For many candidates, the AWA section of the GMAT is easily the most intimidating part of the test. It requires the candidate to write an essay from scratch, and thus requires not only a solid grasp of formal written English, but also the capacity to analyze and critique an argument in a comprehensive and thorough fashion – and all in 30 minutes.
It’s no surprise, then, that many candidates are eager to spend as much time as possible prepping for the AWA, with as much practice as possible. But how do you practice for an essay section? How can you self-assess your practice essays in a manner that gives you any meaningful feedback (and, indeed, is this even possible)? And how can you use the lessons learned from your GMAT essay practice to ensure a strong score on the actual test?
Let’s take a look at the best practices you should employ in your GMAT AWA practice – and how to get the most out of it.
What is a Good GMAT AWA Score?
When you’re prepping for the AWA, it’s a good idea to have a goal in mind. Your specific school or course might be able to give you more information regarding the exact score you’ll need, but generally speaking a score of 4.5 or higher is what you should be shooting for.
In order to get this kind of score, it’s worth considering the various areas covered by the AWA rubric, and what sort of performance the examiners are looking for in each area.
Quality of Ideas
This refers to your ability to develop a reasoned and well-thought-out response to the argument. A good score will fully develop a response and support it with examples, counter-examples and appropriate evidence. An excellent response (e.g. a 6.0-scoring essay) will demonstrate insightfulness, and its arguments and examples will be compelling and persuasive.
Organization is all about how your essay is structured. At a bare minimum, your essay should have a clearly delineated introduction, body text and conclusion. A high-scoring essay will demonstrate a logical progression, not only from paragraph to paragraph but from sentence to sentence, and will clearly link ideas to supporting points throughout.
This refers to your sentence construction and vocabulary choice. A good essay will switch up word choice and sentence structures; an excellent one will demonstrate a wide variety of sentence structures, a superior control over one’s choice of words, and will have a distinct style throughout.
Grammar and Usage
Distinct from writing style, this describes your ability in the more technical side of written English. Competent control of written English, including spelling and grammar, is expected. To really wow examiners, you should have “impeccable” usage of spelling, grammar and punctuation. One or two errors will not reduce your score, provided they are minor and not repeated.
When these four factors are considered holistically, you should be aiming for a well-structured, clear, insightful, technically accomplished piece of writing in order to get the score that you want. A high score will not only be crystal-clear and readable, but will demonstrate a sound understanding of the presented argument and an ability to incisively and thoroughly critique it.
How to Get the Most out of your GMAT AWA Practice
Sound like a tall order? That’s why practice is so crucial to getting ready for the AWA. But how can you effectively practice writing AWA essays without feedback? If you’re a poor essay writer, after all, then you’re hardly in a position to critique your own writing. How can you improve without somebody helping you along the way?
First of all, nobody is saying that you have to do it alone. Secondly, it is possible to improve your essay writing even with minimal (or no) input from other people. This is why rubrics exist, after all – to standardize an inherently freeform practice.
The fact is that there are a variety of things you can do to prep for the day you walk into that test room. By identifying these and diligently engaging with them, you can vastly increase your chances of doing well on the test.
Identify your Weaknesses
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even the most accomplished essayist is unlikely to have turned out a masterpiece on their first attempt. Almost everybody has aspects of essay-writing that they struggle with, whether that’s structure, ideas, spelling, or something else.
The first step toward fixing those weaknesses is figuring out what, exactly, they are. If you can remember back to your school days, try to think about the kind of comments your English teachers used to leave on papers. Did they repeatedly berate you for littering your essays with apostrophes? Did you frequently fail to use transitional markers from sentence to sentence, or paragraph to paragraph? If you have old essays from those days (unlikely, we know) then dig them out and take a look. Where did you frequently fall short?
If this is not possible (or you simply can’t remember), then the best thing to do is to write a practice essay for the GMAT, and have it marked. This can be done either by peer-marking on a GMAT forum, or with the assistance of a paid tutor.
You can identify persistent spelling, grammar and usage errors yourself, with an app like Grammarly or Hemingway. The former offers a perfectly functional free version that will do for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Hemingway costs $20 per month, but is more helpful than the free version of Grammarly when it comes to tightening up meandering sentences or offering advice on readability.
Once you’ve got an idea of your weaknesses – whatever they might be – then you can begin to work on improving them.
Also check out our guide on common GMAT AWA mistakes to make sure you avoid them.
Get Used to Academic Discourse Markers
If you did a lot of essay writing in high school or college, chances are you’re familiar with discourse markers – even if you’ve never heard the term.
Discourse markers are phrases that are used to link, refute, or transition between sentences and paragraphs. Examples include “for example” (to support), “furthermore” (to provide additional support), “however” (to contrast) and “consequently” (to conclude).
Even if you’re a native speaker, it’s well worth hunting down a list of academic discourse markers to use in your own writing. They are often described as the ‘glue’ that binds sentences and paragraphs together, and they aid immeasurably in making your essays readable.
Moreover, academic discourse markers can be a boon to your writing style, if you’re careful to use a variety of them and keep things fresh. Good use of these handy linking words and phrases, then, can strengthen your essay from both a stylistic and technical perspective.
Focus on Essay Structure
If you’re inexperienced with writing essays, then they can seem like enigmatic, inscrutable walls of text that you couldn’t even begin to fathom. It could be that you have absolutely no idea why one paragraph ends and another begins, or how to start off a good essay, or what you should do to tie everything up and give it a neat conclusion.
And taken as a whole, it’s easy to see why essays look so intimidating. But much like a house is really just hundreds of bricks, an essay is the sum of its parts – it’s figuring out those parts, and how they fit together, that’s the trick.
