The GMAT’s AWA section is usually top of the list for most candidates when it comes to their least favorite. It’s an ostensibly freeform essay that tasks you with analyzing and critiquing an argument. This requires excellent written English, a robust vocabulary, sharp analytical skills, and the ability to structure all of that into a clear, organized package.
Naturally, then, it’s an object of dread for almost all candidates – but particularly those who are not native speakers. But the fact is that it doesn’t have to be that way, and if you take the time to understand how the AWA works, it becomes much less intimidating.
It also helps to have a few tips and tricks for the GMAT AWA up your sleeve for test day – the sort of tips and tricks that we’re about to outline. As long as you’re able to make optimal use of these (and learn how to properly structure your essays), then you stand an excellent chance of acing the GMAT AWA essay.
Here are our top 10 GMAT AWA essay writing tips.
1. Analyze the Argument you’re Presented with
Let’s start off with a tip that might seem completely obvious, but is all too often overlooked: analyze the argument that’s in front of you. Candidates will quite often go off on tangents or, worse, focus on the wrong part of the introductory text and end up analyzing something irrelevant. It’s easier done than it sounds!
Each GMAT AWA essay begins with an argument of some description, as well as some supporting text. Here is an example:
The following appeared in a magazine article on trends and lifestyles.
“In general, people are not as concerned as they were a decade ago about regulating their intake of red meat and fatty cheeses. Walk into the Heart’s Delight, a store that started selling organic fruits and vegetables and whole-grain flours in the 1960’s, and you will also find a wide selection of cheeses made with high butterfat content. Next door, the owners of the Good Earth Café, an old vegetarian restaurant, are still making a modest living, but the owners of the new House of Beef across the street are millionaires.”
The introductory text (regarding where the passage appeared) is not relevant to the argument, and no analysis of the argument should reference this introductory text. It is simply there to provide context for the actual argument, which is in the paragraph below.
2. Identify the Conclusions, Evidence and Assumptions of the Argument
Each argument makes a conclusion (in the example given above, that people are not as concerned now as they were ten years ago about red meat and fatty cheese intake) and provides evidence for that conclusion (the selection of cheeses available in the Heart’s Delight store, the meager income of the vegetarian restaurant, and the wealth of the House of Beef owners).
Every AWA argument is faulty in some way, and this one is no exception. The gap between the conclusion and the evidence provided is the assumption. In AWA essays, the conclusion always relies on assumptions that are not supported by the evidence provided. Your job is to identify these assumptions and critique them.
What, then, are the assumptions made in the given example? Let’s break them down.
Firstly, the author assumes that because Heart’s Delight has a wide selection of high-fat cheeses, people in general must be less concerned with regulating their intake thereof. The assumption, then, is that a wide selection of cheeses in this one shop means that they are being widely purchased and consumed by the general public.
The second piece of evidence given is that the ‘Good Earth Café’ is only making a modest living, but the owners of the new House of Beef across the street are millionaires. The assumption here is that because a vegetarian café is doing poorly and a beef store/restaurant has been purchased by millionaires, the general public is widely consuming beef.
After identifying the assumptions underpinning an argument, you’re in a position to write your essay. And the structure of your essay – as we shall see – is very rigid and formulaic. This actually makes it almost as straightforward as the multiple-choice sections of the GMAT. This should actually not only be one of the tips to ace the GMAT AWA, but an absolute must.
3. Be Familiar with Typical GMAT AWA Flaws
Completing our top 3 tips for the GMAT AWA, it will be much easier to identify the flaws in a given argument if you’re familiar with those that generally crop up on the GMAT AWA. While this sounds straightforward, many candidates leave important points on the table because they neglect the importance of being aware of common AWA flaws.
There are usually three types of logical flaw that recur on GMAT essay prompts. Let’s take a look at them.
Some arguments will present themselves with unearned confidence, and you should be on the lookout for these. Arguments that use language like “certainly”, “undoubtedly” and “unambiguously” should be scrutinized carefully.
Some arguments will assume that A causes B, when this is not necessarily the case. In our earlier given example, for instance, the author assumes that demand for high-fat cheeses (A) causes the wide selection of such cheeses in Heart’s Delight (B).
Some things to consider when thinking about whether or not an argument’s causality is valid or flawed is whether or not the reverse can be true (B actually causes A), whether A and B are actually caused by a third phenomenon (C) or whether A and B often appear together for a variety of reasons, but one does not cause the other. This last is often called “correlation does not imply causation”.
