How to prepare for the GRE writing section: understanding the grading system

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, so we’ve talked a lot; we’ve had multiple episodes, I think this is close to Episode 20 now, and we’ve talked about the quantitative section a lot and general strategies a lot. One thing we haven’t got into so much is the writing section.

Orion: We talked a bit about how the essay was graded in one episode.

Davis: Oh, yeah, that’s right. And the computer, the algorithm called the e-rater. So it’s one out of 20 truths. Let’s make it two out of 20. What are the tips and tricks? What’s something that you can give these people in a 10-minute episode of GRE Bites on preparing or strategy for the writing section?

Orion: I will give the people my strategy. As I mentioned in that previous episode, your essays are graded by a computer, called the e-rater. If you go to the ETS website, they make no bones about this. They don’t really shout it from the mountaintops because having someone’s writing graded by a computer makes folks understandably nervous that it’s going to be misunderstood. A computer can’t actually read; it can only simulate reading in a very rudimentary way.

So your essay is going to be graded by this computer. And if we can understand how the computer uses its grading rubric, we can write in such a way that what the computer goes looking for, it finds and says, “Wow, this is a great essay, according to my standards, my computerized standards, I’m going to give this essay a great score.” That’s our goal by kind of hacking the writing section of the test. And if we put ourselves in the computer’s perspective, the only thing that is perceptible to a computer is quantifiable data, right? That which can be counted. If it can’t be counted, it’s completely invisible to a computer.

So a lot of things that are very important to writing for a human being, like persuasiveness or cogency, are such high-level abstractions that they are, to us, like infrared light; we can’t see it, it functionally doesn’t exist at all.

So there are many ways that you can quantifiably count a piece of writing, but by far, the most important factor that goes into a student’s overall score is total word count.

Davis: Yeah, yeah.

Orion: Which I mentioned in previous episodes, total word count is the king; longer is stronger, maybe that’s what it’s all about. So the more words that you can write in the time limit, the more likely you’re going to get a higher score on the writing section.

Davis: Yeah, the reason I’m smiling is that the writing section, and particularly StellarGRE’s approach to the writing section, is just – it’s like you mentioned in a previous episode, it’s nice to see in the code, and you just cut right through all the BS and all the weight and baggage, because you’re not going to find this anywhere else.

Orion: No, and this is, it’s, I mean, you’ve got to get to this section in the GRE full tutorial, but word count, you quantify it. So for example, the computer, for example, is not fact-checking.

Davis: So, quantifiability, you’ve got total word count, and you’re aiming for what word count?

Orion: Oh, that’s a good question. So, if you can write in recognizable English, on something that kind of has to do with the prompt, at the level of around 800 words, you will likely get a five, which is the 92nd percentile. That’s just incredible. 800 words is the threshold that we are shooting for in our essays, and a computer could quantify grammatical or spelling errors, but those things are not being looked at.

Davis: Are those things being graded or weighted on the computer?

Orion: Good question. A lot of students worry about their spelling and grammar and syntax and take time away from the 800-word goal to go back and delete, delete, delete, and retype it.

Davis: Yeah, not a good idea.

Orion: So you do not gain points for spelling, grammar, or syntax. You can lose points. But according to ETS, as literature, you can only lose points on those reasons if the spelling, grammar, syntax, etc., is so bad that it detracts from the intended meaning of the sentence. That’s somewhat vague, but in my experience, that basically means that you have to spell more words wrong than right. They really err on the side of giving students a very wide berth when it comes to spelling and grammar.

Davis: Why is that?

Orion: Because this is not actually a test of English spelling, grammar, and language mechanics. That’s the TOEFL, which is another test developed by ETS. And so, they don’t want to have brand confusion in that sense. But also, the TOEFL is an achievement test, which is if you know the rules of English grammar, conjugation, and vocabulary, you should do well because it’s testing you on your English language mastery.

The GRE is not an achievement test. It’s an aptitude test. It’s intended to test students’ potential for performance in a future achievement context, i.e., grad school. So, the more it actually grades hard, concrete knowledge, the more it deviates from its intended purpose. And also its psychometric validation and its legal basis. It would be unethical and illegal for ETS to grade essays as an English language test for the reasons I basically spelled out.

Davis: So, in terms of those metrics, we’ve got an 800-word count. Don’t let minor spelling or grammar issues detract you from hitting that goal. It won’t quantify truth or falsity in some of the information you’re writing down, that’s right. What about quotations or source material, like trying to hit a certain threshold in the writing section of how many references to outside material?

