Think like the test writers
You may have noticed the wording that accompanies many questions: “choose the best answer.” That phrase points to the somewhat subjective nature of the test, and yes, I’m talking primarily about the verbal section. (Don’t worry, number sense doesn’t become subjective on the GRE.)
Many interpret this phrasing as arbitrary and unfair. Often, we find an answer that sort of works and feel cheated that it is not credited as being the correct answer. It is best, though, not to become upset or resigned; rather, try to understand why the test writers consider one answer the best. On the flip side, figure out what made your seemingly logical answer turn out to not be the best according to the test writers’ thinking. There is a certain logic to the way the test writers construct the “best answer,” and conversely a certain logic to the way the wrong answers are written.
Wrapping your head around this notion and thinking like the test writers is one of the most effective strategies to improving on the test. That is not to say that this is the magic bullet. After all, you’ll still have to deal with dense, convoluted questions where wrapping your head around the question is half the battle. But overall, understanding why the right answer is right and the wrong is answer wrong will go a long way toward helping you on test day.
Use official material as much as possible
Writing test answers—both math and verbal ones—is something of an art form. Constructing an answer so that it is sort of right but just wrong enough so that it is not unassailably correct, as well as writing an answer that is unassailably correct, is tough.
Nobody does it better than the test writers themselves (the reason for this is not that the test writers are the Michelangelos of test prep—they use sophisticated statistics to determine answer validity). For this reason, you’ll want to stick to official material as much as possible. In this case, you’ll want to stick with ETS, the creators of the test.
The downside is ETS hasn’t released too much material: it has a few practice tests and about 100 practice questions scattered throughout its few books. That doesn’t mean that you should eschew other sources altogether; there are still decent sources out there. You just have to be careful, since poorly constructed questions will disrupt the logic you’ll have been fine-tuning by studying the official material.
Prepping for the GRE and even taking a practice test is in large part mental. There is quite a bit of stress (and boredom) attending both practices. But instead of just telling you to stay positive—a cliché wrapped in bromide and served on a platitudinous platter—here are a few tips to help make GRE prep interesting, rewarding, and (most importantly!) effective.
1. Getting better is a struggle
As you start to improve, it will get harder to improve. It is important to keep this in mind, since you’ll likely hit a plateau after an initial score increase. Though you might start to wonder if you can improve any more, don’t become dispirited. The better you do, the more difficult the material will become, since the test section is adaptive. To keep things in perspective, it’s also helpful to remember that others are also struggling to improve.
2. You’re not learning Swahili
This is my way of saying that what you’re learning on the GRE is something that is relevant to what you’ll be doing in grad school. (I’m assuming you don’t have any plans to visit the southern half of Africa soon!) Essentially, you’ll be fine-tuning your ability to use logic, sift through dense texts, and, in some cases, work with numbers and number logic.
3. Take a break
Sometimes what you’ve learned takes time to incubate. Take a break from studying for a couple of days to let things sink in. Often, it is during this supposed “downtime” that your brain makes little connections regarding what you’ve recently learned.
Sitting down to prep—seems pretty obvious what you are going to do. Open up a GRE prep book and start reading. But what exactly does that mean? Do you go through a book sequentially, a page at a time, so that by the end of the book GRE mastery is yours? Or do you read just those areas in which you don’t feel confident? Or do you do a mixture of both, or something else entirely?
While there is no clear answer to these questions, you may want to keep some points in mind. First off, becoming better at the GRE is about learning techniques and then applying those techniques to questions that are similar to the ones you’ll encounter on the test. Secondly, GRE material is often more like a reference book than a textbook. While you should read the beginning to get a sense of the entire text, you’ll want to skip around and revisit—often many times—areas to which you are new. It is this combination of targeted practice and repetition that will yield the most gains.
