The essay portion of the GMAT, or the Analytical Writing Assessment, is unlike most of the essays you’ve written for college. You’re given a single, one-paragraph prompt containing some kind of argument, and rather than picking a side and building your own case, you have to critique how that argument is made.
Luckily, we’ve done the hard work of analyzing GMAT essay questions for you. In this post, we’ll tell you where to find the best GMAT essay prompts and give you our in-depth breakdown of the essay task, including an analysis of examples from each type of prompt you’ll encounter. Finally, we’ll give you some tips for how to practice with GMAT essay topics for maximum improvement on your own essays. With this expert analysis, you’ll know how to tackle any GMAT essay prompt that comes your way on test day.
The GMAT Essay Task
As stated above, the GMAT AWA section gives you a brief one-paragraph prompt containing some kind of argument. While the prompt changes from test to test (more on this below), the directions are always the same, so you should memorize them in advance. I’ve pasted them for you below:
Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion. You can also discuss what sort of evidence would strengthen or refute the argument, what changes in the argument would make it more logically sound, and what, if anything, would help you better evaluate its conclusion.
What It’s Really Asking You to Do
In other words, you have only one task for the GMAT essay: to write a critique of the given argument. Invariably, every single GMAT argument will have flaws. Here are the most common types of flaws embedded within the arguments:
- Faulty assumptions: The most common type of argumentative flaw in GMAT prompts.
- Inadequate evidence: If an argument gives you a piece of evidence, it almost certainly has some kind of issue with it—perhaps simply that it doesn’t necessarily support the ultimate conclusion.
- Sampling or statistical issues: For instance, an argument might state that a certain population is representative of a larger whole when that can’t be claimed for certain.
- Vague words, such as “many” or “few.”
- Unsuitable comparisons: Stating that just because something applies in one situation, that it will apply in another situation by default.
- Presumed causation over correlation: Concluding that one thing caused another, without proof that they’re not merely correlated.
- Information or considerations that have been overlooked: other considerations that haven’t been discussed.
Many GMAT essay prompts will contain more than one of these flaws. Your critique should consist of an in-depth analysis that exposes them, and suggests ways to improve.
The best approach is to pick apart the prompt bit-by-bit: point out each flaw the author makes, challenge it using your own reasoning and specific counterexamples that support your claims, and suggest ways the author could fix the flaw and thereby improve the validity of their conclusion.
Do not present your own views on the argument at hand. Regardless of the prompt, you should always make the case that the given argument is flawed—not whether or not you “agree.”
You don’t need to know any formal logic to write a top-scoring essay, but it helps to be familiar with a few terms related to the construction of an argument:
- Claim: The claim is the assertion or conclusion of the argument. In GMAT essay prompts, the main claim is often spelled out for you, preceded by a term like “thus” or “therefore.” There can also be sub-claims that support the broader, overall claim.
- Evidence: Claims are often supported in turn by evidence—facts, statistics, and other data that the author brings up to support their perspective.
- Warrant: The warrant is the reasoning that connects the evidence to the claim. This term can be used as a verb as well, EG: “The evidence doesn’t warrant the claim” (if the evidence provided doesn’t logically support the author’s argument).
- Counterargument: A counterargument is an argument that the “opposing side” might make in a debate. It can have its own sub-claims, warrants, and evidence, just like the original argument.
- Rebuttal: A rebuttal goes a bit further—it engages directly with the first argument, arguing against or deconstructing it.
You don’t have to use these exact terms in every essay, but being familiar with the concepts they represent is crucial for both understanding the GMAT prompts and formulating your critique.
How Your GMAT Essay Is Graded
You’re graded on a scale of 0-6 in half-point increments, once by a human reader (usually an English or Communications professor) and once by a computerized grading program called E-Rater. If the two different scores differ by less than one point, the two scores will be averaged to get your final scaled score. If they differ by greater than one point, a second human reader will step in and grade the essay.
Both the human reader and E-Rater grade holistically, giving one final score under these guidelines:
6 = outstanding
5 = very good
4 = good
3 = adequate
2 = less than adequate
1 = poor
0 = no substantive response
Four general skill areas are taken into account: content (relevant, persuasive ideas, reasoning, and examples); organization (using an organized and cohesive structure to present your argument); languageuse (diction and syntax), and grammar.
It’s hard to assess the six-point scale in abstraction, so be sure to check out this official sample AWA prompt and top-scoring essay to see what kind of an essay gets a 6. You’ll see that the essay loosely follows a five-paragraph essay structure, with each body paragraph focusing on one logical flaw of the prompt. This is a perfectly good structure to replicate in your own essays. We recommend that you spend a 20 minutes or so studying what else this essay did well, so that you can replicate it in your own writing.
