Tests and Politics...
October 18, 2007 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Grad school questions... GRE time (Saturday)... I have checked out the past questions asked about free practice sites and found a couple of them useful. I am terrified that I am going to bomb since I just can't seem to wrap my head around any of the math concepts. I haven't take math since HS and that was 16 years ago- but I'm great with statistics. Anyone have any good thoughts on how to use my statistics knowledge and apply it to the math portion? Also any more free practice sites to recommend?

Thankfully my school doesn't have a cut off score. I have already spoken with the 2 proffs I plan to apply to work with and 2 of the grad students that will be looking at my app. One of which is my TA for one of my classes. She assured me that they look at everything, so I'm trying to keep all these things in mind so I don't freak out more than I am. Anymore thoughts of calm that got you through these stupid tests would also be greatly appreciated.
Also, any thoughts on anything else I can be doing. I always make a point to chat with my TA (not always- as in to the point of talking to hear myself talk- but just when I have something to say). She usually looks to me to get feedback on how the class went and how she can improve kind of thing. I'm really trying to up my political game to help improve my odds of getting in. I am on the reasearch team of one of the proffs I will be trying to work with and next semester I have already gotten permission from the other one to be on his team. What else can I be doing (aside from of course not asking MeFi questions when I should be studying)?
posted by MayNicholas to Education (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The math sections on the GRE are logic-based and problem-based, not designed to your computational acumen. Try to suss out the underlying structure / point of the question, and the actual math will often fall into place (or be totally irrelevant). I don't know of any good testing websites, but buying a test book and drilling yourself might be helpful, even if it's totally boring.
posted by mr. remy at 11:06 AM on October 18, 2007

What are you studying in grad school? Perhaps your score on the math portion won't even be very important. I get the idea that the GRE is more of a filter than an actual ranking tool, but I don't sit on an adcom, so YMMV.

I'm taking the GRE next Saturday (last day before the new question types, heh) and need to get 800 or very close to that on the maths section to be competitive, so I've been studying a lot.

The math is not difficult - just some basic algebra, geometry, probability, and maybe some questions about odd/even numbers or factors. If you take a couple of practice tests, you should be able to familiarize yourself with every question type you might encounter and all the "tricks" they may throw at you. If you were given as much as time as you wanted and could go back to check/change your answers, everyone would get a perfect score. So what you need to learn is not how to do the problems, but how to do them quickly(not run out of time) and accurately(i.e. not make stupid mistakes on the first 10). The best way to do this is to take lots and lots of practice tests.

For practice tests, definitely download the GRE powerprep software, which has the most "realistic" tests. There are only two, so use them wisely. Next, you could try the computer adaptive tests made by Kaplan, Princeton Review, and 800score, which are somewhat unrealistic but good practice anyway - and BTW, you don't need to pay for these if you know where to look ;) - email me if you can't find them. I've also been using the Kaplan math workbook, which is fairly decent in getting me up to speed on the question types.

Definitely take note of the questions you got wrong and why; most often it's the same kind of trick they'll use to get you next time, e.g. try positive, negative, fractions, and zero in quantitative comparisons, don't forget that x^2=9 could have x = +3 or x = -3, etc.

Good luck!
posted by pravit at 11:10 AM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks mr. remy. I should mention that I have plenty of books and nothing seems to be sinking in. I think I have some sort of mental block. I feel like I am reading a foreign language when I look at the concepts of algebra & geometry.
posted by MayNicholas at 11:11 AM on October 18, 2007

Hmm. If you're not any good at algebra, I'm assuming your current major has very little to do with math, in which case I can't imagine you studying a math-intensive field in grad school. Perhaps your score on the math section won't even be very important? For example, my programs don't really care what you get on verbal - you could get 300 and still be fine.
posted by pravit at 11:14 AM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: My major is Psych- statistics is what we use (even better- we use computer programs to do most of our figuring and analyze the outputs). I'm averaging a 50% correct 'guessing' rate right now. I suppose I could run headlong into the verbal practicing and attempt to ace that instead...
posted by MayNicholas at 11:22 AM on October 18, 2007

What I did was do practice computer-based GREs interspersed with practice questions until I was getting 790-800 scores in math on the practices. The GRE people have some software called "Powerprep" that will give you 2 free practice tests using the actual GRE test software. I pirated some (Kaplan?) CD that had 3 more. I'm sure you can find tons more if you actually go to a store or something. Doing the practice tests gave me a sense of what was failing me (though, in my field, 700 is an abysmal fail, and I know for example a guy who has 770 and is embarrassed of that) so I could work on it.

