In a previous post, where I brainstormed ideas on a sample topic, I mentioned I would write a mock essay using those ideas. Below is that topic. And below that is the essay.
In any field of endeavor, it is impossible to make a significant contribution without first being strongly influenced by past achievements within that field.
Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.
While many accomplishments build on existing knowledge, many significant breakthroughs result from those who have completely broken with tradition. Clearly then, significant breakthroughs do not always build upon existing knowledge.
By the mid-20th Century, Abstract art was at its acme. At the same time, many critics felt that the artists had all but exhausted themselves in terms of innovation. To be unique one had to be random and chaotic—silly even. It was little surprise that many crowed about the imminent demise of Abstract art. Into this intellectual milieu, the artist Jackson Pollock came to prominence. Seemingly random and chaotic—though anything but silly—his work had no clear precedent. He would throw paint at a canvas on the ground or propped up against the wall. Though many dismissed him as a madman and a crank, eventually his work was hailed as that of a genius, and that work did much to reinvigorate the movement of Abstract Art. Had Pollock tried to simply build off of the existing art he very well may have fallen victim to the prophecy that the Abstract art movement had become effete and moribund.
Whereas Jackson Pollock created seminal work by totally breaking with tradition, Copernicus questioned tradition, specifically the assumptions underlying the Ptolemaic version of the universe. At the time, the geocentric model of the universe was considered gospel: both the church and the scientific community (at that time the two were heavily interrelated) endorsed this view because it put man at the center of the universe. Even then, it had the stamp of scientific legitimacy in Ptolemy, who had centuries earlier “proven” that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Using advanced math and his observation skills, Copernicus was able to determine that the earth revolved around the Sun. Just as importantly, he was able to challenge the orthodox view, and instead of building off of it, exposed the shoddy foundations upon which this view was built.
Of course both Jackson Pollock and Copernicus are not the typical in the sweep of human endeavors. It is true that many breakthroughs result from somebody building off of or simply improving the way in which something is done. Henry Ford, with his use of the assembly line, made the process of manufacturing goods far more effective. Then there is our modern day visionary, Steve Jobs, who took existing technology and simply made it easier to use (and prettier to look at).
Yet, as Pollock and Copernicus show, there are certain instances in which thinkers are able to completely break with tradition. Therefore, not all significant breakthroughs result from those who build upon previous knowledge. But in those instances in which a thinker has challenged age old wisdom, or come up with a radical form of art, the world surely takes notice.
This is by no means a perfect essay. But it effectively develops the point: It is not impossible to come up with a breakthrough that doesn’t build off previous knowledge. This is an example-heavy essay, building its position off of Jackson Pollock and Copernicus. Now I am no Art History major, and I can’t profess that this is example is 100% correct. The thing is the GRE won’t dock your grade if you fudge slight facts. For instance, if I said Copernicus was a 17th Century astronomer, instead of 15th Century one, that would not be too catastrophic. If I place him as a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, then I am in trouble. So again, you have a little leeway in facts.
It is by no means a bad idea to make an essay an example-driven one. At the same time, I don’t think there was too much analysis of the prompt. Perhaps had the essay delved more into what it means to make a significant contribution to a field that would have been helpful. For instance, Copernicus didn’t just come up with his heliocentric view out of the blue, uninfluenced by other thinkers. After all he did employ math and observations gleaned from new technology. Had he not applied the math and used a telescope he would have not made his discovery. So was this application building off previous knowledge?
I will give the essay kudos for including the second to last paragraph, which does a fair bit of analysis. The author could have included another example to prove her point (something most students writing GRE essays do). But including yet another support shows zero analysis and would have likely dropped this essay to a ‘4’. Instead, the author concedes a limitation in her own point of view, but in the final paragraph shows that her thesis is still valid (“the world surely takes notice”).
And one other kudos for the polished writing. There is also some nice variety to the sentences. Still, the essay would probably have gotten a ‘5’, since it doesn’t provide the complex level of analysis the graders are looking for.
This essay is just one possible iteration of a ‘5’. To get a sense of more ‘5’s and ‘4’s, and even ‘6’, you can find sample essays on the gre.org site. My advice is to understand the difference between a ‘4’ and a ‘5’, do your best to identify where you are scoring and, when applicable, try to get to a ‘4’ by identifying your weaknesses, or a ‘5’, or, for some, a ‘6.’
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A Sample “6” Issue Essay
We’re about to present you with an example of a complete GRE Issue essay. It’s based strictly on our template and the outline we built in Step 3. We’ll analyze it based on the essay graders’ criteria. Below is our sample Issue essay topic, which is designed to be as close as possible to an essay topic that might appear on the GRE.
Our sample topic presents you with a big idea and then asks you to explain your view and back it up with concrete reasons that show why your view is the right one. On the actual exam, you might see a quotation from a famous person, a question, or a statement like ours. No matter what the topic looks like, every Issue essay question will require you to take a position and defend it with examples. And remember, you’ll have a choice between two topics, so spend some time determining which one will be easier for you to write about.
Here’s the sample Issue essay topic again:
“We can learn more from conflicts than we can from agreements.”
As you read the essay below, note that we’ve marked certain sentences and paragraphs to illustrate where and how the essay conforms to our template. Use the info in brackets as a reminder of what your own Issue essay needs to include.
