Tackling the (new) GRE

Two days ago, I took the newly revised GRE. While I do not receive my official scores until November as quantified by the new scoring system (on a scale between 130 and 170), the score report gave me a preliminary estimate based off the old scoring system: I exceeded my target of a 1300 by a range of 70 to 160 points. Needless to say I am very pleased with the results and am basking in the afterglow of never having to do it again. In this post, I want to share some of the tips and prep strategies I discovered so as help others in their study process.

What study materials to buy?
There are myriad ways to prepare for the test; some are good, some are bad, and determining the quality of each depends on your learning style. With this sort of test I learn best when doing an independent study. Taking an intensive course with a tutor might be helpful for those who have no idea where to start, but keep in mind it is expensive. However, studying independently can be expensive too depending on the route you take. Some of my classmates dropped $400 on a Kaplan course that includes a couple of prep books and a plethora of practice tests through their websites. The results of have been mixed with some doing very well and others getting refunds.

Being on a budget I decided to go with the Barnes & Noble approach and purchased Kaplan’s New GRE 2011-2012 Premier with CD-ROM and Princeton Review’s Cracking the New GRE, 2012 Edition. In addition, I bought Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder all coming to the grand total of $70. In the end, after signing up for a (discounted) exam, I spent $150 on the entire experience.

I chose Princeton Review’s and Kaplan’s book for two different reasons. Princeton’s book was strong on test prep instruction. The study tips were genuinely helpful and easy to remember. The math section, in particular was especially good. The ratio tables, average/rate pies, and the way they set up permutations and combinations were very easy to understand. By contrast Kaplan’s prep material was surprisingly thin, and it annoyingly dubbed each tip as “The Kaplan Method (registered trademark) to [insert study topic].” These were generally vacuous and tedious to read. For example, the so-called “Kaplan Method” to reading comprehension said things like “attack the passage” and “read strategically.” Useless. Overall, Priceton’s book was vastly superior in prepping phase of the test.

However, Kaplan’s book came with a DVD that had tons of good practice problems. While each book had paper-based practice tests with answers and explanations, I found Kaplan’s DVD to be extremely helpful (note: Princeton now has a version with a DVD). This greatly helped me learn how to pace myself under the tyranny of the clock, navigate the testing software, and deal with test anxiety. Kaplan’s explanations to correct answers were much more intuitive to grasp and helpful for forming question-reading strategies. Overall, Kaplan was superior in the practice phase of the test.

At any rate, after two months of prep with these resources I felt very prepared for the test.

Study strategies
Being a terrible math student, but one who is strong in verbal reasoning, I knew where my weaknesses were. Re-learning 10th grade math took some time, but doing it a couple of hours a day over the course of a month got me refreshed with the 20 or so concepts you need to know in order to succeed on the GRE. Surprisingly, the concepts are very simple and easy to remember. The trick, though, is deciphering what the test writers are asking. This takes practice, and unfortunately, a lot of failure (the same goes for reading comprehension). But with some effort I was able to pull my quantitative scores up to an acceptable level.

Improving the verbal score depends almost entirely on the breadth of your vocabulary. I spent 20 minutes a day, on average, going over flashcards made from words suggested in the Kaplan/Princeton books at a nifty free website (you have to input them). In addition, Webster’s Vocabulary Builder; was excellent in that it refreshed many words I was already familiar with and introduced me to hundreds that I was not in brief, memorable ways. As a result I did not come across a word I did not recognize.

The test experience
The day before, I relaxed. The only studying I did was some review of basic math concepts and some words that I had forgot the meaning of. The night before, I knew my sleep would be restless so I got to bed early. I woke up about every hour or two during the night, but I got up surprising refreshed the morning of test. I ate breakfast standing up (so to save sitting strength) and drove to the center slowly to keep my nerves in check.

The test center experience is a weird one. First, you encounter humorless employees who obsess over the particulars of your name and ID, and then they make you write a paragraph in cursive (!) for no apparent reason. Second, you share a cold partitioned room with several other people who like to make noise through their bodily orifices. Thankfully, the center I went to provided ear muffs to help block out the din of snorts and whispers. Third, the test is long, which makes sitting and concentrating increasingly difficult as time goes by. But after doing several simulated practiced tests I had developed the stamina to keep focused. I only drifted off twice, which is very good for a person who is easily distracted.

Concluding thoughts
All in all, while I am happy with my score, I realize it doesn’t matter that much. All the GRE tests is how good you are at taking the GRE. It does require some cleverness and quickness, but it does not determine your success as a grad student or your individual worth as learner. To those who have taken their licks from the test or are scared to take it, don’t worry. If you can get the perspective that you matter more than the test, you have made a very small but absolutely crucial step in tackling the GRE.


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