Breaking down the GRE writing section: there is no man behind the curtain

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Okay, we’ve talked some about the quantitative and the reading comprehension sections. There’s also that last piece, which is the essay writing section, the writing section. So, let’s just start real basic: what is the writing section in general?

Orion: Yeah, it’s last, but it’s also technically first in the test. So, the first thing that students are going to do when they sit down for the GRE is take two 30-minute essay prompts. So, the first hour of the test is spent writing essays. And the essay section, the writing section, doesn’t get as much airtime as, say, the quant or the verbal sections. And there might be good reason for that. I mean, some programs are like, “There’s a writing section on the GRE?” And for some programs, it’s literally the only thing that matters for their grad school admissions.

Davis: Fascinating.

Orion: So the writing section has a huge amount of variability with respect to its importance to specific grad school programs. So, that’s something that you students should do some due diligence on: trying to figure out how important the writing section is to your programs of interest. It might not be relevant at all, in which case, you can kind of coast through this section, which would be good to know.

Davis: So, but, so it’s like, what, two three-sentence writing prompts, but most, and you’ve got a half an hour, and you have to write, what is it, three, five-paragraph essays? What are you looking for?

Orion: Well, the two prompts are a little bit different. One is called the issue prompt. And the other one is the argument prompt. The issue prompt is very similar to the writing section on the LSAT, if you took it back in the day. It’s usually a one-line philosophical statement that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, something like “The ends justify the means,” or “To prepare for peace, a nation should prepare for war,” something like that. And then you just have to give your take on the subject, you have to pick a position and then back that up with evidence.

Davis: Okay.

Orion: The second essay prompt is called the argument essay. And in this, you’re not so much coming up with your own argument; you’re evaluating somebody else’s argument. So, you’re going to get a little pretext like, “The following was a memo that was released by the mayor of a small town last week.” And then there’s going to be a paragraph in which the mayor advocates for a new bike helmet safety law and provides some examples of why this should be on the books. And your job is not to agree or disagree with whether people should wear helmets and bike or a small town; you should be there to evaluate the logical cogency of the mayor’s argument. It’s a hypothetical logical argument. But in both cases, we’re really striving for a well-crafted, thesis-based, five-paragraph essay.

Davis: Yeah, but this, okay, so this isn’t, but this isn’t a situation like in high school, or like in college, where you get to have an advisor, you get to spend some time doing this, write a first draft, write a second draft, and go back and forth. So, you have 30 minutes to write this on a prompt you’ve never seen before. If you’ve never seen it before. It’s, I mean, like, it’s hard. What’s the hack? How do you break it?

Orion: Well, it’s kind of like in high school a little bit in that, you know, how different teachers had different things that were important, and that factored into their individual grading patterns. And over time, you would kind of learn what that teacher liked. And, you know, if you were savvy, you would kind of give that teacher what he or she wants. Just, especially if you didn’t care too much about that class, you just like, let me just do what I need to do, get the grade, and move on with my life. That’s what we’re going to do here with the GRE essay set: is we just need to figure out what the graders care about. And then we’re just going to swallow our pride, give them what they want, get the score that we want, and move on with the rest of our lives.

Davis: Who’s the grader? What do they care about?

Orion: Who do you think the grader is?

Davis: Well, it’s definitely, you know, there’s got to be a human involved at some point, but it’s also like, so much is automated these days. I’m guessing a computer’s involved also.

Orion: You are correct. So, technically speaking, there are two graders for your GRE essay. There’s a human grader that has been trained by ETS to grade essays, and there is a computer algorithm.

Davis: And you’ve done that before.

Orion: Oh, yeah, I started my career as an essay grader. A long time ago, I got paid $1 an essay.

Davis: Yep, so you’re wanting to move quickly through.

Orion: That’s something that you should know: is that graders are incentivized to move through your essay as quickly as possible. And let me tell you, when you have a stack of 500 essays on exactly the same subject to go through, oh my gosh, there’s nothing that you can write that I haven’t already read. I’m not reading your essay to understand or appreciate your essay; as a grader, I’m reading your essay, so that I can figure out as quickly and reliably as possible, what number to give it, so I can get one more dollar and move on to the next desk. I mean, that’s just the situation. I’m not, as a grader, there to understand your essay; the grader is there to score that essay. And let me tell you, after you’ve read 10,000 essays, you don’t have to read much of an essay to reliably sort it, like, “This is a five, this is a three, this is a six,” like, you know what they feel like.

Davis: What’s the point spread that you could get?

Orion: The essay is a scaled score of zero to six in half-point increments. So, the big jump is between a four and a four and a half. A four is like the 55th percentile, and a four and a half is like the 86th percentile.

Davis: So, there’s a big point.

Orion: Yeah, the standard distribution of the percentiles for the essay is huge. It’s not normalized. So, and 4.5 is generally the median for pretty much all grad school programs in the country. So if you get a 4.5, you’re probably good to go.

