In a previous post, where I brainstormed ideas on a sample topic, I mentioned I would write a mock essay using those ideas. Below is that topic. And below that is the essay.
In any field of endeavor, it is impossible to make a significant contribution without first being strongly influenced by past achievements within that field.
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.
While many accomplishments build on existing knowledge, many significant breakthroughs result from those who have completely broken with tradition. Clearly then, significant breakthroughs do not always build upon existing knowledge.
By the mid-20th Century, Abstract art was at its acme. At the same time, many critics felt that the artists had all but exhausted themselves in terms of innovation. To be unique one had to be random and chaotic—silly even. It was little surprise that many crowed about the imminent demise of Abstract art. Into this intellectual milieu, the artist Jackson Pollock came to prominence. Seemingly random and chaotic—though anything but silly—his work had no clear precedent. He would throw paint at a canvas on the ground or propped up against the wall. Though many dismissed him as a madman and a crank, eventually his work was hailed as that of a genius, and that work did much to reinvigorate the movement of Abstract Art. Had Pollock tried to simply build off of the existing art he very well may have fallen victim to the prophecy that the Abstract art movement had become effete and moribund.
Whereas Jackson Pollock created seminal work by totally breaking with tradition, Copernicus questioned tradition, specifically the assumptions underlying the Ptolemaic version of the universe. At the time, the geocentric model of the universe was considered gospel: both the church and the scientific community (at that time the two were heavily interrelated) endorsed this view because it put man at the center of the universe. Even then, it had the stamp of scientific legitimacy in Ptolemy, who had centuries earlier “proven” that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Using advanced math and his observation skills, Copernicus was able to determine that the earth revolved around the Sun. Just as importantly, he was able to challenge the orthodox view, and instead of building off of it, exposed the shoddy foundations upon which this view was built.
Of course both Jackson Pollock and Copernicus are not the typical in the sweep of human endeavors. It is true that many breakthroughs result from somebody building off of or simply improving the way in which something is done. Henry Ford, with his use of the assembly line, made the process of manufacturing goods far more effective. Then there is our modern day visionary, Steve Jobs, who took existing technology and simply made it easier to use (and prettier to look at).
Yet, as Pollock and Copernicus show, there are certain instances in which thinkers are able to completely break with tradition. Therefore, not all significant breakthroughs result from those who build upon previous knowledge. But in those instances in which a thinker has challenged age old wisdom, or come up with a radical form of art, the world surely takes notice.
This is by no means a perfect essay. But it effectively develops the point: It is not impossible to come up with a breakthrough that doesn’t build off previous knowledge. This is an example-heavy essay, building its position off of Jackson Pollock and Copernicus. Now I am no Art History major, and I can’t profess that this is example is 100% correct. The thing is the GRE won’t dock your grade if you fudge slight facts. For instance, if I said Copernicus was a 17th Century astronomer, instead of 15th Century one, that would not be too catastrophic. If I place him as a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, then I am in trouble. So again, you have a little leeway in facts.
It is by no means a bad idea to make an essay an example-driven one. At the same time, I don’t think there was too much analysis of the prompt. Perhaps had the essay delved more into what it means to make a significant contribution to a field that would have been helpful. For instance, Copernicus didn’t just come up with his heliocentric view out of the blue, uninfluenced by other thinkers. After all he did employ math and observations gleaned from new technology. Had he not applied the math and used a telescope he would have not made his discovery. So was this application building off previous knowledge?
I will give the essay kudos for including the second to last paragraph, which does a fair bit of analysis. The author could have included another example to prove her point (something most students writing GRE essays do). But including yet another support shows zero analysis and would have likely dropped this essay to a ‘4’. Instead, the author concedes a limitation in her own point of view, but in the final paragraph shows that her thesis is still valid (“the world surely takes notice”).
And one other kudos for the polished writing. There is also some nice variety to the sentences. Still, the essay would probably have gotten a ‘5’, since it doesn’t provide the complex level of analysis the graders are looking for.
This essay is just one possible iteration of a ‘5’. To get a sense of more ‘5’s and ‘4’s, and even ‘6’, you can find sample essays on the gre.org site. My advice is to understand the difference between a ‘4’ and a ‘5’, do your best to identify where you are scoring and, when applicable, try to get to a ‘4’ by identifying your weaknesses, or a ‘5’, or, for some, a ‘6.’
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GRE For High Scorers, Part 6: GRE Issue Essays
Structuring Your GRE Issue Essay
Should you use a template, given that the Issue essay is the very first thing you'll have to do on GRE day? Or are you a good enough writer to create your own structure on the fly? I've had high-scoring writers really benefit from using a template for the GRE issue essay. Others, of course, scoff at the idea because they're such good writers. Either way, first of all, high scorers should follow the advice that everyone should follow, just to get as used to the task as possible:
"Actions: read Chapter 2 and all sample essays and commentary in The Official Guide, as well as those in the Verbal Practice book. These are great models for your writing since you can see what the ETS graders reward. Pay very close attention to the grader commentary.
Read and brainstorm the topics for the Issue essay and the topics for the Argument essay. Write essays untimed, then timed. Compare them to the sample essays in the ETS books. I highly recommend getting a good writer to look at your essays. They Say, I Say is the best book I know of to improve your writing."
Ok, assuming you've gotten started on the above, I want to give you some insight about what you need to do to get a 6.
Analysis Of A Real GRE Issue Essay That Received A 6
You may notice that many Issue Essay prompts make statements that are difficult to fully support. The example and response I want to use first is this one about technology (link is to the GRE's website). Go ahead and read the prompt, then read the "6" response just below it. Now, let's think about its statement:
As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.
