Ethical Realism

April 27, 2010

Is the GRE a Sham?

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 7:00 am
Tags: ,

The GRE is a test required in order to get into many graduate programs including a philosophy program. Part of the test is on analytical writing, which requires us to give an “in-depth analysis of complex ideas” and provide “logically compelling reasons.” I am not convinced that the people grading these essays are qualified to know what counts as an in-depth analysis or a logically compelling reason and the company that runs the GRE tests, ETS, has no accountability. In particular, the company has refused to explain to me specifically why my grade was a “4” despite my best efforts to get them to do so. A human being grades these tests and should know how to justify their grades, but we are just expected to have faith that everything is done perfectly right without a shred of evidence.

The GRE analytical writing graders are often English professors, who might have never taken a single logic class. (I don’t think a single logic class would even be sufficient to understand what it means to give “logically compelling reasons” because it can take years of experience to realize how logic applies to real-life arguments.)

I have spent years figuring out the best way to write arguments, I tutor students how to do so, and I have written about it in a logic reader (made to teach students introductory logic). As far as I could tell, my essays did provide the criteria the GRE requires to get a “6” (the maximal score), but the company insists that I deserved less without any explanation. If I am taking the test wrong, I want to know why. I would like to correct my mistakes, but that isn’t possible when no feedback is given. I suppose I could take the test several times and figure out what they are looking for via trial and error, but that would cost a fortune and it would only be effective given the assumption that the test isn’t a complete sham in the first place.

My Story

The first time I took the GRE around six years ago, I pretty much just told the reader what to think. I said what I believed with little to no justification. However, I might have used an example that really got the English teacher graders excited. I ended up getting a “5” and I was in the 80th percentile.

I had to retake the test in December 2009 and I got a “4” (I was in the 40th percentile.) So, I’m basically twice as bad at the task after getting a master’s degree in philosophy, teaching logic, teaching people how to write argumentative essays, writing about it, and spending a lot of time thinking about it. Now that I wrote an essay that demonstrated arguments to be valid, questioned the justification of premises, explained the logical ramifications of my arguments, and tried to provide independent justification of the arguments, I deserve a much lower score. Apparently my “examples” weren’t as fun as the readers would have liked. I suppose I might have had some grammatical errors or something as well.

I contacted ETS and I was told that they could do an investigation to find out why I got a “4” and to regrade my essays for a $55 charge. I didn’t care so much about getting regraded. I mostly just wanted to know what I did wrong, but I decided to pay for the investigation anyway, and you can see my fax request here. A month later I got a letter from ETS stating that the grade was correct but no explanation was given. I contacted ETS again and I was told that getting an explanation would be impossible. I was misinformed. I then sent the following complaint to ETS:

I want to know why I got a certain score on the analytical writing test. I got a lower score than before and I need to know precisely what I did wrong in order to further understand how these tests are graded. I have written a logic book, I have tutored students about writing argumentative essays, and I have taught philosophy classes, so I have an interest in writing good essays and I know quite a bit about it.

It would be a great idea to compare what made my first test a higher score than my newer test. This could help clarify what I did right before and what I did wrong recently.

I contacted ETS through the toll free number and spoke with a woman who believed that I could get information about why I got a certain score. I was told that I should request a “Score Review for Analytical Writing Measure” in order to get information about what I did wrong. I thought I made it clear in the fax that my intention was to know what I did wrong, but there might have been some misunderstanding on both sides.

I contacted ETS again and spoke with an employee. He said that there is no way to find out what exactly I did wrong on the test and there is no way for me to contact the people in charge (other than filing a complaint).

I have the following two complaints:

  1. I was told that I could get information about what I did wrong, but the information was false. I sent money to get the information that I would have not spent otherwise.
  2. There should be a way to find out what I did wrong on the test. It is important for ETS to prove its accountability. The best way to do that is to provide information about how we are being graded.

You should be willing to prove your accountability for the following reasons:

  1. There is no way of knowing what exactly lowers scores without precise information given.
  2. There is no way to know if we are being treated property without knowing why we are losing points on the test.
  3. There is no way to know if the graders are doing their job properly without knowing why they are giving low scores to certain people.
  4. If you are unwilling to prove your accountability as a company, then your company is unwilling to be accountable for its actions and the accuracy of your tests will be questionable.
  5. If no one can know why they get a certain grade, then no one could question the judgment of your graders. No one could criticize the graders.
  6. If it is impossible for the outside world criticize your graders (or grading criteria) then (a) graders have less incentive to do a good job and (b) it will be more difficult for graders to know how to improve their grading. (If grading criteria is at fault, then it will be difficult to know how to improve the grading criteria.)
  7. If you are unwilling to be accountable as a company, then schools have little reason to require applicants to take your test. Your company will no longer have a purpose.

I know that you mainly use English professors to grade these papers and I have to wonder if they are qualified to grade all the papers. As I mentioned in my fax request: There is no requirement for English professors to know logic, but the score information states that I am graded on providing “logically compelling reasons” and “precise vocabulary to convey meaning effectively.” For this reason I used logical vocabulary, such as “modus ponens” and “valid form,” and I discussed the logical implications of the arguments. It is possible that this actually hurt my analytical writing scores. It is quite possible that your graders are unable to properly grade the essays based on the supposed criteria required for high scores.

I would like to get specific information about what I did wrong on my test. If that is impossible, I want a refund. I didn’t spend $55 just to get my test re-graded. I never even disputed the grade considering that I don’t even know exactly how you grade the essays in the first place.

It has now been around 3 months and I haven’t heard anything back.

I suspect that the GRE analytical writing test is not graded by qualified professors and I am evidence that my suspicion is correct given that I am a straight A student with a master’s degree in philosophy, which is greatly concerned with good reasoning, and I have spent so much time learning and teaching logic. I have taught and tutored many students about how to understand logic and how to apply logic to their essays.

I suspect that I was punished for using logic and logical terminology. They do score you partly on your vocabulary, and the logical terminology I used had no room for interpretation, such as “modus ponens.” However, they might want you to define “modus ponens” because it’s not part of an English professor’s vocabulary. Of course, it would be unreasonable to have to define “modus ponens,” “valid logical form,” and so forth for a 30 minute essay, so it might be impossible to use logic to maximize clarity. You are graded on vocabulary, but I’m not sure how to use vocabulary in the appropriate fashion. (Vocabulary might be best when used to manipulate the reader rather than to be clear and honest in a logical sense.)

Additional evidence that the GRE does not require logic

To further corroborate my “suspicion” that the GRE scores are unreliable, consider the “perfect score” example here. There we are presented with an argument that supposedly presents “relevant supporting reasons and examples.” The student argues that “The safety of consumer goods can best be ensured not by way of government regulation but rather through voluntary efforts of the private businesses that produce those goods.” Why should I agree? Because “One compelling argument against such regulations is that they are costly to administer and enforce, and can even be counterproductive.” This is irrelevant. If regulations are costly to administer and enforce, it might still be the “most effective way to ensure safety.”

Then the student considers an objection — Someone might think that corporations will make unsafe consumer goods to save money. (Well, this is exactly what should have already been proven by now.) This objection is found to be unconvincing by the student because “this argument overlooks the offsetting economic and social benefits of free enterprise.” Wow, now I’m convinced! It would be impossible for a corporation to make unsafe products because government oversight is so costly, right? Wrong. This is nothing more than a red herring. The student has completely changed the subject to the financial burden involved with government oversight. That’s not what we were talking about. We were talking about whether or not government oversight helps corporations make safer products.