The GMAT Essay Topics Pool: How It Works
Fortunately, the GMAC releases a list of most of the official GMAT essay topics you’ll encounter on the Analytical Writing section. These prompts often center on debates from the business or political worlds and are sourced from the editorial and op-ed sections of magazines and newspapers, annual company reports, memorandums, proposals and the like.
You should use this list of official GMAT AWA topics in your prep, as they’re far better than any imitation prompts for a few reasons. Firstly, official practice prompts are by definition more realistic than any imitations. Second, there’s a (small) chance that you’ll encounter a prompt you’ve practiced on already on the real test. It’s a less than 1% chance, as there’s over 140 prompts on this list, and you still could get one that doesn’t appear here—but that’s better than no chance at all! Plus, with so many to choose from, it’s unlikely that you’ll run out of prompts to practice with.
Types of GMAT AWA Topics: Analysis of Examples
Now that we’ve gone over what the essay task is asking of you, let’s go over a few example GMAT Essay topics from the official list.
There aren’t any clear “categories” of prompts that would affect your analysis, but for a representative sample, I’ve picked one prompt from the business world (which is the most common) and one prompt from the political world (which is the second most common). Note that the way in which each argument is constructed doesn’t fall within such boundaries—”political” prompts can use the same flawed argumentative strategies as “business” prompts or “health and science” prompts, and so on.
Example 1: Megamart’s Business Plan
The following is part of a business plan created by the management of the Megamart grocery store:
“Our total sales have increased this year by 20 percent since we added a pharmacy section to our grocery store. Clearly, the customer’s main concern is the convenience afforded by one-stop shopping. The surest way to increase our profits over the next couple of years, therefore, is to add a clothing department along with an automotive supplies and repair shop. We should also plan to continue adding new departments and services, such as a restaurant and a garden shop, in subsequent years. Being the only store in the area that offers such a range of services will give us a competitive advantage over other local stores.”
Discuss how well reasoned . . . etc.
The first step is to identify the conclusion or main claim of the argument: in this case, the conclusion is that Megamart should add a clothing department, automotive department, and more one-stop shopping conveniences in order to increase profits.
Next, identify the supporting evidence and reasoning for this conclusion. One piece of evidence is “that total sales have increased this year by 20 percent since we added a pharmacy section to our grocery store.” An adjacent piece of reasoning is that “the customer’s main concern is the convenience afforded by one-stop shopping.” The author also states that “Being the only store in the area that offers such a range of services will give us a competitive advantage over other local stores.”
Finally, identify the logical flaws buried within the conclusion and the supporting evidence/reasoning.
For starters, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation: the author takes it for granted that the addition of the pharmacy caused the increase in sales, which may or may not be true.
Next, the author presumes that, because of this increase, the customer’s main concern is the convenience of one-stop shopping. This conclusion doesn’t logically follow—even if we do assume that the pharmacy caused the increase in sales, there could be many other reasons for this other than convenience: perhaps their pharmacy is less expensive than other competitors in the area, for example.
Moreover, even if customers do enjoy the convenience of a pharmacy in their grocery store, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they also want to get their car fixed there, to buy clothing there, to eat at a restaurant there, etc—they may have loyalty to other businesses for these services, or they may doubt the level of quality, and so on.
Plus, the expense is high for any business to install such new and varied arms: the cost of renovating their space, hiring and training new employees, ensuring that each sub-business is up to code, etc. How would they be able to keep costs low enough to entice shoppers to try out a new service and still cover the cost of the expenditure, let alone increase profits?
Overall, being the only store in the area that offers such a range of services may not give them a competitive advantage over other local stores at all, and certainly might not lead to increased profits. There are other flaws you could point out
You should also employ some counterexamples to back up your argument: for example, how even Target and Walmart stores—the epitomes of one-stop shopping—don’t have automotive repair shops within them, as this has no overlap with their core business (whereas groceries, for example, have a lot of overlap, so it made sense for them to start selling those). And while they do sometimes have restaurants within them, those are separate chain restaurants like Pizza Hut, with their own brand identity, operated independently and sharing the space by contractual agreement. This offers customers the opportunity to eat before or after shopping, and the potential for increased profits for both companies—while minimizing risk and expenditure for each.
Finally, you should suggest ways the author could fix the flaws in their argument: in this case, the management of Megamart could discuss why factors other than convenience are not at play in the 20% increase of sales since adding the pharmacy, to make a better case for causation over correlation.
Example 2: Waymarsh State College Protestors
The following appeared in the editorial section of a local newspaper:
“This past winter, 200 students from Waymarsh State College traveled to the state capitol building to protest against proposed cuts in funding for various state college programs. The other 12,000 Waymarsh students evidently weren’t so concerned about their education: they either stayed on campus or left for winter break. Since the group who did not protest is far more numerous, it is more representative of the state’s college students than are the protesters. Therefore the state legislature need not heed the appeals of the protesting students.”
