The AWA Essay: 6 The Fun Way.

Nobody quite understands why GMAC requires that people write two 30-minute essays before test-takers get to the only thing that really matters, namely the Quant and Verbal Sections. Consensus even seems to be that business schools are rarely, if ever, using the GMAT essay in the admissions process.

A cynic might be tempted to say these essays are designed for no real purpose other than to further tax test-takers by extending the testing by about an hour. An optimist might posit that the essays are used to assess thinking and writing abilities under time constraints. A realist might say the real purpose of these are for security: in the events doubts arise over the veracity of authorship of application essays, a controlled writing sample is available.

Regardless of the reason, essays are still part of the test, which means they can get people preparing for the GMAT stressed out. I tell students who come to me seeking advice on the essay to not bother. Focus your time and energy – all of it – on getting your Quant and Verbal scores up. If you’re going to prep for the AWA, it should entail a half hour here and there at most, and you must do the AWA as part of your practice tests the closer you get to your real test date. That’s it.

Despite this advice, students still sometimes worry about the essay. Recently, myself and a couple Bell Curves colleagues took the GMAT during the Integrated Reasoning Research testing window. I figure there’s no better way to alleviate student stress about the AWA then give them some insights into how my essay went, and then a little about what my colleagues did. Below is the prompt for my Analysis of an Argument and a recreation of the essay I wrote in response, followed by some commentary.


The following appeared in a memorandum from the owner of Carlo’s Clothing to the staff:

Since Disc Depot, the music store on the next block, began a new radio advertising campaign last year, its business has grown dramatically, as evidenced by the large increase in foot traffic into the store. While the Disc Depot’s owners have apparently become wealthy enough to retire, profits at Carlo’s Clothing have remained stagnant for the past three years. In order to boost our sales and profits, we should therefore switch from newspaper advertising to frequent radio advertisements like those for Disc Depot.

My Response:

Let us start by saying that the owner of Carlo’s Clothing is nothing short of an utterly incompetent business owner. Clearly, he is not a person who has gotten his MBA, and it is advisable, for the survival of his business and the restoration of a modicum of respect from his employees in his business acumen, that perhaps he look into taking the GMAT and applying to whatever school will have him. Had Carlo (we assume the clothing store name to be eponymous) undertaken to avail himself of an MBA eduction, surely he would have acquired the sound business skills and unparalleled attention to ethical practice that brought us the leaders of such upstanding institutions as Enron, AIG, and BP, whose attention to the profit motive over all else should establish them as paragons of American enterprise, and would have allowed good man Carlo the insight to effectively address his business’ woes. But alas, Carlo has no MBA degree (look how illogically fashioned is his proposal to revive CC’s flagging sales), and so his enterprise is likely doomed to perish. That is, of course, unless the government bails him out.

Putting aside the rather unlikely scenario of government intervention on Carlo’s behalf, given that the Federal government sees fit to bail out only those enterprises more grossly mismanaged than Carlo’s by men even more incompetent than Carlo, let’s examine how ill-conceived Carlo’s proposal is, in hopes of setting him on a more profitable path.

One chief concern on the matter of Carlo’s proposal is that he fails to realize how different his enterprise is from that of Disc Depot (DD). Simply adopting an advertising strategy similar to those of a nearby business faultily assumes that the clientele, audience, price points, and other aspects of the two businesses are similar enough to ensure the increased foot traffic, and thereby sales and profits. If none of Carlo’s customers listen to the radio, what benefit would be served placing radio ads? Speaking of foot traffic, one might want to walk right out of Carlo’s store given how egregious another of his miscalculations is, namely the assumption that simply increasing foot traffic will increase sales and/or profit, as though there is some direct correlation between the two (there may well be – surely a graduate degree would inform one of that – but Carlo makes no use of evidence that would bolster his claim).

It would seem Carlo is quite in love with causal assumptions, as he conflates a number of mere correlations to arrive at his conclusion. With the evidence that DD increased foot traffic immediately after starting the radio ad campaign, and that the owners of DD were able to retire recently, Carlo draws the fallacious conclusion that the radio ads caused both, failing to consider what other means (likely illegal and/or amoral) the owners were able to employ to retire early, or what other factors might have contributed to this increase in foot traffic (new product lines, sweat-shop prices, promos like “free donuts and diabetes with every purchase’).

