The GRE Argument writing task is designed to test your ability to your critical-reasoning and analytic (as well as writing) skills. Your task is to compose an essay in which you provide a focused critique of the stated argument — but not to present your own views on the argument's topic. [Argument format and directions]
The following GRE-style Argument prompt consists of an argument followed by a directive for responding to the argument. Keep in mind: the argument itself is not from the official pool, and so you won't see this one on the actual GRE.
GRE Argument Prompt
The following appeared in the editorial column of the Fern County Gazette newspaper:
"The Fern County Council made the right decision when it unanimously voted to convert the Northside branch of the county library system into a computer-skills training facility for public use. The converted facility will fill what is certain, based on national trends, to be a growing need among county residents for training in computer skills. And since our library system boasts more volumes per resident than any other system in the state, the remaining branches will adequately serve the future needs of Fern County residents."
Discuss what evidence you would need to properly evaluate the argument, and explain how that evidence might strengthen or weaken the argument.
Sample Argument Essay (490 Words)
This editorial argues that the Fern County Council's decision to convert a library branch to a computer-skills training facility was the "right" one. However, its author fails to provide sufficient information to permit a proper evaluation of the argument's reasoning. Each point of deficiency is discussed separately below.
One of the argument's deficiencies involves the claim, based on a national trend, that there is "certain" to be a growing need in Fern County for computer-skills training. The author provides no specific evidence that the county conforms to the cited trend. Lacking such evidence, it is entirely possible that the Fern County residents are, by and large, already highly proficient in using computers. Of course, it is also possible that a large and growing segment of the local population consists of senior citizens and/or young children — two groups who typically need computer-skills training — or unemployed workers needing to learn computer skills in order to find jobs. In any event, more information about the county's current and anticipated demographics is needed in order to determine the extent to which Fern County residents actually need and would use the Northside computer-training facility.
Another of the argument's deficiencies is that it provides no information about alternative means of providing computer-skills training to county residents. Perhaps certain local businesses or schools already provide computer-training facilities and services to the general public — in which case it would be useful to know whether those alternatives are affordable for most county residents and whether they suffice to meet anticipated demand. Or perhaps county residents are for the most part willing to teach themselves computer skills at home using books, DVDs and online tutorials — in which case it would be helpful to know the extent to which affordable broadband Internet access is available to Fern County households. If it turns out that county residents can easily obtain computer-skills training through means such as these, converting the Northside branch might not have been a sensible idea.
Yet another of the editorial's shortcomings has to do with the number of books in the Fern County library system. The mere fact that the system boasts a great number of books per capita does not necessarily mean that the supply is adequate or that it will be adequate in the future. A full assessment of whether the remaining branches provide adequate shelf space and/or printed materials would require detailed information about the library system's inventory vis-à-vis the current and anticipated needs and interests of Fern County residents. If more, or more types, of printed books and periodicals are needed, then it would appear in retrospect that converting the Northside branch to a computer training center was a bad idea.
In a nutshell, then, a proper evaluation of the editorial requires more information about current as well as anticipated demand for computer-skills training in Fern County and about the adequacy of the library system's stacks to meet the interests and preferences of the county's residents.
At one time, I was inclined to think that the biggest mistake students made on the GRE was failing to back up their responses with concrete examples. Mere hypothetical scenarios were the only ballast these weak essays had. So I advised students to think of concrete examples to help support their points.
The ‘Concrete Examples’ Trap
What I’ve come to realize is that almost every test prep outfit recommends including specific examples, but that’s often where both they and the students stop, in terms of providing support. So what we have are essays with vivid examples but little to no analysis of the question.
Nowhere was this tendency clearer than when we had a little promotion offering free essay grading service. At least half of the essays had specific examples, instead of vague hypotheticals. Of these, many had examples that were extremely lacking, and felt tacked on, at best. The other half that had fleshed out examples may have seemed paragons of great writing, or at least what the GRE is apparently looking for, which is the coveted ‘6’. Yet, none of these essays received that score (based on our grading); some even scored much less.
The reason is the GRE wants to see how you analyze a complex issue. It chooses prompts that it wants you to explore, before arriving at a nuanced position, one that is not a simple “yes” or “no”, followed by three examples that, while heavy on details, are devoid of analysis.
Let’s Look at Sample Essays
Below are two essays. Each has an intro and one body paragraph in response to the following question:
“As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.”
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.
As you read, I want you to make some judgments on the essay, the style, etc. Also, pay attention to the logical structure of the paragraph and how the writer develops (or doesn’t develop) their position.
Technology is becoming a bigger part of our lives each day. People are always on their cellphones or in front of a computer. This is not good for our ability to think clearly. Therefore, humans will not be able to think for themselves as time goes on.
People spend lots of time on social media sites, like Facebook. They “talk” to friends, but they really aren’t spending quality time. Many reports indicate that people also feel sad and depressed when they are on Facebook and other social media sites. They have difficulty focusing and thinking, being social human beings. This is what is deteriorating. If it continues like this, humans ability to think will lessen.
From the mundane—virtual calendars that have each minute of each day planned out for the next three months—to the profound—diagnostic tools that allow physicians to capture cancer in its earliest stages—technology is greatly shaping the way we live, and think. With this increased reliance, some argue, surely our ability to think for ourselves becomes diminished. After all, many of us are unable to recall our home phone number, or those of any of our close friends, since everything is stored on an electronic device. While it is tempting to think that such dependence portends an apocalypse in thinking skills, much of the technology we use today actually allows us to function more efficiently, and focus our attention on thinking about those things that matter most.
Nowhere are information and the ability to use that information more critical to our lives than in medicine. Doctors inundated with patients and the record keeping this entails are more prone to making errors. Some of these errors might seem venial—thinking an allergy is a cold. Other oversights, however, can be downright lethal. Fortunately, in the last decade, technology has played a far greater role in both informing and guiding the decisions of physicians. Patient histories that were previously lost if the patients entered another provider can now be easily accessed via electronic devices. Timely and redundant procedures can now be dispensed with, as a doctor, with a quick flick of the wrist, can use an iPad to access a patient’s history—one that has sedulously been stored in a database. Doctors can now focus on those fields in which technology has yet to catch up with the human intellect—the diagnosis, the ability to read an X-ray. Indeed, they will have more time to hone such skills, to augment their thinking, as much of the minutiae of medicine can be “outsourced” to technology. That is not to say that technology has become a panacea, as it were, for the medical profession; human error can pop up in anything from transfer of records, to a doctor becoming overly reliant on the Internet to determent of her clinical skills. Yet those very oversights technology itself will be able to redress, as doctors become better at documenting any oversights and making such discoveries available, via technology, to a wider audience. In sum, as technology becomes a greater part of the medical profession, physicians will better be able to focus and refine their uniquely human thinking abilities.
In the second part of this blog post series (coming soon!), I will analyze each essay, citing its merits and its flaws.
Before you read that post:
- List two to three things you think the essay does well and two or three things you think it doesn’t do so well. (Remember what I mentioned at the beginning of the post: the goal is to not simply answer yes or no, but to take a relatively nuanced position.)
- Give the essays a score, keeping in mind that you can only judge the first two paragraphs of each essay. Feel free to share your thoughts as a comment.
Remember that the makers of the GRE provide all of their possible essay prompts on ets.org. With 200+ possible options, though, it’s impossible to practice them all. The solution? Break the main post topics into categories and practice GRE essay topics from each category.