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.
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