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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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Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.

According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:

1. Pick a topic.

You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.

If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?

Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.

Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.

2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.

In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.

To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.

If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.

3. Write your thesis statement.

Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?

Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”

Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”

4. Write the body.

The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.

Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.

5. Write the introduction.

Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.

Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.

6. Write the conclusion.

The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.

7. Add the finishing touches.

After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.

Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.

Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.

Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.

Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.

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