Most websites, books, and test prep courses offering GMAT essay tips do little more than state the obvious. Tips like “manage your time,” “structure your essay,” “use transitions,” etc. apply to any timed writing assignment and ignore the specificity of the GMAT AWA, which requires that test-takers analyze an argument. In order to receive a high score on the AWA, it is therefore vital that test-takers understand the elements of an argument and not just the elements of good writing. The three GMAT essay tips introduced below precede the elements of good writing: they are critical for determining which ideas in an argument require greater focus and for establishing a logical essay structure.
GMAT Essay Tip #1: Understand the Structure of an Argument
At the most basic level, an argument consists of two elements: premises (also referred to as reasons or grounds) and a conclusion (also referred to as a claim). The conclusion is the main point the argument is trying to convince the audience to accept (e.g., that a certain action should be taken, that the best way to accomplish “x” is by “y,” etc.). The premises, on the other hand, are the reasons or support used to justify the conclusion. Premises are statements believed to be true, but which have not been proven and may, in fact, be logically suspect. In a logically valid argument, the premises must be relevant to the conclusion and the conclusion must necessarily follow from the premises.
In order to help illustrate the distinction between an argument’s premises and conclusion, consider the following example:
The market for the luxury-goods industry is on the decline. Recent reports show that a higher unemployment rate, coupled with consumer fears, has decreased the amount of money the average household spends on both essential and nonessential items, but especially on nonessential items. Since luxury goods are, by nature, nonessential, this market will be the first to decrease in the present economic climate, and luxury retailers should refocus their attention to lower-priced markets.
In this argument, the conclusion is that “retailers should refocus their attention to lower-priced markets.” The conclusion is based on the following premises: 1) that the higher unemployment rate and consumer fears has led to a decrease in the purchase of essential and nonessential items; 2) that luxury goods are non-essential items, and; 3) that the decline in the purchase of non-essential items has been/will be greater than the decline in essential items.
Recognizing the distinction between an argument’s conclusions and premises is necessary in order to accurately summarize an argument, determine which points deserve emphasis, and effectively demonstrate an argument’s invalidity. According to the GMAT scoring criteria, to receive a score of 5 or 6 (the highest possible score) on the AWA, the essay must “clearly identify important features of the argument and analyze them insightfully.” It is impossible to insightfully analyze an argument if you are focusing on tangential points and are unable to explain the relationship between the various points presented.
To better understand the problems that can arise from not understanding the structure of an argument, consider this introduction from an essay on the above argument: “The argument that the luxury goods industry is on the decline due to higher unemployment rates and consumer fears is not logically convincing because it depends on three questionable assumptions.” In this case, the writer confuses a single premise with “the argument” and completely fails to address the conclusion of the argument – the most important point that accounts for why the other points are relevant in the first place. No matter how well-written this essay turns out to be, it will never earn a score above a 3.5 or 4: it is doomed from the beginning as a result of the writer’s inability to accurately summarize the argument and focus on its most important features.
GMAT Essay Tip #2: Critique the Premises Before the Conclusion
This is not to suggest, on the other hand, that a writer should not focus on challenging an argument’s premises or that premises are unimportant components of an argument. However, it is important to remember that the objective is not to challenge a premise simply for its own sake, but to sever the connection between the premise and the conclusion that the argument attempts to establish.
Because an argument’s conclusion is dependent on the premises, it is more logical to begin by first critiquing the premises before tackling the conclusion head on. After pointing out a problem with a premise, however, the writer needs to address the connection (or lack thereof) between the premise and the argument’s conclusion by explaining how the specific problem identified with the premise calls into question the argument’s conclusion.
To better understand the problems associated with addressing the conclusion before the premises, consider the following first two paragraphs from an essay:
The argument is made at a meeting of the directors of a company that manufactures parts for heavy machinery, during a discussion of the company’s declining revenues. Delays in manufacturing are believed to be the cause of the falling revenues as apparently both the delays in manufacturing and the decline in revenue happened at the same time. The manufacturing delays are attributed to the poor planning in purchasing metals by the purchasing manager, who has an excellent background in business, psychology, and sociology, but lacks a scientific understanding of metals. For this reason, it is advised that the company replace the current manager with a scientist from the research division. This argument makes many assumptions and fails to provide information about other factors that could be responsible for the failing revenues. Hence, this argument is flawed and unconvincing.
