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Manne with a Plan: Essay Prompts from Real Life

May 4, 2017
Kathy Manne

Kathy Manne explains how to write for GRE essay prompts.

Look to common news sources for issues and arguments.

In this monthly GRE series, KTP Expert faculty member Kathy Manne takes you through inventive test prep strategies and offers tips to help you prepare for Test Day. Kathy has spent years developing alternative study methods with hundreds of time-crunched students.

I can write essays, no problem!

Sure, but can you write one following the GRE essay prompt… in 30 minutes… with no grammar or spell check? You have a limited window of time, just half an hour, in which to develop and type out your GRE Issue and Argument essays. These are also the first things you have to complete during the exam. So, let’s make sure you don’t run into writer’s block on Test Day.

Essay prompt practice

To acquaint yourself with writing for a prompt, your GRE prep should include outlining at least one argument or issue essay daily and typing both essays in full once a week. Outlining an essay should only take a few minutes, and all you need is your brain, pen, and paper.

We recommend taking about 8 minutes from the time you lay eyes on the essay prompt to finishing your outline. That leaves you 20 minutes to write and two minutes to proofread your essay on Test Day.

To practice, you need material for prompts. Luckily, you have many sources to find topics of discussion:

  • ETS offers sample instructions and two prompts for each essay on its website. It also has links to pools of essay topics.
  • Newspapers
  • News radio—for example, National Public Radio (NPR)
  • Television or cable news programs
  • Conversations with friends, co-workers, and family

How to prep for the Issue essay

Use instructions from the ETS website. From one of the above sources, pick an issue. Scan for an interesting headline in a newspaper, or pick a topic from one of NPRs many programs. Express the topic to yourself in a single sentence, GRE test-style.

Think critically about both sides of the issue, and list points for and against each side. Decide which side is easiest to defend. Remember, ETS and your schools do NOT care what you actually think, but how well you communicate those thoughts! Then, outline your position, including what examples you would use to support your points.

How to prep for the Argument essay

Again, choose an instruction set, and a source. Opinion pieces from op-ed pages in newspapers, particularly letters to the editor, are a great source for argument essay prompts. Also consider arguments from your opinionated friend, co-worker, or family member, or from news programs.

You are seeking something with a clear conclusion, multiple pieces of supporting evidence, and many assumptions, as you will have in your Test Day essay prompt. Take the argument apart, identifying all the assumptions. Outline your essay, addressing the most critical assumptions, providing means by which to test them, and indicating what result would make each assumption stronger or weaker (or doing whatever else the instructions you choose may ask).

Practice Tips

For each essay type, make sure you use random topics, including ones with which you may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable. You can ask a friend or family member assign topics. While the GRE tries to choose issues and arguments that are topical but fairly bland, you may find yourself challenged on Test Day, when you won’t get to choose your topic.

Write one issue and one argument essay a week. You can use the instructions from the ETS website. When done, put the essays aside, and read them another day, watching for logical flow (think keywords), grammar, writing style, and fully answering the question asked. Consider re-writing essays for greater clarity. This will help improve your writing.

As a student in a Kaplan course, we grade your essays and provide feedback. ETS also offers a paid grading service.

The Win

The more you practice, the easier it will be to quickly take apart the essay prompt, organize your thoughts into an outline, and start writing. You also will have practice in presenting cogent, grammatically correct essays that follow the instructions and properly address the prompt, raising your score.

Keep your eyes and ears open for topics. Happy writing!

Once you’ve mastered essay writing, hone your other verbal skills with a free 20-minute GRE workout.



Kathy Manne Kathy is an alumna of Wellesley College (chemistry and art history double major, with minor in biochem) and Syracuse University College of Law, with a Certificate in Law, Technology, and Management.


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