ScoreItNow! is an online writing practice service from ETS, maker of the GRE. For US$20, you can write two responses to real Analytical Writing prompts and have them scored by e-rater, the automated essay scoring software used to check GRE essay scores assigned by human raters.
I signed up and wrote an Argument essay. The score e-rater returned fell within the range I expected—5 to 6—and the feedback I got covered grammar, mechanics, usage, and style, as well as development and organization. My essay's content wasn't evaluated, but sample essays were presented that gave me an idea of what constitutes a top-scoring analysis.
I picked an Argument topic that you can find in PowerPrep II as well as the official pool of GRE Argument topics. To pull up the prompt, search the pool's webpage for "Super Screen" (using Ctrl-F or ⌘-F). Here's what I wrote.
The advertising director recommends that Super Screen spend more of its budget on advertising next year. The director argues that the company released good movies this past year, but poor public awareness of the quality of its films depressed attendance. However, questionable evidence and unwarranted inferences make the director's case unpersuasive. Various alternate causes for low attendance escape the director's attention, and the director gives little reason to believe that more people should have attended Super Screen movies during the past year.
According to the memo, annual attendance at Super Screen movies hit an all-time low this past year. The director attributes this decline to a lack of advertising, contending that a dip in film quality, the only other explanation the director considers, was not the cause. But the director's analysis is inadequate. Other plausible causes remain unexamined. For example, how many movies did the company release and in how many theaters? Releasing fewer movies or showing the same number of films in fewer theaters could explain having fewer attendees than in previous years. Also, what was the total number of moviegoers for the year? If movie attendance in general plummeted (due, for instance, to a recession), then attendance at the company's movies could have sunk simply because the total number of moviegoers did.
The memo also states that, in the past year, the percentage of positive reviews for specific Super Screen movies rose. The director infers that the public did not know about these reviews, given that the number of attendees fell. This is a specious inference. Assume, as the director seemingly does, that the more positive reviews a movie receives, the more people will go to see it, provided the reviews are advertised sufficiently. Presumably, the percentage the memo cites is, for a given year, equal to the total number of favorable reviews for individual Super Screen movies divided by the total number of positive movie reviews across all films. What were these totals for the past year compared to earlier years? Suppose, for instance, that total positive movie reviews dropped from 1,000 to 500, while the corresponding Super Screen sum fell from 100 to 60. The percentage of positive reviews would have risen from 10% to 12%. Meanwhile, the 40% drop in favorable critiques could have reduced attendance, even if all 60 positive write-ups were well-known to prospective moviegoers.
On the other hand, imagine that both total and percentage positive reviews for specific Super Screen movies increased this past year. Could annual attendance have dropped to its lowest for reasons other than insufficient advertising? Yes, one of the alternate causes already named, such as a sharp decline in total moviegoers, could explain the drop. Another explanation could be that the reviews were well-advertised, but potential viewers did not find them compelling. What did the reviews say? Who were the reviewers? If many of the write-ups offered only generic plaudits, like "fun movie," or weakly positive ratings, such as "3 out of 5 stars," these middling reviews probably would not have been strong attendance drivers. Even if the reviews were often excellent, critiques from top movie critics may have been absent or even unfavorable, potentially depressing attendance.
Attracting and promoting enticing write-ups is important for a film company's success. Whether Super Screen garnered more this past year than in prior years is unclear. Uncertainty likewise surrounds how well the company promoted whatever good reviews its films did receive. Indeed, contrary to what the director argues, too little advertising may not have caused record-low attendance at the company's films this past year. Consequently, the director's recommendation that the company should boost next year's advertising budget remains in doubt.
E-rater gave my essay a 5. The highest score you can get is 6, and the lowest is 0. According to the official scoring guide, a score of 5 is awarded to a "Strong" essay that "presents a generally thoughtful, well-developed examination of the argument and conveys meaning clearly."
I feel pretty good about a 5. Still, why didn't I get a 6? What did I need to do to write an "Outstanding" essay that "presents a cogent, well-articulated examination of the argument and conveys meaning skillfully"?
The words "cogent" and "thoughtful" refer to an essay's content. Since e-rater can't grasp the meaning of the text being scored, it doesn't actually look at content. Instead, e-rater measures writing quality. So maybe the writing feedback the software supplied will reveal why I got a 5 rather than a 6.
The Writing Feedback
Along with my score, e-rater reported some basic writing measures, such as word count, and presented an analysis of my essay's grammar, usage, mechanics, style, and organization and development. Scored sample essays, written by real test takers, were provided for comparison.
