GMAT: Analysis of a Written Argument | TopMBA.com

GMAT: Analysis of a Written Argument

By Jonathan Taves

Updated March 27, 2021 Updated March 27, 2021

Taking the GMAT is like running a marathon:  it’s time consuming, you have to monitor your energy output, and you’re exhausted by the time it’s over. Focus on this second point. Since the Quant and Verbal sections are after the Analysis of a Written Argument (AWA) and Integrated Reasoning (IR) sections, preserving energy during the early stages of the exam is critical.

While AWA might seem like the most straightforward section on the GMAT – it amounts simply to a written critique of the argument presented in a prompt - that doesn’t mean you don’t need to approach it strategically. Again, before you get to Quant and Verbal - the sections that combine to calculate your scaled score - you’re in energy preservation mode. This chapter will offer strategies for how to expend as little energy as possible on AWA and still get a 6.0.

Basic Strategy

After you’ve logged in, read the instructions, and taken a deep breath, the scored portion of the GMAT begins. The first section you’ll face is AWA - take the following steps to success:

1. Read the prompt and identify the conclusion

2. Determine why the argument is flawed

3. Outline your response

4. Write and revise your response

Before we dive into the different parts of your routine, let’s quickly consider the timing. When one builds a house, it’s said that at least a fourth of their time is spent on the foundation. In AWA parlance, the foundation is an outline - Step 3. Make sure to allocate at least seven minutes to planning what your response will be. Then use about 14 minutes to write it down. The remaining time, about seven minutes, should be spent revising:  after the build is done, you still have to clean up.

Outline

Home-building analogies aside, Step 3 is a truly essential part of your AWA routine. Outlining plans out the argument essay:  kind of like setting the coordinates on a GPS. Most people would think that driving is the most important part of a road trip, but without a map of where you’re going, that driving isn’t going to amount to much. That’s why it’s essential to outline your response before you write it. A quality outline will include these four parts:

1. Introduction

2. Main point 1

3. Main point 2

4. Conclusion

Regardless of the prompt, your introduction and conclusion shouldn’t change much. For the introduction, open by referring to where the prompt was taken from. Then, summarize the author’s argument and state that while it may be true, it isn’t convincing to the reader in its current form. Finish by stating that because of this fact, the argument is unpersuasive.

Your conclusion should begin by formally saying that the argument is flawed. Then, give two examples of how you believe the author could make his argument more persuasive. Round things off by saying that, without these changes, the argument is incomplete and therefore, unpersuasive to the reader. Here’s a detailed outline template for AWA:

1. Introduction

a) In an excerpt of a (BLANK) taken from (BLANK), the author argues (BLANK). Specifically, the author believes that because (BLANK). This conclusion relies on assumptions for which the author doesn’t supply any clear evidence. Therefore, this argument is flawed and unpersuasive.

2. Main point 1

a) First reason why the author’s argument is flawed

b) Example(s) why this reason is flawed

3. Main point 2

a) Second reason why the author’s argument is flawed

b) Example(s) why this reason is flawed

4. Conclusion

a) In conclusion, this argument is flawed. The author fails to present any relevant evidence to convince the reader of his position. If the author were to include (BLANK) and (BLANK) in his argument his case would be strengthened. In its current form, however, his argument is incomplete and unpersuasive.

Reasoning Errors

As previously stated, the introduction and conclusion to your argument essay won’t change. The reasons why you feel the author’s argument is flawed, however, will. Luckily, the GMAT uses some reasoning errors more frequently than others. Regardless, all reasoning errors on AWA can be summarized by the failure of the author to persuade the reader.

Mistaken cause & effect

The classic reasoning error:  causal. Just because’ A ‘and ‘B’ occur, that doesn’t mean that they are related. This can often happen with statistical data. It can also happen if a cause is mistaken for an effect – ‘A’ and ‘B’ are related, but ‘B’ actually caused ‘A’, not the other way around.

When we lowered the price of our deluxe car wash in June, our sales increased by 20%. Obviously this strategy was a huge success.”

Lack of persuasive evidence

If an argument tries to support itself with irrelevant evidence that doesn’t support the conclusion, this fallacy would occur. On the other hand, even if the evidence is relevant, the argument places too much or too little weight on it to be persuasive.

Germany is convinced they’re going to win the 2018 World Cup. They’re incorrect, however, because of the impending dominance of the USMNT (United States men's national soccer team).”

Exceptional case

An argument that overgeneralizes - typically as a result of stereotypes. Further, this fallacy applies one situation to another. When someone claims that because something happened to them it will happen to everyone, it’s an “exceptional case.”

The United States of America is the wealthiest country in the world. Thus, every American is wealthy.”

Advanced Strategy

As you know, AWA is scored on a 1.0 to 6.0 scale. What you might not know, is how the GMAT arrives at that score:  the combined score of one human and one computer grader. Statistically, these two sources produce extremely similar grades: rarely varying by more than half a point. That makes sense because both are trained similarly, but also because it’s in the best interests of the human grader.

