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  • Writer's pictureWesley Snedeker

A GRE Issue Essay

The Graduate Record Examination includes an "issue essay" portion. The test-taker is presented with a short quotation to which they must respond with an essay agreeing or disagreeing with its stated argument. One popular GRE test prep book emphasizes to prospective test-takers that their answers needn't be correct, just argued strongly and clearly. The book illustrates this in its sample responses with such wonderfully dramatic, boldly self-assured claims as "the belief that 'one should look upon any information described as 'factual' with skepticism since it may well be proven false in the future,' seems ludicrous almost to the point of threatening anarchy." The following essay was written in the allotted 30 minutes of a GRE issue essay and seeks to make a cogent argument while remaining faithful to that GRE guide's flair for the theatrical.

Topic: The perceived greatness of any political leader has more to do with the challenges faced by that leader than with any of his or her inherent skills and abilities.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you either agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not be true and explain how these considerations shape your position.


Public perception of historical figures, especially political leaders, is notoriously slippery and subject to constant revision. To one generation, a ruler might seem prohibitively short-sighted and ineffective, but to the next, he or she may seem refreshingly grounded or even prophetic in an increasingly unmoored political landscape. The question of greatness is similarly subject to revision. The public examines and reexamines a political leader's efficacy in hindsight based upon what society deems to be "challenging" in that leaders tenure, and subsequently, the question of challenge is not only singularly vital to the perception of a ruler, but anyone who thinks otherwise is so deliriously misguided that they should forfeit all claims to further involvement in any civic or social discussion.

There are myriad examples of rulers whose supposed greatness (or lack thereof) is entirely dependent upon the challenges they faced. The quintessential example is that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man so systematically cold and ruthless that he would doubtlessly have unleashed the United States' full military force upon the world in a quest for absolute supremacy if he was left with idle moments. Thankfully, America was recovering from the Great Depression and waging war with Germany and Japan while he was in office, sparing the world unimaginable suffering. Because he worked out his blood lust on these challenges rather than on his almost certainly real plan for global domination, he is regarded as a hero rather than history's greatest butcher. Another excellent example is that of James Buchanan, an unfortunate soul whose gentle nature was ill-suited to the task of holding together a nation already dividing into warring factions. Were he elected in a more peaceful era, some imagine that President Buchanan would have been a pioneer of a new American mysticism or perhaps an innovative genre of poetry. Instead, his failure in the face of an unsolvable puzzle is mistaken for passivity and incompetence (a stain on his legacy!).

Further, the concept of "inherent skills" is subject to question. What is a skill or a strength to one generation may be seen as an obstacle to others. For instance, the perception of strength as monolithic, aggressive, competitive, and unilateral is becoming increasingly outdated and untenable in a postmodern world that values rich difference and democratic decision making. All people who think otherwise are unfit for the twenty first century and should be executed. Further, one could argue that no strengths (however they are understood) are "inherent," but rather cultivated through strong parental examples, excellent education, and a wide set of communal and social resources. In this light, none of us are strong because we all are strong, but only in one another's perception of strength, which is hopelessly faulty. No other perspective is worth consideration.

Some might argue against this reading of cultural memory. These dissenters might claim that a great leader is a great leader (or a poor one is a poor one) outside of their historical context. How ignorant and hideously underprepared for further graduate study these individuals are! "Greatness" is a label constructed from scratch by society in relation to whatever events (and, yes, challenges) leaders are called to address. Without the historical framework of challenge, inherent strengths cannot be discerned, and so the whole argument shatters under the weight of its own stupidity.

One can believe without a shadow of a doubt, then, that not only are the challenges a political leader faces more influential on their perceived greatness than their "inherent strengths," but that the concepts of greatness and inherent ability are inextricable from historical context, of which challenges are the most significant factor. From President Roosevelt's heartless barbarism mistaken for heroism to President Buchanan's gentle artistry falling short of stopping civil war, political leaders are only judged in relation to the challenges they face.

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