Orion: You definitely need evidence to back up your arguments. That’s what I call it, and evidentiary sentences are one of the four types of sentences that the algorithm is programmed to identify, though it does so very rudimentarily. But what I do want to focus on in this episode is the word count. Okay, 800 words, because 800 words doesn’t sound like a lot. But in my experience, most students need several attempts to hit that threshold. And that’s just an initial threshold; if you can write above 1000, 1200 words, so much the better. But 800 is like our initial target for word count. And, as I said, in my experience, students need multiple attempts to get there.

Because it’s very hard to write, right off the top of your head, on a subject that you’ve just seen moments ago, and you probably might not ever have considered in your entire life. And you’re under a very strict performative evaluative context; it’s hard to be loose and flexible, and to just let it flow. And that’s really what we’re talking about here.

So, if you’re having trouble reaching that word count target, I have a little trick that I suggest to students to kind of get the creative juices flowing. And it’s basically a five-minute free write. So you can do this before a practice test, you can do this even before the actual exam, let’s say in the parking lot outside of the testing center, or, you know, a few minutes before you start your at-home administration, which is basically you open up a blank Word document, set a timer on your phone for five minutes, and then keep your fingers moving. You have to keep typing, you cannot stop typing, you cannot stop typing even for one second, and you don’t have to worry about punctuation or spelling. It doesn’t really have to make sense.

It doesn’t have to be interesting; it can be repetitive; in fact, repetitive is better. You see what I’m saying. That is a skill, to be able to get out of your own way, and to just let the content flow through you. It is a very useful skill for grad school because you’re going to be doing a lot of writing in grad school. And if you don’t figure out how to produce copy, you’re going to hate your life on some level. And it’s extremely useful for the GRE because what we’re saying doesn’t even really have to be true, it doesn’t really have to be interesting. It doesn’t really have to be cogent and consistent. It just needs to be a lot. And so it’s like this sphincter that can be relaxed and all of this content allowed to flow.

Davis: Quantity over quality.

Orion: Absolutely. I tell students they want to embrace their inner B student because this much B-level writing will always beat this much A-level writing. The B student, or BS student. Well, I mean, it’s a little bit of both in this case. That’s good, that’s fine. But you just were talking about sphincters and all.

Davis: Yeah, no. Walked it out.

Orion: The A-level students often, through their own perfectionism, shoot themselves in the foot. I’ve worked with many high-quality writers and often writers who pride themselves on their writing ability who struggle on the GRE, right.

It’s slow, it’s self-reflective, it’s a walking, it’s your writing and editing at the same time, and that’s what we want to avoid. We want to just get the content on the page, and there’s an extent to which they’re proud of their ability, and it might be justifiable, but they’re also identified with the quality of the content. It’s hard for folks who pride themselves on their writing ability to write under that ability, yeah, you raise the inner beastie, like you’ve got to keep those writing skills sharp, but use them in a context where there’s actually a human being who can appreciate how good your writing skills are. Don’t be so misguided and benighted by that private identification that you’re unwilling to change your strategy. Like you said, at the beginning, you just have to put yourself in the framework that a computer is grading this on an algorithm; it can only grade what it can quantify. And for certain reasons that you talked about earlier in this episode, it can grade those things that we might pride ourselves on that a human would be put off by, correct.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: So the five-minute free write is designed to get the creative juices flowing, to practice allowing the censor to recede into the background, to not judge your content as you’re producing it, and to produce as much as possible within a given time. And this is awkward and difficult to do the first few times, if you’re going to have a blank, but you’re going to have to keep on drawing a blank and I’m still drawing a blank and the blank is still happening. And blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank. Whoa, now I’m rhyming, and it’s like, you have to just power through it. And it’s gonna feel weird the first few times you do it. But again, if you can, it’s like a switch in your mind that you can learn to have some measure of agency and control over, and then you just flip the switch and boom, out come the words. I’ve had students who could write 2000 words in a day. And that half an hour, half an hour, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, each essay. I mean, that is beyond that’s unusual. That’s definitely like a 99% outlier, right. But it’s possible.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So it’s really about getting out of your own way and producing as much content as possible within a given time limit. That’s your best bet for hitting a top percentile score on the writing section of the GRE.

Davis: That’s right. And again, these kinds of tips and tricks that you’re getting here are only found at Stellar, only. No one else will talk about this. I’m serious. It’s wonderful and it works. I know from personal experience.

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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