Practice Essays

So those of you following me on facebook know that I’m going to be writing the GRE on my birthday, which happens to be next Wednesday. Practice for it has been a little weaker than it should have been- after I found out that most (engineering) colleges really don’t care as long as it’s about 1350-1400, and after I put above that in the 2 model tests I attempted, enthusiasm for it waned considerably- but since there’s less than a week to go I’m sort of buckling up again. To that end, I tried the writing part of the test just so I would have some idea of what to do when faced with it on the day of the exam- the other parts are easier to study for, since they have definite answers, but with writing, you just have to hope you don’t go blank when the time comes.

Anyway, long story short, here’s two essays that I wrote, and it would be awesome if someone cared enough to go through and rate them and tell me where I need to improve. It’s on 6. Here’s a description:

There are two tasks:

• a 45-minute “Present Your Perspective on an Issue” task
• a 30-minute “Analyze an Argument” task
You will be given a choice between two Issue topics. Each states an opinion on an issue of broad interest and asks you to discuss the issue from any perspective(s) you wish, so long as you provide relevant reasons and examples to explain and support your views.
You will not have a choice of Argument topics. The Argument task presents a different challenge from that of the Issue task: it requires you to critique a given argument by discussing how well reasoned you find it. You will need to consider the logical soundness of the argument rather than to agree or disagree with the position it presents. The two tasks are complementary in that one requires you to construct your own argument by taking a position and providing evidence supporting your views on the issue, whereas the other requires you to critique someone else’s argument by assessing its claims and evaluating the evidence it provides.

And here are the essays:

Analytical Writing

Prompt: “A person who does not thoroughly comprehend the technical side of a craft is incapable of judging it.”

There are many dimensions on which one must evaluate a work of art, such as the idea behind it, its functionality, the relevance of the work to contemporary or long-debated questions of interest to the general public, the aesthetics- a word that can be just as appropriate in the context of a “technical” work as a more conventionally artistic one, as we shall see- and finally, the skill and technique involved in its creation. While a layperson can easily judge the aesthetic and other aspects of the work, he or she might find themselves at a loss to judge the amount of work that has gone into perfecting any given craft and the difficulty involved in making any given piece. A layperson can denigrate an entire body of modern art as “splashes and doodles” if he/she has not given himself over to studying the meaning, symbols and implications of the pieces in question, but this hasty dismissal means very little.

Does this mean, however, that all judgements on the merit (or lack thereof) of a given work should be made only by those trained in that particular craft? Hardly. One does not need to understand how precisely he wields the brush to understand the skill and effort that has gone into one of Georges Seurat’s Pointillist pieces. An accountant who has never so much as picked up a chisel or a hammer can still appreciate the beauty of Michaelangelo’s David, and all but the most tone-deaf amongst us can be bewitched by the beauty of Beethoven’s Fifth.

There are some crafts, however, where at least some rudimentary understanding of the principles involved are necessary for true appreciation. Take, for instance, programming. To someone with no training in it, one piece of code might look very much like another. It is only once you have had some exposure to the craft that one begins to appreciate the fine points of indentation and nomenclature and even more training to appreciate the sheer elegance of a well-written function or algorithm. Mathematicians talk about how beautiful a particularly clever proof was, and this statement simply boggles most people- for how can a mass of symbols and operators, lemmas and clauses, possibly be “beautiful”? Surely, the word is inappropriate. However, this speaks only of the lack of understanding on the part of the layperson. Look a little deeper, and he might catch a glimpse of this beauty himself.

Works of art are not created to remain isolated in an ivory tower, to be approached only by those who have steeped themselves in the minutiae of the discipline. They are meant to be appreciated by the general public, perhaps with the aid of some information to put a piece in its intended context. In certain cases the prerequisites might be more stringent, but this does not imply that all judgement on the question must be reserved for the experts.

Argument Analysis

Prompt: [fairly long, but recapped pretty accurately in my introduction]

The author suggests that Bayside citizens must must impose additional taxes in order to raise the quality of education in the School District. He asserts that test scores and other statistics show a need for improvement, and that the poor facilities are to blame for this, by contrasting the situation in the neighbouring district of New Harbour, which has better facilities and scores better on various indicators of student performance. While the argument is reasonable, there are several caveats to be considered before making a decision on the topic.

