Issue Essay Step Method
Issue Essay Step Method
Now that you’re clear about what the essay graders are looking for, it’s time to see how to use our essay step method and the three-act essay structure to write a “6” Issue essay, using our sample topic and directions.
With so much to do in so little time, you need a precise plan for the 45 minutes allotted for the Issue essay. Here are five strategic steps, along with the amount of time you should spend on each one on test day:
Step 1: Understand the Topic and Take a Stand. 2 minutes
Step 2: Brainstorm Examples. 5–7 minutes
Step 3: Create an Outline. 4–6 minutes
Step 4: Write the Essay. 25 minutes
Step 5: Proof the Essay. 5 minutes
Total 45 minutes
Step 1: Understand the Topic and Take a Stand (2 minutes). The first thing you must do before you can even think about your essay is read the topic very carefully. Let’s use our sample topic about conflicts from the previous chapter:

“We can learn more from conflicts than we can from agreements.”

Before you move those fingers across the keyboard, make sure you understand the topic thoroughly. To do that, you should:
  • Rephrase the topic. Fighting and disagreeing can teach us more stuff than just agreeing can. Okay, so it’s not elegant, but who cares? All that matters is that you’ve put the topic into your own words so it’s clear to you.
  • Take a stand. We’ve decided to agree with the topic: Yes, we can learn more from disagreements and conflicts. Remember that there’s no right or wrong position, so just pick the position that seems easier to write about. Go with your gut.
That’s it. One step down, four more to go.
Step 2: Brainstorm Examples (57 minutes). Once you’ve chosen your position, you need to figure out why you feel that way and present examples that will support your case. Plenty of test takers will succumb to the temptation to plunge straight from Step 1 into writing the essay Step 4). Bad idea. Skipping the brainstorming session will leave you with an opinion on the topic but with no clearly thought-out examples to prove your point. You’ll write the first thing that comes to mind, and your essay will probably derail somewhere around Act II. Don’t succumb to temptation and skip this step.
At first glance, brainstorming seems simple. You just close your eyes, scrunch up your face, and THINK REALLY HARD until you come up with some examples. But in practice, brainstorming while staring at a blank page under time pressure can be intimidating and frustrating. To make brainstorming less daunting and more productive, we’ve got three ideas:
  • Brainstorm by Category
  • Prepare Ahead of Time
  • Use the Best Three
Brainstorm by Category. The best examples you can generate to support your Issue essay topic will come from a variety of sources such as science, history, politics, art, literature, business, and personal experience. So, brainstorm a list split up by category. Here’s the list we brainstormed for the topic “We can learn more from conflicts than we can from agreements.”
Current events Failure of 9/11 security led to the creation of Homeland Security
Science Copernicus challenged incorrect theory, led to correct theory
History Challenge of status quo led to abolition of slavery
Politics Democrats vs. Republican, bipartisanship
Art Can’t think of one
Literature Can’t think of one
Personal experience Hardship leads to growth
Business Competition in computers . . . Lower prices and better technology
Prepare Ahead of Time. If you want to put in the time, you could also do some brainstorming ahead of time. You can actually prepare examples for each of the eight categories we’ve listed above in our chart. You could, for instance, read up on various scientists, learning about their beliefs, their conflicts with current theories, and the impact of their discoveries (positive and negative) and memorize dates, events, and other facts.
Obviously, the trouble with preparing ahead is that you run the risk of getting stuck with a topic that doesn’t allow you to use your prepared examples. But since the GRE essay topics are so broad, it’s likely that you’ll be able to massage at least some of your examples to fit.
You can also use the published topics on the GRE website to give you ideas of what kinds of preplanned examples might apply to the types of issues in the topic pool. You’ll notice that there’s a great deal of overlap in the pool; for example, numerous Issue topics deal with the nature and implications of modern technology. Great! If you want to prepare ahead of time, researching the history of technology and some theories concerning it could pay off. Even if your Issue topic does not specifically concern technology, you may still be able to squeeze your tech examples in there somewhere, as long as they’re relevant; if it’s too much of a stretch, the graders will know. You can do the same regarding some broadly applicable quotations and some well-known historical events.
Use the Best Three. No matter which method you use to generate examples, you’ll still need to choose your best three. These examples will form the heart of your essay’s body paragraphs. As you go through your brainstormed and/or pre-prepared examples to decide, keep these three questions in mind:
  • Which examples let you go into the most detail?
  • Which examples will give your essay the broadest range?
  • Which examples are not controversial?
The first two reasons are pretty straightforward: Detail and diversity in your examples will help you write the strongest essay. The last question about whether your examples are controversial is a little subtler. Staying away from very controversial examples ensures that you won’t accidentally offend or annoy your essay grader, who might then be more inclined to lower your grade.