There's nothing past high school math on there. Coming out of a math-heavy curriculum, I actually still had to go back and practice doing arithmetic by hand quickly because in EE we sure as hell don't divide 21812 / 2833 using pen and paper. Indeed, the time constraint was the biggest challenge to the test - doing all these simple if sometimes tricky problems quickly without screwing up. You don't have enough time - which is another reason why doing the practice tests on a computer is important, you get a sense of the time constraints.

Learning the stupid tricks they like to use is an important part.

The other tricky thing for me was the stupid graph/chart problems problems. I would seriously be holding straightedges to the screen and everything short of counting pixels, do all the calculations without estimating, and I would still get an answer of say, 76.7 with choices for 76.6 and 76.8. Never figured out a good way around that - it could be that the answers expect you to estimate more than I did? I think I still had some of these wrong on the actual test, but not enough to knock me from 800.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:26 AM on October 18, 2007

I don't have a lot of advice, but thought perhaps this could help you feel better. I took the GREs a year (or so) ago and like you, the math would not sink in while studying. I tend to be a math moron and was totally panicked about that part of the test. I ended up doing all right and got into the program I applied to, which did have a minimum GRE score posted.
If anything (other than luck) helped me, it was doing practice tests on a computer.
posted by jdl at 11:54 AM on October 18, 2007

Good luck. It was like a foreign language to me as well. I'd forgotten about 90% of high school math. I only had a month to study though, but my goal was to get 700+ verbal, at least a 5 on the essay, and hopefully, as an afterthought, a decent math score. It was in the high 400s, I think. But I met the other goals.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:56 AM on October 18, 2007

Oh, and I did tons of practice tests. Powerprep, Kaplan, and in the Barrons book I bought.

I also tried online flashcard sites.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:57 AM on October 18, 2007

The test is Saturday. I don't know if it is panic or if you really would need to start from scratch to relearn the algebra and geometry but I am going to assume that you don't have time to solve that issue.

I suggest taking a practice test untimed. If you a look at a problem have no idea what to do, stop and think if there is anything you know that will give you a clue. Your first answer will be no. Take your time. Are there any obviously wrong answers? Can you draw a picture or make a chart?

When you are finished, go back and look at what problems you got right and what problems would be worth guessing at (you can eliminate at least two wrong answers) Then, when you take the test, make the best use of your time by skimming the questions and first answering the ones that you know how to do and make sure you get those right and then use the rest of the time to try to do some intelligent guessing.

Finally, figure out how you can make it apparent to the admissions committee that you are really good at statistics even though you got a lousy score on the math section of the GRE. Maybe there is a place in the essay to mention your ability at stats?
posted by metahawk at 12:08 PM on October 18, 2007

Not really helping in the math dept., but when I took it, I didn't know you have to take it twice. One test is the real test, another is a practice test. Only you don't know which one.

Perhaps I was the only person going in who didn't know that, and at least I still got decent scores, but nothing sends chills up your spine like thinking you're finished and realizing you basically haven't even started. I hope I can save those other few folks out there that didn't know this, from that horror.
posted by sociolibrarian at 12:24 PM on October 18, 2007

Maybe try some SAT materials, to get you familiar with more basic level algebra/geometry? I find this sometimes help rekindle peoples' memory/knowledge of the harder stuff.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:01 PM on October 18, 2007

When I took it about a year ago, thankfully it was clear which was the practice (it's actually practice for them, in the sense that they're trying out new questions) and which was real. The practice was a math section in a very different & horrible format, where every couple questions you had to learn some new method to answer the questions. (In this question, check the multiple correct answers. In this question, assign answers to empty spaces in a table. In this one, input several numerical answers. In this question, select three correct answers from three lists of answers.) They might be changing to this for the real test soon. Due to the radical format, the computer told me this was a practice test so I just picked answers randomly to get out of there.