Do English Professors Know Logic?

I have good reason to suspect that English professors know little about good reasoning. Not only do many English professors detest logic, but even English professors who have an interest in logic can’t be expected to know a whole lot about it. Purdue University has a lot of advice about writing essays on their Owl website, and it even has information about formal logic. However, much of the information concerning logic is false. I contacted the person in charge around four months ago, but apparently he has been too busy to make the changes. Here are the errors that I found:

1.) It is stated that a syllogism is false (example D). A syllogism can’t be false. The conclusion can be false, but that isn’t what is relevant. What is relevant is that the syllogism is invalid. An invalid syllogism can have a true conclusion, but an invalid syllogism can’t prove the conclusion to be true, even if it is.

2.) Validity isn’t explained. That must be defined in order for the students to know what logic is about. Invalidity should also be explained and students tend not to know how to define it.

3.) The next example (E) states that the conclusion is “logically valid,” but it is then said to be “only true if an audience accepts Premise 1, which is very unlikely. This is an example of how logical statements can appear accurate while being completely false.”

Conclusions can’t be valid. The syllogism itself can be valid, but it can’t be true. Additionally, the fact that someone “accepts Premise 1” doesn’t make the conclusion true. Truth isn’t determined by our beliefs. What should be said is that the argument is unpersuasive to anyone who doesn’t accept Premise 1.


We have no reason to trust the GRE analytical writing test and ETS seems to have ignored my complaint. ETS refuses to explain why we get lower scores than we would like, so it is impossible to effectively increase our grade based on the appropriate information (assuming that the essays are graded using reliable criteria). Additionally ETS lacks accountability, hides behind secrecy, and seems to have no mechanism to improve itself. I suggest graduate schools stop requiring applicants to take the GRE analytical writing test. It would be best for graduate schools to refusing to do any business with ETS until the company is improved and proves its accountability. ETS has no reason to improve if there are no negative consequences to its actions and I doubt graduate schools are willing to do anything about the situation.

If you would like to know why you got a certain score on a GRE analytical writing test I would suggest contacting them to find out. If they refuse to give a detailed explanation, you should insist to fax a complaint. The fax number for complaints is 1-609-771-7715.




  1. Wow, I’m extremely glad I found this post! I don’t have nearly the background you do, but it certainly seems that studying philosophy would have made me much more likely to score a 5.5 or 6, which I didn’t do. Those I asked said that the best way to secure a high score is to “write as much as you can and don’t edit.”

    Comment by Jonathan Badgley — April 28, 2010 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

    • I wrote more than 1.5 pages for each essay, edited down a pretty decent draft argument, expected a near flawless score. Got 4 out of 6 much to my dismay. !@#$% it.

      Comment by Snuggle Puma — December 12, 2014 @ 6:19 am | Reply

  2. They just score on a rubric. It is a simple formula that defines what they are looking for. I don’t know how much spelling and grammar have to do with the grading, but from what I can tell you are better off being an opinionated asshole and just tell them what to think and why.

    Comment by Michael — April 28, 2010 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

    • Scoring on a rubric doesn’t really explain much. If by that you mean that they grade it like a robot without thinking, that is a huge problem. According to their website, they grade on the following six criteria:

      A 6 paper presents a cogent, well-articulated analysis of the complexities of the issue and conveys meaning skillfully.

      A typical paper in this category:

      * presents an insightful position on the issue
      * develops the position with compelling reasons and/or persuasive examples
      * sustains a well-focused, well-organized analysis, connecting ideas logically
      * expresses ideas fluently and precisely, using effective vocabulary and sentence variety
      * demonstrates facility with the conventions (i.e., grammar, usage and mechanics) of standard written English, but may have minor errors — Provides detailed information about the nature of the Analytical Writing measure and the value that it adds above and beyond the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning measures. Also contains score interpretation information.

      Comment by James Gray — April 28, 2010 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  3. From

    “ETS has a long history of poor grading performance across its array of test offerings… On the GRE, is not uncommon for test-takers to score in the 90th percentile on Quantitative and Verbal sections of ETS-administered exams, but on the Written/Analytical portion of the test score below the 40th percentile. Despite the fact that grading errors are common (this fact has been proven and verified by many experts and official sources), ETS charges large fees for grade reviews if it allows them at all…”

    Comment by James Gray — April 29, 2010 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  4. They cannot tell you what you did wrong without revealing their secret grading criteria. They have a simple formula to grade your test.
    6 = your essay has X particular elements and follows a certain structure etc.
    5 = Your essay has most of the X elements and has proper structure.

    Comment by Michael — April 30, 2010 @ 1:26 am | Reply

    • I think that I already agreed with what you are saying earlier. The GRE is very secrative. Here is what I don’t like about the secracy:

      One, I don’t know why grading criteria should be secret. If they want a good essay, then we should know how to live up to the grading criteria. If secret grading criteria is “you lost points because you used various logical fallacies,” then nothing terrible would be revealed.

      Of course, the secret grading criteria is probably that they don’t want real critical thinking or logical reasoning. They want something else.

      Two, it is impossible for a company to be held accountable that does everything in secret. We can’t know if the grading criteria is faulty if we can’t know what is going on. How can anyone criticize the company effectively and figure out how to improve it when we don’t even know what is going on? The secrecy is meant to cover their mistakes rather than to be honest about them.

      Three, I think they could say what I did wrong on the essay without saying how many points I lost and so forth. We would all agree that using logical fallacies is a good reason to have your essay score reduced and we don’t necessarily need to know all the gory details about how fallacies effect our score.

      Comment by James Gray — April 30, 2010 @ 3:44 am | Reply

  5. I just think that they are grading like robots for efficiency. If AI was good enough, the readers could be replaced by feeding your essay through a machine. Sure they want you to avoid certain things, but more important is that you include certain things.

    I disagree with your point 3; if they did tell you what you did wrong to lose points, you might be able to reverse engineer their secret grading protocol and share it to the world. I suppose you could try to do that with the example perfect paper, but it is much harder since they do not tell you why it is a perfect paper.

    Comment by Michael — April 30, 2010 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

    • I find it unlikely that anyone would reverse engineer it, but I suppose it is possible. Their passionate interest in secrecy could motivate such paranoia.

      Comment by James Gray — April 30, 2010 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  6. “So, I’m basically twice as stupid after getting a master’s degree in philosophy, teaching logic, teaching people how to write argumentative essays, writing about it, and spending a lot of time thinking about it.”

    Sounds about right to me.

    Comment by me — May 11, 2010 @ 1:57 am | Reply

  7. Glad i found this post too. the GRE exam is simply a business. And u know they are mostly just after your money. Don’t let this GRE exam stop you from accomplishing your dream. When i took the GRE exam i didn’t do well at all probably because English was not my native language. However, thank God for my professor who did not care about my GRE score. I was able to get in to a great university with the help of my professor, get my masters, and graduate with a 3.8 gpa 🙂 If i was not given the opporunity to pursue a higher level education because of my low GRE score, i would have not known that i could get my masters. Now, i am doing a lot of amazing things. Life is simple and everyone should be able to get as much education as they can. Don’t let money and any organizations like the people who run the GRE exam stop you from getting your education. Finding the right people is the key.

    Comment by anonymous — October 6, 2010 @ 7:16 am | Reply

  8. I too have had a terrible experience dealing with ETS. They are a bunch of crooks. They are actually considered a “non-profit” company! The CEO makes almost a million dollars. I am convinced that they don’t even read the essays-and how are we to ever know? I wouldn’t be surprised if they did just randomly assign grades, because unlike you, I would not give those crooks another $55 dollars of my hard earned money to find out, and I’m sure that they assume most won’t.

