argument essay step method
As with the Issue essay, there are five steps to scoring a “6” on the
Argument essay. Here’s a preview, along with the amount of time you should spend
on each step on test day.
Understand the Topic and Find its Conclusion.
Identify the Topic’s Assumptions.
Create an Outline.
Write the Essay.
Proof the Essay.
Now let’s go through each step in slow motion.
Step 1: Understand the Topic and Find Its Conclusion (1
minute). The first thing you must do before you can even think about your
essay is read the argument topic very carefully. Let’s look at our sample again.
Studies show that as we’ve become more technically advanced, our
health has deteriorated rapidly. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and
virtually every major ailment are far more common today than they were
thirty years ago. The primary reason for this deterioration is the sedentary
lifestyle associated with today’s high-tech jobs. Clearly, our health will
continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances.
As you read the argument topic, ask yourself, “What’s the author’s point?”
This will help you identify the topic’s conclusion. As we previously discussed,
look for the conclusion in the first or last sentence. Here the conclusion is
the last sentence: Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long
as we persist in our technological advances.
Figuring out the conclusion will help you with Step 2, identifying the
Step 2: Identify the Topic’s Assumptions (5 minutes). The
assumptions you identify will provide the foundation for the three reasons you
employ for why or why not the argument’s conclusion works.
As we discussed earlier, assumptions are additional beliefs the author
must have to reach the conclusion. Assumptions are never stated; you’ll have to
read between the lines to figure them out. As you read the argument, ask
yourself, “What else must the author believe? What’s stated in the premises but
not the conclusion? What’s stated in the conclusion but not the premises?” The
answer to these questions will lead you to the assumptions. Coming up with
assumptions can be time consuming, and you don’t want to waste time thinking of
more assumptions than you have to. Just pick three, which you’ll then discuss in
the three Act II body paragraphs.
We came up with these assumptions:
Past and present trends are indicative of the future.
Advances in medicine won’t counteract the effect of a
Diet is not as important as exercise in determining health.
Could we have thought of others? Yup, we sure could have. But you have
just 30 minutes to craft and write the Argument essay, so choosing three ensures
you have what you need to craft your essay.
You can and should use the topics in the argument pool of the GRE website
to practice spotting the kinds of assumptions these arguments contain. Practice
with these sample topics by weeding out their assumptions and then thinking
through how you would exploit those assumptions in your essay. For example, you
might show how the assumption you noticed is questionable, thus weakening the
argument; or, conversely, you may come up with a specific instance in which the
assumption doesn’t apply, thus highlighting a circumstance in which the argument
is more valid.
Step 3: Create an Outline (4–6 minutes). Don’t forget that
the essay graders reward conformity. Use our three-act Argument essay template
to create a map of your essay that will please the essay graders. You need an
intro (Act I), three hearty body paragraphs (Act II), and a conclusion (Act
III). Creating an outline reinforces this structure, makes sure you conform to
this structure, and helps you organize your essay appropriately before you begin
writing. Here’s a summary of our template before we begin.
Set the stage
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:
Wrap it up
Expand your position:
Get familiar with this template now so that you don’t even need to think
about it come test day. It will just be automatic. As you fill in the outline,
remember that what matters is that you convey your ideas clearly to yourself.
Don’t worry about being articulate or even comprehensible to anyone other than
you. Just make sure that you’ve got down the raw material that will become your
thesis statement, topic sentences, and concluding statement when you write your
Here’s a sample outline we’ve written based on the topic and assumptions
we’ve already discussed.
Set the stage
Thesis statement & topic’s conclusion:
Argument weakened by three unstated assumptions; argument
claims that our health will continue to decline as long as we
persist in our technological advances
1. medical advances
2. diet vs. exercise
3. past/present → future
Tell the story
Topic sentence for reason 1: Assumes advances in medicine
won’t counteract effect of sedentary lifestyle
Analysis of reason 1: Consider implications if this
weren’t true: Medicine could advance as high–tech does. If so,
might have more effect than exercise; could be good
Topic sentence for reason 2: Assumes diet not as
important as exercise in determining health
Analysis of reason 2: Consider implications if this
weren’t true: Diet could improve as exercise declines. If diet
is determining factor, health won’t decline
Topic sentence for reason 3: Assumes past and present
trends indicative of the future
Analysis of reason 3: Consider implications if this
weren’t true: Even though tech. has improved and health has
declined so far, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything about
future; example of how tech has improved???
