1. Start Early
Start early and study often! If you majored in philosophy and haven’t seen a polynomial since high school, be realistic regarding how much time it will take you to refresh your knowledge of algebra and geometry, and then how much time it will take you to study GRE-specific content (such as the Quantitative Comparison format) and practice under timed conditions and on actual Section Adaptive Tests. If it took you two years to learn algebra the first time around and you feel like you’ve forgotten it all, you can expect to need several months (at least) to get back in the game.
Similarly, if you majored in engineering and haven’t been regularly reading and processing college-level material in areas such as social science, literature, and historical analysis, it’s going to take awhile to become comfortable with and confident about that kind of material – not to mention the time it will take to substantially augment your vocabulary.
Now that we’re talking about vocabulary, let’s be clear: you just can’t cram vocabulary, and there aren’t a whole lot of shortcuts. Sure, learning roots can be helpful – if you know that “con-” means “with” and “-dign” (the same root in dignity and deign) means “worthy,” you could make some reasonable inferences about the word condign (which means “just or appropriate, especially as related to a punishment fitting a crime”). But, for the most part, you will have to learn 500 – 2000 new words, so it is best to begin as soon as possible! Fortunately, learning vocabulary is something you can do on your own at very little cost – and the benefits of having a prodigious vocabulary (being perceived to be smarter, for instance) will last you a lifetime!
2. Learn Vocabulary in Context
Many students make the mistake of memorizing dictionary definitions of words without really understanding those definitions or being able to comfortably use those words in sentences.
You want to learn words like “traduce” and “bonhomie” the same way you know words like “study” and “mistake” – that is, you can barely even remember a time when you didn’t know those words.
While vocabulary lists, flashcards, and the like are important, some of the best vocabulary accrual occurs when you are reading difficult material (try Smithsonian, Harvard Alumni Magazine, Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, The Economist or Arts and Letters Daily), and you go look up a word you just read in context.
If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, think about the words that were easiest to learn. When you’re in class, most of the words you learn (stove, tire, classroom, grandmother) seem equally important. But when you are actually in a foreign country, trying to speak that language, it is very, very easy to learn and remember words and phrases like “bathroom” and “How much?” and “No pigs” feet, please. That is, the easiest things to learn are things that you really wanted to know at the time that you looked them up. It’s easier to retain a new word when there’s a “hole” in your knowledge that you just cannot wait to fill.
Similarly, if you are reading something interesting and come across a word you don’t know, then you look up the word and consider its usage in the sentence you were just puzzling over – well, that’s almost as good as learning the word “bathroom” when you really needed to use one.
Finally, don’t hesitate to look up or ask someone about words you thought you knew, but seem to be used in novel ways. (Did you notice what I did just there? As a noun, a “novel” is a book-length work of fiction, but as an adjective, “novel” means “new, original.”) How about the use of “informed by” in the sentence, “Her historical analysis of family dynamics in the antebellum South is informed by an academic background in feminist theory”? (Clearly, the “academic background in feminist theory” isn’t talking – “informed by” means “influenced by” in this context). Or the use of “qualified” in “Dr. Wong could give only qualified approval to the theory, as the available data was limited in scope.” (“Qualified” here means “limited, conditional, holding back”).
If you read a definition of a word – on a flashcard, in a test prep book, or anywhere else – and it doesn’t make sense to you, look the word up in several online dictionaries (Dictionary.com, The Free Dictionary, Merriam-Webster), ask someone, and/or simply Google the word to see how other people are using it.
Once you’ve studied the definition, read the word in context, and worked the word into conversation three times (this can cause your friends to look at you funny, but it’ll be worth it!), that word is probably yours for life.
3. Don’t Leave “Holes in the Foundation”
It’s very satisfying when you figure out the greatest possible value of n such that 40 to the 60th power is divisible by 2 to the nth power (it’s 180). However, questions like this one are relatively rare, whereas basic and medium-level questions in algebra, geometry, and data analysis (especially percents and averages) are very common. Students who focus only on the “brainteasers” while neglecting the basics do poorly on the exam.
