Scoring Well on the AWA, Sponsored by Manhattan GMAT

by Vault Education Editors | August 17, 2009

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Todaywe address the Analytical Writing Assessment ("AWA") portion of theGMAT, otherwise known as the essays.  Becausethey do not feed into the overall score out of 800 (they are scored separately,on a scale of 6 points), they are often neglected.  They do serve a purpose, though, and you needto take them seriously, even if they do not warrant the bulk of your studytime.


Theessays are the first section of the exam.  You have 30 minutes for each of two essays,for a total of one hour before the quantitative section begins.  So if you do not write essays during at leastone of your practice exams, you will probably find it surprisingly tiring theday of the exam when you have to head into the math section after an hour ofwriting.


First,you should be aware of the two types of essay you will be required to write.  One is known as "Analysis of Issue." The other is known as "Analysis ofArgument."  They demand differentapproaches and need to be understood in their particularities.  Let's talk first about "Analysis ofIssue."


Analysis of Issue


In"Analysis of Issue", you will given a statement (the"issue"). For example,


"Responsibilityfor preserving the natural environment ultimately belongs to each individualperson, not to government." (This is an actual GMAT topic and isproperty of GMAC, which is no way affiliated with Manhattan GMAT.)


Yourtask now is to decide whether you agree with the statement.  There is no "right" answer to this:either position (pro or con) is perfectly valid.  The only reaction that is not valid is to siton the fence.  You must take a side anddefend it.  If you waffle or remainuncommitted, you will lose points.  Thepoint of "Analysis of Issue" is to see how well you can defend apolicy position.  You must state a clearopinion, but you must also back it up with relevant evidence.  In other words, your opinion does not speakfor itself.  You must show how youarrived at that opinion.  You may usefacts or experiences (either your own or those you have observed elsewhere) toexplain your position.  A good"Issue" essay brings up three or so reasons in favor of OR againstthe statement and explains why each of those reasons is grounded in fact orexperience.


Whatif you do not have any relevant experience or do not know any relevant facts?  Make them up.  The exam readers are not going to verify thatyour facts are correct and they have no way to know whether your experiencesare true.  Moreover, they do not reallycare.  They simply want to see that youunderstand the nature of the task at hand.  You must also acknowledge the merits of theother side, all the while maintaining your commitment to your own position.  This is basically a polite nod to youropponent.  Even though the other side mayhave some validity, it is still the wrong side.


Whyis the "Issue" essay on the GMAT?  The primary reason is that B-schools want tosee whether you can write coherently under time pressure without the help of aneditor.  But beyond that, the "Issue"essay specifically allows you to demonstrate your ability to learn fromexperience, either your own or someone else's.  Good businesspeople learn their lessons andcarry that knowledge into their future endeavors.  By the time you have been working for 20 or soyears, you will have accumulated a wealth of experience that can guide youthrough complicated situations.  Businessschools want to see upfront that you have at least a glimmer of this skill.  People who do not learn from mistakes aredestined to repeat them.


Analysis of Argument


Thisessay differs significantly from the other type (Analysis of Issue) and needsto be approached in a very different way.


In"Analysis of Argument," you will be presented with—what else?—anargument and asked to evaluate its merits.  The argument will resemble a critical reasoningargument: it will have premises and a conclusion.  Your task is to determine whether the premises(think of these as pieces of evidence) logically support the given conclusion.  Once you make your determination, you mustexplain your stance.  These arguments arealways written so that one can argue that the premises do NOT support theconclusion.  In fact, it is wiser to takethat position rather than argue that the argument is valid.  The test writers specifically created theirarguments to see whether you could spot the flaws.  If you declare the argument valid, you arebasically admitting that you have not evaluated the argument critically.


Asmentioned above, the basic flaw in all these arguments is that the premises doNOT support the given conclusion.  Thedifference from one argument to another is in the specifics of why not.  The flaws generally fall into two categories:that the author has made a suspect assumption (i.e., he relies on unstatedinformation that cannot be taken for granted; or that he misinterprets theinformation that he does explicitly include).  Your job is to figure out which of thesescenarios—possibly both—is going on in the given argument.  Once you figure out the flaws, you mustexplain how they affect the argument and how they can be remedied.  It is not enough simply to point them out.


Imaginethat your boss gives you a business plan for your company and asks for youropinion.  If you come back and simply say"No good," you probably will not be seeing too many bonuses orpromotions in your future there.  Instead,your boss will expect you to explain what the problems are and to offer ways tofix them.  This is exactly what is behindthe "Analysis of Argument" essay.  Business schools want to see whether you canpick apart a flawed proposal and suggest improvements to it.  Stating only that a proposal (i.e., argument)is flawed without explaining why and how to fix it does not demonstrate theskills that make businesspeople successful.


Hereis an example of an actual AWA argument from the GMAT.  (This argument is property of the GraduateManagement Admissions Council, which is in no way affiliated with ManhattanGMAT.):


TheCumquat Café began advertising on our local radio station this year and wasdelighted to see its business increase by 10 percent over last year's totals.  Their success shows you how you can use radioadvertising to make your business more profitable.


