Opinion: Happy 2021! It’s Time to Toss the GMAT Essay!

Dr. Amar, Founder of Austin GMAT Review
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The GMAT exam is three hours and seven minutes of computer-adapting,adrenaline-pumping, mind-racing, ego-crushing testing with a short break. Thirty minutes of that time is spent composing an essay for the Analytical Writing Assessment.

In this article, I argue that the AWA is mainly time wasted – more than 4,700 days each year (30 minutes x 225,000+ GMAT tests taken annually). It is long past time to chuck the AWA for good.

Once A Good Premise: Now A Vestige

The AWA was introduced in 1994 on the admirable premise that “effective writing skills are needed to succeed in both graduate school and business,” as the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) announced. The two essays on the AWA tested applicants’ ability to grasp a new topic, organize ideas into logical order, and quickly compose something with a beginning, middle, and end.

The essay scores of 1-6 were meant to provide Admissions Committees with additional data for the selection of business school candidates,and help diagnose candidates’ writing skills. Worthy candidates could be admitted, and those with low scores (3 and below) sent to remedial writing courses, while high scorers (5 and above) could be waived out of management communications courses.

AWA immediately attracted skepticism, notably from Dr. Priscilla S. Rogers, a professor specializing in management communications at Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Jone Rymer, a professor at Mike Ilitch School of Business, Wayne State University. In several lengthy critiques, the duo raised doubts about the diagnostic value of a holistic AWA score that gave no details of where writing deficiencies might lie.

Rogers & Rymer also questioned the value of testing the essay-writing skills of professionals who had left school several years ago, and pointed out that academic essays are not the type of managerial writing that is relevant to business school or work.

“The AWA does not evaluate key attributes of management communication competency, such as the ability to persuade, to be sensitive to the needs and expectations of others, and to negotiate between dissonant perspectives." - Rogers & Rymer

Today, the AWA has become a single essay. The test-taker writes a critique of an argument; although this might demonstrate critical thinking skills, that is not how or why the AWA is used by Admissions Committees … so really, to echo Rogers & Rymer, what is the purpose of the AWA?

Rogers & Rymer Were Right: The Devolution of the AWA  

Just four years after the AWA was released, 59 deans and admissions officers reported to GMAC that although they did use it for admissions decisions (86%), few used the AWA to diagnose writing issues.

In 2005, GMAC sent another survey. Over half (53.3%) of 109 deans and admissions officers responded that they “sometimes” or “rarely” used AWA scores for admissions purposes, and 9.2% never used the AWA. Still, that left about a third (37%) who still used the AWA “frequently” or “always.”

AWA Scores: Frequency of Use for Admissions Decisions

So, what was their opinion of the AWA’s usefulness for the admissions process? Seemingly not very high: of 103 respondents, 70.9% thought the AWA was “somewhat useful” or “not very useful” (presumably, the six non-respondents were from the group not using the AWA).

AWA Scores: Usefulness for Admissions Decisions

Was anyone still using the AWA to diagnose writing issues? According to the same survey, 57% said “sometimes” or “rarely” and 25.7% “never.”

AWA Scores: Frequency of Use for Deficiency Diagnosis

Fifteen years ago, the AWA had decreased in use and was not much valued. Since then, GMAT dropped one essay in favor of the Integrated Reasoning section, and then dropped the AWA altogether to speed the software transition online during the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

Is anyone missing the AWA essay?

*crickets chirp*

There are, in fact, better options for applicants as well as Admissions Committees.

Better Options than the AWA for Applicants

“I flunked English 101.”

✔ Get a score of 40 (90th percentile) or above on the GMAT Verbal section, proving that you have skills in reading comprehension, syntactical usage, preferred diction, and correct grammar and punctuation.

✔ Showcase your mastery of writing skills and persuasive communications on the application essays.

✔ If you really flunked English and/or other writing classes, take a remedial college course and get an A. Submit the transcript as part of your application.

“English is my second language.”

✔ Try for a fairly high score of 35 or above on the GMAT Verbal section. Admissions Committees are typically understanding of how difficult the GMAT is to master for those who don’t speak English every day. Moreover, I have found that those who take the time to learn the rules can do just as well as native English speakers.

✔ Score above 100 on the TOEFL exam, to demonstrate mastery of English skills.

✔ Showcase your writing skills and persuasive communications on the application essays. This is what Admissions Committees will really read – not the AWA.

Fun Fact for All Applicants: Your emails to admissions are considered to be professional communications, and if you can’t compose a readable email, that unfortunate fact will count against your admission.

Better Options than the AWA for Admissions Officers

Check out all of the options listed above for applicants, and read the college transcripts, the live interview notes, and recommenders’ evaluations of communication skills.

In other words, do what you are doing already. We know that you’re not really missing the AWA.

Might the Real Purpose of the AWA Be To Stamp Out Cheating?  

Essay plagiarism is an ongoing problem – though not tracked, business schools report that 2% - 8% of essays turned in by applicants were plagiarized. Naturally, the admissions folks want to avoid admitting someone who is ethically challenged and a terrible writer, especially these days. If an applicant receives a low AWA score but submits beautifully composed application essays, the AWA essay can be assessed to determine whether the application essays might have been authored by someone else.

Back to the 2005 survey: For full-time MBA programs, did the admissions officers actually use the AWA score to validate application essays? Not many did. About half infrequently used the AWA score for that particular purpose, and more than 20% not at all.

AWA Scores: Frequency of Use for Validating Application Essays (Full-Time MBA)

What about the AWA essays themselves – were they often referred to? Again, about half did so infrequently, and almost 30% did not.

AWA Essays: Use for Validating Application Essays (Full-Time MBA)

That said, those who did use the AWA scores/essays to evaluate admissions essays seemed to find the practice useful: Broadly speaking, about a third thought the practice extremely or very useful, and about 40% somewhat useful.

AWA Scores: Usefulness for Validating Application Essays (Full-Time MBA)
AWA Essays: Usefulness for Validating Application Essays (Full-Time MBA)

However, time has moved on, and we should, too. Since 2012, business schools across the spectrum have installed plagiarism software as a less time-intensive way to raise red flags. My educated guess is that the use of the AWA score/essay method has dropped. Therefore, using more than 4,700 days of test-taker time each year to root out a few plagiarists does not seem the best reason to retain the AWA.

Final Argument: GMAC, Here’s Your Chance to Stick It to the GRE

GMAC, perhaps you don’t buy my argument that the AWA has devolved into a relatively useless and unloved data point among a host of other data points used by admissions folks.

And GMAC, perhaps you think it’s okay to retain the AWA even as plagiarism software has taken on the main task of uncovering potential cheaters.

Then consider this: GMAC, removing the AWA from the GMAT will be a strong incentive for people to not choose the GRE.

The GRE test has to keep its two essays, because it serves many masters: graduate school departments that actually need academic writing skills; departments evaluating a single Statement of Purpose; departments that don’t meet candidates before admission, let alone interview them.

However, the GMAT exam is tailored for business schools. GMAC, you can say goodbye to the AWA with few repercussions. You’ve already had almost a full year of online GMAT test-taking without the AWA, so the timing is right. Nobody will miss it!

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