Firstly, it assumes that the scientist from the research department would have all the necessary prerequisite business related knowledge required to run the purchasing department. It assumes that there will not be any problems with regards to the inventory management and that scientific knowledge is sufficient to handle the inventory management. This is unconvincing as no information is provided about the training that the scientist would be provided on the inventory management or about the possible transition of knowledge from the manager to the scientist. The argument can be strengthened if information about training or transition is provided.
While the writer does an excellent job summarizing the argument (perhaps even in too much detail for an introduction) and clearly recognizes how the conclusion emerges from several problematic premises, the writer’s decision to challenge the conclusion in the second paragraph as opposed to later in the essay undercuts the writer’s otherwise strong reasoning. While the first several sentences of the second paragraph make valid points, the points being made are all tangential to the main issues: the cause(s) for the decline in revenue and the cause(s) for the delays in manufacturing. By beginning with the conclusion, the writer in the above example is implying the validity of the argument’s premises, for there is no logical basis for considering replacing the present manager unless both premises about the cause of the difficulties were true. As paragraphs three and four actually challenge both premises, the writer is undercutting his/her own critique by beginning from a position where both premises are implied to be valid.
As a general rule, it is best to critique ideas in an argument in the order that they are presented so that the connection between ideas can be critiqued as well (the exception being cases where the conclusion of an argument is presented before the premises). In the above example, the writer should have first challenged the idea that the decline in revenues is owing to the manufacturing delays, and then in the third paragraph challenged the premise that the manager’s lack of scientific background was responsible for the manufacturing delays. The points in the current second paragraph would be introduced in a fourth paragraph, that would begin with something like: “Even if we were to accept that the decline in revenues is due to the manufacturing delays, and that the present purchasing manager’s lack of scientific knowledge has been responsible for the manufacturing delays, there is still no reason to believe that replacing the present purchasing manager with a scientist is the best solution… “
By critiquing the premises before the conclusion, the writer would be building momentum and logical force. The writer’s critique of the premises would all be working to show how the conclusion is problematic, and the conclusion of the essay would be much stronger. The writer would have multiple grounds for challenging the argument’s conclusion, as opposed to the currently weak, tangential reasoning offered in paragraph two.
GMAT Writing Tip #3: Know the Different Logical Fallacies
As there are close to 150 official GMAT AWA topics, it is difficult if not impossible to prepare for the exam by writing a practice essay on each. Nor is this really necessary or advisable. A better approach would be to familiarize yourself with the common logical flaws, or logical fallacies, that appear in the official AWA topics, so that you can immediately identify the major errors in reasoning in the argument you are asked to critique on your official GMAT exam.
For instance, both premises in the argument above calling for the replacement of the purchasing manager are examples of the fallacy of false cause: both premises posit a cause and effect relationship between two separate events or conditions based simply on their coincidence in time or a correlation. Most of the official AWA arguments repeat a handful of logical fallacies that are far easier to memorize than the 100 plus arguments themselves.
Good GMAT prep courses and books will cover the most common fallacies (there is insufficient space to do an adequate job here). Once you memorize them, practice identifying the particular fallacy in an argument by working through the list of official topics. Most importantly, practice explaining why a specific idea is logically invalid and how the fallacy undermines the conclusion of the argument. Once again, the goal is not to simply point out that there is specific logical fallacy in an argument, but rather to explain how this particular logical fallacy calls into question the validity of the argument’s conclusion.
Hopefully the GMAT essay tips introduced in this article help clarify that what distinguishes a high-scoring from a low-scoring AWA is something far more substantial than a writer’s ability to structure their essay, use transitions, and avoid grammatical errors. To write an excellent critique of an argument, a writer must understand the structure of an argument and what constitutes a logically valid as opposed to an invalid conclusion. Only then can a writer accurately summarize and effectively analyze the relationship between the ideas presented.