GRE tips?
December 12, 2010 8:03 PM   Subscribe

What are your best tips/strategies for taking the GRE?

I just found out I have to take the GRE again. I took it more than 20 years ago, and did decently, though my verbal score was much higher than my math. This time I'm having to review a lot for the quantitative part, and the analytical writing section is new to me as well. Though I'm refreshing my math knowledge steadily, I still need to improve my speed so that I'll have time to answer all the questions. I'd love to hear any hints that really helped you prepare and do well on test day. Thanks!
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy to Education (24 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Study vocabulary by rote, preferably out of one of those loathsome here's-how-you-game-the-test, 501-words-the-GRE-wants-you-to-know book. The whole test amounts to 20% remembering geometry and 80% knowing as many as possible of a long, long list of five-dollar words.
posted by foursentences at 8:07 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

though painful, practice tests are the only way. preferably after you skim through a review book that reminds you of which math you need to know. also vocab flashcards until you want to stab yourself in the eye.
posted by annie o at 8:14 PM on December 12, 2010

In my experience, the vocabulary section is something that a practice book will not be able to help you with. I think my book gave a list of several hundred words, none of which appeared on my GRE. However, the math section can be aced after studying from a practice book. The math involved is stuff that you learned before your junior year of high school, so refreshing yourself with practice problems will be extremely helpful.
posted by genekelly'srollerskates at 8:18 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with the prior posts. To make best use of your time, it might be a good idea to take a practice test or two, and see which kinds of questions you have the most difficulty with, and focus on those. Also, use vocabulary flashcards or something similar to become familiar with a lot of lesser-used words.

I took the GRE 4 or 5 years ago. I bought a test prep book and did all the practice tests, and read the strategies in it. I found extra practice tests on (free).

Also, if time is usually an issue for you, it's a good idea to time yourself on each section to figure out where you need to be faster.
posted by pompelmo at 8:19 PM on December 12, 2010

Best answer: be mentally prepared for the testing center. it's pretty intense and kind of freaked me out -- with all the rules and regs to guard against cheating. they made me take off my hooded sweatshirt because it was considered a 'jacket' which wasn't allowed inside.
posted by nanhey at 8:22 PM on December 12, 2010

Best answer: I wish I had really understood the adaptive testing strategy. Near the end of both sections, if you've done well, the questions will be very hard. However, if you have any sort of anxiety about the test, it's easy to interpret this as "I forgot how to do this" or "I am an idiot" rather than, "Hey, I did well, so they're giving me the hard ones!" That can easily turn into a spiral of misery that can get in the way of solving the problems that you CAN do.
posted by emilyd22222 at 8:34 PM on December 12, 2010

"In my experience, the vocabulary section is something that a practice book will not be able to help you with. I think my book gave a list of several hundred words, none of which appeared on my GRE. However, the math section can be aced after studying from a practice book."

See, my experience was the opposite. Lots of words that I studied were on the GRE. The math section...I forgot everything and guessed randomly (caveat: I'm exceptionally bad at math).

Also, bring a nutritious snack to the test center--we had a 15 minute (or so) break midway through.
posted by sugarbomb at 8:35 PM on December 12, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers so far. Any and all tips are welcome, whether about prep, the test itself, the testing center, etc. I took my first GRE back in the day, so the computer adaptive part is new to me, too. But I'm taking as many practice tests on the computer as I can.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 8:43 PM on December 12, 2010

The new test is computerized so I recommend getting a book that has a dvd or an online component that allows you to take sample sections on the computer. (I linked to the one I used, but there are lots of them.) The computerized test is far different than the old written test because the test actually learns from you. If a question is correct, the test gets harder. If incorrect, it get easier. It's important to do this on the computer because time is a key component, and unlike with the written test, you can't go back. A book with a DVD or website will also analyze the types of questions you get wrong as well as how much time you spend on them. It will also compare your current performance based on previous performances so you can see how (or if) you are improving and areas that still need attention. This will help you hone your strategy as you will know about how many types of each question you will have in a certain section.

Part of the reason why taking sample tests is important is not just the timing issue, but the endurance issue. This is a pretty long test, and if you have test taking anxiety like I do, it's really draining. Practicing will not only increase your comfort level and help you plan your time effectively, it will also ensure that you won't tank a section just because your tired.

Unfortunately books and websites offer only strategies and sample questions for the writing sections so you can't get a clear idea of how you would actually score unless you're a very objective judge of your own work. If you're really concerned about your score in those sections, you may want to sign up for an online course like this. The only way to really get those sections evaluated before the test is to work with a tutor/teacher, online or in person.
posted by miss-lapin at 8:44 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh and nanhey is right about the test center being controlled I mean CONTROLLED! It's very intimidating, but don't let it shake you. Be prepared to go in wearing a basic outfit (jeans and a t shirt). They won't let you take anything but your id into the test taking place itself. They will supply you with everything else you need, including a locker for your stuff.
posted by miss-lapin at 8:48 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You do need to study vocab. While there is certainly an element of luck as to whether you get words you've studied, the better your vocab is the better you will do.

