GRE Issue Essay

For the Analyze an Issue assignment, you will be presented with a statement or a claim. Your job is to agree to disagree with the statement, and then write a compelling essay to support the position you have taken.
That being said, it is critical that you pay attention to the specific instructions given along with the essay, Which may affect how much or how little you have to write about the side of the argument you are not in support of. ETS list six different possible ways you might be prompted to respond to a topic. Here they are, from page 13 of The Official Guide for the GRE revised General Test:

  1. 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.
  2. Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the recommendation and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, describe specific circumstances in which adopting the recommendation would or would not be advantageous and explain how these examples shape your position.
  3. Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons or examples that could be used to challenge your position.
  4. Write a response in which you discuss which view more closely aligns with your own position and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should address both of the views presented above.
  5. Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim AND the reason on which that claim is based. (NOTE: For this prompt, the claim will be accompanied by a reason why the claim has been made. You will need to give your opinion on both)
  6. Write a response in which you discuss your views on the policy above and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider the possible consequences of implementing the policy and explain how these consequences shape your position.

These instructions may seem quite different, but they really fall into three general categories:

  1. Pick a side of the prompt and defend it, but explain when the other side might be true or more logical (#1, #2, #3, and #4 from above).
  2. Pick a side of the prompt, and also make sure to discuss the reason given in defense of that prompt (#5 from above).
  3. Pick a side and discuss the consequences of your opinion (#6 from above).

There is not yet enough data to determine how much weight ETS will put on these specific instructions. But, this fact is absolutely clear that it can be difficult to write intelligently on the subject and not address the specific instructions.
In the end, you will always want to do the following, regardless of the Issue prompt you are given:

  1. Take a point of view on the given issue.
  2. Support your point of view using relevant and specific examples.
  3. Acknowledge both sides of the issue and acknowledge specific instructions in the question.


Spend 3-4 minutes brainstorming specific, real-world examples for each side. “Real World” means some event or phenomenon that actually occurred, whether in history, in your own life, or even in a book that you read. Why brainstorm both sides of an issue?

You don’ t always have to agree.

Some people just have a habit of being agreeable. That is, some students just automatically assume they should agree with the topic. However, some GRE topics are actually phrased in a pretty extreme way, such that they would be difficult to defend.

For example: “Societies should try to save every plant and animal species, regardless of the expense to humans in effort, time, and financial well-being.”
That said, here’ s how you get started brainstorming. Try it with this topic:
“The better a new idea is, the greater the opposition to that idea when it is first presented. Only later, usually once the person who had the idea is no longer around to enjoy its success, do we consider the thinker a genius.”

First, make a T-chart, like this:


By writing down “For” and “Against,” you are setting yourself up to think in each direction. This is especially useful when you are trying to come up with counterexamples. For instance, Galileo might pop to mind, because he was persecuted for saying that the Earth moved around the sun, and in fact had to spend the rest of his life under house arrest; after his death, his ideas were vindicated, and he was considered a scientific hero. On the Other hand, there are plenty of geniuses who are renowned during their own lifetimes (Einstein was quite famous in his own time). Jot these down on your T-chart-Galileo on the left, and Einstein on the right.
Here, the example goes a little further than it needs to for the sake of demonstrating the brainstorming process. You probably could have stopped after Nelson Mandela above- stop as soon as you have two to three good ideas for one side.

Galileo Einstein

Your initial thought might have been that you wanted to argue For, but you have come up with three Against examples. Go with it! Your goal is to write the best essay you can as quickly and as easily as possible.
Some topics lend themselves better to examples, while other topics lend themselves better to argumentation. Here’ s another example topic:
“Every nation should require students to study at least one foreign language from the elementary school level through the university level.”
In any case, try an argument-based brainstorming. Again, make a T-chart:


You might just start with the first thing that comes to mind. For instance, people in large countries, such as the U.S and China, don’ t seem to need foreign languages as much as people in smaller countries do. Many people in the U.S and China never leave their own countries. Jot this down in the right column.
On the other hand, the world is becoming more connected. Most people who end up conducting international business, or emigrating to new lands, don’ t know from childhood that they are going to do so. It would be best to require foreign languages, so that they are prepared for whatever happens in their adult lives. This would go in the left column.
One possible thesis might be, “While foreign language study has many benefits, both practical and intellectual, it is going too far to say that such study should be mandatory for every citizen of every nation. This thesis certainly is n’ t arguing that foreign language study is bad- it is taking a very reasonable, balanced approach.
Here is a sample T-chart containing some of the ideas above:

World is more international-students don’ t know
What they will need as adults, so prep them now
Some nations need F.L. more than others.

