What are the best ways to study/approach the GRE?
December 7, 2007 10:24 AM   Subscribe

What are the best ways to study/approach the GRE?

I graduated college in 2006 and would like to take the GRE in the new year. I haven't taken a standardized test since high school and since then only taken a handful of general tests as they were not the main requirement at the college I attended. I am quite confident in my writing and comprehension skills but the experience is rather intimidating, especially the math portion. I have never been one of those natural test takers (lucky bastards) and need to put in a lot of hours to feel prepared and less anxious. Can anyone bestow some piece of knowledge of how to make the GRE a successful experience?
posted by Viomeda to Education (20 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't taken the GRE, but I have taken other standardized tests.

My advice is to get a book of old tests, and then a strategies books like the ones Princeton Review sells.

Read over the strategies book and then take as many of the old tests under timed conditions as possible.

I have self-studied for every standardized test I have ever taken with the methods above, and have been fairly successful.
posted by reenum at 10:28 AM on December 7, 2007

My roommate made his own vocab flash cards and then studied from them. He said the act of writing the word on one side and the definition on the other was very helpful for him, more so than just buying a pre-made set and studying them.
posted by zennoshinjou at 10:35 AM on December 7, 2007

Vocab is big. For every 1000 words you learn, your score goes up 100 points.

If you're really concerned, I'd recommend taking a test prep course. Then again, I work for a test prep company.
posted by k8t at 10:38 AM on December 7, 2007

I just bought a book and set aside time every night to study. Math was the hardest thing for me, since I hadn't even thought about it since high school. But I spent some time flipping through the available self-study books and chose one that I could deal with. Practice test, study, another practice test, study, rinse and repeat.
posted by bassjump at 10:46 AM on December 7, 2007

The math section is all high school level math. Just practise, practise, and practise. It's easy to run out of time on that section. Get comfortable with questions getting harder (on the computer systems) because it will stress you out at the real exam.

For the verbal section, flash cards are definitely useful. I just made them out of cut-up scrap pieces of paper and I would make up a sentence using that word on the card involving either a situation in my life or something funny to make it more memorable. And I made them pocket-sized so I could carry them and discreetly look through them anywhere (mostly on the subway).

If you're not taking a course, obviously you should at least buy a book. I don't think it makes a huge difference which one you choose out of the few popular ones.
posted by bread-eater at 10:54 AM on December 7, 2007

I worked for a test prep company, but when it came time to do the GRE I used books rather than the course because I study better on my own, YMMV. Good luck!
posted by methylsalicylate at 10:55 AM on December 7, 2007

You will be able to find books of practice tests in the library. Get them, do a couple of tests, see where your weaknesses are. If you haven't done math for a while, you will definitely need to brush up on elementary geometry and algebra.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:05 AM on December 7, 2007

My boyfriend recently retook the GRE. He was mostly interested in preparing for the math section. To that end he did practice problems every night for two weeks for about two hours. He really improved his score.

When I took it, aside from practicing basic trig and algebra problems, I decided to practice basic math skills like addition, subtraction, etc, since those sort of mistakes that can be detrimental to the outcome of a problem even if you've got the formulas down.

For the vocabulary, I didn't use flash cards. I actually got a mini tape recorder and recorded myself saying about 2000 words and their definitions. I then listened to those tapes over and over. I memorize things better that way, sort of like remembering the lyrics to a song. YMMV.

Take lots of practice tests if you can. I'm sure you can do something like that online, but buy some books as well.

Good luck!
posted by inconsequentialist at 11:28 AM on December 7, 2007

Another vote for using the Princeton Review prep book. It's less than $20 (which is WAY less than a prep course) and I found it to be extremely helpful. Unless you're an absolutely voracious reader with a huge breadth of literary interests, you'll want a separate GRE vocab book as well. Get a book that either is basically just bound flashcards or create your own and take a variety of them with you. When you're on the bus, standing in line, bored at work, eating by yourself, etc., whip them out and run through them.

Aside from that, just practice, practice, practice. I started studying about 2 months before I took the exam and probably didn't spend more than an hour or so a day on it, at the very most. I just used the above and ended up getting a rather good score (objectively) on all three sections. Don't overthink it and just remember that the only thing the GRE evaluates is your ability to take the GRE and nothing else. Good luck!
posted by Nelsormensch at 11:38 AM on December 7, 2007

I took the GRE in October and prepped for it a couple weeks. I ended up getting 630V 790Q, although I was really expecting 800 on the quant - I think my nerves got to me on test day.