In the Counts & Stats table, word and sentence counts correspond to development, while average sentence length and total unique words measure sentence and vocabulary variety, respectively. Based on these metrics, a less developed essay with longer sentences and more unique words appears to be a better essay. But don't be misled. Style and vocabulary carry less weight than development, and the sample essay, despite having fewer total words, was a bit more developed than mine.
As the Org & Dev table shows, the sample had 4 main ideas to my 3. Since e-rater didn't complain much about my grammar and the like, the software probably would've given me a 6 if I'd just popped on another paragraph.
But would a human have given me a 6? Humans evaluate ideas, not just count them, and mine may merit only a 5 (or lower). To see whether my analysis is cogent enough to earn a 6, I can again compare my essay to the 6-rated and, crucially, human-scored sample response. If my content is similar to the sample's, then my score probably will be, too.
Our critiques were quite alike. In fact, our ideas, both main and supporting, mostly matched. However, in the sample essay, the main idea from my fourth paragraph (that is, whether positive reviews increase movie attendance) was split into two main ideas that occupied the sample's fourth and fifth paragraphs. So, yes, I'd say having a fourth (relevant, well-supported) main idea likely would've earned my essay a 6 from a human rater.
If you're looking to raise your Analytical Writing score, ScoreItNow is a good, low-cost resource. The topics come from the test maker, and the ratings reliably approximate official scores. Although e-rater doesn't evaluate the content of your writing, the software does give some useful feedback on the quality, and you can evaluate the content yourself by comparing it to real, human-scored essays.
The GRE Argument writing task is designed to test your ability to your critical-reasoning and analytic (as well as writing) skills. Your task is to compose an essay in which you provide a focused critique of the stated argument — but not to present your own views on the argument's topic. [Argument format and directions]
The following GRE-style Argument prompt consists of an argument followed by a directive for responding to the argument. Keep in mind: the argument itself is not from the official pool, and so you won't see this one on the actual GRE.
GRE Argument Prompt
The following appeared in the editorial column of the Fern County Gazette newspaper:
"The Fern County Council made the right decision when it unanimously voted to convert the Northside branch of the county library system into a computer-skills training facility for public use. The converted facility will fill what is certain, based on national trends, to be a growing need among county residents for training in computer skills. And since our library system boasts more volumes per resident than any other system in the state, the remaining branches will adequately serve the future needs of Fern County residents."
Discuss what evidence you would need to properly evaluate the argument, and explain how that evidence might strengthen or weaken the argument.
Sample Argument Essay (490 Words)
This editorial argues that the Fern County Council's decision to convert a library branch to a computer-skills training facility was the "right" one. However, its author fails to provide sufficient information to permit a proper evaluation of the argument's reasoning. Each point of deficiency is discussed separately below.
One of the argument's deficiencies involves the claim, based on a national trend, that there is "certain" to be a growing need in Fern County for computer-skills training. The author provides no specific evidence that the county conforms to the cited trend. Lacking such evidence, it is entirely possible that the Fern County residents are, by and large, already highly proficient in using computers. Of course, it is also possible that a large and growing segment of the local population consists of senior citizens and/or young children — two groups who typically need computer-skills training — or unemployed workers needing to learn computer skills in order to find jobs. In any event, more information about the county's current and anticipated demographics is needed in order to determine the extent to which Fern County residents actually need and would use the Northside computer-training facility.
Another of the argument's deficiencies is that it provides no information about alternative means of providing computer-skills training to county residents. Perhaps certain local businesses or schools already provide computer-training facilities and services to the general public — in which case it would be useful to know whether those alternatives are affordable for most county residents and whether they suffice to meet anticipated demand. Or perhaps county residents are for the most part willing to teach themselves computer skills at home using books, DVDs and online tutorials — in which case it would be helpful to know the extent to which affordable broadband Internet access is available to Fern County households. If it turns out that county residents can easily obtain computer-skills training through means such as these, converting the Northside branch might not have been a sensible idea.
Yet another of the editorial's shortcomings has to do with the number of books in the Fern County library system. The mere fact that the system boasts a great number of books per capita does not necessarily mean that the supply is adequate or that it will be adequate in the future. A full assessment of whether the remaining branches provide adequate shelf space and/or printed materials would require detailed information about the library system's inventory vis-à-vis the current and anticipated needs and interests of Fern County residents. If more, or more types, of printed books and periodicals are needed, then it would appear in retrospect that converting the Northside branch to a computer training center was a bad idea.
In a nutshell, then, a proper evaluation of the editorial requires more information about current as well as anticipated demand for computer-skills training in Fern County and about the adequacy of the library system's stacks to meet the interests and preferences of the county's residents.