While Carlo’s vapid and thinly-veiled desire to affect the American dream by making a bunch of cash and retiring early is a most laudable one, an analysis of his proposed means to attaining said goal reveals them faulty at best, and more than likely horribly misguided. Given this, the odds of this happening, as was mentioned earlier in this essay, are nearly 0%. Carlo should drop everything, sell his business at a loss, and use the money to go to grad school.

So that’s more or less the essay I wrote. It was one half of my AWA that earned a score of six. Here are few thoughts and tips for avoiding AWA-related stress while you prep for the GMAT:

1) All that matters is the argument – the tone of your essay may smack of sarcasm or downright disrespect; the implied opinions may be offensive; but guess what? It doesn’t matter. You can see from the first paragraph (almost entirely off topic, petty, vindictive and sarcastic), that I was essentially trying to be antagonistic. Apparently, it didn’t work. As long as you have an accurate analysis of the argument, whatever else is there seems to be irrelevant. [Ed. Note: Keep in mind that GMAC and their computer scoring mechanisms might not care what you say, but B-school admins seeing your essay might.]

2) A good argument essay needs “key terms” – I spent the majority of my 30 minutes coming up with the couple paragraphs. The last three paragraphs took about 12 minutes total. This was because I knew what I was looking for (assumptions, assumptions, assumptions). Inherent in a discussion of assumptions should be words like “flaw”, “causality”, “correlation”, “assume”, “faulty”, etc. Most GMAT essays will be scored by a computer. How? Who knows, but it has to depend on at least these two things: the words you use, and the number of words you write. Use those argument flashwords and you’ll pick up points.

3) A good essay will indicate a bad argument – none of the argument prompts in the AWA are actually logically sound.

4) How Long? – Because a good essay only needs to hit the highlights (or low-lights) of the argument, it doesn’t have to be much more than a paragraph. My colleagues each went in and wrote 1 paragraph essays, each of which took less than 10 minutes to write. They got a 4 and 4.5 respectively on their essays. Use trigger words, bash the assumptions in the argument, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

5) Prep tips – if you’re going prep, start by looking over a few sample prompts from in this handout from GMAC (my essay prompt can be found on page 28), and identifying the weaknesses in the arguments in terms of critical reasoning language (as discussed in #2). Practice writing essays during your full-length practice using critical reasoning skills you would apply to Critical Reasoning questions in the Verbal Section.

The bottom line in GMAT prep is that you’ve got bigger fish to fry. Remember that the AWA is not factored in when calculating your 200 – 800 score. There’s no sense worrying about the essays until your Quant and Verbal scores are at or near your goals. AWA Essays aren’t going to get you in to a program or keep you out, your Quant and Verbal sub-scores and Total scaled score may.

If you’re planning to take the GMAT in the next 2 to 6 months, let Bell Curves help you maximize your score with our comprehensive curriculum, sophisticated methodologies, and unlimited support. We’ve got a prep plan to fit your needs. Visit us here for more information.

  • Maria Smith

    GMAT Essay is very important for students so it is need to take care about it.

  • roopalvegad

    I love this essay, especially the tone of it.. That’s how I, personally, would think about the owner of Carlo’s Clothing. But only in my mind! Had I been given a similar prompt, I would have reserved my tone to critical ( correctional maybe) as if I am the advertising consultant that the two-bit business owner has hired and I am explaining to him (in euphemisms for similar colorful constructs as used in your passage) how his reasoning lacks any legs at all. But, sigh… I’ve not given the GMAT yet, and I doubt if its going to be a good idea to use a smack tone such as this. What if I unknowingly cross the line of disrespect and tread in the ‘offensive’ zone… I wonder…. Would they give me 2? a 1? Zero maybe 🙂

  • BellCurves

    Of course as a potential applicant you should take the Essay more seriously than our teacher Ajani did. Our staff takes it to find out the limits of what works and what can be gotten away with. He will not be applying to bschool with this essay on his record. That being said it should also be informative that its the grammar and logic of the argument more than the content that is being graded and thus you should not worry about offending or taking the wrong position and just focus on your writing.

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