    Comment by Megan — January 24, 2011 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

    • Even if you paid for the “investigation,” there would be no proof provided of any actual grading occurring. They don’t tell me anything except “the grade was correct.”

      Comment by James Gray — January 24, 2011 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

  9. It is puzzling to me why colleges and universities continue to require the GRE for admission to their graduate programs. The exam has no relevance to anything academic. It is an exam of strategy. Get the first 10 questions correct and you on the road to success. Miss any of the first 10 questions and you have just limited your score. In order to test knowledge, an exam should look for correct answers to questions relevant and predictive of success in the academic setting. The GRE does not. Furthermore, time limits should and would be flexible(rather than 30 minutes per section, overall testing time would be within a window of 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, allowing the test takers to take more time of sections where they may process more slowly and work quickly through sections where they process rapidly. Providing a window of time rather than a time limit would put those without disabilities on an even playing field with those who are accommodated with extra time because of their disabilities.) Providing a window of time for taking the test would eliminate much of ETS’s cost as they could reduce the number of staff needed to process applications for accommodations. There is a great deal of misinformation given over the phone as exemplified in the previous comments regarding the test taker’s request for an explanation of the essay score. The GRE and ETS are about collecting our money. When we collectively decide to cease applying to programs requiring the GRE and cease paying the exorbitant fees for computer based testing, then ETS and the GRE will cease to exist. A test used to look for a candidate’s likelihood of success in an academic program should test for those qualities. Shame on the colleges and universities that continue to rely on an unreliable test. Shame on us for buying the test.

    Comment by Jane Crimmins — May 3, 2011 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

    • They do it to use arbitrary objective data to help the screening process and justify bureaucratic decisions. The problem is that it’s immoral to do that. It’s an irrational form of discrimination to use arbitrary data to decide who should get opportunities, goods, services, etc. Racism isn’t wrong just because we don’t like it, it’s wrong because it’s irrelevant to qualifications. There are studies to try to prove that the GRE is relevant, but those studies have very limited success.

      Comment by James Gray — May 3, 2011 @ 7:44 pm | Reply

  10. James, I really appreciate hearing your story (with personal background) regarding the analytical portion of the GRE. I too have been analyzing arguments and composing them for many years (I’m in the 50’s club:), and while my style is more conversational rather than formally structured, I have been complemented numerous times on my writing. I can also compose the point by point technical instruction and analysis used for scientific and engineering communication requirements; so when I completed the analytical portion of the GRE, I was extremely confident that I covered all the bases and more, for both essays, expecting no less than a 5.5 even if the grader did not understand what I was talking about. I’m sure that you can imagine my shock when I received the a grade of 4! If I had not scored above the 90% percentile on the verbal section, perhaps it would not have been such a shock, but I was appalled. All I can conclude is that who ever scored the essays, is out of touch with the real world.

    I ran across this blog as I was googling (yes, its a verb now) for procedures to follow to challenge the GRE scores. LOL, there are none posted that I could easily find. This tells me two things. First, ETS has extended its reach far beyond the academic community in its quest to protect itself from scrutiny. Two, if they will not honor petitions to review and explain how and why a particular score was assigned, they have something to hide. Period.

    Since the program I have applied for does not require the GRE, I suppose that I will not pursue an explanation, I have better things to do with my time. So again, I appreciate knowing that I would only be banging my head against the wall in search of an explanation, one that might ultimately be void anyway.

    Comment by Joe Bova — June 17, 2011 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

    • Joe,

      Thanks for the reply. I retook the GRE about a year later and I got a 5 on the analytical section. I looked at the examples of essays of various scores, but apparently I still did something wrong. Here’s what I wrote about the GRE analytical writing section after reading what the GRE guide had to say:

      Basically they want you to say that the argument has insufficient evidence and unjustified assumptions and they want you to describe those assumptions and reasons for doubting them in detail. You are pretty much forbidden from proving any of these assumptions to be false.

      What program are you applying for?

      Comment by James Gray — June 19, 2011 @ 9:44 am | Reply

    • Good to read your post Joe. I have a BS in physics, an MS in EE from a top 30 school in the country, and a MA in Theology. I also scored up in the 90th percentile on the verbal and in the 80’s on math, and was very happy with my two essays (took the test in Oct. ’11) and was shocked to get a 4. I’ll withold the rest of my comments for my own post, which I’m getting to, but wanted to comment on yours first.

      Comment by Rob — January 19, 2012 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

  11. Many of the posts above seem to assume the analytic writing section, and particularly the “analyze an argument” essay, is concerned with logic or deduction. It is not. Therefore, fallacies of the sort you learn in logic classes will not help you. All the arguments have to do with probababilities. Many have to do with the misinterpretation of correlations as cause-effect relations. A basic course in “Statistics for the social sciences” will help you more than a logic course.

    Comment by Dwight — July 23, 2011 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

    • Arguments are best understood using logic and knowing about informal fallacies. Everything you just said is relevant to logic. I never said that taking a logic class should be necessary for writing these essays. However, if knowing logic well doesn’t help at all, then there is a problem. Logic and good reasoning is precisely what arguments should be based on. If not, then what’s the point?

      Comment by James Gray — July 24, 2011 @ 5:22 am | Reply

  12. GRE is a total scam. I got a 4.5 on the AW the first time, but I was sleepy that day and my essays rambled a bit so when I took the test for a second time I figured there was much room for improvement. I thought I beasted those two essays – they were clear, thoughtful, and used some nice words. I felt confident that I would receive a 5.5 or maybe a 6! Got a 4. (I have a 3.95 undergrad gpa and am a damn good writer!) Apparently sleep deprivation and rambling are two great prep strategies. After reading everyone’s comments I will not be flushing $55 down the toilet — ETS is definitely the equivalent to a dirty toilet.

    Comment by Jen — August 10, 2011 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  13. How about this one. My wife and I are currently in the UK and therefore have to take in the English subject test in this country. Subject Test availability is VERY limited here, like, once every 2 months. The test was meant to be today. My wife drove 3 hours, booked a hotel to get a good night’s sleep before the test, etc. for a test at 8:30am. By 9:15 it was clear, the test proctor was not coming to administer the exam! 10 students from ALL OVER the UK stuck outside a locked building, never contacted that the exam had been cancelled (or that the proctor just slept through the alarm clock). Between 10 students literally thousands of dollars have been spent in fees, travel, and hotels with absolutely no way to get in contact with ETS on a Saturday in the UK. The campus security office had no idea that this was meant to be happening and couldn’t get in touch with anyone who might know (being Saturday). I honestly can’t think of a more outrageous situation. Especially since (We suspect) this test was added after an earlier test was booked up and a lot of students were thinking they might be screwed out of a chance at taking the test at all. So this test might have been something they had to organize especially to accommodate the very students who made the effort to get there today!

    At this time, there are no more scheduled exams in the UK and most PhD application deadlines are in Dec. or Jan. Something like this literally messes up your chances for the future. It is an absolutely appalling situation. I am sure we’ll get the money back, but obviously there is far more at stake over something like this than getting reimbursed your test fee…

    As a side note, apparently one person who also went to sit today’s cancelled test was in contact with a UK GRE test official a few weeks ago regarding a test at a different location earlier this year. Since that earlier test was fully booked, the official was told that any overflow students (who were advised by ETS to show up to the exam on the off chance they might be able to take the seat of someone who doesn’t turn up), should be sent to PARIS to sit a test THE SAME DAY. AS IF you can just hop a plane to Paris on a whim to go sit a test. There are so many logistical reasons that make this scenario an utter nightmare! These people are out of their minds!