In the given example, it is not clear that B (Heart’s Delight’s large inventory of high-fat cheeses) is caused by a broader general demand for such cheeses (A). It could be that Heart’s Delight customers in particular buy a large amount of these cheeses; it could also be the case that Heart’s Delight has such a huge amount of the cheeses because they’re not selling well, and they can’t move their existing stock.
In either case, the causal relationship assumed by the author is not supported by the evidence. When assessing any argument, keep an eye out for any such flawed assumptions regarding causality – and dissect them appropriately.
In contrast to the overconfident language we discussed earlier, it’s worth looking out for overly vague language in the argument. Phrases like “many”, “most of” “a lot of” or “some” can sound assertive and convincing, but in the absence of more concrete numerical data, they don’t really mean anything at all.
Consider the use of “in general” in our example prompt from earlier:
“In general, people are not as concerned[…] about regulating their intake of red meat and fatty cheeses.”
Where is this data coming from? Does the author have any corroborating evidence that proves that people are not regulating such foodstuffs “in general”? Without supporting proof, the statement is meaningless – and it is something that can and should be critiqued in your answer.
There are further examples in our sample argument – a “wide selection” of cheeses (how wide? Why isn’t a more concrete figure given?) and the “modest living” of the vegetarian café owners (how modest? Where are the numbers here?).
When assessing an argument, then, ensure that you identify any such ambiguous language (also known as ‘weasel words’, and critique them appropriately.
It’s common practice in inferential statistics to use statistics collected from a sample in order to draw wider conclusions about a trend. This is all well and good – provided that the sample used is sufficiently representative.
If overly small samples are used, then it is unreasonable to infer that the results found in that sample can be applied to the whole. For instance, our example argument argues that because Heart’s Delight carries a wide range of high-fat cheeses, this must be true for all grocery stores. However, Heart’s Delight is one store – and a niche store at that. Is it reasonable to assume that what is true for Heart’s Delight is true for all grocery stores? Of course not.
When analyzing an argument, then, keep an eye out for such sloppy inferences and inappropriate sampling.
4. Be Objective – not Opinionated
In the AWA, you’re not being asked to give your opinion at all. You’re being asked to analyze an argument. One our the best tips we can give you for the GMAT AWA, therefore, is to avoid giving your opinion or using personal anecdotes in your essay.
When writing an essay for our given example, for instance, it would be bad form for you to use your own personal preference (or that of your family or friends) for either high-fat cheese or beef as some sort of supporting evidence for their wider popularity (or lack thereof). This is anecdotal and is impossible to substantiate.
Instead, rely simply upon what is presented within the argument itself. You don’t need personal evidence to point out the flaws inherent thereto (and to every AWA argument); you can see those flaws within the argument itself.
For instance, in our example, we can point out that the inventory of a single store is hardly representative of the wider preferences of the general public – it isn’t even representative of the preferences of that store’s customers without more concrete evidence. We can further point out that the financial woes of one vegetarian café do not connote a popular preference for beef, any more than the opening of a single beef restaurant does.
By sticking to the facts – and not your opinion – you stand a much better chance of a higher score.
5. Be Confident and Avoid Qualifiers
The AWA is purely about analyzing an argument; anything else is superfluous and doesn’t need to be in your essay. This includes using first- or second-person pronouns (‘I’/’we’ and ‘you’, respectively) and using qualifying language (which we’ll get to below).
Why should you avoid using the pronouns above? Because it means your essay veers into the realm of opinion. Compare the strong and assertive “this argument is flawed” versus the weaker, more subjective and indecisive “I believe that this argument is flawed”. First- and second-person pronouns should, in effect, never appear in an essay. It’s not your job to self-insert, but to examine the facts.
Secondly, you should avoid the use of qualifiers. What are qualifiers? They are words that soften the impact of your statements and introduce doubt or uncertainty. Qualifiers include (but are by no means limited to):
- A little;
These words do nothing but add bloat and make it seems as if you don’t have any confidence in your arguments. Avoid using them on the GMAT AWA is one of the simplest tips we can give you.
6. Stick to a Structure
One of the reasons GMAT AWA essays can seem so daunting is because there is nothing but an argument and a blank page to go on. The rest is entirely up to you. And because of this, it’s very easy to freeze up and end up writing nothing – or, almost as bad, writing an incoherent ramble that goes nowhere.
This can be avoided by establishing a structure for your essay – and sticking to it. A very common structure for the AWA is as follows:
- Restate the argument, point out its flaws, and lay out your intention to discuss them.