Isthis a logical argument?  No, of coursenot.  If it were, it would not be usefulfor the AWA.  But what specifically iswrong with it?  There are many flaws inthe above argument.  One of them is thatthe author assumes that the increase in business was the direct result of theradio ads.  We cannot know this from theinformation given.  We need to knowwhether the café also ran ads in local papers or on local television.  One way to find out whether the increase inbusiness is the result of the radio ads would be to ask customers where theyheard about the café.  You get the point. Success on the "Argument" essayhinges on your ability to evaluate and rectify, not just criticize.


Scoring Process


Thisprocess is necessarily different from that used for the quantitative and verbalsections of the exam, since the nature of the task in the AWA is quitedifferent.


Thetwo essays of the AWA are not included in your overall GMAT score out of 800.  Instead, the essays receive their own separatescore on a scale from 0 to 6 points, with 6 the best.  According to the Official Guide for GMAT Review, the point values correspond to thefollowing assessments (details can be found in the back of the guide itself):






2:Seriously Flawed

1:Fundamentally Deficient

0:Did Not Follow Assignment (wrong topic, in a foreign language, gibberish, etc.)

NR:Did Not Submit Essays


Topbusiness schools generally want to see at least a 4 on the AWA. Scores lowerthan 4 will make admissions committees wonder about your ability to write atthe graduate level.  This is especiallytrue when your application essays are polished but your AWA score is low—committeesmight wonder if you received help on your application.  Of course, the higher the score, the better,but schools are not looking for the next Hemingway here: they simply want tosee that you can write a persuasive essay on an assigned topic.  While it is not likely that a high AWA willconvince a committee to accept you if the rest of your application isborderline, it is possible that a low AWA score will convince a committee toreject you if the rest of your application is not totally up to snuff.  Remember that business schools receive so manyapplications that they need to weed people out fairly quickly in the admissionsprocess.  Scoring poorly on the AWA cangive schools a reason to say no.


Youdo not receive your AWA score immediately upon finishing the exam, as you doyour overall GMAT score.  You will haveto wait until you receive your official score report to find out how well youdid on the AWA.  After you finish theexam, your essays are sent for grading.  Eachessay is graded twice: once by a human grader and once by a computer program.  Both look for structure and grammar, but onlythe human can really know whether your arguments are persuasive.  With that in mind, you should gear your essaysto the computer.  This means making surethat your essays have a clear structure and are grammatically sound.


Eachgrader assigns a score out of 6 points.  Ifthe two scores for an essay differ by more than a point (say, 3 and 5), thecomputer's score is deemed suspect and the essay is sent to a second humangrader.  When both essays have beenscored, all four scores (two for each essay) are averaged and rounded up to thenearest half-point.  So if you receivedscores of 6, 5, 4 and 4, for example, your overall score for the AWA would be19/4 = 4.75 = 5.  It is possible toreceive overall AWA scores in half-point increments (3.5 or 5.5, for example).


Essaysthat receive the highest marks are those that have a clear and logicalstructure, a clear and well-supported position on the assigned topic, and arefree of grammatical and stylistic mistakes.  As any one of these parameters weakens in theessay, the score will drop accordingly.  Byfar the main reason test takers lose points in the AWA is failure to supporttheir claims with evidence.  Anothercommon flaw is failure to take and maintain a clear stance.  Write your essays as if your job depended onconvincing someone of your position.


How to Back Up Assertions with Evidence


Failureto do so is one of the main reasons test takers lose points on the AWA.  It is not enough simply to state a claim.  You must also explain why that claim is valid. Keep in mind that your final position onthe issue or argument is not the totality of the task.  The GMAT is more interested in your thoughtprocess—how did you arrive at your conclusions?


In"Analysis of Issue," your task is to decide whether you agree ordisagree with a given statement.  It doesnot matter which position you take—in favor of or against—as long as you areable to explain why you have chosen that side.  According to the Official Guide for GMAT Review, you will be expected to justifyyour position "using relevant reasons and/or examples from your own experience,observations, or reading."  In otherwords, back up what you say.  If youcannot think of anything in your life that seems relevant to the given issue,make something up.  It is only anexercise; no one really cares whether what you say is factually true.  Try not to go crazy with it (do not claim youwere once Prime Minister of New Zealand, for example), but feel free to createrelevant evidence if you need to.


Let'ssay the topic is "Employees should not be allowed to smoke in theworkplace."  Whatever your stance onthe issue, you will have to explain how you came to that position.  It would not be enough to claim that it is"just rude," for example.  Ifyour main objection to smoking at work is a perceived lack of consideration onthe part of the smokers, you could explain that you once worked with someonewho smoked all day despite your complaints and that it affected yourproductivity.  Or you could cite a studyfrom the Royal Tobacco Institute of Copenhagen that pointed out the harmfuleffects of secondhand smoke and perhaps even claim you know of a nonsmoker whodeveloped lung cancer from working in a smoke-filled environment.  If you disagree with the issue, your maincontention may be that workers who feel oppressed by management are lessproductive.  But this would be a mereassertion.  How do you know this is so?  You could claim that you once worked someplacewhere smokers were required to stand outside in the cold in the winter and theyall ended up resenting the management, resulting in lower productivity anddecreased revenues.  Or you could claimthat smokers are addicts and forcing them to abstain during work hours ismedically harmful, as shown by an experiment conducted by the University of West Podunk. The key here is to select examples fromyour experience (or imagination) that directly and persuasively support yourposition.