First of all, your GRE score isn't like an SAT score where they lump the math and verbal scores together and judge you on that. Different programs have different requirements - English programs want people with high verbal scores, but don't care about the quant score; likewise, engineering programs demand near-800 on quant, but regularly admit people scoring 300 on verbal. High quant scores are rather common, but high verbal scores are relatively rare (so it's kind of the opposite of the SAT). It seems almost all programs don't really care about the analytical writing portion - English programs would be much more interested in your writing samples, whereas math programs generally don't care at all. So I'd suggest that you pick either math or verbal to concentrate on. For example verbal scores are really unimportant for the programs I'm applying to, so I didn't study verbal at all.

The GRE is a computer adaptive test, meaning the problems get easier or harder depending on how well you're doing. The most useful practice comes from programs that mimic the actual test software - most GRE books these days come with a CD that has this software, or link to a website where you can run it. You need to get used to the computer format, and this is something paper tests won't give you.

The most realistic test simulator is the free one offered by ETS itself, PowerPrep. You can download it on their website, and after you register, they'll send you a CD with it. It comes with only two adaptive tests, but I've found that the tests are relatively different each time you take them - I would say there's a total of about 4-6 tests worth of questions in there. The best strategy is to take one of the tests as a diagnostic, then 1 week before test time, take another one, then keep taking a test once a day until the exam.

Some other test companies make GRE prep software - Kaplan and Princeton Review make the most realistic out of these, although they're still far from the real thing. The Kaplan CD can be downloaded if you know where to look, but there are two versions - one of them useful, the other one with an extremely annoying interface that looks like it was designed for third graders (I believe the useful one is 2005, and the crappy one is 2006). There are some other programs floating around, like 800score.com, but they're usually really unrealistic and are only good for practice.

Some books are useful for reviewing math or vocabulary, but again the best way to prep for the GRE is simply taking lots of practice tests and getting used to the types of questions they will give you. For the math portion, especially, you can learn every type of problem they could possibly ask, and thus spend your time doing simple computation rather than figuring out how to approach the problem. The Kaplan math workbook was useful for this. I didn't bother studying verbal at all for my GRE, but I've heard the Barron's vocabulary list is the best. The Princeton Review book has some useful strategies, but in my opinion is written for someone aiming to barely get by with a 600ish quant score, rather than the 800.

You should also know that ETS throws in an experimental/research section on every GRE. The experimental section looks just like another math/verbal section but is unscored. The research section comes at the very end of the test and is clearly announced as such. I really hate this practice, to be honest - so many people have gotten their test groove screwed up because they ran into a really tough experimental section and panicked. In any case, you should never assume one section is the experimental one just because it's hard!

One last point about the analytical writing - it's pretty unimportant, but all the same look at some of the sample essays and mimic them in your essays for the writing portion. The ETS graders don't care if you're a good writer or not. They only give high scores to essays written in a certain formulaic way. Again, it's stupid, but just play along. I ended up getting a less-than-stellar AWA score(4.0) because I didn't play by their rules.

The TestMagic forums are actually a pretty useful place to swap test-taking strategies, as dorky as that sounds. There are some useful threads in there with sample problems and such.

Hope this helps - feel free to mefimail me if you have any other questions.
posted by pravit at 11:41 AM on December 7, 2007 [6 favorites]

I took the GRE about a year ago and ended up with a 750V/720Q. I agree with what Pravit said - your studying needs will be different based on your intended grad program. I was applying to policy school, so wanted reasonably high scores on both sides, but for most sorts of programs you only need to do well on one section or the other.

I didn't study for the verbal section, but when I took my first preptest, I did very poorly on math, somewhere in the low 500s. I'm good enough at math, but I had difficulty at the beginning doing all the problems within the time limit. What I found was that most of the problems look easy on their face and have a straightforward solution that you will probably see immediately. However, that straightforward solution is often slow, and what I realized I needed to do was look for some sort of trickier, faster way to do the problems. There usually is one. I just took computer adaptive preptests at home and worked specifically on doing the problems faster and it improved my score ~200pts, into a respectable though not great range.
posted by ecab at 12:03 PM on December 7, 2007

The GRE site offers free downloads of old tests, "powerprep" software, and math reviews which helped me a lot. I never found a book more up-to-date.
posted by ellanea at 12:08 PM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm printing this all out and heading to the library, gratefully!!
posted by Viomeda at 12:14 PM on December 7, 2007