Before focusing on the most difficult level of material, make sure you are completely solid on solving equations and systems of equations, the average formula, percent change, the difference between adding and multiplying fractions, when you can cancel in an equation with many fractions, converting decimals to percents, converting fractions to decimals, finding a circle’s area and circumference, factoring polynomials, and many other high school math topics you may have forgotten.
If you feel like you understand all the material in your GRE prep books or class, yet you are still performing poorly on practice tests – well, when I watch the US Open, I understand everything Serena Williams is doing. But I’m still terrible at tennis. Understanding is not the same as executing. Nodding in assent as you read a test prep book is insufficient! You need to execute every problem, on separate paper (like the real GRE), within a time limit (1-2 minutes, depending on problem type).
If you find yourself missing problems due to silly mistakes, don’t just say, “Oh, I get it – that was just a silly mistake.” The GRE doesn’t give you points for understanding a concept but missing the question anyway. Figure out why you are making silly mistakes. Correct your misconceptions (Did you cancel the top of a fraction on one side of an equation with the bottom of a fraction on the other side? Did you, when multiplying exponential expressions with the same base, accidentally multiply rather than add the exponents?) Keep an error log. Root out every mistake and make sure that these “holes in the foundation” get filled.
4. Take Your Online Practice Tests Seriously
When you work through the Kaplan Premier GRE or the Official Guide to the GRE Revised General Test, do you work at your own pace, write in the book and on the geometry diagrams (rather than redrawing them), and do problems one or a handful at a time before taking a break or stopping to reflect?
If so, your practice is nothing like the real experience of taking the real GRE. On the real test:
Most people are incredibly pressed for time. We typically do not have time to check our work, or to run back over or reflect on our work.
You have to redraw any geometry diagrams, and otherwise copy down relevant information to your paper.
You only get one break, after writing two essays and completing your first two GRE math or verbal sections without stopping.
No water! Obviously, no coffee, no sandwiches. You can’t absentmindedly apply lip balm, pet the cat, grab a ponytail holder and put your hair up, go grab a sweater, or check your text messages. You have to sit in the chair, dehydrating by the minute, and go through about two hours of testing at a time, without stopping.
Before taking the real GRE, you should have achieved your goal score on three consecutive practice tests. Needless to say, you should take those practice tests under the conditions described above. Ideally, you could even take your practice tests at the same time of day as your actual exam appointment.
Where can you access online practice tests?
ETS offers two free computer-based exams via the PowerPrep II software. These exams are delivered through a standalone software application (not Mac compatible). When you finish these practice exams, you will receive limited statistics — you’ll see which questions you got right and wrong, and you’ll be able to click on each question and see it again.
5. Cultivate a Productive Attitude
The above might seem daunting (although an assiduous approach will indubitably redound to your success!) Some students say “I’m already a college graduate. Why do I have to spend months studying for this exam? That’s just too much time.”
Here’s a way to look at it – if you exercise for one hour a week, you’ve almost thrown that time away, because that’s not enough time to get results. But if you exercise for five hours a week, you’ll end up in much better shape! That is, it’s exercising insufficiently that is a waste of time.
Similarly, if you spend three weeks cramming for the GRE, you probably won’t improve your score that much. Three weeks cramming does sound like too long, because what you’re doing is really about the GRE and nothing else. But if you spend four (or more) months developing a more erudite vocabulary, reading graduate-level articles, becoming a master of algebra, and developing a familiarity with statistics and data interpretation that will help you produce useful results in graduate study, then you have remodeled your brain for the better. That time is not lost! Those skills will benefit you forever (and in graduate school!)
Here’s something to think about – the GRE test writers aren’t evil. They don’t want to hold you back. They want to test real skills. Sure, you might be able to game the test a little bit with tricks and quick fixes. But probably not enough to achieve your goal score.
A serious, academic approach to GRE study isn’t about tricks and quick fixes. It’s about the actual material and skills that the GRE is designed to test. And no amount of time is too much to spend on becoming a more knowledgeable person with a brain that functions at a level of peak performance.
GRE At A Glance
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GRE Test Tips
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