There are two types of essays on the GRE: argument and issue. While daunting at first, argument essays tend to be the easier of the two because their prompts provide all of the information that you will need. Issue essays, on the other hand, require you to take a position on a question about life, education, or society — and to support your position with reasons and examples. The burden of this task not necessary grow lighter with practice or familiarity. For tips on how to come up with strong examples, read on.
For some people, brainstorming for examples comes naturally. The ability to connect an essay topic to the vast expanse of information that an average college-educated carries around in her memory is a kind of gift. Does that mean that test takers who do not possess this talent are simply stuck? Of course not. Lacking the ability to improvise on the issue essay simply means that you must develop and rehearse your supporting material in advance.
As soon as you read the issue essay question, you should start thinking of examples from a few different areas: history/current events, science/technology, literature, pop culture, and personal anecdotes. While it's better to draw from multiple areas on each essay, some topics lend themselves particularly well to examples of a particular type. When brainstorming about examples during the test, be methodical. Consider each area individually and thoroughly, and ask yourself: Does this example fit? For instance, if a question asks you about the merits of innovation vis-à-vis tradition, you might begin by contemplating examples in history and current events. Competition between businesses or nations would be a fruitful theme to explore. You might then think about science — natural selection might offer insights and examples. Finally, consider pop culture, the evolution of art forms, music, fashion, and even sports. The key is to be methodical in examining each category and to be flexible in interpreting the theme that is up for debate.
Another way to jump-start your brainstorming is by identifying and developing go-to examples that you can plug into a variety of different essays. Ask yourself questions designed to jog your memory and prompt your creativity into action. For example: What are five books that have changed some facet of how you look at life? Name a few obstacles you’ve had to overcome, and what you learned from your struggles. What are the most important historic events that you have lived through? Who are the thinkers, scientists, historic figures, or artists you admire most and why? The answers to these questions should be personalized to you, and will require some thought to relay to your reader. The best answers that such thinking elicits can usually be applied to multiple essays.
For instance, in my own writing, I have frequently cited the example of the Cuban Missile Crisis to great effect. During the crisis, President Kennedy disregarded the conventional wisdom of his generals and his cabinet in pursuit of his ultimate goal: the avoidance of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Left to his own devices, Kennedy drew heavily in his decision-making from the diplomatic blunders and brinksmanship that precipitated the First World War, and he was particularly influenced by Barbara Tuchman's “The Guns of August." With this one example, I can touch on the themes of self-reliance vs. groupthink; and learning from the past vs. repeating its mistakes in a concrete and engaging narrative form.
For longer-term preparation, you can keep a journal to develop at least 15 such go-to examples. You don't need to learn anything new. Just identify and elaborate on ideas already in your own head. Then practice selecting examples by working from essay prompts available on the GRE website.