How to nail the GRE's
June 3, 2014 7:38 PM   Subscribe

Open to any and all recommendations on the most efficient way to study for the GRE (focusing on writing and grammar). My GPA in college was meh (3.0). So I really need to have a nice shiny test score to go along with my floating-by transcript in order to get into top choice schools. Any advice on courses, sites, studying regimens etc. to go into this thing as ready as possible?

I have recently begun studying to take GRE's later this year (shooting for November/December). I graduated with a bachelors in Biology in 2011 and am *finally* looking to expand my level of education. After a few years working in a lab I am leaning towards either Computational Biology, Computational Neurology, or just Neurology. Happy to hear any opinions on those grad options too!

I've picked up a couple of books from Barnes and Noble:
-The (ETS) Official Guide to the GRE
-Barron's Essential words for the GRE

So far so good. I clearly have a ways to go with writing, but I feel comfortable enough in the math department (once I succeed in re-excavating my prior knowledge)

Has anyone on here had some good experience with practice courses or knows some other promising techniques? I know dedicating time is the best method for tackling it, but I'd like to dive into it as efficiently as possible.

Any and all advice is immensely appreciated.

Also, I live near the Boston area, which is where I am searching to go to grad school. I am thinking about looking into some training courses out by Cambridge.
posted by faceholenoises to Education (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
OK, practice, practice! Do the online test sets just like you will in the real world. I practiced the hell out of writing and timed myself- that helped, there is a book on cracking the essay- get it!

yea you wanna be a little ahead of the pack on the GRE's. And, I say plan to take them again. I did not and really wish I had. OK your lab work will help- get good recs- visit the schools!! this helps! show interest and maybe try and explain the meh gpa, tough school, course load? I'm not sure.

Also, have an AMAZING personal statement this can go a long way on a meh gpa. good luck! Other than that vocab too. You can totally rock it!!
posted by TRUELOTUS at 7:47 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

What kind of graduate degree? Master's or Ph.D.? The latter will take a really good score (possibly crazy-good depending on the strength of your letters), the former just a good one. And getting a Master's and killing it GPA-wise will help with PhD admissions.

Letters, publications, and experience are all more important than either grades (assuming you're a few years out of undergrad at least) or test scores. Usually there's a bar you have to cross, and then it doesn't matter.

If it's a PhD program, your best bet is to have a faculty member really lobbying for your admission.
posted by supercres at 8:06 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

More direct answer: the Barron's iPad app really worked for me. The in-browser practice is the same system.
posted by supercres at 8:06 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you contacted professors you might want to work with? Some programs discourage this / have a rotation system for your first year, but often the PI wanting you and having money for you is what gets you into grad school.

Also, it may be easier to get admitted as a Master's student and then switch to PhD. I know someone who did this, they discussed it with their PI prior to admission and it worked out fine.

I used the Kaplan book, and found that the questions were harder and sometimes more ambiguous than the actual test. It was great prep, though.
posted by momus_window at 8:09 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

also lots of schools have a prep course that is not toomuch $. I would not pay more than $300, yea this one is $400, but it will give you an idea and there are similar ones that are online.
posted by TRUELOTUS at 8:12 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree that a great GRE score can't hurt, but a fantastic personal statement and a great letter from the PI of the lab you're working in will go farther. You want to use your lab experience, publications, and the letter from your PI to demonstrate to some admissions committee that you know how to do the things (e.g. developing ideas and questions and then designing projects to answer those questions) a graduate student and scientist would do.
posted by sevenless at 8:16 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Study in both the most frantic situation you can (like the test!) and the most relaxed. I studied and practiced writing essays at an alt-country bar, half-cocked and getting pointers from grad-student bartenders. I then practiced again, dead-sober the Sunday before my test.

Got a 5.5/6 on the written part.
posted by notsnot at 8:20 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, it may be easier to get admitted as a Master's student and then switch to PhD. I know someone who did this, they discussed it with their PI prior to admission and it worked out fine.

I don't know about STEM fields, but in the humanities while this is possible, it almost guarantees you won't be eligible for funding. Often funding is implicitly contingent on your being low-paid labor later on, teaching lower level undergrad classes after you've finished your coursework.