It is possible that the gap between student performance in the Bayside and New Harbour districts can be explained by demographic differences in the population of the respective districts. Several studies have shown that the correlation between better facilities and better performance is rather weak compared to many other factors, such as the education level and socio-economic status of the parents, the number of books in the house, etc. In many studies, high end classroom equipment, audio visual aids and other similar amenities are only shown to be helpful for certain types of students, and their availability or lack thereof does not much assist the learning of many in the class. The differences cited may, for instance, be simply because the citizens of New Harbour place a higher priority on the performance of their students, which in itself can lead to better performance, irrespective of the facilities available in their schools. This might not work the other way; raising taxes is not very likely to make the citizens care more about education, and thus might not lead to any real change in student performance.

It is also possible that the problems in Bayside-broken windows, unusuable bathrooms, out-of-date facilities and so on- are a failure of management by the officials in charge of education, and not simply due to a lack of funds. There is also no reason to assume that the additional tax burden will be focused on the improvements that are most likely to help struggling students in the district. If the author can suggest how best to allocate the desired funds, and prove that these are the best or the most cost-effective ways to raise student performance in the district, then it might be worthwhile to raise the taxes. Without more evidence, a decision to raise taxes in Bayside might be premature.

Be…ok, brutal, if you want to be like that. Also, confession: I spelled Seurat as “Siraut” when I actually wrote the thing. No other changes, though.


5 thoughts on “Practice Essays

  1. In the analytical writing part, I’d suggest you stick with one point of view rather than stating arguments in favor of the opposite. While its not taboo as such, picking a side and sticking to it apparently shows your decisiveness and perseverance. All the analytical topics can obviously be argued on either side so it doesn’t make sense to espouse both PoVs when you’re asked to present your perspective. So if you choose one, paraphrase your PoV in the introduction and again in the conclusion, which you’ve done. And state your reasons from strongest to weakest in the body of the essay. To me it sounds OK, but an actual grader might penalize you for the vacillating arguments. They’d probably give it a 5 or 5.5.

    The other one is much better. You might want to break up the body into 2 or more parts. Definitely a 5.5 and maybe, just maybe, a 6.

    • Thanks! And really? If I were writing for a debate or if I got this sort of question in a school exam I would have stuck with one point of view, but I think the Barron’s book specifically said it’s ok to talk about both. I’ll check that again, what you say makes sense. Either way I probably won’t try another practice at the writing part for a while…enough to mug with everything else.

  2. I might be the wrong person to judge the essays because I find myself wanting to discuss the contents more than the style. 😉

    Anyway, for the first essay: I don’t have a problem with you stating arguments for the other side but you should make it clearer what your PoV is. As it stands, it seems that you’re arguing that only experts can appreciate art, really, and then in the last paragraph you come to the opposite conclusion, without really explaining why and without really unmantling the opposite arguments you brought into the essay yourself.

    The second essay is very good; clear, stringent and you raise strong points.

    • Thanks 🙂 . I flip-flopped a lot because I somehow got the impression from the guide book I was using that I was more or less expected to take a nuanced view, and provide reservations as well as points in favour, but I guess I took it a little too far.

      As for the second essay, I was a little worried about the fact that what I said comes off rather too libertarian/conservative in a way that even I would disagree with, if it were actually for something; but I guess it’s fine for a hypothetical 🙂 .

  3. The GRE writing guidelines for the first essay:

    “The Issue task allows considerable latitude in the way you respond to the claim. Although it is important that you address the central issue, you are free to take any approach you wish. For example, you might
    • agree absolutely with the claim, disagree completely, or agree with some parts and not others
    • question the assumptions the statement seems to be making
    • qualify any of its terms, especially if the way you define or apply a term is important to
    developing your perspective on the issue
    • point out why the claim is valid in some situations but not in others
    • evaluate points of view that contrast with your own perspective
    • develop your position with reasons that are supported by several relevant examples or by a single extended example”

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