The thirty minute essay: GRE pain compressed

Notes For GRE Essay

Notice the panic in the notes for the essay.

Very, very soon, I’ll be staring at a computer in a cubical taking the GRE exam. If you apply for grad school, you too will likely have the same pleasure. The GRE has changed since the last time I took it six years ago: you write essays in addition to the multiple choice hell. So today I did a practice run of writing a “Analyze an Issue” essay in thirty minutes.

Writing quickly is something I’ve heard from guys like Dean Wesley Smith and others. and though I’m not convinced that brain vomiting on the page as quickly as you can will pan gold: it was fun. Below I’m including the essay I wrote, some notes I wrote about what I need to improve on, and some thoughts.

The prompt I took from the Cracking the GRE 2014 edition.


“True beauty is found not in the exceptional but in the commonplace.” Write an essay in which you take a position on the statement above. In developing and supporting your essay, consider instances in which the statement does and does not hold true.

To seek beauty and to define beauty is perhaps one the highest pursuits of the mind. Unlike other species here on Earth, humanity has sought and fought over the riches of beauty in both the natural world and the man-made. But what is “true beauty?” Is it taking the refreshing air of a forrest, the pungent smell of a rose, or in a mobile home on a ridge? If we bother to seek something as hard to define as true beauty I believe that we would not look for it in the commonplace of your neighborhood park or a local seven eleven; we would look for it in the exceptional.

Growing up, I travelled a lot through the American west in a compact ford escort. We traveled through common towns and suburbs built with the same three designs of split level houses and super center Walmarts. We traveled through state parks with the trees so thick that sunlight struggled in through the boughs. Yet I don’t remember any of those places; I remember California red woods. These trees, the width of the puny ford escort we travelled in, were awe inspiring. Awe inspiring in the way the trees seemed to reach up into the sky and pluck the clouds down as fog. Their smell, their grandeur, their beauty are spectacular, and universally respected. In the west, through the Rockies and the Cascades, there are trees a plenty. But these behemoths that once graced their slopes are long since cut, making the Redwoods of California exceptional, unique, an example of true beauty dwarfing other trees.

Beyond nature we can turn on the tv and see another great example of the common verse the exceptional beauty. For one, you can turn on to a local channel and find reruns of a sitcom where the same characters always inhabit. Maybe the show is about a family or a clique of friends. One character will inevitably be a Charlie Sheen, a bit mad and womanizing as much as possible. Now this is entertaining for thirty minutes, but this kind of sitcom is not the thing we pull on our friends sleeve in the bar and demand that they tune in. We reserve that sort of praise for the HBO shows that dare to be different, to be exceptional. The Wire, lauded for it’s ability to take the police procedural and make it fresh, took on the topic of drugs from more than the simplistic common view of police verse drug slingers. It took it from the perspective of the schools, the common workers, everyone whose stories were never associated with artful TV. It’s beautiful, and revered. A typical sitcom with canned laughs is not.

When we consider the idea of true beauty and our pursuit to find it, we can find pleasant things in the common. A local forest, a hill, a sit com on that rerun channel we avoid. But these things don’t qualify as true beauty. True beauty lies in the exceptional, the mount Everest, not cougar hill. In Mozart, not Jug Henry and the local hobos. The exceptional is where we find true beauty, whenever something stands head and shoulders above the rest, will get this label: “True Beauty.”


  • Examined more clearly both sides. (could tackle an example of the “pro” for one body paragraph, and two body paragraphs on the “con”)
  • need three body paragraphs. These readers are looking for the classic five paragraph essay.
  • Write quicker = write more. More is likely better, since the reader will not spend more than a couple of minutes reading this.
  • Topic sentences need to be  clear transitions. These readers are spending a couple of minutes on this: say “The beauty we find in the commonplace is like the flower sprouting from the cracks of a Walmart parking lot.”
  • Art will likely not be appreciated, don’t waste any time making it pretty.
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