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Scored Hspa Essays

Your GRE Writing score is a kind of cyborg measurement that averages together both human and machine ratings and melds them into an Analytical Writing score on a scale of 0-6. But how does a human grade the essay? Is the computer grader trustworthy?

In this article, we’ll explain the details of the GRE essay scoring process and the rubrics used by the human graders to derive your two essay scores.

Feature image credit: Seems Legit – panel 3 of 6/used under CC BY-SA 4.0/Cropped and resized from original.


GRE Writing Scores: A Roadmap

The GRE essay scoring process is a little complicated because it involves both human and computer graders. Each essay (analyze an issue and analyze an argument) is first graded by a trained human grader on a scale of 1-6. The scale used for essay scoring is holistic, which means you won’t automatically get points off after a certain number of errors. Instead, you’ll be graded on the overall quality of your essays.

Your essay is next sent through the e-rater, which is described on the GRE website as “a computerized program developed by ETS that is capable of identifying essay features related to writing proficiency.” The e-rater program likely grades essays on quantifiable metrics like level of vocabulary difficulty, sentence structure, length of essay (word count and number of paragraphs), and so on. Because it’s pretty difficult to write a program that can judge an essay based on content, it’s possible you could fool the e-rater with a long off-topic essay that uses high-level vocabulary.

But that’s where the human essay graders come in. If the human and computer graders “closely agree,” then the average of their two scores is the score you receive for that essay task. However, if the two scores do not “closely agree,” then a second human is brought in to grade and the final score is the average of the two human-assigned scores. So if you tried to sneak an off-topic essay by the e-rater, it would be caught by the human grader and a second human grader would be brought in. Even if the human grader scored your essay way higher than the e-rater, you’d still end up with two human graders.

After both of your essays have been scored by e-rater and human grader(s), your overall GRE Writing score is then calculated. To get this number, your scores on the Issue and Argument task are averaged together to give you a final Analytical Writing score on a scale of 0-6 (with 0.5 increments). For instance, if you got a 4/6 on the Issues essay but a 5/6 on the Argument essay, your total GRE Analytical Writing score would be 4.5.


GRE Essay Scoring: Issue Task

The Analyze an Issue task on GRE Writing asks test takers to read a statement about an issue, take a position, and develop and support that position with evidence and reasoning. For your essay to score highly, you’ll need a clear thesis statement presenting your point of view and multiple examples that back up your claims. How well you accomplish this task dictates how well you’ll do on the Issue essay.

Fortunately, ETS is very up front about what specific benchmarks Issue essays need to meet to reach each score level. Below, I’ve listed the descriptions for 6-, 4-, and 2-scoring Issue essays.


Score LevelOverviewSpecific Items
6 (Outstanding)In addressing the specific task directions, a 6 response presents a cogent, well-articulated analysis of the issue and conveys meaning skillfully.
  • articulates a clear and insightful position on the issue in accordance with the assigned task
  • develops the position fully with compelling reasons and/or persuasive examples
  • sustains a well-focused, well-organized analysis, connecting ideas logically
  • conveys ideas fluently and precisely, using effective vocabulary and sentence variety
  • demonstrates superior facility with the conventions of standard written English (i.e., grammar, usage and mechanics), but may have minor errors
4 (Adequate)In addressing the specific task directions, a 4 response presents a competent analysis of the issue and conveys meaning with acceptable clarity.
  • presents a clear position on the issue in accordance with the assigned task
  • develops the position with relevant reasons and/or examples
  • is adequately focused and organized
  • demonstrates sufficient control of language to express ideas with acceptable clarity
  • generally demonstrates control of the conventions of standard written English, but may have some errors
2 (Seriously Flawed)A 2 response largely disregards the specific task directions and/or demonstrates serious weaknesses in analytical writing.
  • is unclear or seriously limited in addressing the specific task directions and in presenting or developing a position on the issue or both
  • provides few, if any, relevant reasons or examples in support of its claims
  • is poorly focused and/or poorly organized
  • has serious problems in language and sentence structure that frequently interfere with meaning
  • contains serious errors in grammar, usage or mechanics that frequently obscure meaning


As the above table shows, the holistic GRE Writing score is arrived at by assessing an essay’s quality across many different dimensions: analysis, ideas, development, support, organization, vocabulary & sentence structure. The guiding principle that is used to differentiate between different score levels across all areas, however, is precision.