I haven't taken the GREs since 2004, but when I did it really paid off to have studied the vocabulary (since it's just rote memorization it gives you more points for relatively less work, IMHO) and taken quite a few practice essay tests. I also studied math like crazy (and really needed to--I'd forgotten so much!) although people say that the math section is actually easier than the SATs (since presumably if it's important you'll be taking subject-specific GREs to go along side the general test).
posted by tapir-whorf at 8:23 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

For essays, ETS posts all of the possible topics. Practice those over and over and over if you're weak in writing. If you google certain prompts. you can find essays other people have written for practice, just to get more ideas about what you could write about.

As for the Verbal section, study the vocabulary and always use process of elimination. Seriously, process of elimination is probably the easiest way to crack a multiple choice standardized exam.

I liked the 5 pound book of GRE problems. It's just lots and lots and lots of practice!
posted by astapasta24 at 8:31 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The most useful things for me were the "rules of thumb" for example:

In essays, you need to make x numbers of points in support of your argument to get full points. I never would have included that many if I did not know. So make sure you look at the expectations for essays and other test sections.

For vocab, keep in mind valence. If your given words sound positive, positive, then you can probably rule out answers that are pairs of positive, negative, if that makes sense.

Lastly, rest up the day before and take it easy the morning of. You don't want to go into the test burned out and unable to focus. Make sure you are at your best!
posted by gilsonal at 9:27 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used princeton review's GRE book a few years ago, and while I didn't do great on most of the test, because I am not a good test taker :-( I did get a PERFECT score on the writing section- I used the formula that was in the Princeton Review book. This was several years ago though.
posted by misspony at 1:20 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

My advice for the GREs is to be a little wary of trying to beat the system. I tried to use a strategy from a book that ended up backfiring on me. The test has likely changed so much in the last 20 years that the specifics aren't useful to relate, but I would suggest trying to steer a middle ground between what a normal test taker would do and a really nifty plan.

You don't mention taking a subject test. I compared a bunch of subject test prep books and found that they varied greatly in the quality of the example questions. In some books most could be answered with minimal knowledge and good logic skills. Those are not the books to use.

In my Biology program, masters students were not guaranteed funding, but usually managed to get a TA position anyway. (Guaranteed funding for Ph.D. students was in the form of TA-ships. A program that doesn't have an associated pool of undergrads needing teaching may have a different funding system.) I think that might be something to check with each program before applying as a masters student.
posted by SandiBeech at 5:02 AM on June 4, 2014

Here's my recommended strategy to nail the GREs:

1) don't pay attention to strategies/gimmicks/tactics on how to approach a problem, just figure out what works best for you

2) figure out what works best for you by doing over a thousand practice problems. Every day for months.

3) use a spaced-repetition software/flashcard program to memorize the Barron's 5000 word vocabulary list

4) don't worry about the analytical writing score. No one cares
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:22 AM on June 4, 2014

You need to first figure out how much the programs you're applying to value the general GRE. The received wisdom in my subject was to not bother studying for the general GRE because no one cared, rather you should spend that time studying for the subject test (though a lot of people didn't study for the subject test either), as that could tip you over the edge for getting admitted/funded. How much stock departments put in the subject tests seems to vary wildly as well.

That said, there's a formula for the writing and I kind of regret not finding out what it was in advance. My score was okay, but dramatically lower then my other scores. Anybody in a vaguely numerical subject is going to do really well on the math (I took the old GRE, where a perfect math score was like the 96th percentile or something), so you probably do need to know you're not going to screw that up.
posted by hoyland at 6:40 AM on June 4, 2014

I am also prepping for the GRE, and most worried about the math. A teacher friend recommended Khan Academy's website, and it is terrific (also, free!!).
posted by mmiddle at 8:35 AM on June 4, 2014

I took the GRE in the fall of 2010 to pursue a MSc in CS. It looks like the scoring has changed since then, but assuming that's all that changed...

I had one of the monster prep books and a set of vocab flash cards. I would do vocab cards on road trips while my wife drove (separating cards into 'wrong', 'shaky right', and 'confident' piles I think, with varying reviews of each), and set aside maybe 2 hours a week for a few months to do math problems. I didn't know there was a formula for the essays, but got a 5 anyway by just writing a dead simple, outlined 5-paragraph essay on a prompt I'd never seen and now don't remember.