Maximize your time
Each GRE session will differ. After all, sometimes you won’t have two hours to devote to studying. Other times, you’ll have an entire afternoon—just you and the GRE. However, even if you have just one hour of interrupted prep time, you should plan to do the following:
Apply what you’ve learned
Some fall prey to the temptation to read technique after technique, without tackling any questions that will actually allow them to apply the technique. This temptation is understandable since reading about a technique gives you false confidence; the writers often apply the technique to the problem so that everything seems deceptively straightforward. You’ll likely think, “I got this!” or “That makes sense!” after reading about a new technique. However, it is only when you try a problem “in the wild” and attempt to apply these techniques that you’ll have a better sense of how well you truly understand them.
At Magoosh, we want to ensure our students are aware of this approach (we have little pop-up windows and the like). Otherwise, many will watch hours of lesson videos (where you learn the techniques and strategies), and only do one or two practice questions.
When prepping from a book, you won’t have any pop-up windows. So always make sure to do questions that relate to whatever strategy you are learning that day, or have been learning in the last few days. For example, if you’ve been reading about the properties of a circle, make sure to do practice problems relating to circles. And don’t try to learn every aspect of a circle without first practicing some of the basics. If you’re reading a book that is six pages of concepts, don’t try to read the entire thing and then answer the questions pertaining to those six pages. Instead, read a few pages at a time and attempt those questions relating to the concepts about which you just read.
Learn from your mistakes… and your successes
Given that you’ll be completing many problems, it is easy to fall into the mindset that more is better. Indeed, many students correlate the number of questions they complete with their score on test day. Many will trawl the web desperately looking for questions, as though they were vampires looking for blood.
However, whether you answer a question incorrectly—or even correctly—you shouldn’t deem the question to be of no further use. Understanding the reason why you answered the question incorrectly is a skill that will help you both to avoid similar mistakes and to think the way the test writers do. This applies even to questions that are correctly answered. Often, you’ll be wavering between two answers and will end up picking one that turns out to be correct. Understanding why you weren’t 100% sure about the question is very helpful to improving. You’ll get a deeper sense of why you were drawn to one of the incorrect answers as well as your thought process for why you ended up going with the correct answer.
The insights you gain from this process can be applied to future questions, and future study sessions. For instance, if you notice after answering a series of reading comprehension questions that you tend to struggle with science passages, then you would know to include more science passages in your upcoming study sessions.
Effectively preparing for the GRE isn’t just a question of sitting down to study. How you prepare will go a long way to determining your score on test day. Make sure to learn just a few new concepts or strategies at a time. Doing related practice questions will help you reinforce these concepts before you move on to something new. Remember also to revisit these concepts a few days after initially learning about them. Finally, don’t forget that the best teacher can oftentimes be your mistakes. Take the time to review your problems and to understand why you missed the question. An awareness of what went wrong will help you avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Listen in on our conversation with Dr. Lydia Liu, Managing Senior Research Scientist at the ETS and Tom Ewing, Director of External and Media Relations, for GRE advice, their perspective on the GRE vs GMAT debate, and more.
00:03:22 – An overview of the GRE.
00:05:18 – Don’t stick with your first instinct: The GRE’s changing score feature and how it helps you snag a higher score.
00:09:13 – Paid and free GRE study tools.
00:12:16 – The GRE as a predictor of success in b-school.
00:13:18 – Why MBA applicants should take the GRE and not the GMAT.
00:17:24 – GRE prep strategies.
00:19:57 – Ongoing research studies at ETS.
00:21:09 – The latest news from ETS (and it doesn’t reflect well on US grad students).
00:25:58 – Tips for graduate school applicants.
Leave a Review for Admissions Straight Talk:
“I can’t stop trembling….can’t eat….cry for little or no reason….I am so nervous.” All of this from Janelle, a prospective graduate student on her response to scheduling a GRE test date. I was not surprised that Janelle was nervous as almost all prospective graduate students are a bit anxious about admissions’ tests. However, Janelle took “anxious” to a whole new level. It was clear to me that I would need to develop a somewhat different plan of action to successfully help Janelle perform at her very best on this exam.
My first step was to listen carefully as Janelle shared all her feelings and fears. She said that she actually felt better just by having someone listen without judgement. I told her that I would brainstorm some options and we scheduled a follow-up meeting.
