point you’re trying to make.

What Kind of Arguments Appear on the GMAT AWA?

As previously mentioned, you’re tasked with analyzing and critiquing a “flawed argument” on the AWA. But not all arguments are flawed in the same way, and a big part of critiquing an argument is understanding how, exactly, it’s flawed.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways in which those flaws present themselves.

Unclear Language

This refers to the use of ambiguous or vague wording such as “many”, “more”, “some,” “less” etc. to make a point without reference to substantiating evidence. For example, the assertion “many people prefer hamburgers to hot dogs” is ultimately meaningless without further information. What percentage of people? What is the source of this assertion? What proof is there that this is true?

Sloppy Sample Usage 

This refers to the use of statistics to reach faulty conclusions. It can include such issues as using overly small sample sizes to reach broad conclusions, or using statistics in an inappropriate or misleading manner.

An example of this would be claiming that 70% of a movie’s Google reviews are negative, and therefore the movie was poorly received overall. This does not take into account viewers who didn’t write reviews, and other contextualizing factors e.g. whether or not there was a group of people incentivized to negatively review the movie who skewed the resultant reviews on Google.

Inaccurate or Inappropriate Comparisons

This fallacy involves the comparison of two things with the assumption that they are sufficiently similar for the comparison to be accurate, when this is not necessarily the case. An example would be claiming the following: “cars kill more people than guns, but nobody suggests banning cars!”

The comparison fails to take into account the myriad differences between a gun and a car, both practical (a car’s primary purpose is not to cause injury) and legal (people must take a test to be licensed to operate a car).

Correlation and Causation

 This is a very common logical fallacy, and involves making the assumption that A causes B, rather than accounting for the fact that although A may be related to B, that doesn’t mean it causes it.

An example would be claiming that because people who eat ice cream often get sunburned, then ice cream causes sunburn. While there is a positive correlation between people who eat ice cream and people who get sunburned, this argument misreads the relationship between the two and doesn’t account for the true reason that the two are related – both of these things happen more frequently because it’s sunny.

What are you Required to do in AWA Essays?

You now have an idea of the kind of faulty reasoning typically presented in AWA arguments, but how do you address that faulty reasoning? What is actually required of you when crafting your response to said arguments?

After presenting the argument, an AWA essay will typically ask you to do some or all of the following:

  • Discuss to what extent you find the argument well-reasoned;
  • Assess the argument’s line of reasoning, as well as how well the argument is supported with evidence;
  • Identify and critique faulty assumptions;
  • Offer counterexamples or alternate explanations that weaken, undermine or rebut the original argument;
  • Explore how the original argument might have been made stronger, either by offering logical support or providing evidence that helps better contextualize it.

Preparing for the AWA

The AWA can, as mentioned, seem extremely daunting. There’s no simple “right” or “wrong” answer, and because it’s completely up to you to craft your response, it seems that there’s a lot that can go wrong.

The truth is that the AWA may seem extremely free-form, but your answer is actually tightly controlled by the argument presented, the parameters set after the argument, and the typical structure of an essay. These restrictions will help you to establish a strategy – and inform the nature of your preparation.

Here’s how to best go about your GMAT AWA preparation.

10 Tips to Prepare for the GMAT AWA and Nail it
10 Tips to Prepare for the GMAT AWA and Nail it

Ensure you Fully Understand the Directions  

It’s impossible to start working on your essay if you don’t fully comprehend what is expected of you. That’s why it’s imperative that you carefully read over the paragraph that follows the stated argument, and ensure that you know what you need to do in order to construct your response essay in the manner required.

It’s a good idea to identify any of the phrases mentioned in the “what are you required to do…” section above, as these will assist you in figuring out how to answer the question.

What does this mean when you’re preparing for the AWA? It means that you should check out plenty of practice questions and use the directions when crafting your response. You can then compare your response to top answers submitted by other, successful candidates, or submit your response for peer evaluation on GMAT forums.

Work On Recognizing Assumptions

A key skill in answering AWA questions well is figuring out the assumptions inherent to the faulty arguments you’re being asked to critique. The assumption is the gap between the premise of an argument (the starting point) and the conclusion.

Consider the argument: “Company A is spending twice as much on advertising as competitors, and will therefore see an increase in customers in coming months”. The assumption here is that advertising expenditure directly leads to an increase in customers, which is not necessarily true and can be weakened by your critiques or evidence to the contrary.

If you can nail identifying the assumption, you’re halfway towards deconstructing it – and acing your AWA essay.

Memorize the Different Types of Flaws

The flaws we covered earlier are the most common types that you’ll see cropping up on the AWA. It’s therefore a good idea to thoroughly familiarize yourself with all of them; that way, you’ll be able to quickly identify them on test day, and get to writing your rebuttal more quickly.

