Your GRE Argument Analysis Essay Checklist

Posted by Jedd on 6/22/16 9:30 AM


The argument analysis task presents you with a hypothetical situation and draws conclusions based on very weak evidence. Your job is to identify flaws in the argument, in this movement from evidence to conclusion.

1. Just the Facts, Ma’am

A common challenge that first-time test-takers have is responding as though the conclusion is already set in stone, and the task now is to make recommendations about the situation, rather than identify flaws in the argument. In response to a prompt that presents evidence and claims about the viability of a new seafood restaurant in a hypothetical city, students might mistakenly provide recommendations about how to make the restaurant profitable, rather than identify all the missing evidence needed to better assess the restaurant’s viability.

Consider the prompt below:

A recent sales study indicates that consumption of seafood dishes in Bay City restaurants has increased by 30 percent during the past five years. Yet there are no currently operating city restaurants whose specialty is seafood. Moreover, the majority of families in Bay City are two-income families, and a nationwide study has shown that such families eat significantly fewer home-cooked meals than they did a decade ago but at the same time express more concern about healthful eating. Therefore, the new Captain Seafood restaurant that specializes in seafood should be quite popular and profitable.

Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument and explain how the evidence would weaken or strengthen the argument.

A first-time test taker might argue that Captain Seafood should make sure to carry healthful dishes at affordable prices, offer delivery options to increase sales, and assess the business opportunities in nearby cities. None of these suggestions, however, get to the flaws in the argument. So what are these flaws, and which ones are the most important?

2. Get to the Heart of the Matter 

Once you have a handle on what the essay is requesting, the next big challenge is keeping your eyes on the big picture, or the most glaring flaws. You want to come up with a reasonable explanation for how the proposed course of action may not simply be based on weak evidence but is likely the wrong choice. You want to get a holistic sense of what might really be going on here. In the case above, judging by the new restaurant’s name, there’s a good chance that it offers not healthful seafood but cheap, fried options that will appeal less to the health-conscious crowd than the seafood offerings already available at other restaurants. If existing establishments could provide for the 30% increase in demand, why assume that there is a need for additional restaurants? 

3. Find More Flaws

Now, it’s time to flesh out your critique with a careful analysis of the argument’s other flaws. Many of the flaws in this argument are present across most of the argument prompts. While you’re not expected to identify all the flaws in the prompt, you want to find as many as possible and organize them in a logical sequence. Here are many of the flaws in the given prompt:

  • No information about methodology: The two surveys sampled different populations -- one local and the other national. We can’t infer that the families in Bay City have the same eating preferences as the national sample. If we knew more about the sampling techniques, perhaps we would find that the samples weren’t even representative. Furthermore, why didn’t anyone survey these two-income families to ask them what kinds of food they prefer? Additionally, does the recent survey actually have a comparison data set from five years ago, and if not, what is the basis for this claim about growth?
  • Lack of numbers: The seafood consumption may have increased 30%, but we don’t know what the original level was five years ago. If the initial amount was very small to begin with, a 30% increase is far less significant. We also know very little about either survey’s numbers. Exactly how large of a change is represented by the terms, “significantly fewer home cooked meals,” or “more concern about healthful eating,” or “a majority of Bay City’s residents are two income families”?
  • Vague terms and lack of background knowledge: While no restaurants specialize in seafood, current restaurants have accommodated the rising demand. Bay City may contain many fine restaurants that serve excellent seafood without specializing in it. After all, what, exactly, constitutes a “specialization”? The increase in consumption may be due to a simple population increase, leading to an increase in demand for all kinds of food, rather than an increase in desire for seafood, specifically.
  • Unjustified connections: While seafood is naturally healthful, is can certainly be fried and battered, making it a less-than-healthful choice. More fundamentally, families seeking healthful choices have many options beyond fish, and even if Bay City families are seeking healthful options, we cannot assume that they prefer seafood.
  • Confusing correlation for causation: Even if there has been an increase in local seafood consumption, and Bay City families are increasingly health-minded, these two changes may be unrelated. As described above, the increased consumption may be due to population growth rather than changing preferences, and Bay City families may prefer other healthful foods.

4. Structure Your Essay

Begin by acknowledging the timeliness and relevance of the issue, e.g., describing the popularity of healthful food, the growth of two-income households, and the need for emerging businesses to make accurate predictions about the market. Then dive into your thesis, that the argument has too many fundamental flaws to accept at face value, while summarizing your argument in the most general way, such as mentioning the lack of background knowledge and concrete number values. Build up to your strongest point if you can: So that each paragraph is framed as “Even if the previous paragraph’s concerns were addressed, there is still a more fundamental flaw here.” This is the pattern followed in the GRE’s level 6 essay sample. The last body paragraph or the conclusion is a good place to describe your sense of “what’s really going on,” the final insight that leaves the prompt’s argument looking completely counterproductive.

After writing the body of your essay and the intro, you may only have time for a one-sentence conclusion that reiterates your position. If you have time for more, however, you can write a conclusion to summarize the main idea of each paragraph and even provide a new spin on the issue, such as, “Expanding markets offer potential for real profit, but local restauranteurs should carefully survey the two-income families in Bay City about their dining preferences before investing in a new enterprise.”

The length specifications and scoring criteria for this essay are the same as as for the issue essay, with greater lengths giving the writer more room to develop a complex argument. Practice with these prompts is very valuable, and most students find that they quickly develop the skills to pull apart any prompt’s argument at the seams.

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For more reading on GRE test preparation, check out some of our previous blogs below!

Acing the GRE essay Part I - Ingredients of a Great GRE Issue Essay

Acing the GRE essay Part II - How to use the scoring scale wisely

Acing the GRE essay Part III: A strategy for practicing

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