Think about it, if your company spent thousands of dollars developing a way to supplement your work, would it be in your best interest to produce different outcomes? Of course not, you’d be fired and replaced - likely by another computer. For that reason, consider the graders of your argument essay as two computers.

That means staying away from colloquialisms, slang, and uncommon idioms. Instead, write a succinct essay loaded with transition words. Like Pac-Man and the dots in its path, AWA graders love gobbling up transition words. Why? The GMAT has decided that the use of transition words is the best way to judge if one has a strong command of the English language and writes with good flow and style. Try to incorporate the following words into your argument essay:

A few last tips before we go through an example question together:

  • When you take notes and write your outline, do this on the computer. It might be obvious, but it will save you time by not having to transfer written notes.
  • While the test taker’s objective is to critique the author’s argument, be careful not to be overly negative. The argument will be obviously flawed - there’s no reason to respond emotionally and discredit the author. Doing so will only lower your score.
  • There’s no ‘spell check’ feature on the GMAT software. Make sure to brush up on the proper spelling of some of your most commonly-used words. Consistent spelling errors will lower your score.
  • Usually, it’s unclear as to the sex of the prompt’s author. When in doubt, choose one and stick with it. It doesn’t matter whether you choose male or female, just that you’re consistent.

Putting it all together

Let’s illustrate the strategies we have learned from the points above with an example.

From an annual report sent to stockholders by Olympic Foods:

Over time, the costs of processing go down because as organizations learn how to do things better, they become more efficient. In color film processing, for example, the cost of a 3-by-5-inch print fell from 50 cents for five-day service in 1970 to 20 cents for one-day service in 1984. The same principle applies to the processing of food. And since Olympic Foods will soon celebrate its 25th birthday, we can expect that our long experience will enable us to minimize costs and thus maximize profits.

The author is essentially making the argument that as one’s experience in producing an item increases, the price of selling that item will decrease. In general, that sounds reasonable. The idea of the learning curve would prove that idea – however, not to the extent of what the author is claiming. Quality notes for this prompt would look like:

  • Saying that ‘experience’ is the reason for a drop in processing costs is overly simplistic. This conclusion mentions nothing of economies of scale, changes in consumer tastes and preferences, and the supply of the raw materials needed.
  • Further, is the color film processing industry really comparable to food processing? Aren’t there more regulations with food? And aren’t the prices of their raw materials more volatile? Also, food processing might rely less on technological advancements.

Those notes will lead you to two categories of reasons why the author’s argument is flawed:  experience and comparability. You should take issue with the author arguing that experience is the only catalyst to ‘minimize costs and thus maximize profits’. Write your first paragraph questioning why this is so; give examples of the economic factors that affect price.

Your second paragraph should be about the comparability of the food processing and color film processing industries. Argue that they aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Speculate that the reason for film processing’s decrease in price was most likely related to a more efficient processing machine, not because of the learning curve.

After you have outlined your response, start to write - beginning with the standard introduction:

In an excerpt from an annual report sent to shareholders by Olympic Foods, the author predicts financial success. Specifically, he argues that because in other industries with experience have come price reductions and increased profitability, Olympic Foods can expect similar outcomes. On its face, this is a reasonable argument, but the author fails to adequately support these claims. By not doing so, this argument is flawed and therefore, unpersuasive.

First, the author argues that experience is the main catalyst to profitability. It certainly plays a part, evidence presented in studying the ‘learning curve’ certainly bears that out, but relying on one factor to predict future success is overly simplistic. There are a multitude of macroeconomic factors, not to mention the individualities of Olympic Foods on a microeconomic-level that will impact its future profitability. The author’s argument makes no mention to changing consumer tastes and preferences, the geopolitical environment, or changes in economies of scale, for example.

Second, the author tries to draw a direct comparison between the color film processing industry and Olympic Foods’ position in the food processing industry. This comparison is tenuous and causal. For example, take the flat-screen television (TV). The past 10 years have shown dramatic price reductions in their cost to consumers. If one were to apply the author’s logic that all industries are comparable, then can one expect that the price for a gallon of milk has also decreased over the past ten years by a similar percentage? Certainly not; the same could be said for Olympic Foods.

In conclusion, the author’s argument is flawed. The author fails to present any relevant evidence that would convince the reader of his position. If he presented examples directly related to this industry and elaborate on the other reasons why he believes there will be increased profitability in the future, his argument would be strengthened. In its current form, however, his argument is incomplete and unpersuasive.

***

If you’re still having trouble visualizing what a 6.0-level essay will entail, read the examples provided within the Official Guide to the GMAT. At a high level, a quality essay will include two paragraphs making up the introduction and conclusion and then two paragraphs explaining why the author’s argument is flawed - filled with as many transition words as possible.

This article was originally published in June 2015 . It was last updated in March 2021

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Written by

Jon Taves is a CPA from Minneapolis, MN. He writes weekly about business-related topics, including his MBA journey, at EFEssays.com

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