GRE Study Tools
November 3, 2009 2:00 AM   Subscribe

What was your GRE Secret Weapon? I'm looking for recommendations on the best study guides out there for the GRE. Tips and tricks, study tools, Windows software, iPod apps, and anything else welcome, too!
posted by NotMyselfRightNow to Education (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
My GRE took place about 20 years ago ... not many of us had access to the modern technology of today back then (Windows software, and certainly not iPod!). I studied the different sections of the test for a few months and drilled myself like it was a new hobby. I made myself do timed tests in test-like conditions (some hours at a desk with nothing to drink (no water bottles or tissues or cigarettes or whatever, and a couple of number 2 pencils). Maybe things are different/more relaxed now for the test takers/proctors, but taking the tests (I got them from books and study guides) like that helped me alot. That, and just plain being ready to answer the questions that could come up.
posted by bebrave! at 2:34 AM on November 3, 2009

I don't know if they still require subject tests but if they do split them over two testing sessions. I did both in the same day and it was a bit grueling.

Practice with timers and practice tests so you feel both aware of and comfortable with the constraints. Try and recreate the test environment as much as possible. Learn how to optimize your performance - when to skip questions - acclimate yourself to the fact that you will get questions wrong so you don't freak out. My first practice test was horrifying until I realized it was scored on a curve and did the lookup. Then I felt much better.

Chart your improvements - save some practice tests for later.

Scope out the testing facilities ahead of the test day so getting there won't be another source of anxiety. Avoid your anxious friends.

Work out the cost/benefit of guessing with each amount of alternatives so you know if you eliminate obviously wrong answers what your odds are and whether it is worthwhile to gamble. Be aware that you perform slightly better at guessing than your conscious mind thinks you do.

Make sure all your paperwork and ID is sorted before the test (It was a huge distraction for me during my general test when the admins came over and hassled me for 15 minutes over registration confusion)

Physical hacks
Sugar up before the test (this has been demonstrated to improve recall). Have the same sugar before study sessions. Chew gum during the test. Go for a 30 minute walk before hand. Study at the same time as your test if possible. Also study for a bit right before going to bed.

For the Psychology subject test:
When guessing for history of psychology - pick the germanic name
When guessing for social psychology question - pick the jewish name

Other subjects also have similar historical patterns that you can use to slightly improve your guessing.

Test taking is a skill and is quite trainable but keep in mind that efficiency of training is important. Don't burn yourself out on flash cards on the bus and memorization in the shower. Study for a few very focused hours a day while still living the rest of your life for the remainder of the day (it is best not to get drunk after studying though).

Finally, don't worry too much about your GRE scores. As long as they are not horrible they will not stop you. Very few schools place that much stock in them. They are only really used to block candidates that they want to deny for other reasons (like inter faculty conflicts, disrespect of your undergraduate institution, etc..).

The best way to get into a grad program is to go work for them during a break year (or if you are comfortable with a less rigorous degree with easier admission standards and no GRE requirement - look to England)
posted by srboisvert at 4:11 AM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

A standardized test measures, to a significant degree, how well you take that particular past. So practice and then practice some more. The best book or app or trick is whatever will get you to practice the most efficiently. No book is good if you can't bear to look at it.

I found that my subject test (English literature) had lots of questions that were very similar and in some cases identical to questions I had encountered on practice tests, so familiarity allowed me to move quickly and to get a lot right.

That said, take the advice above: GRE scores aren't nearly as important as, say, LSAT scores are. Do the best you can, but great scores won't help all that much if the rest of your application isn't strong. But do avoid being horrible.
posted by jkinkade at 4:26 AM on November 3, 2009

I ended up with a 730V/730Q/5W by just doing 5-20 practice questions at lunch every day in the few weeks leading up to the test. I think the most important and difficult thing is getting used to the question style, which, unlike the SAT, is designed to trip you up. I got an in-depth Kaplan practice book (they put a new one out every year; the older ones have the same material but are cheaper) and then a book of practice questions, nothing online.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:43 AM on November 3, 2009

I went through the practice material they supply (when you register, they send you a disc with a few practice tests and a math review), and a set of 500 ish verbal flashcards. The content shouldn't be too terrible as long as you remind yourself of some basic geometry and algebra, and refamiliarize yourself with stupid and terrible analogies (you'd think they'd have followed the SAT and gotten rid of the analogy section ... but no!).

