The GMAT begins with the analytical writing assessment (AWA). You’ll receive two prompts: one for the analysis of an issue and one for analysis of an argument, in a random order. The two tasks are actually quite different:
Analysis of an Issue
This is a straightforward argumentative essay. The prompt will put forth an opinion such as: “The study of history is largely a waste of time because it prevents us from focusing on the challenges of the future.” You must choose to agree or disagree, and defend your opinion by making declarative statements supported by concrete examples from world events or even your own experience. Some test-takers will be tempted to sit on the fence, defending some aspects of the original opinion while criticizing others. This requires more thought and better writing, and may be considered an unnecessary use of your brain power. It is usually easier to choose a side and stick to it.
Analysis of an Argument
This essay is specific to the GMAT. In fact, many parallels exist between this essay and the critical reasoning questions# found on the verbal section of the test. In this prompt, test-takers are presented with an argument and must show their ability to question and undo the premises upon which the argument has been constructed. In short: You have to show the sharpness of your critical reasoning by cutting the argument to ribbons.
Given this, it is not an option to support or agree with the argument. Even though you may agree with the sentiment of the argument, you must play devil’s advocate and expose the argument’s weak point. The best way to do that is to: 1. question the evidence presented in the argument (“Was the survey that the author cites conducted correctly?”, “Is the scope correct for the task at hand?”); or 2. question the interpretation of the evidence (“Is it really possible to reach the author’s conclusion based on the survey evidence?”).
These two essays are evaluated by a human reader and a computer program. The evaluations are combined, generating a score from zero to six that does not factor into your GMAT score of, for instance, 650. Most people do quite well on this section, as evidenced by the fact that scoring a five out of six usually puts you in only in the 60th percentile.
Most schools don’t look too hard at the AWA unless the score is low. Native speakers of English usually don’t have too much trouble scoring at least a five, so the AWA is mainly a worry for international students whose first language is not English. Scoring below a 4.5 will begin to draw negative attention to a candidate, in that the schools will take another look at the application essays. If the essays are perfectly written jewels, a low AWA could set off alarms that the candidate is not the author of their own essays or at least received so much writing help that their level of expression has been distorted beyond recognition.
That being said, the most important part of the AWA may be its placement within the whole GMAT test-day experience. As the first (and easiest) task that you’ll perform on test day, it is an important warm-up exercise. If your test starts at 8 A.M. and you are not a morning person, that first hour writing essays is a great chance to get your brain working before the quantitative section begins. On the other hand, if you have done absolutely no preparation for the AWA, you will be unnecessarily stressed and the section will tire you out rather than warm you up. That is why it’s important to practice several essays before test day to make sure you can get them done without too much trouble.
The HowToMBA Guide to the specific sections of the GMAT was prepared by MBA House, a boutique GMAT prep and admissions consulting program based in New York City.