They did entice you to actually try at it with promise of a few cash prizes given out to people who did better on the practice than on the real test, as a measure of effort, but everyone with a technical field already has an 800 on the real test so that's a little off. In any case, if they wanted me to do their test preparation work for them, they should have offered to pay me with more than a sweepstakes entry.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:07 PM on October 18, 2007

Then, when you take the test, make the best use of your time by skimming the questions and first answering the ones that you know how to do and make sure you get those right and then use the rest of the time to try to do some intelligent guessing.

Actually, assuming the OP is taking the GRE in the US, the format is computer adaptive. Thus, you do not have the set of questions in front of you to skim. Each progressive question and its corresponding difficulty is based on the fact that you either answered the preceding question correctly or incorrectly.
posted by Asherah at 2:04 PM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: Yup taking it in the US- so it's the CAT...
posted by MayNicholas at 2:07 PM on October 18, 2007

I'm sure you've read this in your review guides, but based on the computer adaptive setup, if you are stuck on a question that falls in the first 10-12 questions of the quant. section, feel free to devote a significant amount of time to working those out. Getting the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the questions correct in each of ther V or Q sections is the key to a strong score.
posted by Asherah at 2:08 PM on October 18, 2007

What really killed me on the GRE was trig, however trig has always been an achiles heel for me - I muddled my way through the glass Way Back When by doing a lot of sketching and figuring things out, rather than really committing the needed formulas to memory.

So, given that you say you've got a good stat grounding (and therefor likely good algebra skills) I'd be sure to go review my trig, were I you. I wish I had done it when I was me.
posted by phearlez at 2:10 PM on October 18, 2007

Is there any way you can delay, if you haven't been studying? You're probably panicking, which is not going to help, now or on the test. If you have been studying and know you're prepared--you're just not preforming well--maybe you should put the practice away and take a few deep breaths.
posted by sondrialiac at 2:37 PM on October 18, 2007

I work for Kaplan, taught SAT. GMAT, GRE. I suck at math (how I ended up teaching these is a long story.) I can attest that the Kaplan methods work. I took TPR for GREs years ago and I still sucked at math. It is totally worth under 2k to take the class. I've seen major score improvements. Change your test date and take the class.
posted by k8t at 3:00 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It is too late to cancel at this point & I have been studying but it's not helping. I can retake it if I want, but I just looked to see when Kaplan has classes available and they aren't untill Feb. which is too late (app deadline is Dec. 1- I can still submit another set of scores up to 2 weeks after that). I really just want to cry right now. So assuming I get a crappy score, I will have to focus all my attention on a killer letter of intent. I have already asked one of my proffs for a letter of recommendation so I just need 2 more. It's tough because I'm back in school for the first time in 8 years so the proffs I have only know me and my work from this semester (which is consistently and significantly above the average of the class- meaning low As to high Bs). It is going to have to be my social and political game that gets me in. I'm only applying to one school (bad, I know but there is no changing my mind on that point) so I'm making all the rounds I can. Any tips on that for me?
posted by MayNicholas at 3:55 PM on October 18, 2007

Understand the good strategies for CAT testing.

But: Don't panic during the actual test if you are getting harder and harder questions, and you suddenly get a really easy one. It doesn't mean you have screwed up; the CAT system just does this at a certain point.

Stay calm about the math. Try taking practice tests and doing the math with pencil on paper (that always calms me down). Remember it's just one step at a time, and each individual step is usually not too hard.

Do practice tests to see what question types you have trouble with.

Know the few significant rules. There are a few rules you should memorize (basic geometry formulas and basic algebra). You should look to see which these are, I think there are under 10 of them. Understand how to use them, and memorize. Copy each one down 50 times on a piece of paper (or whatever rote memorization method works best for you; make up a little song, draw a picture, whatever).