Body paragraph 1
- Point out first flaw and critique it.
Body paragraph 2
- Point out second flaw and critique it.
(Continue as necessary according to the number of flaws)
- Recapitulate your critiques and why the argument is flawed. If applicable, offer suggestions for things that would strengthen the argument.
As we can see, the basic structure of an essay is very simple and straightforward. If you can establish your own structure and make sure you follow it during practice essays, you’ll find that it will quickly become second nature to follow your basic structure.
Check out our detailed guide on the ideal GMAT AWA essay structure, which is a great addition to these tips.
7. Plan Your Essay Out Before Starting
Once you have your basic universal template in mind, it ought to be very easy to apply it to any GMAT AWA essay question that comes up. As you are provided with scratch paper during the GMAT, this is exactly what you should do.
Note that this doesn’t mean writing exhaustive notes; it means briefly sketching out, in shorthand, the general structure of your essay and its content. If we were to apply the above structure to our example, it might look something like this:
- Flaws: Heart’s Delight cheeses, veggie/beef restaurant comparison
Body Paragraph 1
- H.D. cheese stock != popularity w/ general public
Body Paragraph 2
- Old veggie café != popularity of beef (décor? Service? Quality of food?)
Body Paragraph 3
- New beef restaurant != popularity of beef (new/untested, rich owners already rich)
- Flawed b/c of above reasons, improvements (sales evidence? Overall popularity of veggie/meat restaurants?)
Note the use of shorthand (‘!=’ to mean ‘doesn’t equal’; abbreviations like ‘H.D.’ for ‘Heart’s Delight’) to quickly and concisely sketch out the essay before beginning. The above took less than five minutes to prepare, and now we have an essay outline to work from.
Once your essay outline is in place, the structure is basically taken care of, and the content itself will spring quite naturally from your outline.
8. Be Concise and Avoid Wordiness
Many candidates assume that more words equal a better essay. But in the same way that ten hamburgers are not better than one wagyu steak, quantity does not equal quantity. In fact, an essay of around 500 words will suffice for most AWA essays. For context, that’s around 1/5 the length of this article.
How can you keep things succinct? Consider the following two sentences discussing our earlier cheese/meat example.
The author seems to be assuming that because Heart’s Delight apparently has a lot of high-fat cheeses in stock, that somehow means that customers are buying quite a lot of those cheeses.
The author assumes that high-fat cheeses sell well simply because Heart’s Delight carries a lot of them.
The first sentence uses a lot of qualifiers (‘seems to be’, ‘apparently’, ‘somehow’, ‘quite’) that do nothing but muddy the waters and make the writer seem indecisive. The second sentence is much better – it’s punchier, direct, and to the point.
It’s this punchiness and brevity that you should be aiming for. The examiners are not interested in reading 1000 words of waffle – and if you force them to, all you’ll earn is a lower score for clarity. Less is more when it comes to your AWA essay.
9. Always Proofread your Essay
Mistakes happen. In fact, when you’re on the clock and under pressure, they’re pretty much inevitable. This is even more likely if you’re not well-practiced in writing formal essays in English.
Thankfully, however, most mistakes can be fixed by setting aside five minutes at the end of your thirty minutes to look back over your essay and catch any typos or grammar/punctuation errors that might have slipped the net.
This might sound like a lot of time – you’re sacrificing, in effect, about 17% of your time to proofreading. But if you’ve followed our advice and structured your essay ahead of time, you’ll have time to spare by the time you’ve finished it. And if that 17% is spent catching errant plural or subject-verb agreement errors, then it’s time well spent.
10. Practice, Practice, Practice
Our top 10 tips for the GMAT AWA wouldn’t be complete without this one. The old saying does “practice makes perfect” – and that also holds true for the GMAT AWA essay. All the tips outlined above are required to ace the essay, but none of them will guide you to a perfect result on the very first try. It takes some practice to be able to come up with the perfect structure, come up with the right arguments, and nail the linguistic style of your essay. Therefore, try to integrate a few AWA essays into your GMAT preparation, and by the time you sit for the actual exam, you will be on your way to nail the AWA.
We hope that these tips have gone some way toward demystifying the GMAT AWA essay and making it far less intimidating than it may have seemed at the start.
The fact is that the AWA isn’t a million miles away from the multiple-choice sections, and is actually much more rigid and formulaic than it first appears. Once you’ve identified the key features of the AWA – and you’ve prepared yourself sufficiently for it – then walking away with the score you want is just a matter of putting that preparation into practice in the test room.