Discuss how well reasoned . . . etc.
Like many GMAT prompts, the conclusion is more or less spelled out for us, identified by the use of the word “therefore.” In this case, the conclusion is that the state legislature doesn’t need to heed the 200 protesting students.
There are three main faulty assumptions in the reasoning: first, the author assumes that just because the other 12,000 students did not protest, this means they don’t share the same concerns. Next, the author uses this tenuous conclusion to claim that the group of non-protestors is more representative of the college student body as a whole—even though it’s still unproven that they have different beliefs that the protestors. Finally, the conclusion itself is a jump in reasoning: even granting that the protesting students are alone in their beliefs, that’s not sufficient grounds for the state legislature to ignore their appeals.
The issue with the first assumption is that just because the 12,000 students didn’t show up to protest does not necessarily mean that they “don’t care about their education” or that they agree with the funding cuts. Many of them could have been unaware of the cuts, or of the planned protests. Some might have been unable to attend the protests for a variety of reasons—difficulty of traveling to the state capital, the expenses associated with such travel or of getting out of any previously planned winter break trips, not being able to take time off from an on-campus job, and so on. It’s difficult to imagine that such a large percentage of the student body is truly uncaring when there are so many potential extenuating circumstances barring them from attending the protests.
It’s far more likely that there’s a diversity of opinion among the non-protesting group: for all the reasons stated above, they can’t be taken as a single, homogenous collective that shares one viewpoint just based on the fact that they didn’t (or couldn’t) attend the protest. So, even though only 1 in 60 students protested, that doesn’t mean that the other 59 are “representative” of the opinion that the budget cuts don’t matter.
Lastly, even if we grant that the protestors are a non-representative minority, that certainly doesn’t mean that the legislature should simply ignore their concerns. A better basis for judgment is not how representative of the student body they are, but how justified their concerns are about the funding cuts to their school and how much of an impact these cuts will have. Will it make a significant impact on the quality of the education they receive? On the students’ preparedness for the world beyond? On their job prospects? Even if the rest of the students truly don’t care (which is already an outlandish presumption), that doesn’t justify the state legislature undercutting their education.
In fact, there are many forms of expressing one’s opinion other than in-person protesting, none of which are discussed here. The state legislature should take a poll of the student body for a truly “representative” sample of viewpoints. An online poll emailed out to all students is neither financially nor time-commitment prohibitive, like a protest at the state capitol is, and would thus be a much fairer way of measuring student opinion.
GMAT Essay Topics: 3 Excellent Tips
No matter which of the GMAT essay questions you encounter on test day, the following tips will help you prepare.
#1: Time Your GMAT Practice Essays
When you’re working on practice GMAT essay topics, make sure you stick to a strict 30-minute time limit for your essay.
If you need to build up to writing within this time limit, you can start out by giving yourself extra time and then working your way down to 30 minutes. However, try not to only practice with extra time, or you’ll be unprepared for the real GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment.
#2: Type Your GMAT Practice Essays
To simulate the conditions of the computer-based GMAT, you should write all of your practice essays on a computer.
If possible, use the simple word processor in the free official GMATPrep Software to do every practice essay, or a very simple word processor like NotePad that doesn’t give you very much functionality. Though you will be able to use the normal copy, paste, undo, and redo shortcuts, you’ll still need to get used to the lack of other features that you may be accustomed to from Microsoft Word, Pages, or Google Docs, such as bolding and italics.
#3: Grade Your GMAT Practice Essays
Once you’ve written your practice GMAT essays, try to score them with the 6-point grading rubric and by comparing your writing to the sample essay provided by the GMAC. The point of grading your essays is not to feel bad that you didn’t live up to the ideals of a perfect essay score but instead to hone in on your weaknesses so you can improve. Whether it’s disorganized writing, not varying your sentence structure enough, running out of time, insufficient analysis, or some other issue entirely, you should identify the main issues with your essay, then focus your practice on improving those areas.
If you find yourself struggling to reach the same level of writing and analysis as the sample top-scoring essay, one additional option available to you is the official GMATWrite subscription. Each subscription includes two real GMAT essay prompts and the opportunity to write four essays. Your practice essays will be scored using E-Rater, the same automated essay-scoring engine used by the official GMAT exam. Once you submit an essay, you will receive a score, suggestions for improvement, and other relevant feedback.
Keep in mind that the AWA is the least important part of your GMAT score, and most people do well on the essay anyway, so budget your time (and money) accordingly.
Check out our more in-depth guide to the format, scoring, and other tips for the GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment. Once you feel comfortable with the basics, head to our guide on GMAT essay templates that can help you get a top score on the AWA (coming soon). If you’re just getting started with your overall GMAT prep, you may want to go over what to expect on the all the other sections of the GMAT as well.
