Preparing to Write the GMAT Argument Essay
The GMAT contains two essays, the Issue essay and the Argument essay. Between the two, most people find the Issue essay easier because it’s more familiar. Nearly everyone has at some point written an essay arguing their point of view on a particular topic. The Argument essay, however, is unusual. Most people haven’t written an essay analyzing the logic of an argument before. The good news is that once you understand the Argument essay and how it works, you will probably find it easier to write than the Issue essay. This article will focus on the preliminary tasks of preparing to write the Argument essay. Next week we’ll look at the actual writing. Onward!
Understanding the Task
The first thing we need to be clear about is what the actual task is. One of the most common mistakes people make on the Argument essay is that they write another version of the Issue essay. That is, they give their opinion about the conclusion of the argument, and then give reasons why they agree or disagree. If you do that, you’re missing the point of the Argument essay and treating it like an Issue essay. The Issue essay is all about you: your opinion, your examples, your perspective, your point of view. The Argument essay is not about you. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with the author’s conclusion. The purpose of the Argument essay is to analyze and critique the logic of the argument. What you think about the conclusion is irrelevant. Whether the conclusion is true or false is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the validity of the reasoning used to get from the argument’s premises to its conclusion.
Determining your Point of View
This is easy. Your point of view is that the argument stinks. It’s terrible. On the Issue essay there’s no right answer. You can agree with the prompt, disagree with the prompt, or pick something in between, whatever you like. But to the question, “How well-reasoned do you find this argument?” there is a correct answer: “Not very well. This is a bad argument.” To properly understand what you’re doing on this essay, you need to understand that the GMAT is going to present a flawed argument to you, and it’s your job to criticize the argument and point out its weaknesses.
To find the flaws in the argument you need to recall some of the basics of Critical Reasoning questions. An argument is constructed by taking a premise and then drawing a conclusion on the basis of that premise. On the GMAT we always accept the truth of the premise, so the flaws we’re interested in arise from the gap in logic between the premise and the conclusion. The thing that fills that gap is called an assumption. Assumptions are like premises in that they also support the conclusion. But they are different in one all-important way — they are unstated. The premises are the evidence for the conclusion that the author has explicitly stated. The assumptions are what the author has not explicitly stated, but that nevertheless must be true for the argument to work.
The assumptions are the vulnerable part of any argument because if they aren’t true, the argument falls apart. The assumptions are necessary for the argument to survive. Thus spotting assumptions is the key to criticizing the argument in your essay. The assumptions you find are going to be the heart of your essay’s body paragraphs. How many do you need to find? Ultimately, you want three good assumptions to write about, three big flaws in the argument. Most GMAT Argument essay prompts contain many more than three assumptions, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a handful of good ones. (For tips on spotting assumptions, see the article “3 Tools for Spotting Assumptions.”)
Exploiting the Flaws
Now that you’ve found some assumptions, there’s one more thing you need to do before beginning to write. One of the keys to effective essay-writing is using specific, concrete examples. In order to effectively criticize assumptions, you need to have some specific counter-examples. In other words, if we’re criticizing the author for simply assuming that something is true, when it might not be, then we have to have plausible suggestions about what might really be true. Here’s a quick example.
Hiker Monthly magazine is a successful magazine that features photographs of beautiful hiking trails in the mountains. Clearly, anyone wishing to succeed with a new hiking magazine should make sure to have similar pictures.
Let’s look at one particular assumption here. The argument is assuming that these photographs are the reason that Hiker Monthly magazine is successful. But no actual evidence is given that that’s true. So we could begin a body paragraph by saying, “The author assumes that the photographs of hiking trails are the reason that Hiker Monthly is successful. But there is no actual evidence given to establish this causal connection. There could easily be many other reasons why the magazine is successful.” That’s a good start, but you can’t stop there. To make the criticism fully persuasive you need concrete suggestions of what those other reasons might be.
So why else might the magazine be successful? Maybe it has good articles. Maybe it has interesting columnists. Maybe people like the classified ads. Maybe it contains other kinds of photography that people like. Maybe it has good reviews of hiking equipment. We don’t know whether any of these things are true, but they’re quite plausible and the author has said nothing to rule them out. The author hasn’t even addressed them. Those are the kinds of specific examples that make your criticism persuasive. It’s not the reader’s job to supply those examples…it’s your job.
– David Ragsdale, Princeton Review