09 July 2010

Studying for the GRE: Strategies

Despite the ETS saying the GRE General Test is not coach-able, you most certainly could prepare more effectively for it. To do so, let's think about what the GRE really is. It is a glorified high school cumulative exam testing your:
  1. English vocabulary,
  2. comprehension,
  3. writing, and
  4. close-reading analysis skills, and your
  5. math arithmetic,
  6. geometry,
  7. algebra, and
  8. problem solving skills.
Furthermore, it expects that
  1. you are familiar with test taking skills for either the paper or computer based test (whichever you signed up for).
That is all!

That means a test preparation strategy that enhances your skills in those nine areas is sufficient for you to do extraordinarily well on the GRE General. So specifically, what might you decide to do to prepare then?

Here are some specific strategies you could employ [1] to counter the nine areas I listed above:


In terms of English vocabulary, you need a broad understanding of obscure words for the parts of the GRE asking you to compare and contrast words, pick out words of opposite meaning, and sentence completion (three of the four Verbal Reasoning types of questions). So basically, any exercise that expands your vocabulary of odd and obscure words is a good thing.

You could look (ie, search on Google) for a list of common words used on the GRE test and memorize their meaning (as far as I can search, such a list actually does exist [2]). Do NOT memorize word definitions as you must be able to understand and be able to compare the meaning of the words. The combination of words the GRE could present to you to compare is of course impossibly large, so rote memorization is useless. You can, however, learn to use obscure words likely to be found on the GRE in full sentence form so that you understand better how such words could be used, and therefore have a better understanding of the word's meaning.

I suggest the above type of exercise because it builds up your basic knowledge. You should, however, also do specific exercises tailored for the GRE.  There are sample test questions on the ETS web site and many other places.  The problem with training yourself only on questions styled after the GRE is that it is too question type specific, giving you no cross-training benefit.  That is to say, training yourself on spotting words of opposite meaning helps you very little in sentence completion type questions, but expanding your basic vocabulary of obscure words commonly used on the GRE will help you in three of the four types of Verbal Reasoning questions.

If you think I'm basically suggesting you to go the hard way, honestly learning more vocabulary, you're right, but also remember that you should be learning vocabulary that are often used on the GRE. You must also pair this up with question type specific training. I'm just suggesting that over-training the specific question types is less efficient overall.

Also remember that learning just five words a day for about six months will mean you're 900 words ahead. Just think, it could be a competitive advantage if you could stomach learning six new words a day. ;)


The types of comprehension questions, where you read a paragraph and answer some questions, are typical of high school graduation diploma exams. Any test preparation booklet for high school diploma English tests will be helpful (let's say for high schools in Canada or US, since I don't know the kind of levels outside those two countries).  I suggest doing lots and lots of these types of questions because it'll also help you prepare for the Analytical Writing "Argument" Task.

Essentially, any exercise that boosts the amount of close reading and analysis you do of English text will help you.

(3 & 4)

Specifically for the Analytical Writing "Argument" Task though, the ETS site has a listing of all the possible Arguments that you could be asked to analyze!  Yeah, that's right. So if you're hardcore, go ahead and write the best analysis you could for all of them and memorize them.  But don't do it!! Because it's a waste of your time, and they can always change the question just a little bit to throw the rote memorizers off.

Also remember that what you are writing is an analysis of the one paragraph Argument given. Some tips: it's easier to find flaws in the Argument given than it is to find ways to support and agree with it, so default to disagreeing with the Argument and start nitpicking it apart.

Nitpick everything! The Argument will likely have one conclusion the paragraph wants to support with numbers and examples. So for each number they give in support of the conclusion, argue how the number could have come about some other way, and therefore doesn't support the conclusion. They name an example, you write about how the example actually has nothing in common with the conclusion, and so doesn't support it.

For example, if the Argument paragraph says crime rate decreased by 10% over the six months since the mayor started a "Clean Streets" campaign. You can say the six months figure shows that it might be a seasonal figure, and so longer term statistics is required to support the contention that the campaign had anything to do with the crime rate decrease.

