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.
Structure gets all the limelight. Structure is undoubtedly a huge deal on the GMAT AWA. After all, you are being graded in part by a computer. But there is still much to be said for content, and the more you think about what to say before you say it, the less likely you are to run out things to say, besides simply repeating, “the argument is also weak because it fails to substantiate a number of points.” Remember, only one of the graders is a computer. The other grader will be very aware if your content is lacking.
Content is king
Much of the content, believe it or not, will come from your brain. All the advice you get about the structure and the exact wording will only help you so much. Generating ideas on the fly, though, can be difficult—especially on test day. A good tactic is to practice using the arguments in the back of the Official Guide. Your job: identify several assumptions and ways that those assumptions can be strengthened or disproven.
Official prompt from GMAT webpage:
“The following appeared in a memorandum from the business department of the Apogee Company:
“‘When the Apogee Company had all its operations in one location, it was more profitable than it is today. Therefore, the Apogee Company should close down its field offices and conduct all its operations from a single location. Such centralization would improve profitability by cutting costs and helping the company maintain better supervision of all employees.’
Discuss how well reasoned you find this argument. In your discussion be sure to analyze the line of reasoning and the use of evidence in the argument. For example, you may need to consider what questionable assumptions underlie the thinking and what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion.”
The first step is to identify possible assumptions. This process might seem difficult at first, but with a little practice, you’ll become more adept at it.
Generating ideas means generating content
1. Profitability had one cause: having all operations centralized in one location.
2. Even if that were the case, returning to a centralized operation does not ensure profitability.
3. Supervision of employees is desirable and will lead to profit.
I probably could have come up with a few more assumptions, but I’d be stretching. The point of this exercise—indeed, the whole point of the AWA Argument task—is not to identify every questionable assumption, but to identify the main assumptions. From these few assumptions, you can build your essay. Remember, the instructions explicitly tell us to do the following:
“…what alternative explanations or counterexamples might weaken the conclusion.”
Therefore, we need to take those first three assumptions and build off of them by offering alternative explanations and/or counterexamples.
1. Profitability had one cause: having all operations centralized in one location.
Profitability could have resulted from a number of different factors.
For instance, Apogee could have focused on just one product, one that did well in the market and boosted company sales. The fact that operations were all under one roof did not impact the success of the company’s product. Indeed, Apogee could have continued to be profitable when it expanded its operations. We only know that at some point it was no longer profitable.
At this point, I could list another counterexample for the alternative explanation and house it under the same paragraph. This will help you add the much-needed length that many students struggle to provide in the essay. By coming up with realistic counterexamples, you can not only write a longer essay, but also a more persuasive one.
A good approach is to repeat the above for each of the questionable assumptions so that you are able to come up with five paragraphs (introduction, three bodies, and a conclusion). First, practice writing one solid paragraph, containing alternative explanations and realistic counterexamples. Once you can confidently do that, repeat two more times and you will be well on your way to a competitive essay score.
You must be able to pinpoint questionable assumptions upon which the argument hinges and you must generate original counterexamples. No amount of learning cookie-cutter language (“the argument is unconvincing because it fails to account for several notable….”) will help you think of ideas specific to the argument you see on test day.
There are only a few times in your life when you’ll look at test scores and see a number like 1200 or 2000. Wait, wait—there’s only one time, really: that’s the SAT. Ninety-nine percent of the tests you take are scored as a fraction or a percentage, so what gives? What’s the point of putting SAT scores in this bizarro range of 600 to 2400?
There are a few reasons:
1. The Wrong Answer Penalty: The SAT isn’t scored just by counting how many correct answers you got; your incorrect answers also count to your total score. That’s right—you’re punished for your mistakes. In theory, it’s better to leave an answer blank than it is to get it wrong. In practice, that ends up not really being the case; you’ll definitely want to guess if you’re stumped on the test, especially if you can rule out one of the wrong answer choices.
Anyway, the system is pretty simple. A wrong answer is worth -¼ of a right answer. So if you get 1 question right, then 4 wrong, the correct answer is completely canceled out. Now, imagine you had a really hard time on the test and got more than four times as many incorrect answers as you did correct answers. That would lead to a negative score, right? But that’s nonsense. Test scores don’t go negative. So the raw score, calculated by the number of correct and incorrect answers you got, has to be converted into a different scale, a scale that is only positive.
2. Standardization: If you take the SAT in May, then again in October, there’s a chance you’ll see harder questions on one test or the other. It’s not a pattern, though—it’s not as though SAT Math is always harder in the spring (that’s a common myth, but it is just a myth). Instead, there are just normal variations in the test difficulty. It’s pretty much impossible to create two tests with the exact same difficulty level. So if you answer 70% of the questions correctly on SAT critical reading one month, but only 65% correctly four months later, it’s likely the second test was just a bit harder by chance. To deal with that, the College Board, who makes the SAT, scales scores according to how hard the test was—you could end up with the exact same score on the 200 to 800 scale for that section from both test dates.
3. Distinction: This is the biggest reason, really. A high score on your algebra final might be a 95% or even 100%. The average score in the class might be closer to 80%. But if the SAT were on a 1 to 100 scale, the average score would be more like 50 (the average SAT score is near 1500, which is halfway between the minimum 600 and the maximum 2400). It would give the wrong impression of how well you actually did on the test, because people would immediately associate that 50 with a 50%, a failing grade, which an average SAT score absolutely is not.
So taking the score out of the 1 to 100 scale is necessary. But why 600 to 2400? The truth is that it’s pretty arbitrary. If you’ve taken or studied the ACT, you know that test is scored on a scale of 1 to 36. The PSAT, meanwhile, is from 60 to 240. The GRE is scored from 260 to 340, the LSAT from 120 to 180, and the TOEFL paper test from 310 to 677 (just to screw with people, I’m sure). Any standardized test has to pick a range of numbers to use. Test makers don’t want the scores of their test to be easily confused with the scores of another test, so they choose number ranges that don’t look like those of other tests’.
Get calibrated: If you’re not sure how to read your score, then forget about the actual number: just look at the percentiles. That shows you what percentage of people you scored higher than. If you’re in the 60th percentile, for instance, you scored higher than 60% of the other SAT takers. That gives a much better picture of where you stand and exactly how good your score is.