Preparing for the Argument Task

Since the Argument task is meant to assess analytical writing and informal reasoning skills that you have developed throughout your education, it has been designed neither to require any specific course of study nor to advantage students with a particular type of training.

Many college textbooks on rhetoric and composition have sections on informal logic and critical thinking that might prove helpful, but even these might be more detailed and technical than the task requires. You will not be expected to know specific methods of analysis or technical terms.

For instance, in one topic an elementary school principal might conclude that new playground equipment has improved student attendance because absentee rates have declined since it was installed. You will not need to see that the principal has committed the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy; you will simply need to see that there are other possible explanations for the improved attendance, to offer some common-sense examples and to suggest what would be necessary to verify the conclusion. For instance, absentee rates might have decreased because the climate was mild. This would have to be ruled out in order for the principal's conclusion to be valid.

Although you do not need to know special analytical techniques and terminology, you should be familiar with the directions for the Argument task and with certain key concepts, including the following:

  • alternative explanation — a competing version of what might have caused the events in question that undercuts or qualifies the original explanation because it too can account for the observed facts
  • analysis — the process of breaking something (e.g., an argument) down into its component parts in order to understand how they work together to make up the whole
  • argument — a claim or a set of claims with reasons and evidence offered as support; a line of reasoning meant to demonstrate the truth or falsehood of something
  • assumption — a belief, often unstated or unexamined, that someone must hold in order to maintain a particular position; something that is taken for granted but that must be true in order for the conclusion to be true
  • conclusion — the end point reached by a line of reasoning, valid if the reasoning is sound; the resulting assertion
  • counterexample — an example, real or hypothetical, that refutes or disproves a statement in the argument
  • evaluation — an assessment of the quality of evidence and reasons in an argument and of the overall merit of an argument

An excellent way to prepare for the "Analyze an Argument" task is to practice writing on some of the published Argument topics. There is no one way to practice that is best for everyone. Some prefer to start practicing without adhering to the 30-minute time limit. If you follow this approach, take all the time you need to evaluate the argument. Regardless of the approach you take, consider the following steps:

  • Carefully read the argument and the specific instructions — you might want to read them more than once.
  • Identify as many of the argument's claims, conclusions and underlying assumptions as possible and evaluate their quality.
  • Think of as many alternative explanations and counterexamples as you can.
  • Think of what specific additional evidence might weaken or lend support to the claims.
  • Ask yourself what changes in the argument would make the reasoning more sound.

Write down each of these thoughts. When you've gone as far as you can with your evaluation, look over the notes and put them in a good order for discussion (perhaps by numbering them). Then write an evaluation according to the specific instructions by fully developing each point that is relevant to those instructions. Even if you choose not to write a full essay response, you should find it helpful to practice evaluating a few of the arguments and sketching out your responses.

When you become quicker and more confident, you should practice writing some Argument responses within the 30-minute time limit so that you will have a good sense of how to pace yourself in the actual test. For example, you will not want to discuss one point so exhaustively or to provide so many equivalent examples that you run out of time to make your other main points.

You might want to get feedback on your response(s) from a writing instructor, philosophy teacher or someone who emphasizes critical thinking in his or her course. It can also be informative to trade papers on the same topic with fellow students and discuss each other's responses in terms of the scoring guide. Focus not so much on the "right scores" as on seeing how the responses meet or miss the performance standards for each score point and what you need to do to improve.

 

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