The AW section was developed a few years ago to replace the old Analytical section, which used logic games and other question types to test analytical aptitude. The advantage of the AW section, to those who are evaluating your scores, is that it tests a real skill that will be used in your graduate studies – writing. The schools that receive your scores have the option to see the actual essays that you write, although they must request them. Your essays will each receive a score of between 0 and 6 depending on the strength of your argument and the quality of your written English. The scores will be averaged together to produce your final score.
The AW section is composed of two essays. The first one is called the “Analyze an Issue” task, for which you are given 30 minutes. You will be given a prompt, and must respond on that topic. The prompts are declarative statements, such as “Happiness should be the most important factor in choosing a career,” with which you may agree or disagree in whole or in part. You will be expected to construct a well-written essay with a clear point of view, using specific and relevant examples to back up the points you make. Spelling does count, as do grammar and other aspects of writing mechanics. Your essay will receive a score of between 0 and 6 depending on the strength of your argument and the quality of your written English.
The second essay is the “Analyze an Argument” task, for which you will be given 30 minutes, and it is basically the opposite of the previous task. Instead of constructing an argument, you will need to deconstruct an argument that you are given as a prompt. The prompt will be a short paragraph which draws certain conclusions from stated premises. Your task is to identify the errors of logic and reasoning in the paragraph. Every prompt will have many errors. You may also want to bring up ways in which the argument could be strengthened, or to discuss assumptions underlying the argument which lead to its logical flaws. Your essay will be scored based on the skill with which you analyze the argument given in the prompt, as well as your command of English.
For many graduate programs, the AW score may not be weighted as heavily the Verbal and Quantitative scores. The scoring system is far less precise than that of the other two sections: there are 13 possible scores on the AW section (6.0, 5.5 etc.) as opposed to 41 possible scores on the other sections (the Verbal and Quantitative sections are scored between 130 and 170 in units of 1). Most people will score in the upper-middle range on the AW. Your score is more likely to receive extra attention if it is unusually high (a 5.5 or a 6.0) or unusually low (below a 4). Whether or not the programs to which you are applying consider the AW score to be as important as your Verbal and Quantitative scores, it is best to be well-prepared. It’s the first section on the test, you must take it, and if you are prepared to write the essays, this section will not be too stressful and you will feel all the more confident when it comes time to start the other sections. If you are concerned about this section, ETS offers a service whereby you can write a sample essay and have it graded (for a fee) by an actual GRE grader. You may also look at the pool of prompts for the essays at the ETS website.