You need to make sure that you have a rock-solid understanding of the question types that you will see on both the vocab and math side. You will gain valuable time if you are so familiar with the structure of Analogy, Sentence Completion, Quantitative Comparison questions (etc.) , that you don't need to worry about instructions or getting your bearings when presented with a question.

Memorize your geometry formulas. Make flash cards of math concepts and key words, too. Study them like vocab. You don't want to waste time trying to remember what an integer or a prime factor is.

Try to get a feel for when to cut your losses. You will have a harder time scoring well, if you get lost in the depths of a one or two hard questions.

Use your scratch paper. The more you keep in your head, the more likely you are to make a mistake. You can even use scratch paper for the Verbal sections.

(Yes, I've tutored students on the GRE. How did you guess?)
posted by oddman at 8:50 PM on December 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

I used this Kaplan book (actually the older one since I took the test in 2008) and it was extremely helpful. They give you a lot of tips and strategies for taking the test, and describe exactly what they are looking for in the essay section, etc. I definitely recommend reading something like that so you're not going in cold, especially if it has been a while since you took a standardized test.

You can download PowerPrep software directly from the ETS website.

For me, the most helpful way to tackle the vocab was to learn a lot of Greek and Latin root words. That way I could guess at words i didn't know the answer to. That Kaplan book has root word charts. I did very well on the verbal because of this.

I have no advice for studying the math, as I scored in something like the 8th percentile.
posted by apricot at 9:07 PM on December 12, 2010

A long, long time ago I was one of the very first people to take the adaptive computer-based test. It was so new there were no CD/DVDs or strategies out yet. (I mean I took it literally the 2nd or 3rd day it was available.) The strategy I came up with myself was to never, ever skip a question in my practice tests or studying -- even though I was just working from a book. I'd work a question for as long as it took, and if it was really driving me crazy I'd take a break, for an hour or two days or whatever, but still come right back to that same question.

I also got in the habit of quickly writing ABCDE on my scratch paper in the 1st second of approaching every question, then crossing off the eliminated answers. (The crossing off the eliminated answers is an old strategy, but clearly you can't do that with a computer screen and I really couldn't keep it all in my head.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:30 PM on December 12, 2010

They have a downloadable sample test on their website. Download it and take it. Your test-center experience will be almost exactly the same, so this will help prevent you from being surprised at any aspect of the computer-based tests.
posted by pmb at 10:20 PM on December 12, 2010

One important thing to remember, if your taking the computerized version, is that it's adaptive, and most likely uses a multidimensional IRT model.

Basically this means that if you are doing well, questions will get harder, and if you are doing poorly the questions will get easier in order to better estimate your actual ability. IE if you are great at math, there's no sense asking you easy questions.

The harder questions you handle, the harder it gives you. This means getting the first questions right is probably of more importance then getting the last ones right. That's not to say that if you mess up questions early on you can't get back, but your coming from a possible deficit.

Also the way the tests work has I believe changed in the last few years. For example they may have gone to using exact figures for the math section instead of multiple choice. Be careful if buying older study materials, though you can quite possibly get useful stuff quite cheaply and just keep in mind the changes.
posted by gryftir at 12:45 AM on December 13, 2010

Check on the website about whether the test is still computer-adaptive. It was when I took it (2006) but at the time they were talking about switching back to non-computer adaptive, because the adaptive version requires writing and vetting a lot more questions. Knowing which it is will affect your test-taking strategy (c-a: focus on the first 10 questions, because they matter most; non-c-a: don't get stuck on a single question, because they all count the same).
posted by pompelmo at 12:46 AM on December 13, 2010

Practice writing essays and have a good understanding of the essay structure that tends to get good scores (any prep book should go over this), so even before you get your prompt you know the general shape your essay is going to have. That was very helpful for me.
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:33 AM on December 13, 2010

I guess my biggest piece of advice about the GRE is to take it seriously. You'll hear a lot of people saying that they didn't really bother much about their GRE and got a decent score and got into their graduate program of choice, and while it's true that GRE scores are far from the most important item on your application, getting a good score really can't hurt. To do that, it's helpful to just forget that this is a stupid exam that has nothing at all to do with your ability to succeed in graduate school and just work hard. Don't fall into the trap of imagining that your GRE score is supposed to be the same whether you study hard or not -- it is definitely possible to improve your GRE score.

My advice about how to do well on the GRE would depend strongly on how good your verbal and quants abiltities are. I was applying for a science grad program and needed to get a perfect on my math GRE. However since the math problems on the GRE seemed easy to me, I still concentrated most of my time on the verbal portion of the test. I'd always had a good vocabulary but I decided to super-charge it by learning all 3000 words in one of those Barrons' vocabulary books. I spent about three weeks learning it inside out and upside down until I could tell you the meaning of any word using exactly the definition given in the book. It definitely helped that I was knew or had a passing familiarity with 90 % of the words already, but learning exact definitions helped me make nuanced distinctions between words on the final test.