Author: Jess Hendel
Jess Hendel is a Brooklyn-based academic advisor, test prep tutor, and content writer for PrepScholar. A graduate of Amherst College, she has several years of experience writing content and designing curricula for the top e-learning organizations. She is passionate about leveraging new media and technology to help students around the world achieve their potential. View all posts by Jess Hendel
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While there is no way to predict which topic you’ll see on test day, by following the same process and using the same template for each practice essay you write, you’ll be well-prepared. You can download a list of topics here. The topics may change, but your approach never will. Let’s look at one of the official GMAT topics:
The first step towards strong essay examples is to understand the two sides of the issue. You must either strongly agree or strongly disagree with the presented issue. Unlike real life where most of your opinions are probably a mix of gray, the GMAT Issue essay requires you to take a strong stand on one side of the issue. You won’t be able to adequately argue a middle-of-the-road approach in 30 minutes, and you risk appearing indecisive and muddling your essay.
First state the two sides of the issue in your own words:
TRUE: More violence should be incorporated into entertainment.
FALSE: More violence should NOT be incorporated into entertainment.
Now you can begin to brainstorm examples for both sides. Look at the language of the prompt. It mentions “television programs, movies, songs and other forms….” Those are big clues to some of the areas from which you can draw examples!
Examples of successful popular culture entertainment that incorporate violence:
- TV: WWF programs, MXC on SpikeTV, Gordon Ramsey on Hell’s Kitchen (he throws plates!)
- Movies: Kill Bill series, adaptations of graphic novels like Sin City, the Saw franchise
- Songs: rappers like Eminem, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, etc.
- Other forms: videogames like Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, etc.
Remember that you won’t use every single one of these examples, but making a list and expanding upon the topic will help you brainstorm what points you’d ultimately like to make. Now it’s time to decide how you’d like to use these examples. Do you want to say that Saw and Grand Theft Auto are detrimental to society or do you prefer to argue that they represent harmless escapism? Don’t simply choose the side with which you agree. Let the examples and your own knowledge and background dictate which side you support.
For example, someone with a lot of knowledge about psychology may argue persuasively that exposure to violence leads to increased violent behavior in children, whereas a history buff may put forth that violence as entertainment has historically always been a normal part of human expression. You will not be scored on your opinion, but on how clearly and forcefully you make and defend your argument. Choose one or two main points based on your own knowledge, and then choose specific examples from your brainstorm list to support your conclusions.
To score well on the GMAT, you’ll have to impress the readers with your essay’s content, structure, style. We’ve heard quite a bit about content and structure: have a clear argument, provide concrete examples, build your essay like a hamburger, etc. What about style, a.k.a. writing well? What does that even mean? To start with the obvious, writing “well” means the difference between saying “writing good” and “writing well”–in other words, grammar. To be honest, though, you could write a perfectly grammatical essay with concrete examples and clear focus, and it still might not cut it. Check out this example below:
“The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century had both negative and positive consequences. The Industrial Revolution caused child labor and poor working conditions. The Industrial Revolution then led to reforms that amended these injustices.”
Clearly, this short paragraph is not written well. But, how can that be? The sentences are grammatical, the information is factual, the writing is clear, and the vocabulary is apt. The problem is sentence variation.
Varying sentence structure often comes naturally to many writers; after all, we certainly do not talk in the manner of the Industrial Revolution paragraph. In my example, each sentence begins with the same subject, “The Industrial Revolution,” and each sentence has the exact same subject-verb construction, which makes reading laborious and tiresome. If you notice that you tend to repeat sentence structures when you write, try getting used to inverting or rewording the sentence.
For example, look at these two sentences which have the same structure:
“People rarely observe grammar rules when speaking because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication. People just say what they mean instead of carefully crafting sentences.”
Notice that, like our earlier example, the writing is unnecessarily repetitive. What options do we have for inverting the sentences?
Sentence 1: People rarely observe grammar rules when speaking because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication.
Inversion: Because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication, people rarely observe grammar rules when speaking.
Sentence 2: People just say what they mean instead of carefully crafting sentences.
Inversion: Instead of carefully crafting sentences, people just say what they mean.
To improve sentence variation, just change one of the sentences to its inversion.
Option 1: People rarely observe grammar rules when speaking because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication. Instead of carefully crafting sentences, people just say what they mean.
Option 2: Because not all grammar rules are conducive to clear communication, people rarely observe grammar rules when speaking. People just say what they mean instead of carefully crafting sentences.
Notice that both options sound significantly better than the original, though the exact same clauses are used. Sentence inversion is one very simple way to improve sentence variation. When you write or even when you read, try inverting the sentences to see what combinations you can come up with. Remember, trust your ear! If a certain phrasing sounds like an improvement, it probably is.