    I’ll keep you posted on what happens.

    Comment by Z.S. — November 12, 2011 @ 10:34 am | Reply

    • That is a horrible situation and I look forward to finding out what happens. I hope everything will work out one way or another. They should offer another test for free to make up for it.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 12, 2011 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

  14. I join the club of those dissatsified with Analytical writing section grading. I took the GRE in 2006 and this year in october. In both tests, verbal and quantitative section scores were same: 99th and 94th percentile (or perfect scores) respectively. Very surprisingly, my writing score was lower by 1 point (5.5 – 4.5)!

    Comment by vishvAs vAsuki — November 18, 2011 @ 12:53 am | Reply

  15. I was glad to find this post. I have a BS in physics, a MS in electrical engineering from a top 30 school, have a MA in Theology (for which good writing is really the main thing for grades) got a seven-hundred something on the verbal on the SAT way back when, am writing a book right now for publication, got in the 96th percentile on the verbal and 84th on the math, was very happy with my two essays when I took the test in Sept, 2011, and was shocked to get a 4 on the writing, putting me in the 40-something percentile. I am an adult and can take a bad or average grade like an adult. But if I am certain that a grade is unfair, I want to see justification and I will not let it go. In seminary the only two grades I ever got in this category, I followed through with–one was raised by one-hundred points and it was a fiasco (the professor probably isn’t at the school any longer), the other was raised by some points and the professor offered some highly questionable justification for my grade.
    I paid the $50 for ETS to re-grade my test and they came back with a two line letter saying the grade was verified. Then I wrote a two page handwritten letter to them complaining, asking for justification, asking for someone to call me, and asking for copies of my essays. In the letter I showed that I remembered very well what the questions were and what I had written and that I knew what good logic is and what good writing is. Then I received another impersonal letter in reply telling me where to go to hire an essay grading service (as if I would be taking the test again). I called a few minutes ago asking to be forwarded to someone who could actually talk to me. I was cordial but very insistent, but the operator said she could give me no number and could forward me to no one.

    There may be no test that a person takes in their life with a heavier impact than the GRE, and yet they include a subjective test and offer no justification for the very, very questionable scores given. If you look, for 2010 the smallest increment in the essay grade of half a point moves someone from the 40th to the 70th percentile. That’s a major problem right there. The graders probably are under pressure, for one thing, to give lower scores to make some kind of curve in the statistics. It is a bogus system and should be cut out.

    Comment by Rob — January 19, 2012 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  16. I too received a high score on the GRE verbal (163, 93%) and a low score (4, 48%) on the AW section. I have two masters degrees and I have chaired a graduate program for six years. I have taught several research courses, including graduate research methods. How does ETS measure the internal reliability of the AW grading? There is no way that they can. What controls do they employ? How do we know that the “graders” were alert when grading certain essays? Is there any kind of statistical analysis that is taking place, for example, to see if “graders” consistently grade differently based upon when and how many essays are graded? How are they eliminating confounding variables, such as fatigue, grader experience with essay subject, etc? Does the grader get paid based upon number of units graded? Suppose the grader has a strong opinion about what constitutes “important uses of technology”, which was the essential content of my essay. How might this influence their scoring? What are the grader characteristics? The descriptors that ETS gives for the “graders” would be be ripped apart by most experimental research faculty as lacking any semblance of control. Without controls how do we know that the results are reliable? If they can’t provide a reason as to why you specifically scored a 4, they could at least provide us with a detailed explanation of precisely how they determine and control the environmental factors that could influence the scores. Have they done any internal testing of the graders? Have they had the graders write an essay, mix them in with tester essays, and then submit them to grading by peer raters? Do they all need to be able to score a 6 in order to really understand what constitutes a score of 6? God forbid that any of the graders know our information and may disriminate – consciously or not – based upon where a tester went to school. I expect that the essays are graded randomly and blindly by the graders, but would a grader with a Ph.D. from Harvard grade my essay differently than a Ph.D. from a less prestigious school? Oh, my… there may be a number of us out there now that need to bring a class action lawsuit against ETS and, perhaps, some of the graduate schools who may disriminate on the basis of the AW score, and thereby deny someone a quality education.

    Comment by Ted — January 27, 2012 @ 5:46 am | Reply

  17. I’ve taken only one logic class, but I’m a copy editor for a highly ranked academic journal (a heavily edited, grammatically unimpeachable journal). My job is almost as much about logic as it is about grammar: I have to reorganize articles and make sure that ideas are logically connected and every statement is backed up with proofs, etc. I got a 100% score on the verbal section of the GRE and a score of 4 on the Analytical Writing portion.

    As soon as I saw my scores, I immediately thought about an AP English exam I took during my senior year of high school. Basically, I hadn’t even understood what one of the questions was asking, so I had no idea how to respond. In a panic, I scribbled out a standard five-paragraph essay, loaded it with the most impressive vocabulary and grammatical flourishes that I could muster… and received a perfect score.

    My guess is that the people who score these types of exams aren’t actually analyzing the content. You mentioned in your post that English professors grade these things, but I was under the impression that being an English *major* was qualification enough for the job. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever graded my essay marked me down because he or she mistakenly judged long-winded but grammatical sentences to be run-on sentences–or maybe those sentences got me a low mark for “organization.” Maybe the scorers just tick things off on a list: Five paragraphs? Check! Use of GRE words? Check! Who knows. I doubt you can win any points with truly “insightful” or thorough arguments. The people who score the highest on these things are probably the types of people who should work for essay mills.

    I really wanted to appeal my score–I thought I could ask ETS to send me some sort of grading rubric and maybe even a copy of my essay so I could look it over–but after hearing about the $55 fee and the fact that they provide no explanations about scoring whatsoever, I guess I’m not going to.

    What I’m really wondering now is how much schools actually care about the Analytical Writing score. Do GOOD schools even pay that number any attention–especially if they have application essays (which are obviously a better measure of writing ability) to consider?

    Comment by Christine — February 1, 2012 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  18. fuck you — i am so tired of seeing ur whining . jump off a bridge please.

    Comment by bear — February 14, 2012 @ 5:12 am | Reply

    • You don’t think people should complain about the abuse of power? We should just let people in power do whatever they want without complaint?

      Comment by JW Gray — February 14, 2012 @ 5:51 am | Reply

  19. oh, and i agree with you, the gre is total bs. but fuck ets and move on. peace up.

    Comment by bear — February 14, 2012 @ 5:16 am | Reply

  20. Ditto on much of the aforementioned discussion about the ambiguous and questionable essay scoring methodology employed by ETS. I took the GRE for the first time in 2003 after graduating with a B.S. in geology and mathematics just prior to applying to graduate school. On that test, I received a respectable 670 on the Verbal section, a 780 on the Quantitative section, and perfect 6.0’s on the Analytical Writing essays. During the interim, I earned an M.S. in geology, and was later accepted to graduate school in journalism to pursue a second master’s degree with a focus on science and environmental writing. I’ve long since taken a job as an engineer, which requires a great deal of technical writing, and would say that, as a consequence, I’m a far more competent and stylistically sophisticated writer now than I was when still fresh out of college with only a bachelor’s degree under my belt.

