Advice for the AWA and IR Sections of the GMAT

The following guest blog post was written by Rich Carriero of NextStep Test Prep:

Analytical Writing Assessment

As you likely know, The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) essay is the first section of the GMAT. The task is for you to read and analyze a short argument and then critique it on the basis of its use of logic and data.

One of the most important things to remember is that you must not take sides. Rather, consider your position like that of a professor grading a term paper: you are not so much concerned with the inherent truth or falsehood of the writer’s position as you are with how well constructed, supported and reasoned you find the argument to be.

Planning the essay begins with dissecting the stimulus. You must determine what is the author’s conclusion, what evidence does the author use to support this conclusion and what are the gaps are between the evidence and conclusion–the assumptions. There are many types of assumptions but they can generally be divided into unproven premises the author is taking for granted and potential outside factors the author is ignoring.

Dealing with your assumptions will be the meat of your essay. For example, your stimulus might argue that cigarettes are declining in popularity because of a recent Surgeon General’s report detailing the negative health consequences of smoking. One of your body paragraphs can attack this argument by pointing out that the author is assuming the report has caused the decline in smoking–a causality assumption. You would go on to add that extremely high state and federal taxes on tobacco products could have made smoking unaffordable to smokers or that health reports about the negative consequences of smoking have been issued with regularity for decades without comparable drops in smoking levels.

Other points of attack for your essay can be vague terms critical to an argument’s success or failure. For example, a stimulus might argue against the approval of a cancer drug because there is a “high risk of serious side effects.” You could attack this by first pointing out that a statistic would be far more convincing than an adjective. You could further argue that it would be helpful to know what types of cancer the drug treats, how effective it is at doing so and what is the usual prognosis of patients with those cancers. If the drug triples the life expectancy of those with pancreatic cancer, then its side effects, however severe, can be regarded as trivial. If, however, the drug is merely another form of treatment for prostate cancer, which already has high cure rates, than it may not be worth the risk.

Finally, arguments can have obvious common sense flaws that need to be addressed. For example an argument might propose a marathon for the city of Cincinnati one week after the New York Marathon to capitalize on the publicity of the famous race. This argument, however, fails to consider that the best runners in the world run the New York race and will likely be recuperating a week after, or that comparison to the much better established race might be unfavorable and lead runners and sponsors to not take it seriously.

Now your essay should not leave the audience without any hope for the stimulus under review. In your conclusion you should suggest gathering evidence that would validate the assumptions: perhaps a survey or a comparison of existing records.

Integrated Reasoning

The Integrated Reasoning (IR) section is the new kid on the GMAT block, added in 2012 in place of the old issue Essay. The basic purpose of the IR section is to ascertain how well you can navigate multiple sources of media to answer questions in a short span of time. Thus all integrated reasoning questions are based on some combination of reading passage, chart, table or graph. Visual media are frequently sortable or contain tabs. Interestingly, on this one section of the test, you also have access to an on-screen calculator.

There is no one strategy for such a disparate lot but there is some effective general advice. First, always skim the passages and charts before looking at the questions. This will allow you to gain your own understanding and observe any trends in data. Second, you should estimate the answers to math problems when possible as answers are often far enough apart to do so. Third, move quickly. There’s a lot of data to get through and most questions have multiple parts. Almost no one gets them all right in 30 minutes and you don’t need to get an 8. One of the points of the exercise is to see how well you respond to this time pressure. So treat IR like battlefield surgery: go through your 12 cases knowing in advance that you’re going to lose some of them and devote your energy to the 8-10 that you can save. Finally, practice! The best resource available is the set of 50 questions that comes with the GMAT Review 13th Edition and the GMAT Guide 2015.

An October 2014 Kaplan survey of over 200 admissions staff found that 60% did not yet give much weight to the new section when considering an applicant. As admissions personnel grow more comfortable with the new section, they’ll have a better sense of how to weigh an IR score into their overall appraisal–so you can’t assume the IR score won’t matter in 2020. You also can’t ignore the 40% of survey respondents who already give weight to IR scores. Finally, a very low essay or IR score is going to draw the wrong kind of attention to your application and that is something you should never risk. Thus, the safest course is to do the best you can on both sections.

 [NextStep Test Prep is a leading provider of 1-on-1 tutoring for the GRE and GMAT. To learn more, click here to schedule a free consultation.  For general MBA admissions advice, contact Shine at]

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© Shine/ MBA Admissions Consulting, April 1, 2015, 10:30am MT


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