Taking as many practice tests as I could on the computer, the way the test is presented, was key for me. I took a Kaplan review class (it was expensive, but worth every penny, really) which was great because most of it is done online with a similar interface to the actual test. The lessons weren't computer adaptive, but the practice tests were, and that was great. Another nice thing about the class was that there were other people studying for the test there. Having a study buddy is always helpful for me, especially for the vocabulary stuff.
Flash cards for vocab were also helpful. Kaplan provides some, but I had better luck actually writing them by hand since I actually dealt with the words that way. There are lots of vocab lists out there -- Barron's Essential Words for the GRE (Amazon link) is exhaustive and probably the most recommended to me when I was studying. Here's a nice online list to get you started, at wordhacker.com. And the formats for the essay questions, like pravit said, are also easy to memorize. One other book tip: I had the How to Prepare for the GRE with CD-ROM book from Barron's and found it to be totally unhelpful. Browse your local library or bookstore to find a book that will work for you.
Other tips: register early to get the time you want and take a trip to the test center a few days before you take the test. Although they wouldn't let me into the building (it was in the middle of Chicago and security was kind of intense) knowing exactly how to get there was really comforting for me. Picking out a coffee shop to go to afterwards and chill out for awhile was nice too -- I took the test at the same time as my study-buddy mentioned earlier, and we met there when it was over.
Also: download the ETS Powerprep software. Don't wait for it to come in the mail -- mine arrived four months after I took the exam. I hear that's not uncommon. Their software is obviously the best, since it most closely mimics the test itself (although the interface is not exactly the same as the one you'll see on test day.) There are some other helpful resources on that ETS site I linked to, including information about how the test is going to change (pdf) sometime in the near future.
posted by k8lin at 12:31 PM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should also know that ETS throws in an experimental/research section on every GRE. The experimental section looks just like another math/verbal section but is unscored. The research section comes at the very end of the test and is clearly announced as such.
When I took it, I'm pretty sure it wasn't announced as such. Wouldn't that screw up the research? When I took it, I didn't know it was coming, and that pissed me off.

The way I got a decent score was to do flash cards and to study every single day. Get a friend if you can, to take it with you, then you can keep one another honest. I still remember some of the lyrics to the songs we made up to remember the vocabulary words like inchoate. Good luck.
posted by cashman at 1:10 PM on December 7, 2007

I see where the mixup is. I don't know if it's clear to the poster - but basically you have to take the test twice. One is for real, one is not. There are thus two different experimental sections, but you don't know which one is fake and which one has the iocane powder in it.
posted by cashman at 1:15 PM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding pravit. I borrowed the GRE for Dummies book from my adviser and used it primarily for the math stuff, and it was really useful, particularly because it emphasized the patterns that turn up in the math problems. For example, there are a few "How long is the side of this triangle?" questions that you really don't want to waste time calculating; the Dummies book had a list of common triangles to memorize. I smoked the math section (760) with time to spare, thanks in no small part to memorizing rather than calculating (not a math person, either - BA in political science).

Nthing the "Take every practice exam possible" crowd, too - especially if you're a nervous test-taker. I took five in the week before my exam, and by the time I got in there, I was so bored with the GRE that I didn't even break a sweat.
posted by McBearclaw at 4:54 PM on December 7, 2007

You either get an experimental section, which is unannounced, and looks exactly like a math or verbal section, or a research section, which always comes at the very end. So you'll either end up doing three sections, one of them fake, or two real sections and one clearly announced research section at the very end. For example, I got lucky and had a research essaywriting section at the very end.

But your test could look like AWA - Verbal (fake) - Verbal (real) - Math (real) or AWA - Math (fake) - Math(real) - Verbal(real), etc.

Check the program websites for what kind of GRE score they're looking for - most programs won't actually state this, but some will publish average scores for previously admitted applicants.
posted by pravit at 9:52 PM on December 7, 2007

Here's the most useful book for standardized tests that I've ever owned: the Math Review for Standardized Tests, by the Cliff Notes people. It was out of print, but it looks like Amazon has it in stock right now.

Why is it so good? Because I too have trouble with math on tests (and I'm a GOOD test taker) and this was helpful to review strategy ONLY for math. It reviews the basics, which is a good thing since the GRE when I took it was non-calculator (which is a policy that may change, as a calculator section formed the experimental section when I took the GRE 14 months ago)

Another book which should be used in addition to whatever prep book you choose (REA is the main prep book of choice for me, as it saw me through the AP tests, the SAT and ACT, and most recently the GRE), is a little book which has a lot of practical tips on HOW to take the test (which is nothing like the SAT or any other standardized test because it is computer based) called Crash Course for the GRE (Amazon has the 2nd--most recent--ed in stock now). It's got little but useful tricks...

One more little point: that official prep CD they give you after you sign up? I got mine TWO MONTHS after I got my *results* (which is to say, something like four months after I signed up) and I'm not the only one. So don't count on getting it on time.
posted by librarylis at 11:15 PM on December 7, 2007

I did very well on the GRE, and I studied for it by taking and retaking the powerprep tests, and then memorizing a top 50 list of vocabulary. The sample tests teach you what kind of questions they ask, and if you do it enough, you can get a sense of what kind of answers they tend to provide, and what kind of mistakes they expect people to make, so you can rule out many wrong answers by recognizing the common mistake that would lead you to that answer, like factoring wrong or something. You also get a good sense of your weak spots that way.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:40 PM on December 8, 2007

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