    Regardless, I took the Revised General Test earlier this year (2012) and received a 164 (94%) on the Verbal section, a 166 (94%) on the Quantitative section, and a 4.5 (72%) on the Analytical Writing section. While anyone would have to concede that their own sense of how they performed in composing their essays is certainly subjective (much like the scoring of those essays, it appears), I’m quite confident that the essays I wrote during this test were very well written (with nary a grammatical error) and logically cogent, and certainly better than the essays I wrote in 2003 during my first GRE test. I’ve given consideration to a number of factors that might bias a scorer against an essay response (many of which have already been proposed in the above discussion), but my overwhelming sense is that the essay scorers are, to be quite frank, not all skilled enough to be able to recognize a good essay when they read one, and especially inept at evaluating essays that invoke formal logic, scientific reasoning, or quantitative analysis in formulating a position. Given that (as has been suggested) the scorers are “English professors,” my sense is that they’re probably not equipped with the technical background to be able to evaluate the cogency of an argument that invokes subject material from the sciences, and may even be personally biased against the assertions made in the argument (imagine, for example, discussing evidence from the fields of biology or climatology in your essay, and then having it scored by a person who, for religious or political reasons, doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming).

    I’ve contacted ETS about the possibility of having the essays re-scored, but have yet to hear back from them (though, I suspect I will in the next few days). My only concern, however, is that essays slated for a score review are presented to a new reader specifically as score-review essays, instead of simply another set of essays that need to be evaluated. You can see the dilemma: a scorer evaluating essays that he or she knows, a priori, are up for score-review may be already inclined to verify the original score (or intentionally score them low, provided the the original score is kept secret) so as to maintain the appearance that the ETS scoring process (and the scorers, themselves) are consistent and accurate. Simply put: there’s not enough disclosure from ETS on their procedure for reevaluating the essays, which only exacerbates the problem that the essay scoring technique is already highly questionable (as is, I’m proposing, the aptitude of the scorers). In retrospect, I’m reminded of something that is taught to first-semester journalism students before they ever write their first article: “If you’re writing for a mass audience, don’t write above a sixth-grade reading level.” Sadly, perhaps this is the same strategy ETS now expects of its test-takers.

    Comment by Brian — March 2, 2012 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  21. I read your letter to the company about halfway through, and I spotted three grammatical errors, one subject disagreement, one logical fallacy and one very confusing statement.

    I am sharing this with respect: Your writing evaluation was, in all likelihood, accurate and fair. You seem to have a lot of anger and a bit of entitlement, but your work is not polished. Take your writing to a professional for a proof-read with feedback, and you will have the tools that you need for improvement and the feedback that you are looking for from a testing agency that does not provide it. While you have a master’s degree and teaching qualifications, I think you are overstating your case in terms of a very large and qualified pool.

    And keep in mind that the GRE studies all applicants on the same criteria. Logical structure in philosophy does not apply to a logical flow and cohesiveness in business writing.

    I received a 4 on the written portion of a practice exam. I hesitated with a loathing exasperation at the outset of it because I know that I am quite rough around the edges and unpracticed.

    All the best,

    Comment by Tam — September 25, 2012 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

    • What logical fallacy did I use?

      I retook the exam and got a 5, which is the same grade I got when I took the test the first time around 2004 — and was much less qualified. I wrote more about their “grading criteria” in another piece. Their grading criteria is horrible. Their writing is not precise and it’s contradictory. I do not trust that they know how to grade these things properly. I do not trust that their graders are more qualified than I am. They refused to tell me how they graded my essay. That is not a sign of accountability.

      An example of an essay that deserves a perfect score given above was clearly fallacious.

      No one is perfect. Grammatical mistakes and fallacies are used by everyone. That’s the way it is. I don’t mind if that’s why I was graded down, but I would like to be assured that the graders are qualified and they need to tell me why I got the score I did.

      Comment by JW Gray — September 25, 2012 @ 11:25 pm | Reply

    • Come on Tam. I’m not an internet punk that typically insults people and makes exaggerated statements, but I have to say here that that really sounds like the kind of thing that somebody would have to be paid to say. The evidence is all to the contrary–that the grading is unfair and inconsistent. Would all the people on here who have complained, with all their credentials, not be more likely to do better than the majority of people taking the test? I think the likelihood is just possibly, yes. But a 4 is 45th percentile.
      And regardless of whether the complaints on the scoring are all wrong, should a company be able to give a grade that affects people a great deal and not have to ever show any accountability for it? NOTHING. No returned essay, no grading sheet for criteria, NOTHING. And NOTHING despite repeated complaints and requests for explanation including money spent for re-grading. It makes me angry again just thinking about it.

      Comment by Rob — September 26, 2012 @ 1:41 am | Reply

  22. Thank you all for your comments. I am relieved to know that I am not the only one with this experience. I recently took the GRE and scored a 4.5 on the Analytical Writing portion (73rd percentile). The first time I took the test, in 2004, I scored a 5.5 (I believe it was in the 87th percentile.). In the interim, I earned a Master of Arts in English, had excellent grades, wrote a strong thesis noted for its cohesiveness, and taught university writing courses. I have also taught the five-paragraph essay ad nauseam to GED students, and this is the structure espoused by ETS.

    Even though I feel confident about my writing abilities, I wanted to be fully prepared for the test. I therefore utilized study tools and books to determine the best way to approach the test, including the writing tasks. I practiced timed sample essays beforehand and had no difficulty creating the five-paragraph essays with clear theses and topic sentences within the half-hour time-frame. In reviewing sample scores based on sample essays from various sources (Kaplan, Princeton Review, ETS), I felt very confident about the differences between the increments. On test day, I again created two five-paragraph essays with clear theses and topic sentences. I felt very confident about what ETS is looking for in its writing section and felt confident about my essays on test day. I was therefore shocked to find that I had earned a 4.5. Based on the Kaplan/Princeton Review/ETS scales I reviewed, a designation of 4 means “adequate.” I harbor no illusions of grandeur; however, I do know that my writing abilities have certainly improved since 2004, and I do know that my essays were better than “adequate.”

    In reading ETS’ site, we can see how their scoring method is very suspect. Here is the information on scoring straight from ETS’ site (

    “For the computer-based test, each essay receives a score from at least one trained reader, using a six-point holistic scale. In holistic scoring, readers are trained to assign scores on the basis of the overall quality of an essay in response to the assigned task. The essay score is then reviewed by e-rater, a computerized program developed by ETS, which is used to monitor the human reader. If the e-rater evaluation and the human score agree, the human score is used as the final score. If they disagree by a certain amount, a second human score is obtained, and the final score is the average of the two human scores.

    The final scores on the two essays are then averaged and rounded to the nearest half-point interval on the 0–6 score scale. A single score is reported for the Analytical Writing measure. The primary emphasis in scoring the Analytical Writing section is on your critical thinking and analytical writing skills rather than on grammar and mechanics.”

    To those who have postulated that grammar and/or typos may have decreased their score, I can say that this information from ETS’ site is backed up by the information I read from the other sources: ETS does not decrease your score for small grammatical infractions. If your essay(s) contain numerous errors, your score can be slightly decreased. However, I know emphatically that this was not the case with my essays; I had no typos and few, if any, grammatical errors, and so I can assure you that your low writing score is not the result of typos or misplaced commas. No, it was the result of one person’s opinion and that opinion being “monitored” by an “e-rater,” which is scanning your essay in some esoteric and omniscient way.