Talk to your college's math or academic services department to see if they can hook you up with a tutor who could spend an hour or so with you on Friday, walking you through the question types you have trouble with. Get help in breaking it down into the mental steps you should take. ("Ok, it's a question about circles. Could I start by finding the circumference? No, that won't help. Could I start by finding the area? Ok, suppose I have the area, then what's my next step?") Talking about this stuff out loud can often help, and having a tutor there will keep you from having that frozen panicky "oh god what's the next step?" feeling for very long. The key is to practice not panicking; if you don't panic, you will be able to work out most of these problems step by step (or at least narrow down the range of good guesses).
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:56 PM on October 18, 2007

Reading what you wrote just above, let me repeat:


For the next two days, until you take the test, let's just focus on getting as ready as possible for the test. It's ok if you don't get a perfect score, don't stress out about that. Set aside the part of your mind that wants to start strategizing about the application and networking and so on. For now, for two days, just think about keeping your cool for the test, and getting as ready as you can.

Do you have practice test books? If not, get some from the library.

You are a competent, capable person. You know how to face a challenge like this. You will calmly prepare in a step-by-step way. You will not freak out, because freaking out won't help anything, it will just make you feel bad. There's no reason to feel bad. It will be okay.

If you are feeling panicky, take a break. Step away from the computer and the practice tests, and get a friend to go eat some dinner with you. Drink a lot of water. Take a walk to get your circulation moving.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:04 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

If it helps you relax, know this -- in psychology, the decision about your admission is going to be made primarily by the professor you are intending to work with. If it's important to that professor that you be a quantitative whiz, it would not have been a good match anyway. If it's not important, then the prof. is likely to let a poor score slide. I've done graduate admissions (though not in psychology) and the GRE scores are in general much less important than the recommendations.

More importantly, you've already made yourself known to the professors that will be deciding on your admission -- which means you've already got a leg up on other applicants.
posted by escabeche at 4:28 PM on October 18, 2007

I've been a grad student for five years and I'm still regularly surprised by department politics -- it's nothing to rely on.

There is a good chance you are overreacting re:gre. Hard to say. Ask your friends. Go over a test with a friend who has taken the test and knows you well. If they say you are overreacting, take their word for it. If they say you should wait, wait.

I recommend rescheduling and not showing up for this test. Yes, you will lose a little money. However, you are only applying to one school, you need to make sure this is a slam dunk, not a balancing act.

I strongly, strongly recommend entering the test feeling prepared, ESPECIALLY if you have another month to work on your math skills. That being said, you can have a math freak-out during the test and still do super. (I had to hold my breath for the entire short break after the math section to get my heart to stop beating so fast. And I had studied for weeks. And I'm an engineer. Something about the format of the test, it's tough on the ol' ticker.)
posted by Eringatang at 4:45 PM on October 18, 2007

Hey, I was a sociology major, and probably had similar statistical background (but no real math since high school). I survived the GRE, got into grad school, and graduated in May. Oh, and I have a diagnosed case of panic disorder. So you'll be fine.

Statistical formulas are basically algebraic in nature. I mean, look at Wikipedia's example for standard deviation. You can do this. Check out your past assignments from stats/methodology classes. Enlist a friend to help you study. Most of all, breathe. Life will go on, no matter what.

P.S. I've never seen anyone abbreviate professor as "proff." You may want to avoid that in any communication with those who matter. It's strictly Dr. So-and-so.
posted by desjardins at 6:29 PM on October 18, 2007

I just took the GRE. You only get to statistics questions if you're already doing really well.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:33 PM on October 18, 2007

Well, I just took it and got a statistics question on the second problem! Lucky me, apparently ETS decided I was doing well from the very beginning and gave me a bunch of difficult, time-consuming problems to start out with. Oh well, I got a good score, so I'm not complaining. MayNicholas, hope you did great.
posted by pravit at 12:22 AM on October 28, 2007

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