Sunday, April 02, 2006

AWA: Attacking the computer

I was recently asked by one of the members of the TestMagic GMAT Forum about how I attacked the AWA (i.e., essay) section of the GMAT. I think that they key to getting a good score is to understand how the essay is graded. First, a computer program assigns a grade to your essay. Then, a human reads the essay and assigns a grade. If they agree on the grade, then that's the one you receive. If they don't, then another human reads the essay and the scores are averaged out.

Clearly, since Pearson doesn't want to pay more human graders than they have to, it's in their best interest to ensure that human-assigned and computer-assigned grades are highly correlated. So rather than guess at how the humans grade essays, let's analyze how the computer probably grades them, and assume that a similar rubric is used by the human graders.

As someone with a very significant background in computer science, I can assure you that the computer simply cannot make any decisions about whether or not the points you present in the AWA make sense. If you write the sentence "The argument presented does not make sense because apples are blue," the computer will not know that it is nonsense. This doesn't mean you can get away with writing nonsense -- the human grader will obviously catch it. However, it does mean that the computer is assigning grades based on something else.

So what can a computer assign a grade based on? The computer can assign grades based on words and sentences, but not ideas or meaning. In fact, I'm willing to bet that the computer uses an algorithm very similar to the Automated Readibility Index or the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, probably combined with some kind of grammar checker, to assign grades. Both of these tests calculate their score based on the average length of your sentences and the average length of the words you use.

Based on the assumption that the AWA software uses an algorithm similar to the ones mentioned, we can derive a strategy : All other things being equal, using longer words and longer sentences while maintaining grammatical correctness will boost your AWA score. At the same time, it is also critical that your AWA essays actually make sense--if your essay is gibberish or horribly organized, the human graders will knock points off of your score and it won't matter how long your sentences and words are.

To ace the AWA, you need to present a series of points that make sense to the human readers--but you also need to boost your computer-assigned score. When writing your Analysis of an Argument essay, why say that an argument is 'wrong' when you can say that it's 'fallacious'? Why say that an assumption made in an argument is 'very bad' when you can say that it's 'particularly egregious'? Breaking up two very related ideas into separate sentences will make your essay more readable by the average person; separating the two related ideas with a semicolon will boost your average sentence length, which is a key metric used by computer scoring algorithms.

Let me emphasize one more time that using long sentences, big words, and proper grammar is necessary, but not sufficient, for a high AWA score since the human readers also need to understand your essay. However, by understanding the ways in which computers are able to grade your essay (and the ways in which they aren't able to), you will have a decisive advantage in the AWA section.

In a future post: How to use an on-screen outline to organize your essay during the test


Blogger Julius Seizure said...

Interesting points; but the AWA score just doesn't matter enought to merit such thinking. I read what a couple of books had to say about AWA the day of the exam and got 6.0. I'd much rather advise people to spend time studying the other sections. The MBA application essays are enough to prove you have the ability to write in English and counter a bad AWA score.

7:18 PM  
Blogger TJ said...

In general, I'd agree with this. On the other hand, I've also read that a high AWA score can mitigate a poor score in the verbal section. If you're the kind of person that's having trouble with verbal and you've already maxed out your studying ROI in the verbal section, the AWA might be useful as a secondary focus.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Forrest Gump said...

a 99 percentile in Verbal - you must be a real stud.

congratulations on the great score.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous iknownoone said...

Nice post. Do you happen to have written up a template for the two AWA essays. If so, could you possibly share it with us?


5:34 PM  
Blogger chillpill said...

Why not post your tips for the quant and verbal sections as well? I'll look forward to them.

10:43 AM  
Blogger TJ said...

iknow, I didn't really use a template, just a simple 5-paragraph approach: I disagree, Here's a flaw, here's a flaw, here's a flaw, I disagree

chillpill, I had some quant tips in my previous post on my overall GMAT experience, maybe you will find them helpful. I'm afraid I don't have a lot of verbal tips, I basically just did the practice tests and questions for those.

11:47 PM  

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