    Comment by X — November 6, 2012 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

  23. I have studied philosophy, including Logic – Grade A. In addition, I have taken a year in statistics. I received a 3 on the AW part. Although I lack native English skills, my main concern is that the adequate quantity that is required for a better grade (according to GRE sample essays) is subject to differences between subcultural ideals in various academic subjects. Whereas the natural sciences require conciseness and brevity the social sciences prefer elaboration and in-depth analyses and, if possible, using multiple contextualizations.

    Would it be possible for us to gather signatures and write a joint statement to the ETS?

    Comment by subharmonic — November 17, 2012 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

    • I don’t know that it’s possible for the test to remove subcultural ideals from the test, but it might be possible to have a petition asking ETS to be more accountable and explain why our tests get the grades they do. That would allow us to evaluate their grading criteria, which is not easy to do right now for anyone who isn’t already a grader.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 17, 2012 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

    • Your English and writing skills look pretty good to me. A letter is not a bad idea but I wouldn’t be interested in hearing a reply from ETS copied and pasted from what they already list as their grading criteria, and I think that’s all they would give. I would only want to protest that they return the essays, which they now claim as their own property and will not release. This seems like destroying or witholding evidence to me. They don’t want the essay questions to be passed around so that people about to take the test can know ahead of time, but the test is changed every year so they should have no problem releasing them a year after the test is taken. If essays were returned, then a real case could be made that the scores given were junk.

      Comment by Rob — November 17, 2012 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

  24. The analytic writing section favors fast writers, not careful writers. And that’s why is not a good predictor of graduate level work. The best advice is to write as much as possible and skip editing. Look at ETS’s model essays to see why. In particular, look at the essay addressing the use of “positive reinforcement” in the classroom, which got a 6. It’s a pretty good essay, but it ends with a very long, redundant, and unfocused paragraph which replaced what could have been a concise but well-written conclusion. Think about that. A cogent conclusion – the sine qua non of an excellent essay – was replaced by a rambling paragraph which added nothing new to the argument. The essay received a perfect score from TWO readers. Length trumps quality.

    And that’s exactly how I got a 6.0 the first time I took it. I put no forethought or afterthought into the essay. I channeled unfiltered verbiage.

    The reason why scores paradoxically fall after a person earns an additional degree is because he/she has evolved into a more careful and therefore slower writer. This time around I carefully considered my words and arguments and my score took quite a beating (4.5). My other scores remained high (170 verbal and 162 quant) and indicated that my mind was still functioning as it did before. I can’t get too self-righteous because I probably didn’t deserve the 6.0 the first time around, but it’s deplorable that the unspoken (and probably unconscious) criterion for getting a good score is essay length.

    Ok, so to repeat what we already know: the hastiness of a timed analytic essay is a very poor predictor of academic writing skill and shame on ETS for propagating SUCH patent nonsense. But instead of only griping about it, we must adapt.

    If you’re like me, your schooling has instilled a habit of editing your composition as you write it. You have forgotten how to write messy and fast. This will kill you on the GRE. So practice for it by writing essays without allowing yourself to hit the backspace button!

    Comment by Max S — November 23, 2012 @ 8:05 am | Reply

    • I don’t know exactly how they are grading it to reward “quick writing.” What exactly that grading criteria would be is unclear. I certainly never said that we shouldn’t “adapt.” I had to take the test multiple times in my life. This is not just about “griping about it.” This is about justice and a lack of accountability.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 23, 2012 @ 8:37 am | Reply

  25. I concur with Max.

    I think what Max is saying is that word quantity achieved under time constraints results in better scores. I think it is evident from a quick glance at the examples provided by the ETS.

    Is there a general interest in having a petition? All in favour, say aye.

    Comment by subharmonic — November 23, 2012 @ 9:28 am | Reply

    • Yes, he did say that. It is quite possible. It’s impossible to know for sure when they will never explain how their grading criteria works.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 23, 2012 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  26. The first time I took the GRE, I received a 170 on the verbal section and a slightly lower score on the quantitative section. Imagine my surprise when I received an analytical writing score of 4! While taking the test, I felt more confident in my performance on the writing section than on the verbal or quantitative sections. My arguments were clear, precise, and to the point. I even took a few minutes at the end to proofread.

    Not much is known about the actual procedure by which the essays are graded. How much time is given to each essay? Does the grader have time to follow a logical argument, or does he or she simply skim the essay and assign a grade based on length, verbosity, number of examples, and organization of arguments? These points may show some correlation with a learned essay, but they don’t have any relation to the strength of an argument.

    Comment by Joe — November 27, 2012 @ 4:36 am | Reply

  27. Reading all these posts has certainly made me feel better. I took the GRE last August and received a perfect score of 170 in the Verbal and 162 in the Quantitative. When my 4.5 Analytical Writing score appeared later I was appalled. Angry, rather. I thought the ETS matching process must have gone awry. The graders must have gotten the two essays from the poor guy sweating and groaning next to me at the test center instead of mine. I paid for a re-grade and received that letter stating the results were accurate. By way of background, years ago I scored in the 99th percentile in the SAT as well and I have a BA in French and Art History, a BFA and an MA in Art History. Since those days, I have been involved in historical research and an art career as well as a life in politics, all of which called for excellence in writing. I am extremely well read (favorite fiction authors = Nathanial Hawthorne and David Foster Wallace) and believe that I write with clarity, concision and artistry, although I know that creativity is not what the ETS people want.

    I took the GRE very seriously and prepped for the Analytical section and performed practice essays. I was alert, rested and well-prepared on test day. I completed both essays, writing about a full single-spaced page each and, as always, was very careful to avoid typos. I paid attention to the exact instructions of each and feel that I presented thoughtful and insightful responses. In my only mention of anything socially controversial, I used two examples, one from each side of the American political spectrum. So the 4.5 was inexplicable to me. I agree with the person who posted above about simply wanting to know what my mistakes had been. I also remember quite well the gist of what I wrote and wish I could have seen proof that my essays were really the source of that grade. I was told on the phone that this was impossible.

    What I want to know now from anyone out there is how typical do you think our situations are? Do schools recognize this weakness within the GRE and discount the AW score if the Verbal and Quantitative are excellent, especially since we provide samples of our writing when we apply to graduate programs? I think the Verbal section WAS a good measure of facility with text. It was not easy by any means and I found even my vocabulary tested. I received that random extra section inserted in my test that ETS warns one about, so the whole thing was 7 sections long, counting the essays as two. I am applying to doctoral programs in Art History and wonder if I need to retake the GRE in the hope of raising the dread AW score, but after reading the stories above I think it may not be worth it. Any thoughts from others are welcome.

    Comment by Lauren Sinnott — January 16, 2013 @ 3:07 am | Reply

    • I can only assume that many schools do take the score seriously. If they didn’t, then it would just be a waste of time to take that particular test. There might be some that don’t, but I don’t have any information about that.

      Comment by JW Gray — January 16, 2013 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

      • To JW GRAY: I am glad you started this page and told your story.
        If anyone else out there has any knowledge on whether admissions committees understand the AW score’s limitations, please comment. I have been out of school for too long to have relevant information. But surely the profs in the programs to which we are trying to gain admittance have also had students of their own who’ve experienced this.