With that in mind, it’s crucial that you understand how essays work on a fundamental level. This will go a long way towards demystifying essays, and so making them far more accessible even to those who are unaccomplished writers.
The basic structure for almost any essay tends to follow the same pattern. This is no different for the GMAT AWA, but we can afford to be a little more specific about that. Let’s detail the structure that pretty much all 6.0-worthy essays follow.
In your introduction, you will restate the argument given and address whatever flaws it has. You will then state your intention to rebut these flaws, in the order that they’ll appear in your body paragraphs.
In each body paragraph, you’ll address a flaw of the argument and break it down. You’ll also offer evidence that supports your critique and, where applicable, suggest improvements that would fix or ameliorate the flaw.
Restate the argument and why it’s unconvincing. Recapitulate the arguments you made. If applicable, suggest improvements that would strengthen the argument.
And that’s it: three basic steps to writing any GMAT practice essay. If you can get these steps down and adhere to them, essay-writing gets much less scary.
Plan your Essay Structure before you Start
Once you’ve got your head around how an essay is structured, it’s a good idea to plan out the structure of each individual essay before you make a start on it. If you simply put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) without thinking it through, you stand a good chance of finding that you’re lost halfway through, and needing to backtrack. This is fatal in a timed essay.
You’ll have scratch paper on test day, so get yourself some scrap paper when you’re doing your practice tests, and sketch out a basic outline of how you’re going to structure your essay. What are you going to write in your introduction? What flaw will you address in each paragraph? How are you going to conclude things?
Write in shorthand (save the sentences for the essay proper) and keep it brief – no more than five minutes. Once you have your basic structure sketched out, you’ll be able to start your essay with a clear vision in your mind – which will take a lot of the stress and uncertainty out of the equation.
Time your Practice Essays
It’s all very well doing GMAT essay practice, but it’s going to be of very limited use if you don’t try to reproduce the conditions of the test room as faithfully as possible. That means that you need to adhere to the 30-minute time limit that you’ll have on the day.
Thirty minutes really doesn’t seem like a very long time to write a full essay, but as we demonstrated above, the basic structure of a full essay isn’t all that complicated. Though you should try to write as much as possible, you really only need to be aiming for around 500 words. That may seem a lot to start with, but with enough practice you’ll find that it’s an eminently achievable target for 30 minutes – even with preparation.
Which is why that preparation is so important. The more essays you write within that time limit, the less stressed you’ll be come test day – and the better structured and written your response will be. After all, you’ll already have done the exact same thing dozens of times.
Try to allocate 2-3 minutes at the end of your essay time limit to read back over your work. Even the best writers make simple spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes, especially under the pressure of a time limit, and chances are that a typo or two have snuck through the net.
Make sure that you have a mental checklist compiled of your common mistakes, and ensure to check especially thoroughly for them. Do you consistently misspell “pronunciation”? Are you a repeat offender when it comes to “they’re”/”their”/”there” confusion? Whatever your personal writing bugbear, you need to develop an awareness of it, and you need to ensure that checking for that particular mistake becomes second nature.
Compare your Practice Essays
Once you have a few essays under your belt, it’s generally a good idea to compare them to one another. What mistakes did you make in your very first essay? Did those mistakes continue, or were you able to eliminate or ameliorate them? Have new mistakes cropped up in their stead?
This may sound like an intimidating bit of self-reflection, but remember that you’ll have already identified your weaknesses at this point, so you should have a clear idea of what you’re looking for. In addition, this isn’t something that you need to do alone.
The best (but most expensive) way of measuring your progress is a paid tutor. You can, as previously mentioned, submit your practice essays on forums and ask for feedback that way. This is free, but you’ll sometimes get feedback very slowly – and, in some cases, you won’t get any feedback at all.
As before, writing apps like Grammarly and Hemingway can help measure your progress from a technical and stylistic standpoint. They won’t be of much use if your problems are with analysis or idea quality, but for everything else they can be invaluable.
Get Involved in the GMAT Community
One of the hardest things about studying for a test – particularly the AWA section, where you’re doing a long of long-form writing – is that it’s easy to become discouraged and burned out, particularly if you’re doing everything alone.
Forums are a great help in this regard, and can really help you in a number of ways. Firstly, you’ll soon realize that you’re not alone, and that a great many other people are going through the exact same thing as you. This can really help build a sense of solidarity and a network of mutual support.
But of particular help is the fact that it’s a great way to both get and provide feedback on GMAT practice essays. Self-assessment can be very difficult for many people, and it’s ultimately much better to receive outside appraisal of our work, rather than relying solely upon our own judgment. Submitting your essays for the consideration of your peers can be a huge help, not only in identifying our flaws and weaknesses, but also in getting some much-needed praise when we’ve turned out a genuinely good essay.
It doesn’t always have to be about your own essays, either. You can offer advice on other people’s essays, ask them questions about why they included particular arguments, paragraphs or phrases, or why they chose to structure their essay the way they did. You can also simply observe and see what feedback other people give on those essays. It’s all helpful in crafting your own practice essays, at the end of the day.
As mentioned, the AWA can appear to be an extremely difficult and nigh-insurmountable aspect of the GMAT, and the very mention of it can be enough to send most candidates running for the hills. The truth is, however, that it’s almost as standardized as any other section of the GMAT – it’s just not as obviously standardized.
Once you have identified those standards, however, then preparing for it becomes much easier – and assessing your own practice essays becomes that much easier. Beyond that, your peers, paid tutors and even sophisticated writing apps are all on hand to help you get the best possible score that you can. Don’t be put off by the AWA – start prepping for it today.