As another example, if the Argument paragraph says the mayor of City A will be loved by the citizens for starting the "Clean Streets" campaign, since he's following the example of another mayor from some nearby City B, where citizens loved the mayor ever since he committed to such a campaign. You can raise doubts about how the other mayor may have also at the same time committed to some economic improvement campaign, and the citizens might have been responding to that, and so without further evidence to the contrary, we can't conclude the same of City A's mayor.

The kinds of Argument paragraphs the GRE could throw at you are formulaic, so practice, practice, and more practice! Practice writing against those Argument paragraphs the ETS site lists out.  Ask people who write better than you to help give you feedback on how to write a better analysis.  Chances are, over a six month period, you could have practised writing against each of the arguments the ETS lists, giving you a competitive advantage.

By the way, the same can be said of the "Issues" Task, which essentially asks you to write a position essay defending your position on an issue.  The test will give you two issues to choose from.  It doesn't matter whether you really agree or disagree with the issue, so long as you can defend your position with good arguments and examples.  Another word, pick the issue that you have more examples to write about!

The ETS site also lists all the Issues they could possibly throw at you on the GRE, so go and practice against those too, just like for the "Argument" task.  If you need help, besides GRE specific test preparation courses and packages, you could also just look up high school graduation exam level preparation on writing English position papers. There's tons of that kind of stuff online and in the library.

(5 - 8)

You will need to practice you high school math and get fast at the rote process of calculating squares, multiplying and dividing numbers, estimating percents and fractions, calculating sides of triangles, probabilities, calculating mean and standard deviation, algebra, and so on.  All high school level stuff.

Practice lots!  You should basically be able to pick up a high school graduation "upper-level" math exam and be able to do the questions there — at a clip of about one minute per question. Yeah.

By "upper-level", I mean the "more academic" stream of math, or whatever it is called in your area.  In western Canada, it's commonly called the "Pure Math" stream or its equivalent (as per the Western and Nothern Canadian Protocol). No, it is not AP or IB level math.

The actual math is pretty easy, but the difficulty is the speed. No more than one minute per question or else you're too slow. So practice lots.

You should consider memorizing all the prime numbers less than, say, 120.  It's not that many to memorize, and could help you since there are questions around the theme of prime factorizing numbers.  Get good at multiplying and dividing numbers on paper since no calculators are allowed.  Get fast at doing some long division (or other equivalent paper and pencil method) and practice using it to estimate percents and fractions, and to convert them to "decimal form" down to about three decimal places (so that you can distinguish between answers like 10.9% versus 10.3%, or 0.109 versus 0.103).

There are books on this kind of stuff.  Pick up ones for GREs, US or Canada high school diploma/graduation exams, etc, to do lots of practice.


Get good at test writing. This is actually probably the most important for anyone who's reasonably intelligent and who finished or is near finishing undergraduate studies (since this means you must've done fairly well on your high school diploma exam, and which means you're intelligent enough to do well on the GRE too, if you have good test writing skills).

I'll assume you're signed up for the computer based test because that's the future! Actually, the computer based test interface is archaic and a throwback to the early 1990s. It looks like something I would've made on a Mac Classic II with HyperCard.  Yeah (and it costs you how much to write this test? Pff).

Since most of us grew up doing tests on paper, doing the test on the computer may throw you off (as it did me). There's apparently a test software simulator on the ETS website too, so grab that and practice! (I didn't, since I use Linux, and the ETS software is Windows only.)  If you don't, there's instructions during the beginning of the test to teach you how to use their software.  Even if you're a computer whiz, do NOT skip the instructions.  There are many buttons where once you click it, you won't be able to go back to where you were, so that can be dangerous if you don't know which buttons are, well, dangerous.

You should know that there are about five sections, presented to you in a fairly random order.  The "Argument" and "Issues" tasks together form one section, so you'll have to sit through writing two essays before getting a break. The Verbal Reasoning is one section, and they will randomly throw at you any of the four types of questions, so brace yourself to change your thinking hat quickly and often (that the types of questions are mixed up in a random way threw me off).  The Quantitative Reasoning is also one section, and again, they will randomly throw at you any of the three types of questions.

Technically, all this information can be found from the test preparation information the ETS provides, but they obfuscated it so it's not clear at first that they will throw questions of different types at you in fairly random order.  Yes, I know it's not random, and the computer does some calculations based on how difficult a question you can answer before giving you a next question, but from your point of view, it might as well be random, since you have no control over it.