Davis: But can you get a perfect score on the GRE?

Orion: Oh, you certainly can. So, you can nail out sixes, you can, but you know, it’s harder and harder the further you go because, like, a five and a half is the 98th percentile. Okay, and a six is the ninth. So, it’s like those last couple and the five is a 92nd. So, those last three scores are like smushed into eight percentile points.

Davis: Well, you’ve had students get a perfect score.

Orion: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Davis: So, what’s the what’s, what’s the hack?

Orion: In fact, the writing section is the easiest section to get a perfect score. So, let me tell you, so, it’s like you have these two graders, you have the human, and you have the computer algorithm, which ETS calls the E-rater. And these two entities are both going to be scoring your essays independently. That’s kind of why it takes two weeks to get your official scores because the computer can grade it lickety-split, but the human still needs to put his or her eyes on it.

Davis: Well, how do they reconcile the two scores at the end?

Orion: Well, according to ETS, 98% of the time, the human and the computer agree completely. Okay. If there’s more than a one-point discrepancy between the human and the computer, it goes to a second human, and then the score becomes the average of the two humans, okay? Which rarely happens, what, less than 1% of the time? It seems like so. The human is there to be a CAPTCHA. Basically, I’m not a robot, okay. But they’re trained by the same people. The algorithm is written by ETS, and then the graders are trained by ETS; they’re looking for the exact same thing.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: So if the human and the computer agree 90% of the time, it’s not that the computer is doing what the human is doing. The computer can only do what it’s programmed to do; it has no choice. It’s because the human is doing what the computer is doing. So even though technically a human and a computer grade your essay, we really need to prioritize the computer because the computer can only grade as it does. And the human will. It is trained to grade as the computer does. So the computer’s way of looking at it is paramount.

Davis: Okay, and so what is it?

Orion: It’s a great question. So if you were to put yourself inside of a computer’s consciousness, this is a fun thought. It’s all quantitative. You’re just looking for yes or no, on certain numbers, certain metrics? Well, yes or no is actually a qualitative question. That’s, well, you need a metric or not, correct? So within a computer’s consciousness, the only thing that really is observable, the only thing that exists, is quantifiable data, that which can be counted. So what are some of the things that can be counted?

Davis: Oh, you got, I mean, you got everything from characters, words, different types of punctuation that can be counted. You got paragraphs, like the inputs on a computer; that’s what can be counted.

Orion: Correct.

Davis: So those things completely determine your overall score.

Orion: It could do vocabulary too, right? I mean, it could pick up, to an extent, like, variety is a metric for unique word count. So, for example, there is a copy and paste macro on the essay, and you could write a paragraph and then copy and paste that 20 times in 30 minutes, and now you have this 50,000-word essay, but its unique word count is, right, 50 words. So it can check for repetitiveness. It can also check for spelling or grammar. Maybe I mean, it can, there’s certainly, we know that most writing processors have a spellcheck or grammar check. However, the GRE is not a Test of English language mechanics. It’s actually illegal for them to grade you on spelling or English grammar.

Davis: That’s great.

Orion: So throw those out. Here, remind you, yes, worry about that. You don’t need to worry about you. Don’t need to spend time backspacing and correcting misspelled. Those things are tested on the TOEFL, which is a test of the English language, which is another one and ETS’s test. The ETS makes the TOEFL and the GRE; they didn’t want to brand confusion. They don’t want to compete with themselves.

Davis: So, the GRE is an aptitude, not an achievement test. It is not there to test you on how well you’re doing what’s grammar; it’s, it’s there to see if you were, let’s say, prepared for the rigors of graduate school.

Orion: So let’s just get, I can’t talk about the whole thing here. And now, but the number one quantifiable metric that determines your overall score in the essay section is, far and away, total word count, total word count, as long as they’re not repetitive.

Davis: Yes, and you want to kind of write the same thing in slightly different language.

Orion: Yeah, we want to, on some level, I tell this to students, embrace your inner B student. The inner A student, a perfectionist, is going to want to make sure everything is spelled right. And everything makes sense and have a very strong coherent argument. But that means that you’re going to write significantly less than a student who is a little faster and loose with the spelling, doesn’t know if it doesn’t make 100% sense, the argument. This much B-level writing will always beat this much A-level writing. So want to embrace our B students. In fact, if you can write 800 words within the time limit, on recognizable English, about something that kind of has to do with the prompt, you’re probably going to get a four and a half, which is the threshold of competitiveness for the vast majority of programs.

Davis: 800 words?

Orion: Well, now, it can’t be about something totally off subject or unreadable because then the human CAPTCHA will flag it, right. And then it will be gibberish, it’ll go to the second human grader. And we’re like, What is this nonsense, and then you’re going to be in that boat, right? But as long as it’s kind of having to do with the prompt, and we understand like the spelling, the grammar is good enough that we can kind of appreciate the intended meaning. We’re good to go.

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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