Some nations not practical- schools very basic, no Foreign language teachers.

Which Foreign language? Who decides?

Preserve culture, some nations? Languages might die out

Some students can’ t, some nations must focus on survival! Too extreme.

It’ s totally okay to have an “unbalanced” T-chart. You want to use this to pick which side to write on. It looks like you have your answer!
Here is what a test-taker might jot on paper next to the chart above:
Foreign Language good but should not be mandatory for all

  • Different countries, Different needs.
  • Some nations must focus on survival-priorities!
  • Not practical- some nations can’ t, what language?, some want to preserve culture.
  • Individual students are different.

You also want to make sure to acknowledge the other side (usually in the introduction, although sometimes in the course of the body paragraphs). This is very easy to do, since you have brainstormed both sides. For instance, on the foreign language topic:
While a reasonable person might suggest that because children don’ t know whether they will move to other nations or engage in international business as adults, we should prepare them for such experiences now. However, children also don’ t know whether they will do manual labor, become doctors, or run for President. There’ s no way to prepare young people for everything that might happen, so it makes sense to leave decisions about education in the hands of each nation and its school systems.
In other words, anticipate counterarguments and respond to them. This is especially important if you have decided on what you know to be an unusual viewpoint. If your argument is that governments should not provide public schools, you absolutely must address the first thing that pops into everyone’ s mind:
“But what about children whose parents can’ t afford to pay private school fees?”
Finally, a word about your thesis on main idea. While sometimes it makes sense to simply agree or disagree with the topic, feel free to take a balanced, “in-between” approach. The graders enjoy nuance. Just be very clear about what you mean. Still, “in-between” does n’ t mean vague or wishy-washy. For instance, if you want to say that foreign language instruction should be mandatory in some countries and not others, say exactly what should be the deciding factor. A good thesis (for someone who is more on the “for” side of the foreign language topic) might be:
Because foreign language instruction is increasingly important in our interconnected world, it should be a priority in school curricula. However, in some nations, foreign language instruction is simply not practical or even possible. Thus, foreign language instruction should be mandatory at all levels of schooling except in nations where such a requirement is impracticable, or for individual students whose learning difficulties make the requirement unreasonable.
Note that this person is n’ t exactly arguing for the topic as written. But there is no question what the writer’s position is. This is a detailed, balanced and reasonable thesis.
Consider these examples:

Too extreme:

All human beings should be forced to study a foreign language.

Foreign languages should not be made mandatory for any students, because students should never have to study something they don’ t want to. Children should always make their own decisions.

Too mushy:

Students who want to should be able to study a foreign language if it’ s available.
Foreign languages can be valuable in certain pursuits. For example, foreign language study can help students become translators, foreign language teachers, or travel writers. (Note: not only is this so mushy no one could argue with it, it also fails to address the questions.)

Just Right

Foreign language should be mandatory for most students in nations where it is pragmatic to offer such instruction on a national basis.
Foreign languages instruction is important and should be encouraged, but for every subject one learns, there’ s another subject one will not have time to learn. Foreign language study should not be made mandatory, thus allowing students free choice in how to best engage and nurture their individual interests and talents.
In sum, your thesis or main idea should not be something so extreme that you can’ t defend it, but it also should not be something so humdrum and obvious that a reasonable person could n’ t take an opposite view. Don’ t over simplify the topic. Pick a thesis you would use to start an interesting, intelligent discussion among reasonable people.

Again, you can practice brainstorming by visiting this link and exploring the pool: just by clicking here.

Try making T-charts, picking a side, and making a rough outline, as described above, for all the topics listed.

Writing the issue Essay


Here is a basic structure for the Issue Essay:

  1. Introduction: Briefly restate the issue with the goal of demonstrating to the grader that you understand the topic. Do not simply repeat the prompt (the grader knows what topic you are writing about). Then define terms (if needed), acknowledge complexity, and establish your “take” or thesis on the issue.
  2. Body: Write 2-4 paragraphs, each illustrating one of your main points. Keep in mind:
    Don’ t spend too much time making a single point or you will run out of time!
  3. Conclusion: Re-summarize your position, acknowledging the other side. An exemplary conclusion adds some final extra insight- a new window to the main idea you have been discussing all along.

Aim for three substantive sentences in your conclusion although sentences can vary widely in length and content. A relevant quote would be a good way to fill out a conclusion.
A conclusion often ends with a final sentence that either generalizes the situation and makes it more universal, or looks toward the future. For instance:

As our world becomes more interconnected through technology and increasingly global outlooks, we must look for every possible way to prepare the next generation for a more international world- a world replete with possibilities, if we are willing to look beyond our already blurring national boundaries and engage with humanity at large.