In"Analysis of Argument," by contrast, your task is a little simpler inthat you do not have to draw from your own life to support your assessment ofthe argument.  Instead, you must identifythe flaws of the argument and explain how they fail to support the conclusion.  You cannot simply state that the author hasmade a false assumption, or misconstrued the meaning of a key term, or whateverelse may be wrong with the argument.  Ifthe author has made a false assumption, you must explain what that assumptionis, how it harms the argument, and what could be done to rectify the problem.  Very often, people who receive low scores onthis essay fail to explain and correct the problems they point out.  Remember, part of your task is to strengthenthe argument.  If all you do is critiqueit, you will not maximize your score.  You must give the reader enough information tounderstand why the assumption is flawed or why the term has been misconstrued.  If the readers has to guess at your intent,you have fallen short of the mark.  Argumentessays that receive 5's and 6's are those that allow readers to draw the same conclusionsthat the essay writers do, based on the writers' skill in pointing out,explaining and rectifying the arguments' shortcomings.


So,to maximize your AWA score, remember to back up all your claims with reasonsand/or examples.  Do not let the readerwonder how you came to your conclusions!


Common Grammatical and Structural Mistakes


Rememberthat your score on the AWA does not depend solely on your ability to craft apersuasive argument (though that is the primary criterion); you will also be judgedon your essay's grammar and structure.  There are several common mistakes test takersmake, all of which can be avoided.


Let'sstart with grammar.  A very common erroris the use of "they," "them" and "their" todesignate a person of unknown gender, as in "Someone who enjoys their jobwill be a good worker."  Here,"someone" is singular, yet "their" must refer to a pluralnoun.  A better sentence would be"Someone who enjoys his or her job will be a good worker."  This sentence is longer, but grammatical.  Although this use of "they" isrampant in English speech, it is not acceptable in formal business writing.


Anothercommon grammar mistake is the incorrect use of modifiers.  For example, "For such a powerfulcompany, Fizzy Cola's directors have been timid in their plans forexpansion."  This sentence probablyseems fine, because its error is subtle.  The opening phrase "for such a powerfulcompany" is a modifier.  That is, itserves to describe the subject of the clause that follows it.  However, the subject of the main clause is"Fizzy Cola's directors," which clashes with the intended subject ofthe modifier: the company itself.  Abetter sentence would be "For such a powerful company, Fizzy Cola has beentimid in its plans for expansion."  Always pay attention to the relationshipbetween modifiers and their intended subjects.  Often, test takers do not set up thisrelationship properly.


Testtakers also misuse certain idiomatic phrases.  A common example is the use of"less" in contexts where "fewer" is needed.  Remember that "less" is used onlyfor nouns that cannot be counted.  "Fewer" is used for nouns that arecountable.  For example, "The newregulations offer less opportunities for growth."  Since opportunities can be counted, we mustuse "fewer" instead: "The new regulations offer feweropportunities for growth."  Keep inmind also that "amount of" and "number of" are notinterchangeable.  "Amount of"is used for nouns that cannot be counted, while "number of" is usedfor countable nouns.  For example,"The amount of bankruptcies this year is expected to set a newrecord."  Since bankruptcies can becounted, we must use "number of" instead: "The number ofbankruptcies this year is expected to set a new record."


Asfor structure, remember that your essay will be scored by a computerizedgrading program that cannot use logic to deduce your intended meaning if thestructure of your essay does not make the flow of your argument clear.  You need to break your essay into easilydigestible paragraphs that have a clear flow from one to the next.  You must have an introductory paragraph, twoor three main paragraphs where you make your case, and a concluding paragraph.  By far the most common mistake in structure isto cram everything into one giant paragraph.  Do not worry if it seems that your paragraphsare not very long; they do not need to be.


Anothercommon structural mistake is to list examples in a way that does not clearlyset them apart from the rest of the argument.  This does not mean you should list thembullet-point style, just that you should advise the reader that he or she isabout to read a list of examples.  Comparethe following paragraphs:


There are three principal reasons that the proposal will not work.  It is costly.  It is laborious.  It offends the sensibilities of those who arefond of cheese.


There are three principal reasons that the proposal will not work.  First, it is costly.  Second, it is laborious.  And third, it offends the sensibilities ofthose who are fond of cheese.


Thesecond version offers the reader a clearer roadmap of the argument and is thuspreferable to the first version.  Thesecond version clearly ties each assertion back to the original claim thatthere are three principal reasons that the proposal will not work.  The first version requires that the readermake the connection unaided.


Payattention to your grammar and structure on the AWA.  Good grammar and clear structure are simpleways to maximize your score.






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