The GRE Argument writing task is designed to test your ability to your critical-reasoning and analytic (as well as writing) skills. Your task is to compose an essay in which you provide a focused critique of the stated argument — but not to present your own views on the argument's topic. [Argument format and directions]
The following GRE-style Argument prompt consists of an argument followed by a directive for responding to the argument. Keep in mind: the argument itself is not from the official pool, and so you won't see this one on the actual GRE.
GRE Argument Prompt
The following appeared in the editorial column of the Fern County Gazette newspaper:
"The Fern County Council made the right decision when it unanimously voted to convert the Northside branch of the county library system into a computer-skills training facility for public use. The converted facility will fill what is certain, based on national trends, to be a growing need among county residents for training in computer skills. And since our library system boasts more volumes per resident than any other system in the state, the remaining branches will adequately serve the future needs of Fern County residents."
Discuss what evidence you would need to properly evaluate the argument, and explain how that evidence might strengthen or weaken the argument.
Sample Argument Essay (490 Words)
This editorial argues that the Fern County Council's decision to convert a library branch to a computer-skills training facility was the "right" one. However, its author fails to provide sufficient information to permit a proper evaluation of the argument's reasoning. Each point of deficiency is discussed separately below.
One of the argument's deficiencies involves the claim, based on a national trend, that there is "certain" to be a growing need in Fern County for computer-skills training. The author provides no specific evidence that the county conforms to the cited trend. Lacking such evidence, it is entirely possible that the Fern County residents are, by and large, already highly proficient in using computers. Of course, it is also possible that a large and growing segment of the local population consists of senior citizens and/or young children — two groups who typically need computer-skills training — or unemployed workers needing to learn computer skills in order to find jobs. In any event, more information about the county's current and anticipated demographics is needed in order to determine the extent to which Fern County residents actually need and would use the Northside computer-training facility.
Another of the argument's deficiencies is that it provides no information about alternative means of providing computer-skills training to county residents. Perhaps certain local businesses or schools already provide computer-training facilities and services to the general public — in which case it would be useful to know whether those alternatives are affordable for most county residents and whether they suffice to meet anticipated demand. Or perhaps county residents are for the most part willing to teach themselves computer skills at home using books, DVDs and online tutorials — in which case it would be helpful to know the extent to which affordable broadband Internet access is available to Fern County households. If it turns out that county residents can easily obtain computer-skills training through means such as these, converting the Northside branch might not have been a sensible idea.
Yet another of the editorial's shortcomings has to do with the number of books in the Fern County library system. The mere fact that the system boasts a great number of books per capita does not necessarily mean that the supply is adequate or that it will be adequate in the future. A full assessment of whether the remaining branches provide adequate shelf space and/or printed materials would require detailed information about the library system's inventory vis-à-vis the current and anticipated needs and interests of Fern County residents. If more, or more types, of printed books and periodicals are needed, then it would appear in retrospect that converting the Northside branch to a computer training center was a bad idea.
In a nutshell, then, a proper evaluation of the editorial requires more information about current as well as anticipated demand for computer-skills training in Fern County and about the adequacy of the library system's stacks to meet the interests and preferences of the county's residents.
After learning all the possible fallacies and how to spot them, it’s time to look at a real possible argument task. When I say “real,” I mean this could possibly be on your actual GRE, though the chances are very slim–approximately 1 out of 245. That statistic should not deter you, and you probably shouldn’t take it upon yourself to write practice essays for each and every prompt. For one thing, such a task would take a long time (don’t you have more important things to do?). Secondly, though these argument prompts are all ostensibly different, they repeat many of the same fallacies. To confirm this, just check out a hearty sample of prompts (perhaps twenty or thirty, or whatever you realistically have time for) and think about how your arguments against the prompts might overlap. The similarities will pleasantly surprise you. Here is one such prompt to get us started:
The speaker claims that Nature’s Way, a health food store, should open in Plainsville, where “residents are highly concerned with leading healthy lives.” How did we gather this profile of Plainsville’s inhabitants? According to our speaker, three facts account for this description: 1. Increase in sales of exercise shoes and clothing; 2. The local health club is experiencing its highest rates of attendance, and 3. Plainsville’s schools are now mandating a fitness program.
The Problems with the Argument
There are numerous potential problems that can be spotted in the speaker’s argument and reasoning. Here is a list of the flaws, in no particular order, so to mimic your thought process and note-taking when you first come across an argument prompt:
False correlation between exercise and health food: The speaker fallaciously correlates exercise with healthy eating habits. Nature’s Way is neither a health club nor a sporting goods store, but a health food store. While, ideally, a healthy lifestyle entails both exercise and healthy eating habits, the two are not mutually inclusive. With the convenience of fast food, our national eating habits, on average, are at their worst in history. Often, this guilt about eating habits encourages fast-food patrons to exercise, but not necessarily change their eating habits.
Does buying exercise clothing necessarily cause exercise?: The speaker assumes that the increase in health-related items suggests that the residents of Plainsville are “highly concerned with leading healthy lives,” but there are other possible sources of these increases. The sale of running shoes and exercise clothing could be attributed to a fashion trend that prizes the aesthetic value–rather than the functional value–of such clothes; or, more simply, exercise clothes may be an inexpensive alternative to other clothing styles.
An increase in health club attendance does not guarantee profits for Nature’s Way: Perhaps the local health club is full because of a lack of competition. The speaker refers to the club as “the local health club,” suggesting it’s the only one of its kind in Plainsville. If this is true, then high rates of attendance do not suggest an overwhelming increase in the citizens’ exercise.
The compulsory exercise program is a poor indicator of future healthy lifestyles: The speaker mistakenly assumes that the compulsory “fitness for life” program enacted by schools will foster a new generation of health conscious individuals. Though we may applaud the efforts of schools to introduce such a program, we cannot assume that the program will have any lasting effect on the children’s lifestyles. In fact, mandating exercise in school, much like making beloved classics of literature “required texts,” may cause unintended opposition to exercise. Many children often willfully oppose orders given by parents and school teachers, not out of any sound reasoning, but because of sheer childhood obstinacy.
Future interest in exercise?: Even if Plainsville residents are interested in health foods, how do we know the interest will continue in the future? After all, these changes in lifestyle habits are relatively recent; why shouldn’t we assume that they can easily revert back to unhealthy lifestyles?
Competition?: The speaker fails to mention the possibility or lack of competing health food stores. How can we be sure that Nature’s Way will thrive despite its potential new competition?
Suggestions for Improvement: To improve the argument, the speaker must show a correlation between exercise habits and healthy eating habits, perhaps through a survey or study. Also, the speaker should investigate the popularity of Plainsville’s health club and explain how Nature’s Way will plan to beat the competition.
What we have here is an abundance of information, not quite an essay. To write the essay, choose the best examples and develop them into coherent paragraphs. Don’t be afraid to integrate smaller fallacies into paragraphs: an abundance of information is not a bad thing, and, in fact, longer essays tend to receive higher scores. For practice, you may want to give yourself 30 minutes and write this essay, using your own words and, if you have them, your own arguments.