In general, if you are running out of time or are stuck for a final concluding sentence, try something along the lines of “In order to have a better world in the future, we must do X.”

Style points

Tone: There’ s no specific rule against saying “I,” but don’ t be too informal. Avoid conversational asides, and don’ t try to be funny. Keep the tone serious and academic.

Varied diction: Throughout the essay, you will say the same thing several times. Don’ t use the exact same words! That is, paraphrase yourself. If in the introduction, you wrote, “The most important virtue in a leader is a strong sense of ethics,” in your conclusion, you might write, “A strong moral framework is paramount for a leader.”

Varied sentence structure: Aim for a mix of long and short sentences. Throw in an occasional semicolon, hyphen, colon, or rhetorical question. For example:
Is it the case that sacrifice is the noblest of all virtues? Even a cursory analysis ought to indicate that it is not; the greatest of all virtues can hardly be said to be the one with, typically the least utilitarian value.
Make sure you know how to correctly use any punctuation you decide to include, of course.

Vocabulary: Use GRE-type words in your writing (but only if you are sure you can use them correctly). Some good vocab words to think about are those about arguments themselves, since those will work in nearly any essay. Some examples are:
Aver, extrapolate, contend, underpin, hypothesize, rebuttal, postulate, propound, concur

Transitions: A top-scoring essay has body paragraphs that lead logically into one other. You can create this chain of logic by arranging your examples or reasons in a progressive way, and by using transition phrases and similar signals. The simplest transitions involve phrases such as “” or “” A more sophisticated transition might take the form:
The obstacles towards international cooperation include not only [the stuff I discussed in my last paragraph], but also [the stuff I’ m about to discuss in this paragraph].
Transitions are usually located in the first sentence of a new body paragraph.

Million-dollar quotes: This is by no means mandatory, but it looks great if you can throw in a relevant quote you have memorized. Example:
As Winston Churchill famously said upon assuming control of Parliament and the British war effort: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Similarly, great leaders are those who get in the trenches with their people.
At the end of this chapter, you will find a sample list of quotes that are relevant to a variety of topics. If you like, memorize a few that appeal to you.

Trouble Getting started?
Remember, you are writing on a computer. If you “freeze” when trying to start your introduction, write something else first! Just pick whichever example seems easiest to write and dive in! You can certainly cut and paste as needed.
Just keep an eye on the clock and make sure you leave enough time for both an intro and a conclusion.

Sample Essays

Sample Essay
Every nation should require students to study at least one foreign language from the elementary school level through the university level Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the recommendation and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, describe specific circumstances in which adopting the recommendation would or would not be advantageous and explain how these examples shape your position.

Foreign languages study can be valuable component of a balanced education. So, too, can poetry, economics, or public speaking. But students are individuals, and live in a wide variety of circumstances around the world. It is going too far to say that every nation should require its students to study foreign languages.
Different countries have different needs and circumstances. While many bemoan the lack of international outlook in the U.S., it is reasonable to note that most Americans do just fine speaking only one language. Of course, universities, prep schools, and other institutions are still free to make foreign language instruction mandatory, as many do now. In Sweden, however, it is a sound policy to make foreign language mandatory for nearly everyone; Sweden has an excellent school system, free through the university level, and it is clear that Swedish is a minority language, and English has actually become the language of international business in Sweden and throughout Europe. Sweden currently mandates the teaching of English, as it should. If the government did not compel students to learn English, they would struggle to compete in the global job market.
While Sweden has one of the highest standards of living in the world, many nations simply have no ability to provide foreign language instruction, nor does it seem as though such instruction should be the top priority. In many countries, primary schools cost money, and many girls don’ t get to go to school at all, or must drop out due to lack of funds, early marriage, or their families’ needing them to work. If female students in Afghanistan are to receive only a few years of education in their entire lives, it seems absurd to mandate that they learn foreign languages, as this would be a waste of their time and effort. Individual schools and teachers should be free to decide how to best use the limited time available.
Finally, not only are nations different from one another, but so are students. Many students have learning disabilities that make foreign language learning virtually impossible. Even those who don’ t have such disabilities have individual differences and interests that should be respected. A scientific prodigy who may go on to cure cancer or AIDS ought to be permitted to focus solely on science at least at certain levels of his or her education. For every hour spent learning a foreign language there is an opportunity coast, something else being mastered.
Of course, virtually everyone is in favor of a more global outlook, and virtually no one thinks that foreign language study is bad. However, making foreign language instruction mandatory in every nation, at every level of schooling, is unjustifiable. Different nations have different needs, and different individuals have their own capacities and goals. Foreign language study can truly open the world to those who partake, but there are many reasons not to mandate it.

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