Although agreements have value, the juxtaposition of different ideas in a conflict inevitably leads to more significant progress and evolution. [THESIS] What scientific progress would we have, for example, if it weren’t for intellectual debate? None—intellectual debate leads to scientific progress. [EXAMPLE 1] The reformation of outdated political ideas and concepts is also marked by struggle. [EXAMPLE 2] Finally, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” This quotation captures the sentiment that personal growth arises from conflict. [EXAMPLE 3]
First, historically, scientific progress has been inspired by conflicts of ideas. [TOPIC SENTENCE FOR EXAMPLE 1] In the sixteenth century, for example, a great debate arose because Copernicus vehemently challenged the notion that the earth is the center of the solar system. Although he paid a price both socially and politically for this remonstration, Copernicus disabused a long-held belief, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church and other astronomers of his day. Because of this conflict, humankind eventually gained a new understanding of astronomy. [THREE SENTENCES THAT DEVELOP & SUPPORT EXAMPLE 1]
Second, sociohistorical evolution rarely comes about without turmoil and unrest. [TOPIC SENTENCE FOR EXAMPLE 2] For example, prior to the 1860s in the United States, it was legally acceptable to enslave other human beings and to view them as “property” with few rights. This view led several states to secede from the Union, which, in turn, led to the Civil War, a violent conflict that threatened to destroy the nation. After the war, though, slavery was abolished, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution essentially made discrimination on the basis of race illegal. As a result, the United States grew stronger as a nation. To advance takes constant questioning of the status quo. [FIVE SENTENCES THAT DEVELOP & SUPPORT EXAMPLE 2]
Third, conflict can lead to personal growth. [TOPIC SENTENCE FOR EXAMPLE 3] Adversity helps make us stronger. People who have not known some type of conflict or difficulty tend to be immature and spoiled. Americans so believe this sentiment about adversity that they have institutionalized it as an oft-repeated saying: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This saying emphasizes the way overcoming difficulty helps us grow as individuals: Each time we fail, we must pick ourselves up and try again. We shouldn’t expect life to be easy. Sometimes the value of struggle is in the struggle, meaning that such conflicts, whether internal or external, give us perspective and insight. [SIX SENTENCES THAT DEVELOP & SUPPORT EXAMPLE 3]
Clearly, conflict has been responsible for several upward surges of humankind in diverse respects. In the areas of science, history, and individual character, progress requires struggle. [RECAPS THESIS] Rather than avoiding conflict at all costs, we should accept conflict as a necessary—and beneficial—part of the human condition, whether the conflicts arise among scholars or states. [EXPANDS THE POSITION] Conflict permits true transformation and growth.
Why This Essay Deserves a “6”
First, we need to assess whether this essay has the proper three-act structure, as well as the cast of characters that makes for a great Issue essay. Here they are, just to refresh your memory:
- An Argument
- Varied Sentence Structure
- Facility with Language
The organization of the essay follows our template perfectly, both at the paragraph level (topic sentences and development sentences) and at the overall essay level (intro, an action-packed Act II, a strong conclusion). It effectively argues that conflict is necessary to human advancement. It uses three examples from a very diverse array of disciplines—from science to politics to personal growth—to make the argument, and it never veers from using these examples to support the thesis statement’s position. The essay takes a very strong and clear stance on the topic in the first sentence and sticks to it from start to finish.
Sentence structure varies often, making the entire essay more interesting and engaging to the grader. Note, though, how two sentences in paragraph 3 both use colons to link independent clauses. Your sentence structure doesn’t have to be super-fancy each and every time. A little repetition in terms of grammar or sentence patterns won’t hurt your score. The word choice is effective and appropriate. Our writer doesn’t take risks with unfamiliar vocabulary but instead chooses a few out-of-the-ordinary words such as juxtaposition, sentiment, vehemently, and institutionalized. The quotation from Nietzsche adds some spice. No significant grammar errors disrupt the overall excellence of this Issue essay.
A Note on Length
Our sample essay is twenty-seven sentences long. However, a “6” essay is not based on the particular length of the essay but instead on the quality of the writing and adherence to ETS’s grading criteria. Strong essays will vary in length depending on how the arguments are presented and the language and vocabulary that the writer employs. So don’t worry too much about length. If you follow our step method, you’ll write a strong essay that will satisfy the essay graders.
Here’s a quick-reference chart that takes a closer look at this “6” essay based on the ETS evaluation criteria for graders and on the standards set forth in our Issue essay template.
|ETS CRITERIA||YES OR NO?|
|Responds to the issue||YES|
|Develops a position on the issue through the use of incisive reasons and persuasive example||YES|
|Ideas are conveyed clearly and articulately||YES|
|Maintains proper focus on the issue and is well organized||YES|
|Demonstrates proficiency, fluency, and maturity in its use of sentence structure, vocabulary, and idioms||YES|
|Demonstrates an excellent command of the elements of standard written English, including grammar, word usage, spelling, and punctuation—but may contain minor flaws in these areas||YES|
|OUR CRITERIA||YES OR NO?|
|Uses the three-act essay structure||YES|
|Thesis statement in first sentence of paragraph 1||YES|
|Three examples that support the thesis listed in paragraph 1, in the order in which they’re discussed in essay||YES|
|Topic sentence for example 1 in paragraph 2||YES|
|Development sentences to support example 1||YES|
|Topic sentence for example 2 in paragraph 3||YES|
|Development sentences to support example 2||YES|
|Topic sentence for example 3 in paragraph 4||YES|
|Development sentences to support example 3||YES|
|Conclusion (paragraph 5) rephrases thesis||YES|
|Conclusion (paragraph 5) expands position||YES|
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