The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) of the GMAT, also called the Analysis of an Argument, is a 30 minute timed essay writing exercise. You will be provided a short passage to analyze. The passage will put forth some type of argument or proposal, frequently drawn from such sources as newspaper editorials and corporate memos. Your job will be to critique the argument, finding its weaknesses and in a best case scenario identifying ways in which the argument might be strengthened. The AWA section is evaluated by both a professional essay rater and a computer program and is scored on a scale of 0 to 6. The AWA score is not a component of your total score, but is provided to business schools along with your other scores.
As with the other major sections of the GMAT, success on the Analytical Writing Assessment requires considerable practice and forethought. For most test-takers, the time constraint is the most significant challenge to be overcome. Simply put, the prospect of writing an essay to the GMAT standards in the allotted time is daunting. Even skilled writers and experienced test-takers might struggle to put together a coherent response in 30-minutes - much less an exceptional response.
Fortunately there are two characteristics of the AWA section that make the preparation process more manageable: (1) regardless of the nature of the essay prompt, the instructions are always identical, and (2) the prompts themselves follow a rather predictable pattern.
The instructions challenge you to critique the argument presented in the prompt, considering what questionable assumptions are made in support of the argument, counter-arguments that might weaken the author's conclusion, and changes or additional evidence that might strengthen the argument. If you have already begun to prepare for Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension questions in the Verbal section, these concepts should be starting to sound very familiar. The GMAT is very consistent in the types of logical flaws for which it tests. Use this consistency to your advantage.
Fortunately, the arguments in the prompts are always extremely flawed. They never present compelling evidence and they always make unsubstantiated assumptions. The GMAC website has a listing of all retired AWA questions that you can download from the following page: Analytical Writing Assessment Section. Read over a few of these retired prompts at random and you will see this pattern emerge.
The essay you write should follow standard conventions of short form writing. You will need to have a strong opening that summarizes the main points of the prompt and also summarizes the main points of your critique. The essay should then follow with a paragraph supporting each of the main points of your critique, and then conclude with a paragraph which restates the critique. Think of this tried and true formula as "the three tell 'ems." (1) Tell them what you're going to tell them. (2) Tell them. (3) Tell them what you told them.
Some test-takers find it helpful to take this basic formula and develop a template customized to the GMAT requirements. For example, the first paragraph of such a template might look something like this:
In the [memo, editorial etc.], the author argues that [summarize the argument]. Based on this argument the author concludes [summarize the conclusion]. While it might be compelling on its face, this conclusion is undermined by several flaws. The author makes the assumption that [name a faulty assumption]. In addition the author does not provide any evidence to support the claim that [name a claim that lacks evidence], and fails to address [name something the author does not appear to have considered].
While the basic idea behind having a template is sound, you might be better advised to keep a framework in mind rather than attempting to memorize a complete template. You don't want to fall into the trap of forcing your essay to fit into your template without regard to the nature of the prompt. Your time and energy would be better spent practicing by reading sample prompts and quickly teasing out a thesis for your essay.
The need to actually practice writing essays cannot be overstated. Set aside time in your study regimen to write at least five essays based on prompts drawn at random from the GMAC listing (ten would be better). In addition to developing your skill at analyzing the arguments presented, timed practice is critical to developing the intuition necessary for correct pacing.
Read the prompt very carefully and take a few minutes to organize your thoughts. Sacrificing one or two extra minutes at the beginning to get off to a solid start will definitely pay off at the end.
Don't try to address every potential issue in the argument. Pick two or three easy points that you know you can expand well.
Consider writing your conclusion first. This strategy will ensure you have a strong finish, and because a good conclusion restates all of your main points the strategy helps you make sure you have a solid thesis in place.
Once you have started writing the main body of your essay, under no circumstances should you change your main thesis. If you attempt to make anything more than a trivial change in the flow of your logic, you will almost certainly run out of time. No matter how cutting or insightful your new idea might be, it is much more important to deliver polished, well articulated prose.
Maintain a pacing that will allow you about five minutes at the end of the section to proofread. You will find mistakes and you will be happy that you did.
Look for causal flaws in the prompt. Causal flaws are errors in reasoning where the author states that A causes B without considering other possible causes or considering that B might in fact cause A. An example might be: "Shepherd County has high property values. Students at Shepherd High School have some of the highest test scores in the state. Therefore we can conclude that high property values lead to schools with exceptional teaching practices." Here there are a number of challenges and alternatives to the author's conclusion. It might be that the opposite causal relationship is true and that in fact schools with high test scores lead to increased property values, or it might simply be a coincidence that Shepherd County has high property values and Shepherd High School has high test scores.
Look for unsubstantiated comparisons and extrapolations. For example: "Jones Accounting Partners up the road implemented flexible work day policies and their productivity is up 20%. Therefore we should implement flexible work day policies here at Smith Advertising Agency and our productivity will go up too." This argument relies on a comparison between the accounting firm and the advertising agency that might not be warranted in this situation. Perhaps operations at advertising agency require more collaborative work that would be made more difficult if employees were not all on the same schedule, or perhaps employees at the advertising agency spend more time with customers who expect to be met during standard business hours.
As most of the prompts lack evidence in support of the argument, look for opportunities where an argument could be strengthened by evidence. Don't just criticize the fact that the evidence is lacking, but use the opportunity to suggest specific additions. Depending on the argument you might suggest that the author perform a market study, conduct a survey, provide examples of other similar situations, or use statistics from the company's records.