Thursday, February 16, 2012

How [Not?] To Study for the GRE

A couple of folks have asked me about my GRE preparations, so I figured I'd write my thoughts down while it's fresh in my mind.

Now, keep in mind that I've always been a pretty decent standardized test taker and there was only about a week between the time I signed up for the test and my actual test date.

Test Prep Materials - What I Used

Because I didn't have a huge amount of prep time and because the testing format changed this year, I purchased two books: The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test by ETS and Cliffs Notes' Math Review for Standardized Tests--recommended by an Amazon reviewer who didn't think very highly of the Quantitative Analysis explanations in the ETS book.  

Study Process

I spent a few days working out of the Cliffs Notes book: I took the four "Diagnostic Tests," then checked the answers.  Each answer has the page number for the section explaining the concept written right next to it--super convenient!  I skipped around a lot, only reviewing the sections for which I got the questions wrong.

I went through the practice questions in the GRE book so I could try and figure out what to expect in the Verbal Reasoning section and to practice some more math questions.  I figured there wasn't a lot I could do to prepare for the Analytical Writing section anyway, although reading the sample prompt and sample essays at each possible score level (1-6) was pretty informative and gave me an idea of what kind of response I needed to provide for each section.

The last thing I studied was a concept I learned in my Critical Thinking class from my first semester in my freshman year of college: Toulmin's Model of Argumentation.  It provided a great framework through which I could argue a point myself, and also a way for me to attack someone else's argument--the two tasks required of you in the "Analyze an Issue" and "Analyze an Argument" sections of the Analytical Writing test.

On the day of the test, I used the PowerPrep II software (which came with my book and is also available free from the ETS website) to take the computerized practice test--or, at least portions of it.  I looked at the prompts for the Analytical Writing test, went through the first math section and two verbal reasoning sections.  I'd been doing well enough that I skipped the second math section. 

Test Evaluation

I have not yet received my official test results, so I'll have to update my post later.  

As planned, I used Toulmin's Model to create both of my writing samples.  I think I did well on the "Analyze an Issue" section, but I think I totally rocked the "Analyze and Argument" prompt.  We'll see how that goes.

I did much better than I had expected on the Verbal Reasoning section.  My unofficial raw score unofficially put me in the 93rd percentile according to the chart on the ETS website.  Pretty sweet.  

And then there's the Quantitative Reasoning section.  You know, the funny thing is that I have ALWAYS done better on the math section of my tests than my verbal section (not that I was ever bad at either one.)  I really, REALLY wish I had gone through the second QR section on the practice test.  The questions were harder and I simply didn't manage my time effectively.  By the last few questions, I just clicked on answers (you get credit for right answers but don't lose credit for wrong ones.)  The especially frustrating part was that I had to pass through questions where I knew how to do the math, I just didn't have time.  My score wasn't bad by any means--the unofficial score is unofficially in the 84th percentile--but it should have been much higher.  Oh well.  I'm not going into science or math anyway.

Reflection on Study Process 

It was helpful to have the Verbal Reasoning sample questions and the complete sample tests, but the explanations were NOT helpful at all.  

The Verbal Reasoning explanations looked something like this:

"This question requires the reader to determine what can be inferred from the passage about its author's view of the interpretation of novels. Choice A may seem attractive because in the passage the author says that Wuthering Heights has heterogeneous elements that resist inclusion in a unifying interpretive scheme. Choice A is incorrect, however, because the author does not indicate that the unification of different elements is to be avoided in interpretation generally. By contrast, the author's parenthetical statement about rigidity does present a general warning against inflexibility of interpretation, and it is this that supports Choice B."

They basically should have written "Well, dumbass, if your vocabulary was better this question wouldn't really be that hard at all!"  The "reasoning" also reminded me of the Battle of Wits from "The Princess Bride."

Most of the information from the Official Guide to the GRE book is available for free on the ETS website.  While the book is easily portable, you can just go to the ETS GRE Test Preparation Page and get the information there.  There are two full-length practice tests (one paper-based, one computer-based) on the website and the PowerPrep II testing software.  I would definitely recommend tinkering around with the computer-based test so you get a feel for the layout, the formatting (single answer vs. multiple answer questions), and how to use the on screen calculator.  

Aside from the Official Guide, I would highly recommend the Cliff's Notes book and definitely the Toulmin Model of Argumentation as study tools.  

I hope that my experience with the new GRE has been helpful to you.  If you have any specific questions, leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer them!


  1. Good information about GRE it is very useful for students

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  2.  I totally support GRE/GMAT based exams when a student is going to enter into programs of such a higher academic level.

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  3. Interesting to see how this will shape up in the future. At the moment, most people applying to B-school with the GRE are those who are also using their GRE scores to apply to specialized master's programs in other business areas

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