Once you’ve chosen your three examples to develop, head to Step 3: outlining.
Step 3: Create an Outline (4–6 minutes). It’s also tempting to skip this step. Many students hate outlining as much as they hate brainstorming. We’re here to encourage you to embrace the outline. Love the outline! Live the outline! At the very least, write the outline!
The GRE essay rewards the conformity found in the three-act essay. You need an intro (Act I), three substantive body paragraphs (Act II), and a conclusion (Act III). The advantage of writing an outline is that the outline forces you to adhere to the formula. It also lets you double-check or rework your examples as necessary. Here’s a summary of the template we learned about in the previous chapter:
Act Purpose Description
I Set the stage Thesis statement: Three examples: 1. 2. 3.
II Tell the story Topic sentence for example 1: Explanation for example 1:
Topic sentence for example 2: Explanation for example 2:
Topic sentence for example 3: Explanation for example 3:
III Wrap it up Recap thesis: Expand your position:
Memorize this table now so that you’ll be able to quickly fill in the blanks on test day. And as you fill in the blanks, remember that conveying your ideas to yourself is what clearly matters at this stage. Your outline need not be articulate or even comprehensible to anyone other than you. Nobody will ever see it, so don’t worry about whether it’s even legible to others. All you need to do is make sure that your outline contains the essential raw material that will become your essay’s thesis statement, topic sentences, supporting evidence, and concluding statement.
Here’s a sample outline we’ve written based on the topic and examples we have already discussed:
Act Purpose Description
I Set the stage Thesis statement: Struggle is a required element for progress
Three examples:
1. Copernicus/solar system
2. abolition of slavery
3. hardship
II Tell the story Topic sentence for example 1: Copernicus challenged common belief about solar system
Explanation for example 1: Paid price politically and socially. Worth it because corrected an error
Topic sentence for example 2: Challenge of status quo led to abolition of slavery in U.S.
Explanation for example 2: Allowed freedom and contributions of entire population
Topic sentence for example 3: Personal hardships lead to growth.
Explanation for example 3: No hardships—spoiled, immature individuals. Perspective, character, insight come from struggles
III Wrap it up Recap thesis: Struggle beneficial in virtually every area
Expand your position: Shouldn’t avoid it, should seek it out
Notice how in the example above we write in a note-taking style. Feel free to write just enough to convey to yourself what you need to be able to follow during the actual writing of your essay. Once you have the outline down on paper, writing the essay becomes more a job of polishing language and ideas than creating them from scratch.
Step 4: Write the Essay (25 minutes). Writing the essay means filling out your ideas by following your outline and plugging in what’s missing. That should add up to only about ten more sentences than what you’ve jotted down in your outline. Your outline should already contain a basic version of your thesis statement, ideas for the topic sentences for each of your three examples, and a conclusion statement that ties everything together.
Do not break from your outline. Never pause for a digression or drop in a fact or detail that’s not entirely relevant to your essay’s thesis statement. Remember, you’re writing a three-act essay, not a four-act essay, and certainly not everything you could possibly say about the topic.
As you write, keep the “cast of characters” fresh in your mind (see chapter 11 for a full explanation of these fundamental writing elements):
  • An Argument
  • Evidence
  • Varied Sentence Structure
  • Facility with Language
Don’t forget to vary your sentence structure, and make sure that every sentence in the essay serves the greater goal of proving your thesis statement, as well as the more immediate purpose of building on the supporting examples you present in the intro and in each Act II paragraph’s topic sentence. Finally, be clear in your language, but don’t forget to use a few well-placed vocabulary words that you definitely know how to use correctly.
If you’re running out of time before finishing your three acts, don’t panic. There’s still hope of getting an okay score. Here’s what you should do: Drop one of your example paragraphs. You can still get a decent score, possibly a “4” or “5,” with just two, especially if they’re really, really good. Three examples is definitely the strongest and safest way to go, but if you can’t get through three, take your two best examples and go with them. Just be sure to include an introduction and a conclusion in both of your GRE essays.
Step 5: Proof the Essay (5 minutes). Proofing your essay means reading through your finished essay to correct mistakes. Use whatever time you have left after completing Step 4 to proof your essay. Read over your essay and search for rough writing, bad transitions, grammatical errors, repetitive sentence structure, and all that “cast of characters” stuff.
If you’re running out of time and you have to skip a step, proofing is the step to drop. Proofing is important, but it’s the only one of the five steps to a “6” that isn’t absolutely crucial.
Now let’s take a look at a successful GRE Issue essay.
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