        Comment by Lauren Sinnott — January 21, 2013 @ 6:05 am

    • You might not remember, but before 2003 there wasn’t an analytical writing section, it was just the “analytical” section with multiple choice questions. Questions would be scenarios like four people with houses in particular places and letters that had to be delivered and you had to answer what the best way would be to get them there. Performance on that section turned out to be undependable, or something, so they changed it to essays. Schools didn’t pay as much attention to the analytical grade back then supposedly. But I don’t think anyone on here would disagree that the essays have not turned out to be a good alternative.
      I also paid for the re-grading and then wrote a letter, then called, and then called again just now since it’s been over a year since I took the test. The questions have all been changed now so there should be no reason I can’t get my essays, right? Wrong, of course. They’ve been destroyed she said. (I put the post above by Rob, but the site wouldn’t let me log in for some reason now.)
      I don’t usually let things go that are as sorry and clearly incorrect as this is. It bothers me a little and they shouldn’t be able to just keep doing what they’re doing. I don’t think that writing letters or petitions would do anything. But writing to newspapers or academic journals might. If papers were interested it could really get embarrassing for ETS. There’s enough just on this blog to make a good case and to make them look pretty bad. I will probably do that in fact. I’ll update here if I get a response.

      Comment by stewartos — January 18, 2013 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

      • I look forward to hearing how your project goes.

        Comment by JW Gray — January 18, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

      • I don’t know if they changed their instructions and description of the analytical writing section, but the one they used a few years ago was quite bad. I wrote about how it didn’t make much sense.

        Comment by JW Gray — January 19, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

      • Thanks for your response, and you are right about how annoying it is that we are prevented from ever seeing our essays, especially now that the questions would have changed with the passage of time. I also would like to know exactly how ETS matches our essays with our identities. Could mistakes occur? After reading all the stories above, I was less convinced that a mismatch had happened, though, because there were so many others who have had this experience. It would also be cool to see how the AW score correlates with V and Q across the nation in any given year since the essays were started. In other words, is there some sort of negative correlation of AW with the highest V and Q above a certain point. Could the human graders not be on par with these highest testers?
        Anyway, please do let us all know if you write about this to any publications.

        Comment by Lauren Sinnott — January 21, 2013 @ 5:46 am

      • I wrote to one newspaper and one educational journal a while back but got no response. I just wrote to another one today. I personally don’t even plan to apply to PhD programs any more, so grades and corrections don’t matter to me formally. But informally, to be honest, it still pisses me off when I look at it and nothing that’s wrong gets fixed when it’s just ignored. They shouldn’t be able to do whatever they want and be held accountable to no one.

        Yes, it would be interesting to see how the scores correlate statistically. A journalist who cared to look into this could do that easily. And it’s not some esoteric test used for internal purposes or something; it’s a test that almost every graduate student in the country has to take and it clearly has a problem, so it would surprise me if nobody would be interested in writing about it.

        Comment by stewartos — March 23, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

      • I can understand why a newspaper wouldn’t want to talk about it. I don’t hear much in the news about graduate schools. I’m glad you are trying to make a difference, and hope something will happen at some point.

        Comment by JW Gray — March 23, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

    • Same experience – 168 verbal score but 4.5 on essays, and I was sure I nailed them. I’ve been a professional writer and editor for many years, and I read up on the GRE expectations for essays and practiced them. After reading these comments, I can only assume that the scoring is low to generate a lot of $55 payments for reviews, but if there is no real review, it’s not worth it. Has anyone ever had their scores changed?

      Comment by * — January 12, 2014 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

  28. If you are taking the post-test survey please link to this blog (yes, the one you are reading):

    Comment by subharmonic — January 22, 2013 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

  29. It’s a great post. Thanks for agreeing with and supporting the notion that the questions that are asked in a test and how they are graded matter while determining whether a person with higher score is more likely to be more intelligent. I have encountered several people to whom it is anathema to even doubt that. To them, you scored low infallibly means that you are dumber than people with better scores.

    Comment by Arpit Chauhan — October 16, 2013 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

  30. I am an English professor (adjunct), professional writer, published author (University presses, not vanity presses), and I’ve taught these two exact essay types for almost seven unbroken years. I am applying for another graduate program and had to take this test again. I scored a 163 on the verbal reasoning (91% percentile, which wasn’t dynamite, but good enough), and I dominated the essays…crushed them. I received a 4 for my efforts and decided I would sooner contact my potential graduate program advisors and alert them to the situation rather than spend one more dime on ETS. I teach students how to determine credibility, and whether or not a person/institution can be trusted. Sadly, ETS is not one of those institutions.

    Comment by Travis Mossotti — December 19, 2013 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

    • I took the GRE over 5 years ago, and I got a 5 on the AW with NO PREPARATION WHATSOEVER. I’ll be applying for physics PhD programs this fall, and therefore need new GRE scores (scores are only good for 5 years). I studied my tail off for the past 6 months, using the Barons and ETS prep books. I read several examples of “6” essays, practiced typing timed essays using various prompts, made sure my essays were at that level, and yet only got a 4 on AW when I took the GRE last month. I was shocked and called ETS. They told me about the $55 score review fee, and I was wondering if anyone has ever successfully had their score changed. And I’m not looking to only go up a half point. I think my essays deserve a 5 minimum. It makes no sense that I have become a worse writer over the past 5 years. It seems as though (from the blogs I have found) the more intelligent you are, the lower your AW score. My verbal score was a 160, math 165. I have a masters in Physics (which is nothing like English or Philosophy) yet my verbal score shows proficient verbal skills. Is the $55 worth it? Or do I take the test again and “dumb” my essays down??? Do these people even read the essays or do they base the scores on word count? I was going for quality, not quantity (yet still had 4/5 paragraphs). Please advise!


      Comment by stephmil — July 1, 2014 @ 8:39 pm | Reply

      • I have never heard anyone say that paying the $55 is worth it. They said I could find out why I got a low score for the amount and never got any information at all. They just said “the score is correct.”

        Comment by JW Gray — July 1, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

  31. I thought for sure I got a 6 (flawless) or 5.5 (near perfect) on the analytic writing, I felt so strong about it. I got a 4. Really frustrated, no explanation, you can’t even read your response….

    Comment by Snuggle Puma — December 12, 2014 @ 6:04 am | Reply

  32. Class action suit anyone? Let’s organize against the ETS sham!

    Very glad to have found this post. My situation is pretty much exactly the same as the one you describe and that many others may have suffered. I have recently filed a complaint and paid the requisite $55 for a re-grading, even though what I really want is to understand HOW they grade and WHY I got the grade I did. Like many others here, my verbal score was in the 90 percentile and my writing in the 15 percentile, although 5 years ago it was much better. After 5 years of graduate school in comparative literature, this immigrant’s writing skills have apparently degenerated. In reality, I have reasons to suppose that whoever graded my responses was offended by my strong critique of the American government and Capitalist business tactics devoid of ethical standards–both of which came up for me as concrete and useful examples that directly related to the ‘tasks’ of proving my reasoning skills.

    As I wrote to ETS in the letter I faxed, trying to threaten a company that apparently is too powerful to be held accountable, I would want to pursue a class action suit if they decide that my analytical writing skills are of the lowest possible quality because my anonymous graders are offended by my political stance.

    Comment by Anonymous — December 17, 2014 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

  33. This happened to me also! I scored in the 93rd% on the verbal section and 3.5 for the ‘clear and concise’ essays. Unfortunately for me, 3.5 immediately blocks you from many programs. It doesn’t make any sense.

    Comment by JannelleCT — December 25, 2014 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  34. I did some research (on the web), and your post is one of the few addressing the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the GRE and ETS. I would like to start a movement to address this because this organization has control over the lives, future, and ability of thousands to get into grad school. Granted, some schools are not looking at the scores as objective, but, they still require them for screening purposes.