Honestly, the hardest part of the GRE for me was the psyching myself out about each question. For whatever reason, you can't return to previous questions, so you have to answer each question before moving on to the next one, and you don't get another chance to look stuff over. As I'm sure you know, it's adaptive, which means that each question you answer determines the difficulty of the next question. Basically, make sure you get the first chunk of questions in each section right because they do more to determine your score than the final chunk will. But - don't get caught up worrying about whether a question is easier or harder that the previous question and if that means you got the previous question right or wrong! That was my biggest problem with the exam.

Oh, also, the program is clunky as all hell. Not a big deal, just irritating.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:01 AM on November 3, 2009

I just took the General Test in Sept, and I also took it back in 2003. There was nothing structurally or otherwise significantly different that I noticed different between the two sittings.

I got one of the books - I can't remember which one, it was the one with the most number of practise tests listed - and just ground through problems each evening and occasionally at lunch. I was mostly concerned with having forgotten some math, and focused on those...which is probably why I ended up with a 790Q/720V/5W.

Do a few timed practice essays if you have the time - I didn't and I got a bit rambly on mine, and my score on that could have been better. Older books (last few years) might be available cheap or even at libraries, which is fine, since you'll have a larger amount of material to work with and it's all relatively similar.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:15 AM on November 3, 2009

I just took the GREs a week ago. I did pretty well but could have done better if I'd spent more time studying vocab. (which is to say, more than a half hour) There were a good number of words from online vocab lists that I glanced over that I recognized on the actual test.

Definitely go over the nice math review PDF that is included in their software, and then take the test once or twice and write down all the questions or concepts you are not immediately clear on how to solve in a time-effective way. Many of the questions were very similar to ones on the actual test. Most of the math questions have a 'trick' that is supposed to test your critical reasoning, but in reality it mostly tests whether or not you have seen a similar problem.

Also, as another poster mentioned in a previous thread, the sections are adaptive, so not can you not go back, they get harder or easier depending on how you score. Also, this means that the first questions are worth more for your score than the middle ones, which are with more than the later ones. In practical terms, this means that finishing in the allotted time is not a big deal. (I guessed on the last 5 and got 770 on math)

I'm not qualified to talk on the essays, since I haven't got my score back yet, but there is a list of topics on the ECS site. Sit yourself down a few times and write them out using the time limit. There are probably good guides on how to structure them but I think most anything with an intro, a conclusion, and a coherent flow with good support will get you a decent score.
posted by ropeladder at 6:33 AM on November 3, 2009

Just hear to second what everybody said above. The format is the most challenging thing about the test. My main study tool was the material they give you when you register for the test and that worked out fine for me.
posted by mustard seeds at 6:41 AM on November 3, 2009

I am a test prep instructor and I've found that LiveJournal's Applyingtograd community posts some amazing free and online resources.

But generally, some advice:
- take a free practice test to know where you are scoring NOW
- find out what scores you need to get in order to get into the program, to get funding, to get a fellowship (knowing your realistic chances is important)
- memorizing vocab counts - 1000 words for 100 points
posted by k8t at 7:11 AM on November 3, 2009

My biggest recommendation is to make sure that whatever study material you use, it has answer explanations available. I found that some of the practice tests I took only provided the correct answer and nothing else. Other books, however, went into details regarding why something was correct. That was a big help.


I started visiting a high school level math tutor because I knew that would be my biggest mental hole.

Practice. Practice. Practice.
posted by kajj at 7:57 AM on November 3, 2009

Download the Powerprep software from ETS's website. It will give you the best feel for what the test taking program actually looks like, so you can get in the right frame of mind and practice using the user interface.
posted by zsazsa at 8:28 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Honestly focus on the qualitative section most. It had been ages since I had taken a math class and even then it was primarily Calculus (which isn't on the general exam). I spent a couple of weeks going through one of the math workbooks making sure I could do any of the algebra/geometry/trig that was going to be on the exam. Result 800Q. The ratio of time invested to payoff definitely seems highest on that section. In contrast I barely looked over the vocabulary and didn't do any practice writing and got a 740V and a 6.0 Analytical Writing Score.

Honestly I consider myself fairly well read and there was definitely some vocabulary questions on the verbal section that I had no absolutely no familiarity with the word and had to make educated guesses based on some vague notions of root forms. I think some improvement on verbal is definitely possible but to a certain degree you are locked into a general range by a certain age and I wonder about the utility of word a day methods for preparing for an exam.

Of course practice exams are really nice especially if you can find a way to simulate a computer adaptive exam which I think definitely freaks out some test takers.
posted by vuron at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2009

Back in the olden days, I was one of the very first people in the country to do the computer-based test. Since I'd spent all of my education prior to this taking pencil & paper tests, I was used to the old school test strategy of "skip any hard question, do all the easy ones then go back and do the hard ones," which obviously wasn't going to help at all. So I developed a strategy of never, ever skipping a question during my studying and practice tests. Never. Never ever. Even if a question was totally impossible. Even if I had to stop studying -- I would come right back to that same question an hour later, a day later, whenever. It helped a lot.