I decided to “borrow” some of the techniques I use to deal with speaker anxiety in the public speaking classes that I teach at the undergraduate level. I was planning to use cognitive restructuring– changing the way we think about something.
At our next meeting I told Janelle that I had developed a three stage strategy to position her for success. I asked her to think about the GRE process like the development of a relationship. In other words going from the acquaintance level to friend level to intimate level. We were going to “Make Friends with the GRE.” Here’s how we did it:
STAGE 1: Acquaintance Level—-This is the “getting to know you” stage of the process.
• Understand the GRE Testing program- Research the GRE general test and the discipline-specific subject tests especially in terms of available test administration dates, time limitations on retakes, score delivery options, etc.
• Determine which tests are required by the schools/programs of your interest—Check the admission criteria and the application deadlines to determine which tests are required and the application deadlines so that you can schedule the appropriate exams to meet all of the criteria of the school/programs of your choice. Keep in mind that while the GRE general test has multiple test administration sites and dates, the GRE subject test administrations are often scheduled only 2 or 3 times per admission cycle. Advance and careful planning is necessary to meet these deadlines so that you do not find yourself in a situation where your application is not complete by the deadline date. Many programs will only review complete applications.
• Learn even more by surveying and requesting feedback from others who have taken the exam. They may well have some tidbits of advice for you. They may alert you to specific pitfalls to avoid. Keep a list for future reference.
STAGE 2: Friendship Level— This is the “let’s become friends” stage of the process.
• Visit the ETS website to learn about the GRE subject tests offered and to access the associated subject test review books which will provide details on the content areas for the test, the weights assigned to each topic, as well as a practice test. This will provide you with a guide on what to study as well as how much time to allocate to specific topics. The subject test practice book can be downloaded from the web free of charge or will be mailed when you register for the exam.
• To prepare for the GRE general test, you should invest the time to diagnose the skill areas that need the most attention by identifying areas of weakness that require intensive review. These may include, but are not limited to, reading for meaning, analyzing and general organization of your ideas in short essay format, general mathematics, algebra, geometry, charts, etc.
• Take advantage of the diagnostic services offered by ETS which includes GRE’s Diagnostic Tests and Score It Now!, the online writing practice. Check out these low cost options on the ETS website.
• Make use of the GRE Powerprep software for reviews of the verbal and quantitative measure sections of the GRE exam.
• Be prepared to write 2 timed essays. One essay will present your perspective on an issue and the second essay will assess your ability to analyze an argument. You can practice typing an essay response under timed conditions using GRE Powerprep software or you can pay for Score- it -Now! for online writing practice. The analytical writing measure serves as an assessment of critical thinking and the following analytical and writing skills: articulation of complex ideas, clear and effective examination of claims and evidence, supporting ideas with relevant reasons and explicit examples, preparing a well-focused and coherent discussion, and displaying mastery of standard written English.
• Throughout this entire stage use positive self-talk as a confidence booster. Place the emphasis on all of the progress you have made and continue to make.
(On a side note, I made sure that I was always available for confidence boosting and positive feedback)
STAGE 3— Intimate Level—- this is the commitment stage of the process.
• Become comfortable taking a computer delivered, timed, online exam by practicing in that type of environment. If you only practice using a review book, the new delivery format may increase your level of anxiety and, as such, may impact your performance.
• Look back at how far you have come and continue to invest in the relationship you have established. You may even learn to enjoy the challenge and the rewards that the relationship may bring.
• Last but not least, allow yourself enough time for the relationship to strengthen (prepare and study for the exam) and take hold.
At this point I am sure you are wondering if Janelle was successful. Yes she was–she handled the stress very well and was accepted to her top choice schools. I was certainly proud to have helped her achieve her goal.
By Carol Drummer, Former Hofstra University Dean of Graduate Admissions, who for 10 years reviewed and signed off on over 4500 admissions decisions per year and has taught communications and rhetoric since 1991.