Notice that this statement - like many Issue statements - would be difficult to agree with 100% of the time. Good responses will acknowledge the complexity of the issue and respond in an insightful way to that complexity. This response does that partly by discussing the reasoning that might be used by someone who agrees with the statement (in paragraph 2):
The statement attempts to bridge these dramatic changes to a reduction in the ability for humans to think for themselves. The assumption is that an increased reliance on technology negates the need for people to think creatively to solve previous quandaries. Looking back at the introduction, one could argue that without a car, computer, or mobile phone, the hypothetical worker would need to find alternate methods of transport, information processing and communication. Technology short circuits this thinking by making the problems obsolete.
Good writers often begin this way - they talk about their opponents' views, then respond with their own. This provides context and a framework for their argument. Writing a persuasive essay without addressing the reasoning of other points-of-view is like pretending your point-of-view exists in a vacuum with no one to challenge it.
Now let's look at a paragraph that continues to acknowledge the complexity of the issue in an insightful way (paragraph 3):
However, this reliance on technology does not necessarily preclude the creativity that marks the human species. The prior examples reveal that technology allows for convenience. The car, computer and phone all release additional time for people to live more efficiently. This efficiency does not preclude the need for humans to think for themselves. In fact, technology frees humanity to not only tackle new problems, but may itself create new issues that did not exist without technology. For example, the proliferation of automobiles has introduced a need for fuel conservation on a global scale. With increasing energy demands from emerging markets, global warming becomes a concern inconceivable to the horse-and-buggy generation. Likewise dependence on oil has created nation-states that are not dependent on taxation, allowing ruling parties to oppress minority groups such as women. Solutions to these complex problems require the unfettered imaginations of maverick scientists and politicians.
I like this paragraph a lot because not only does the author make an insightful point that technology gives people more time to think, but that technology itself creates problems that require thinking. This is a step up from what I think the average writer might do - just cite an example of technology that helps us think or that we need to think to use. Now, you don't always need this level of insight, but it's a good example of what might separate a 6 from a 5. Compelling reasoning and depth of thought are rewarded.
I also like that this essay creates a critical context with the first paragraph, defining the scope of what it's going to discuss. It's the one I most talk about if a higher-scoring student wants some kind of GRE issue essay template, too. It's nice to have a go-to structure when you've only got 29 minutes and 37 seconds and the clock is relentlessly ticking...
Another example I like in the Verbal Reasoning Practice Book is the 6 essay response to a prompt about "People should obey just laws and disobey unjust laws". The author spends some time questioning the context to apply "just" - i.e., what is more important, being just to the individual or just to society? The author also questions how to define "just": if a society is brainwashed, can "just" have any meaning? I like this approach, since, again, it acknowledges the complexity and complications of forming a position on that issue.
How To Effectively Choose And Use Examples In The Issue Essay
Many of my students find it difficult at first to think of relevant examples to support the arguments they make when writing the GRE issue essay. In this section, I’ll give you one of my favorite GRE essay tips: how to choose strong examples.
Again, just so we have some context, here’s a sample Issue essay prompt:
“Employees at all levels of a corporation should be involved in that corporation’s short and long term goal planning.”
Now, one trap I want you to avoid falling into is thinking you have to have specialized knowledge of the topic. You might say to yourself that you’ve never worked for a corporation and that you don’t know how corporations typically plan. The good news is that you can still write a good essay about the topic using what you do know.
For example, let’s say you mostly agree with the statement and wanted to think of an example you could use. You could use an example from real life – perhaps you could talk about how employees at Google are encouraged to use 20% of their time to work on projects they think will benefit the company.
Even if you couldn’t think of a real life example, you might use a hypothetical example and talk about how if an airline asked all employees about its plans for the future, flight attendants might provide unique insights into what customers like and don’t like.
One strategy I like to recommend is to instead of thinking of what the perfect GRE issue essay examples might be, think about what you know well and see if it could fit. This will encourage you to choose examples you know well, making it easier to write insightfully about them. It might be a good idea to make a list of your personal “go-to” topics – things you can easily talk or write about. You’ll find that you can use many of them for many essays – don’t let the first thing that comes to mind box you in. Essay topics are designed so that almost anyone can write about them.
For example, I love reading The Economist. Since I read it every week, I usually have been thinking about some current events that I can apply to many Issue topics. Also, reading like this builds up a storehouse of information that you can dip into, making it increasingly likely you'll be inspired when a random topic pops up on the screen.
Remember, the GRE issue essay examples you choose matter, but they must be used skillfully. Practice brainstorming lots of different essay prompts from the ETS website to get used to coming up with examples that you can use to support your point of view.
Another reminder: I am available if you want a human to grade / give feedback on your essays. Just get in touch with me if you're interested. In my experience, this is the one part of the test that students tend to under-prepare for. No matter how you prepare for the essays, make sure that you at least write a few of each type before you actually take the real GRE.
Final Issue Essay Thoughts
Check out all the 6 responses in the ETS books (there are five "6" responses for the Issue task, and five for the Argument task). These will give you more ideas about what the highest-scoring essays do. Just keep in mind that these are paradigms of "6" responses... you don't always have to be that good to earn a "6". Again, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is to find an essay structure you like and create your own issue essay template out of it, so you have a "go-to" structure on test day.
Also a reminder that you can work with me if you're looking for issue essay feedback. Just get in touch if you'd like some personalized help.