Establish a Basic Essay Template and Practice Using it

A handy tip for your GMAT AWA preparation is to drill essay-writing into your head (and hand) so thoroughly that it becomes second nature for you to produce them. If you have a solid scaffold for essay-writing firmly entrenched in your head, you don’t need to waste time in your test trying to figure out the best way to structure one.

A typical – and effective – essay structure might look something like this:

Paragraph #1 (Introduction)

Restate the argument in your own words. Point out the ways in which the argument is flawed – does it paint a misleading picture of the situation? Does it incorrectly use terminology or rely upon leaps of logic to reach its conclusion? Does it rely upon unsubstantiated assumptions?

After identifying the flaws in the argument, state the order in which you plan to examine them.

Paragraphs #2-3 (Body Text)

Restate the first flaw that you felt undermined the argument. Expound upon the flaw and point out why, specifically, this flaw weakens the argument. If possible, offer a way in which this flaw might be ameliorated or avoided.

Paragraph #4 (Improvements) 

If you have the time, suggest a few improvements that would make the argument a stronger one. Explain that in the absence of such improvements, the argument’s flaws are fatal. 

Paragraph #5 (Conclusion)

Conclude by restating the flaws you found and why they weaken the argument irreparably. If appropriate, restate factors that might have strengthened the argument, and explain that in their absence the argument is an unconvincing one.

Get into the habit of structuring your essays in this way, and you’ll soon find that you unconsciously reproduce this format every time you write a practice essay.

Check out our full guide on how to structure your essay to get a 6.0 score!

Practice Sketching Essay Outlines

Once you have your structure in place, you should work on briefly sketching out an outline of your essay before you begin. Using scratch paper (which you’ll have in the actual test), take a minute or two to write out your introduction, body text, improvements and conclusion. Under each one, bullet-point the gist of what you intend to write out.

With the outline written out in brief, you’ll be able to write out your actual essay that much faster.

Take Actual Practice Tests and Stick to the Time Limit

Practice makes perfect, and one of the ways to shake off test-day nerves and nail the AWA is to make it feel like just another day at the office. How can you do that? By replicating test-day conditions and practicing operating within them as often as possible.

There is plenty of practice questions available online that are representative of the kinds of questions you’ll find on the test itself. By practicing these questions, you can give yourself the best possible shot at turning out a 6.0-worthy essay when you finally walk into that test room.

Get Feedback

One of the tricky things about the AWA is that there is no answer key online, so you can’t just do a practice test and get immediate feedback by marking it yourself. Sure, you can try to apply the rubric yourself after the fact, but are you going to be able to do so in an objective and accurate manner? There’s a reason the real thing is marked by both computer and a human examiner (possibly two!). How, then, are you supposed to get feedback?

An excellent way to do this is to submit your practice essays on GMAT forums such as this one. By sharing your answers with both people are have already passed their GMAT and your peers, you’ll be able to get feedback on your essays that you simply wouldn’t be able to give yourself. It can help you to identify weaknesses in your own essay-writing approach and be of use in tightening up your responses.

Develop Your Writing Style

When it comes to writing clearly and accurately, something that can help a lot is avoiding repetition and mixing things up as often as you can. Use synonyms instead of repeating the same words over and over (for instance, instead of repeating ‘strong’, use words like ‘persuasive’, ‘powerful’ or ‘potent’), and try to mix up sentence structures as often as possible.

If you can hit upon a fresh and engaging writing style, you’ll make the assessor more engaged by what you’re saying – and, in turn, ensure that you bump up your scores in that ‘linguistic ability’ portion of the rubric.

Don’t Make Common AWA Errors

Some AWA candidates end up making the same mistakes made by the very arguments they’re critiquing. Faulty or weak assumptions, vague language, improperly made comparisons, causation vs. correlation fallacies, and overly confident conclusions that are not supported by evidence are just a few of the pitfalls into which some candidates can fall.

Make sure you are not one of them by properly supporting any arguments you make and avoiding logical fallacies. It’s also important not to overstate any conclusions you reach; a conclusion is only as strong as the evidence supporting it.

Proofread When You’ve Finished

Try to make sure that you have a few minutes left over at the end to go over your essay and check for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. It doesn’t matter how good your written English is; we all make mistakes, and we’re more likely to make mistakes when we’re writing quickly and under pressure. A couple of minutes spent reading over your responses can make a huge difference in your overall score, so be sure to incorporate it into your routine!

Conclusion

When preparing for the AWA, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and make this section of the GMAT feel like an obstacle that’s simply insurmountable for you. While this is understandable, it’s avoidable if you follow the advice outlined in this article, and prepare yourself for the AWA by developing good habits and getting plenty of practice in.

If you can do this, then you’ll quickly find that the AWA is just one more section to the GMAT – and, like any other section, sufficient preparation removes a lot of the scariness from the equation.

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