I got a 770 / 87% below on quant without really remembering much math from high school classes a decade before by doing practice questions from the test-prep tome, including doing a full practice test (available from ETS for free) maybe two days before, and writing down triangle rules (and I think a smiley face) on scratch paper as soon as I sat down to take the test (I also wrote down the instantly-reported scores on my scratch paper, which the testing center proctor was nice enough to transcribe to a post-it so I could take them home without transposing digits in my head).

I tried very hard to remain relaxed and positive throughout the whole process. When I took the sample test, my quant score was pretty awful, but I cheered myself up by reminding myself that most people who are taking the GRE are bright and motivated, and no matter where I end up compared to them, I'm being compared to bright and motivated people. Good luck!
posted by worstname at 9:00 AM on June 4, 2014

I achieved a perfect score on the verbal section of the GRE using this ONE STUPID TRICK: vocabulary flashcards with Anki. Just add in about 3000-5000 "college" words and churn through them. You should give yourself about 4 months to learn all those words, and you'll ace the verbal.
posted by dis_integration at 3:42 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a few days late, but I started studying for the GRE in late January and took the test in February and again in March. My first test results were acceptable for the program I wanted to enter, but I wanted to score high enough to guarantee at least a partial scholarship. For my second sitting I managed to get a perfect score in Verbal and break the 90th percentile for Math and Writing. I will be going to school in the fall for free.

I bought five books, but found these three to be the most helpful:
Kaplan's GRE Premier 2014 Book: The big benefit of this book is the excellent practice test software, though the prep questions and explanations are pretty good too. This has more tests than the official GRE book and I used them to get used to pacing myself, especially for the quantitative sections.

The Official Guide to the GRE from ETS: This is the real thing, so I saved the two included practice tests for just before my test date. The software is quite cumbersome compared to Kaplan's, though. My favorite part of this book is the detailed outline of math concepts and formulas that will be on the test. The essay examples are also an excellent resource and I inferred quite a bit about what the real expectations are for the "Analyze and Argument" exercise, which is a tricky piece of testing.

Manhattan Prep's 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems: This was my favorite book and really helped me push my score up those extra few crucial points between tests. I did almost every math problem in this book in less than 30 days and did a few of the verbal and essay chapters when I needed a break from math. For me, the important thing was to do all of the problems and then study the solutions for the ones I missed. I don’t think I got more than 75% of the questions right on the first try, but I got exposed to all of the little tricks used to mislead testers to answer incorrectly (i.e. changing units, divide by zero conditions, the subtleties of negative numbers, etc.), so by my second test day I had seen almost everything at least once.

The problem with this book is that it's a monster and if I can't be bothered to carry it around I'm not going to do the exercises. I took my book to the copy shop and had them cut it in half between registers and then saw the spine off both halves. I then stapled each chapter separately. Each is self-contained with answers included. The individual chapters were less daunting than the whole book, more comfortable to write on and much, much more portable. I did a quantitative chapter or two each day and then set them aside; I used the table of contents to track my progress. If I had trouble with a concept I wrote it on the front page of each chapter and then gathered the concepts and formulas on one giant tabloid-sized cheat sheet that I studied the few days leading up to the exam.

Otherwise, quantitative was all about pacing and learning concepts well enough so that I only needed a minute or two per problem.

The verbal section was mostly vocabulary once I figured out the question types, and got the hang of the kind of answers they were looking for in the reading comprehension sections. I bought Kaplan's box of vocabulary cards and carried the subset of words I needed to study everywhere with me. I also supplemented further vocabulary from the Manhattan prep book and the Official GRE Book. For me, just recognizing the words was not good enough, so I made sure that I could at least paraphrase a definition for each one.

I didn’t really have a way of measuring how I was doing with the essays, so I studied the examples I had and made sure not to skip them during practice tests.

Some of the “Analyze an Issue” topics are truly, truly stupid, so it helped to drill enough so that I could produce a reasonable essay in 30 minutes without mentally railing against a “Kids these days, AMIRITE?!” topic. The point is to be coherent and persuasive and less to be right. There are a bunch of prompts that are all subtly different (i.e. “Pick a side and stick to it” vs. “Look at both sides” vs. “Mostly pick a side, but think about where you could be wrong”). There are a finite number, so it is good to be familiar with them in advance and have a template in mind.

I found “Analyze and Argument" essays to be more tolerable. They too have a finite number of prompts that are worth knowing. Prompts for both essays can be found in the official GRE book.
posted by Alison at 8:44 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Translation of Chinese pen   |   How much money should I make? Graduating with an... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.