So that's three sections.  There's two other sections that are for ETS to field test future questions.  Don't bother trying to identify which is the field test.  Just do every question and every section as though it's for real and is for your marks.  It would suck if you misidentified a real section as a field test and then blew it off!

Get good at pacing yourself.  One minute per question max!  You don't want to have to keep checking the time to see if you're going too fast or slow, so get good at having that internal feeling of pace.  This is probably the most important of the "get good at test writing" suggestions.  Just because you can do the math and know the word meanings, if your pace is too relaxed and you run out of time to complete all questions, it won't be too good.  (My pace was too slow since I didn't practise.)

Go to the test center a week before the test so you know how to get there.  Go all the way to the test center doors.  No point stressing yourself on the exam date with finding your way to the test center doors once you get off the bus or out the car.

Spend some time doing practice questions in a busy coffee shop.  Train yourself to be able to do questions even with distractions and noise.  There will be other test takers in the room probably, and if they're hammering away at the keyboard writing their essay question while you're doing math, you'll want to be able to do math even with noise and distractions around.  The worse thing that can happen is to feel off-balanced when things don't go exactly your way, because then you'll start thinking about how much things suck instead of thinking about answering the questions on the screen.  (The girl in the booth next to me wasn't all too keen having me hack away at my essay while she was doing her test.)

If you feel pressured or scared, check to see if you can still spit (ie, if you can still get saliva enough to spit, but please don't spit on the carpet!). If you can spit, you're not really that scared, so just forget whatever doubts you had and run on with the test. (It's the kayaker's "spit test").

Lastly, remember that what details I have written above can all be found from the ETS web site. I'm not giving you any private or secret information from the GRE test since doing that is against the rules (hilariously, they make you write out by hand the paragraph agreeing to keep their secrets or whatever before signing, rather than just making you sign on the dotted line under a printed agreement, as if that makes a difference).

You can easily find GRE preparation packs everywhere.  The ETS even has designated preparation materials you can buy, so obviously the GRE is coach-able (if it isn't, why are they selling preparation materials for it, or is it to scam people into paying for preparation that doesn't help?).  To be honest, the GRE felt easier than actual high school diploma exams (but then the GRE is also covering more topics in less time).

Other than preparing with the free materials from the ETS web site, I did no other preparation (I didn't even use their test simulation software since it was Windows only).  I practised only for about a week (I had two weeks, but I was busy the first week), had only about five hours of sleep the night before, and I did fine.

I could probably boost my own score by about 100 or more points if I pay another $200 CAD to redo the test, even without any further practice.  I could probably improve by 200 or more points if I seriously practised [3] over the course of a month or two.

But why bother further fattening the wallet of some American private corporation?  Not to mention why bother spending the time getting good at doing what amounts to a high school graduation exam?  It won't make me a better scientist, that's for sure.

If you, for whatever reason, really want to attend graduate school in the US though, and you want to improve your odds with a better GRE score, you can so totally beat it with practice.  Just start studying six months before the test, employ strategies I suggested above, do GRE exam study booklets, etc.  Whatever you do, just take it easy during the test [4].

[1] Note that with only one exception, I personally did none of the following list of strategies because of certain philosophical principles I hold. On the other hand, as a professional educator, I find the "coach-ability" of the GRE laughable, so take my views below as my opinion and just an extra data point for your own GRE preparation.

[2] I did not use such a list of words to study from for two reasons. One is the philosophical principles I hold, which I will discuss more in another post. Two is that I had only two weeks to study for the GRE, and expanding one's vocabulary within a two week window is a nearly fruitless exercise in futility. I have better things to do, like reading research papers.

[3] "One coaching company claims its students gain on average 212 points on the GRE" according to Examining the GRE: Myths, Misuses, and Alternatives.

[4] There was a test taker next to me. I don't think she was taking the GRE but some other certification test.  She seemed...stressed.  I'm sure she had good reasons to be, but I'm also sure she would have been more effective if she had just relaxed more.  Get stressed studying, sure.  But when you're already in the test, just relax.  As a friend of mine likes to say, "It is what it is." Anyway, the ETS wants your money, so you can always pay up and do the test again next month!

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