I also got into the habit of quickly writing ABCDE on my scratch paper with each new question, then crossing off whichever answers I'd eliminated.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:38 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've taught a GRE prep course (although for non-native English speakers) and I agree with zsazsa that you need to use Powerprep to get used to that clunky (as ChuraChura noted) interface. I am a computer person, but I found aspects of the computer-adaptive test frustrating: you can't mark or highlight annoying aspects of a question/mark off wrong answers; you can't go back and forth; etc. Use Powerprep to figure out how you're going to work with scratch paper to make up for this. BlahLaLa's suggestion is a good idea.

The worst part of it being on a computer is that as I understand it, if you're stressed, if you panic, or if you get off on the wrong foot at the beginning of a section and miss several questions, the "adaptive" portion of the test penalizes you and your score is lowered. So take a deep breath and calm yourself before you dive in.

You should know what the programs you are applying to are looking for and prioritize accordingly.

Do get some kind of book that talks about strategies (rather than just having drills), especially if it's been a while since you've taken this kind of test or if you're not really comfortable with analogies (I still can't believe they have analogies on this antiquated POS test), etc. Kaplan, "for Dummies," etc. are good.

For vocabulary, I do not believe that memorizing lists of words is a good use of your time, and most research on the topic backs me up. If you have 6 months to a year or more (you do, right? that's when you should start...) you should get into the habit of reading lots and lots and lots of fiction, preferably related books (lots of books in a genre or by an author) to build your vocabulary. Don't look words up as you read; just put a sticky on the page and check it later *if* the meaning didn't become clear from context. If you manage to pick up the word from context, it probably has a better chance of sticking in your memory (otherwise we have a tendency to retain the easier synonym from the dictionary definition, and drop the harder, unfamiliar new word).

If you are the kind of person who simply MUST have flash cards, build your own flash cards (online or offline) out of these words and write your own sentences about them, preferably funny or emotional sentences involving your friends, political causes, and interests that contain clear cues about the meaning. ("My first boyfriend's loquacity infuriated my mom because she's just as garrulous as he is.") These hooks will stick a lot better in your memory than the example sentences in any apps or practice websites online, because we remember personal, emotional, and funny things far more easily.

Yeah, you have just as much of a chance of seeing these words on the GRE as the lists you see elsewhere. Those GRE lists you see in published GRE study materials are not guaranteed to be on the GRE or even have originated on the GRE in the first place; they're just "GRE-level" words.

If you have less time, then studying word roots/suffixes/prefixes is probably more productive than just studying word lists. So when you are looking at downloadable flashcards or whatever, prioritize those instead of simple word lists.

Except "friable." It showed up on my test after I was warned about it. haha. It means "easily crumbled." However, out of all of the word lists that I memorized (because this was before I studied anything about learning), that was the ONLY word that actually appeared on the GRE and wasn't a word I already knew.

And yeah, practice the essay and look at some examples; I don't know how much universities are paying attention to those now, but don't be afraid to write something highly structured (I think I wrote a three-paragraph-body essay; my score was good enough for Stanford).

Divide up your time and pay attention to where you are on the test. Practice doing this.

Bring a high-protein snack (like almonds) if they let you.

Have breakfast with protein and good carbs (whole grains/fiber) the morning of and a few mornings before the test (so you're used to it, if you don't regularly). You really need this for memory retention, concentration, and energy throughout the test.

Don't cram the night before. Studying before you go to sleep each night is good for memory, but cramming is useless. Sleep is much more useful. Getting 7-9 hours of sleep the 3 or so nights before the test could mean an increase in your score.

And do not start caffeine/Red Bull/whatever the morning of the test or take a lot more than usual. I know people who learned this the hard way...Yeah, caffeine can increase your speed and concentration, but if you're not used to it, it's going to backfire. hahahaha.

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2009

Download the Powerprep software from ETS's website.

I just did that. I wouldn't recommend it until they create an updated version, it looks to be circa Windows 95. It managed to reset my screen resolution to 600x800 before freezing completely.
I'm running Vista home basic on a newish Toshiba laptop, it may get along better with XP.
posted by Kellydamnit at 3:47 PM on November 5, 2009

I just did that. I wouldn't recommend it until they create an updated version, it looks to be circa Windows 95.

Well, that's what it looks like when you're taking the test. That's why I recommend it. Perhaps there's a way to run it under compatibility mode.
posted by zsazsa at 4:36 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

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