    This is a little off topic, but, an interesting thing I noted when I went in to see justification for my Verbal scores was a clear intent to indoctrinate students through the test design. If you read the explanation for the first verbal section, it is disturbing. I find it interesting that the justification discusses the lack of literature dealing with the topic (which is highly political, as they all were), but tests students on the topic. What if we have an opposing political stance; but, the correct responses are contingent on agreement with the test creators? I am in this case required to answer against my convictions. It was evident with the choice of topics on the version I took included intentionally sensitive political topics. These ideologies are forced on the test takers who have to read the “propaganda” (and agree to an extent) just to complete the test. I am not saying I actually disagreed with the content, just the methodology.

    I also found it interesting that the premise of one of the essays was invalid and yet I was expected to agree with it. I could not do that in good conscience (Hint: Hitler would have been a great example to show the absolute inaccuracy of the supposition). I chose someone well known but less offensive as an example so as not to offend the readers; however, since I am not provided with any justification for my poor score, there remains room to believe my unwillingness to go along with the ruse played into my 4. I received a 700+ on the writing section when I took the GRE 10 years ago. Apparently, after two years of researching and writing papers for my MSEd, I have seriously declined in my abilities.

    I don’t know who reads your blog, and I would have to think that anyone who scores high on the essays (or GRE as a whole) will not want the GRE discredited; but, I really believe the whole system is dysfunctional, veiled in secrecy and threats (if you reveal a question), and lacking credibility. The process represents in essence the epitome of an abusive relationship. We all know this, but, I will “say” it out loud: One of the first things you learn when you study abusive environments is that an abuser creates a system of secrecy so that the abuse can continue. They also present themselves as the only means of sustenance/support so that the victim is fully dependent on them for life and livelihood. Sound familiar? Can we opt to submit a second type of test scores for grad school? Once we prove unworthy, what are our options? Can we discuss openly our experience? Our scores? Can we argue our responses? Can we submit our writing for a second opinion?

    Do we know our scores are not linked to our compliance with the political system? Oh, wait, scratch that. I may have gone too far. But, really, do we know who is behind ETS—Where it gets its absolute power?

    I am willing to help if anyone wants to try to take them on; but, it could get very ugly. The compelling concern is that for the sake of the generations coming after us, shouldn’t someone try to do something?

    Comment by Terri S Krause — May 15, 2015 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

  35. Thank you for the article. I was very sad after getting my AWA score and was losing confidence in my writing skills. Among the people I know I got the lowest score. I also applied for review but no explanation was given and the score was the same.

    Comment by Nabeela Khan — August 21, 2015 @ 1:42 pm | Reply

  36. I’ll add my two cents. I find it curious that you have not discussed the Analyzing Argument section, which, after all, is a full half of your grade. And while logic certainly matters in that department, writing a logical, well-transitioned essay with good style is only half of what the graders are looking for. As far as I know, they are also on the lookout for your ability to point out holes in the analysis’ methodology and suggestions for alternatives. In this sense, I would argue that you require quantitative awareness typically honed in social sciences disciplines. So I find your argument somewhat dubious. In my opinion, a Masters in Philosophy does not necessarily translate to these skills.

    I’ll provide an example, just for the heck of it.

    In a study of the reading habits of Waymarsh citizens conducted by the University of Waymarsh, most respondents said they preferred literary classics as reading material. However, a second study conducted by the same researchers found that the type of book most frequently checked out of each of the public libraries in Waymarsh was the mystery novel. Therefore, it can be concluded that the respondents in the first study had misrepresented their reading preferences.

    The error that jumps out the easiest is the faulty assumption that library checkout data = community reading patterns. This is more of a logical exercise and likely a comfortable one for everyone who’s been trained in logic. But… what of the follows?

    Here, one could attack the general ambiguity of numbers– what is “most respondents?” what is “most frequently?” 99 out of 100 is a majority, and hypothetically even 10 out of 100 can be a majority in a group rife with dissension. One could also attack survey methodologies– what was the sample size? What type of questions did the respondents receive? One could also point out that using surveys in and of itself is a terrible idea– surveys invite lying and portrait of favorable self-image (is it a coincidence that respondents like “literary classics” over execrable mystery novels? Perhaps not.)

    One could also point out the unreliability of library checkout data: perhaps libraries are open also to neighboring communities, in which case the data would not reflect Waymarsh citizens’ habits. Perhaps libraries checkout data suffers from small sample size. It is notable that there is no mention of “time passed” between the first study and the second study, in which case we are comparing apples to oranges.

    One other error I remember that typically shows up on GRE, though it is not quite present in the example I provided, is the classic confusion of correlation and causation, which can be controlled by regression analysis to isolate the coefficient of the interested variable. I am unsure whether these classic social science techniques are at least introduced to other disciplines, but they were salt and pepper to me in my undergraduate years.

    I am sure that disciplines like philosophy have its own way of attacking the fallacy of logic that is beyond my grasp, and perhaps my vision is rendered myopic by my upbringing as a social scientist. But I do think that a great number of “holes” and “faulty assumptions” in the argument can be properly attacked by those who are more quantitatively aware, and therefore puts those students at an advantage. Although I do not suggest that my score proves anything, I will disclose that my score was a 6.0.

    I am generally in agreement with your assessment that ETS should be more transparent in its grading, and I do agree with the general criticism sounded against the Issue Task section. But I have reservations in agreeing with what I’ve taken as your general premise, that “philosophy = logic and good writing = what AWA is supposed to test.” I believe that AWA also tests– and therefore encourages– a fundamental skill to guard against the barrage of cherry-picked numbers and devious sophism that plagues our awareness of the world, which happens to be an important skill for a scholar in all applicable fields. And therefore, I think that being a good writer equipped with high logical capacity hardly guarantees you a good grade. It is a more comprehensive test than that.

    Comment by Dean Chung — November 12, 2015 @ 5:06 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the thoughtful response.

      I did talk about the analytical writing section here.

      I think philosophy students would be good at poking holes in reasoning as well. The assumption that correlation indicates causation is a fallacy.

      Even so, I do not want to say that I necessarily did the best essay. I would like to know what exactly I did wrong. I am very skeptical that most people did better than I did, though.

      I retook the exam at a later point and got a much better score. I have had a better score in the past as well.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 13, 2015 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

  37. Even though I agree with you, I have to point out, that in the preparation materials for the GRE, published by ETS, it says explicitly, that when they say that they are looking for a logical discussion in the AW section, they don’t mean logical in the sense of logic the discipline in philosophy, but logical in the everyday sense of the word, meaning connecting ideas in a coherent, sound way, the way that a sane, intelligent person does, and for every topic they have a series of arguments that they expect you to propose, particularly for the second task. I think that when they say logically, they actually mean intelligently. And it also says that people should keep their writing clear, and stay away from both too much academic jargon, and too many transition phrases. So, if you were using too much vocabulary from your study of logic, like ad hoc and stuff, that is why you got a lower score. By the way I got a high score on the analytical writing section, modaretly high on the verbal, and moderate on the quantitative, so I might retake the test, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself dealing with the same frustration as you.

    Comment by Elena Kusevska — December 8, 2015 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

  38. I also graduated with a degree in Philosophy. I was happy with my performance in both of the essay questions, esp. the argumentative one (naturally), but received a score of 3.5. Needless to say, I was shocked and furious at the same time. At work, I had always been praised for writing with clarity and conciseness. At this point I’m starting to think that they use computer to score the papers.

    Comment by chubbyfingersclub — September 17, 2017 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

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