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The AWA Isn’t That Important… So Can I Blow It Off?

Posted in Test Prep on September 5, 2011 by

I want to take a moment to address some common confusion about the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) portion of the GMAT exam.  As many of you inveterate students know, the AWA portion involves two essays, and you get a maximum of 30 minutes for each essay.  And no, you don’t get 45 minutes for the second essay if the first only takes you 15 minutes.  As I like to say:  “There are no rollover minutes.  This is Verizon, not AT&T!”  Also, the essays are always the first section of the exam, although the ordering of the essays may vary.

But many of you also probably know that the essay portion is not nearly as consequential as the multiple-choice portions.  The essays are not part of your 800 composite score and are instead scored on a separate scale out of 6.0 in decrements of 0.5.  Generally, admissions committees use the essay scores to judge whether or not you actually wrote your application essays to the school.  If you write a fantastic admissions essay filled with prose worthy of a Pulitzer but get a 2.0 AWA score, the admissions committee’s going to be suspicious.

But in the end, your composite score out of 800 weighs much more heavily on the committee’s collective mind.  It’s easy, then, to come up with arguments for blowing off the essay and focusing the bulk of your attention on the multiple-choice sections.  But is this really wise?

One time, a student told me that he was going to take the GMAT a second time.  The first time he took the test, he didn’t achieve his desired composite score.  But he got a perfect 6.0 on the AWA.  So in his mind, this justified the following strategy:  “I’m going to completely skip the essays the next time I take the test.  It’s not important anyway.”

Several students have suggested similar strategies to me, and I understood where they were coming from.  Skipping the essays outright makes the test shorter and allows you to conserve some mental energy for the multiple-choice sections.  But consider the following scenario:  You’re on the admissions committee of a prestigious business school.  You’re reviewing an applicant, and you see that he got a 6.0 AWA on the GMAT on his first try, but got a 0.0 the second time.  You don’t like the sight of the 0.0, and although you recognize that the applicant has the capability to score a 6.0, it’s readily apparent (at least in your mind) that the applicant feels cocky or lax enough to blow a whole section of the test off and just assume that it won’t matter.

Now, it may be true that some individual committees won’t care as much.  But are you willing to take that risk?  What if you’re applying to a competitive school that requires you to present every advantage you can?  Allowing a 0.0 to show up on your transcript doesn’t seem very prudent.

Besides, does the one hour of essay-writing really drain you of so much energy that it makes a statistically significant difference on your performance for the rest of the test?  You might assume the answer is yes.  But it’s a pretty tenuous generalization.  If you took the GMAT hundreds of times with the AWA and hundreds of times without, maybe we’d have some statistical data to go on.  But as is, assuming the AWA will take away your mojo so much that your score will drop by a significant margin is unfounded speculation at best.

Another thing to keep in mind:  some students actually like the essays, because they allow you to shake off initial nerves.  You get the least important part of the test out of the way first, and by the time you’re done, you’ve settled into a groove and gotten used to your surroundings.  For some students, this allows them to transition into the multiple-choice sections more relaxed and clear-minded.  This might be the case for you too.

So all in all, you might in theory be able to get away with blowing off the essays.  But all things considered, it’s not a risk worth taking, and a poor or nonexistent AWA score will not look good to admissions committees.  The essays are the least consequential part of the test, so investing just a little bit of time and energy in them should not have a great effect on your composite score.