Wrap it up
Recap thesis: Conc (health in jeopardy) relies on these
three questionable assumptions; argument doesn’t really work
Expand your position: Author needs to address these
issues to strengthen the argument and more evidence
We wrote our outline in a note-taking style, using abbreviations. When we
couldn’t think of an example for the third paragraph of Act II, we wrote
??? to remind ourselves to think of something later. Feel
free to do the same on your own outline. Write just enough in the outline to
remind yourself of what you want to write in the essay. If it helps you to write
in complete sentences, great— do that. But don’t feel obligated, since no one
but you will ever see your outline.
Developing the Reasons.
As you can see from our template, each Act II paragraph identifies and
analyzes an assumption that underlies the topic’s conclusion. Your critique of
these three assumptions forms the basis of the argument set forth in your thesis
statement. Each paragraph will need to carefully consider what would happen to
the argument’s conclusion if the assumption under discussion were false.
We might have also chosen to structure our essay around additional
information that would be necessary to evaluate the argument’s validity or
specific restricted contexts in which the argument might carry more weight. When
outlining your response, try to settle on points that will be easiest for you to
Step 4: Write the Essay (15 minutes). Once you have the
outline down, the essay naturally flows from there. All you’ll need to do is
flesh out your ideas. If you’ve written a thorough outline according to our
template, you only need to add about ten more sentences. After all, your outline
should already contain a basic version of the argument’s conclusion, rough topic
sentences for the three supporting reasons you will develop, and a conclusion
that wraps it up.
As you write, remember your old friends, the cast of characters (see
chapter 11 for a full explanation of these fundamental writing elements):
- An Argument
- Varied Sentence Structure
- Facility with Language
It should be pretty clear by now that the argument you make in your
Argument essay should be related to the topic’s conclusion. Basically, you’ll be
arguing that either the conclusion works or it doesn’t work. Your thoughts
during the crucial Step 2 will form the backbone of your essay’s Act II. Make
sure that every sentence in the essay serves the greater goal of showing how
your thesis depends on each reason you develop and analyze.
Remember that your evidence will come from your understanding of the
argument’s assumptions. Unlike the Issue essay, which is based on examples you
think up, the Argument essay relies on evidence taken directly from the topic
given by the test makers. In our sample essay, we’re arguing that the conclusion
is weakened by its three unstated assumptions.
Try to jazz up your writing with varied sentence structure and a few
polysyllabic words. Instead of writing sentences that rely on the subject-verb,
subject-verb pattern, try to shake things up by using a mix of dependent and
independent clauses. Now’s not the time to experiment with semicolons or fancy
vocab, though. Use only the words and punctuation that you absolutely know how
to use correctly. Above all, state your points clearly and coherently: Making an
articulate argument is the surest way of demonstrating your facility with
language to the essay graders.
Don’t panic if you start to run out of time. Ignore the clock, take a deep
breath, and say “So long” to the third Act II paragraph. You can still get a
pretty good score with a strong Act I, two Act II paragraphs, and a thoughtful
Act III. Three Act II paragraphs is definitely the strongest and safest way to
go, but if you just can’t get through three, take your two best assumptions and
go with them. Just be sure to include an introduction and a conclusion in both
essays you write for the GRE.
Step 5: Proof the Essay (3 minutes). Proofing your essay
means reading it over one last time to fix typos, correct grammar errors, check
spelling, and just make sure that everything looks okay. If you don’t have a
full three minutes after you’ve finished writing the essay (Step 4), spend
whatever time you do have left proofing. Read over your essay and search for
rough writing, bad transitions, grammatical errors, repetitive sentence
structure, and all that stuff that often spells the difference between a score
of “4” and a score of “6.”
That said, if you run out of time, skip this step. The test makers
instruct the essay graders to look for patterns of errors, so the occasional
misspelled word or awkward turn of phrase won’t kill you.