The more precise you are in formulating an opinion on the issue, in developing and supporting your thinking, in organizing your thinking, and in choosing your words to convey your thinking, the better GRE Writing score you’ll get.



GRE Essay Scoring: Argument Task

The GRE argumentative essay task requires test takers to read an argument and analyze it. The specifics of how this analysis should be done varies from task to task (read more about the eight different kinds of argumentative essay prompts in this article), but basically you’ll have to evaluate the position or recommendation put forward and decide whether or not it’s reasonable.

Below are the different characteristics of essays scoring a 6, 4, or 2 on the Argument task. As you go through, you may notice some similarities between it and the rubric for the Issue task.


Score LevelOverviewSpecific Items
6 (Outstanding)In addressing the specific task directions, a 6 response presents a cogent, well-articulated examination of the argument and conveys meaning skillfully.
  • clearly identifies aspects of the argument relevant to the assigned task and examines them insightfully
  • develops ideas cogently, organizes them logically and connects them with clear transitions
  • provides compelling and thorough support for its main points
  • conveys ideas fluently and precisely, using effective vocabulary and sentence variety
  • demonstrates superior facility with the conventions of standard written English (i.e., grammar, usage and mechanics), but may have minor errors
4 (Adequate)In addressing the specific task directions, a 4 response presents a competent examination of the argument and conveys meaning with acceptable clarity.
  • identifies and examines aspects of the argument relevant to the assigned task, but may also discuss some extraneous points
  • develops and organizes ideas satisfactorily, but may not connect them with transitions
  • supports its main points adequately, but may be uneven in its support
  • demonstrates sufficient control of language to convey ideas with reasonable clarity
  • generally demonstrates control of the conventions of standard written English, but may have some errors
2 (Seriously Flawed)A 2 response largely disregards the specific task directions and/or demonstrates serious weaknesses in analytical writing.
  • does not present an examination based on logical analysis, but may instead present the writer’s own views on the subject
  • does not follow the directions for the assigned task
  • does not develop ideas, or is poorly organized and illogical
  • provides little, if any, relevant or reasonable support for its main points
  • has serious problems in language and sentence structure that frequently interfere with meaning
  • contains serious errors in grammar, usage or mechanics that frequently obscure meaning


Again, as with the Issue task, the main dimension that separates different score points for the GRE Argument task is level of precision. Instead of being judged on precision in formulating an opinion on an issue, your essay will be judged on precision in analyzing and explaining your analysis of the given argument. Similar to the Issues essay, however, high-scoring Argument essays will still need to demonstrate precision in ideas, development, support, organization, and vocabulary.



How Are GRE Writing Scores Evaluated by Grad Schools?

Now that you understand how the GRE essay scoring works, the question becomes how much grad schools care about GRE Writing scores. The near-unanimous answer, based on the number of schools and programs I researched, seems to be a resounding “not much.”

If schools really want applicants to have specific test scores, they’ll list GRE Writing score cutoffs on their websites (more about what a good GRE Writing score is here). For the most part, though, as long as you get a 4.0 or above, you’ll be fine, even for the most competitive programs. Find out more about how your GRE score plays into graduate school admissions here.



What’s Next?

Want to learn more about how scoring works on the GRE? Try our complete guide to GRE scoring. If you took the old GRE, you can follow our instructions to learn how to convert your old GRE score to its equivalent new GRE score.

Hoping for more essay-specific scoring advice? We tell you how to get a perfect six on the Issue and Argument essays here.

Need some quick tips to boost your GRE Writing score? Then you should be sure to read our collection of the best strategies and tips to improve your score here.


Ready to improve your GRE score by 7 points?

We've written a eBook about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your GRE score. Download it for free now:

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Author: Laura Staffaroni

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel and fulfill their college and grad school dreams. View all posts by Laura Staffaroni

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