The math section actually turned out to be harder than the math sections of Princeton or Kaplan because they often asked questions requiring pieces of knowledge from geometry or say, algebra, which were a type of question not often encountered in those review books.

General advice: take it seriously, learn those vocab words, practice, practice, practice for the math portions, remember the adaptive nature of the test and that you should be doing especially well on the first questions to get a good score. Also, don't be afraid to quit the test if you feel you haven't done well enough, your score won't be reported. If you do something like that, go through the entire test first before declining to submit your score as that way you'll get a practice run at least.
posted by peacheater at 6:03 AM on December 13, 2010

I'm going to strongly disagree with peacheater's last bit of advice. In almost all cases you should definitely submit your scores.

Most students significantly underestimate their scores. Taking the test is a stressful and tiring experience which can negatively impact your mood and your self esteem. So, you are more likely to incorrectly assess yourself as having done poorly. In other words, it's just normal human psychology to feel that you've done poorly on this sort of exam. You don't want to overreact.

There are of course, a small number of times where you have indeed done very poorly and you should choose not to submit, but, generally speaking, you should submit your score unless you can point to some objective factors (i.e. don't just rely on your feelings) that would negatively impact your score. Objective factors might include loud or disturbing noises in the test center, being ill (actually ill, not just nausea from nerves), observing a glitch in the software (I've never heard of this, but I guess it's possible). etc.

Most schools do not really care whether you take the test more than once. So usually there is no real penalty for submitting a poor score. You should contact the graduate admissions offices of your target schools and ask about their attitude toward multiple attempts.
posted by oddman at 7:00 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding not submitting scores: I guess it really depends on your goals. I was sure that I could achieve a perfect score in the quantitative section and was also reasonably certain that I'd flubbed the first couple questions (or at least was not as sure of the answers as I wanted to be). Since I wanted a perfect quantitative score, and was in fact applying as an international student to programs that often expected a perfect quantitative score, it made sense for me to not submit. Your mileage will definitely depend on the kind of graduate program you are applying for.
posted by peacheater at 8:02 AM on December 13, 2010

This isn't really a study tip, but a warning for the day of the test: One section of the test might be "experimental," meaning it is not included in your final score. There will be a screen alerting you to this. They do this to vet future test questions and help rank their difficulty. So don't stress out too badly if you get to the end of the test and there was a section you feel you really bombed, since it might not be a part of your score. So, seconding oddman's recommendation not to panic and withdraw your scores before finishing.
posted by twoporedomain at 8:06 AM on December 13, 2010

Best answer: My experience with the vocabulary was that the practice book I used was so dead-on it felt like cheating.

I strongly advise using the ETS practice tests over any second-party exam. Every second-party practice I tried led me wide of the mark.

Personally, the biggest hurdle was understanding that the Quant section is about knowing the appropriate tricks to apply. I was initially very confused by all the trigonometry (there's not supposed to be trig!) before I realized that the problems all resolved to 3-4-5 triangles. Absolutely no real-world relevance, just a mathematical convenience that allows certain geometry problems to be asked without any real trigonometry.

In other words, practice, practice, practice. A lot of the GRE is understanding what's going to be asked in the first place.
posted by endless_forms at 8:49 AM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whatever preparation you do will count for little if you show up for the test sleep deprived. (Don't take a sleeping pill the night before the test as you may be hung over.) Just be sure to get to bed on time & get a minimum of eight hours of sleep every night for at least the week before the test. If you do that, you'll have a leg up on 95% of the test takers.
posted by neuron at 1:13 PM on December 13, 2010

Make sure you spend more time on getting the early questions right because they track you into different tiers on the adaptive sections. Be aware that if you're getting difficult questions near the end you're doing well and that these aren't as important as the early questions. I took it this fall and ended up guessing on the last 5 of both the math and verbal sections and I did pretty well--1300 which is more than good enough for any non-ivy-league school. People very commonly ace the math section, so it's a pretty steep curve for scoring in the upper percentiles. Take that as you like, either it's easy to look bad on that section, or it's not particularly important that you can do amazing on it. From what I've come to understand is that GRE scores are just used as a basic cutoff and then rarely considered beyond that for admittance.

Find test booklet that explain the answers instead of just listing them. Find as many full practice tests as you can and time yourself. Be disciplined with the timing, no one question is worth wasting too much time on. Use process of elimination for tricky questions. For the math >/<>
Wear a sweater or something, the test centers always seem cold. See if your testing center offers practice exams, I think the $20 I blew on that was well worth it just for figuring out where to park, what the center was like inside, and it gave me a better sense of the time limits. At my test they had green colored paper to write on and regular wooden pencils to use, not a big deal but don't get thrown by that kind of thing.

I'll also agree that unless you really messed up, you should submit your scores. You get a chance to toss your scores before you see them. I had a moment of doubt but I'm glad I submitted, I definitely did better than I thought.
posted by Locobot at 4:05 PM on December 13, 2010

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