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by Kaitlin McManus | February 05, 2019


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Sun Tzu wrote, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” While quoting The Art of War in a discussion of the GRE may seem dramatic, let me be the first to assure you that the GRE is a battle. The advice applies; essentially, Sun Tzu is saying if you want to succeed at something, you best come prepared. You can’t just go wading into battle and hope for the best—and the same goes for the GRE. So here I’m discussing some of the tactics to try as you prep for the battle of your post-graduate life.

Identify your weakness

Reading, math, and essay-writing: these are the three essential parts of the GRE. Chances are pretty high that one of those things strikes fear into your heart at the mere mention. For me, it’s math. I was never good at it, and I hadn’t attempted it since my sophomore year of college. For you perhaps writing a complete essay on the spot is a horrifying prospect—and there are two of them. Or maybe it doesn’t seem possible to cram all that vocab into your head. Whatever your weakness, single it out. You’ll need to study for all the sections of the test, but you’ll probably need to study for your weakest area the most.

Also, keep in mind that each section of the GRE is likely weighted differently by different programs. I was applying for a creative writing MFA. So my Quantitative Reasoning (QR) scores meant significantly less than the Verbal Reasoning (VR) or Analytical Writing (AW) sections. Therefore, my goal wasn’t so much to ace the QR section as it was to make sure that it didn’t drag down my other scores too much. This may seem a bit defeatist, but remember—you’ve only got a finite amount of time to study. High goals are important, but they should be met with tempered expectations. Not only that but, even if you excel at one of the sections of the test, you still need to dedicate time to study that section as well—you wouldn’t want your highest score to fall by the wayside because you spent all your study time on your weakest section.

Select your weapon

Test prep is a booming business. ETS (the company that owns the GRE) claims that only their books are the “official” test prep materials, but I say that practice questions are practice questions, regardless of “official-ness.” The only problem is that they’re expensive. The ETS guide costs about $30. Another popular one, Kaplan’s, is almost $40. That’s an entire gas bill! And you’d only keep it until you passed, at which point you’d throw it away, or sell it—*lightbulb sound*!

Oftentimes, used bookstores will have test prep materials galore. I found a GRE test prep book from the year before for $3 at my local shop. The test doesn’t really change much from year to year, so slightly older books are usually just as effective as the new models. Don’t pay an extra $35 for shrink wrap. There are also infinite online resources (practice questions, vocab lists, essay samples), as well as test-prep classes that you can take. Choose the study method(s) that work best for you.

Verbal Reasoning

Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. There’s no way around it. You can find a list of vocab online easily, with word lists that range from 101 to 1,300 words. It’s overwhelming, even for crossword connoisseurs. But here are some tips to get the most out of the vocab-drilling process.

  1. Make your flashcards yourself: I know it’s tempting to buy a pack or borrow cards from a friend who’s already taken the test. But you learn things by writing them down—that’s why we take notes in school. And yes, by “write them down” I do mean that you should use paper and pen. Online flashcards are great for on-the-go review, but I’ve always found that if I write something out on my own, in longhand, I can remember it easier the next time around.
  2. Only make the ones you need: In the list I linked to with 1,300 words, the first word on the list is “introspection.” You, smarty-pants, probably already know what the word “introspection” means. So don’t make a flashcard for it or any other word you already know. That’s just wasting your time. Only write cards for words you don’t know, or words that you confuse with others.
  3. Sort them out: After you’ve gone through the cards a few times, start sorting them out: ones you know, ones you think you know, and ones you don’t know. You should go through these categories with increasing frequency. Reviewing things you already know is certainly useful, and keeps you from forgetting. But it’s important to focus on the words you don’t know. When I was studying for the GRE, I reviewed the words I didn’t know once a day, the words I thought I knew every three days, and the words I knew once a week—and I resorted the cards as I went along/needed to.

One last thing I’ll suggest: read! A huge part of the test is reading comprehension, and there’s no better way to boost this skill than by simply reading books. Given that the passages are both fiction and nonfiction, it doesn’t matter which genre you choose—read what you like. But try to read something that’s a little elevated from what you normally read. For example, I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Plato’s Symposium because they were challenging and pushed my boundaries. So try to pick out some books that are a little fun for you and a bit of a workout for your brain.

Quantitative Reasoning

The Quantitative Reasoning section has four main section: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. These are all technically high school subjects—you’re not going to need calculus or the like for this exam. ETS gives a pretty thorough examination on what each of these subjects covers specifically, from prime numbers to standard deviation. So my first suggestion would be to go through the list and figure out what you do and don’t need to study. I, for example, can read charts fairly well; meanwhile, quadratic equations are essentially nonsense to me. So quadratic equations went on my “to study” list, while I didn’t bother with charts unless they were on a full practice exam. Make a list of all the topics you need to relearn or brush up on.

In schools, math is usually taught in the following sequence: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and algebra again (trigonometry). This is the order you should approach studying in, as well. Math builds on itself, so mastering the fundamentals is essential. Once you feel as if you’ve learned a few subjects, take some practice tests to see how you measure up. I always liked Varsity, but there are a hundred places to take these exams. Make sure you grab your calculator—you’re allowed to use one on the test.

Analytical Writing

You’re in luck with this one, actually. All the potential prompts are available on the ETS site. Here’s the Issue Analysis pool, and here’s the Argument Analysis pool. One of the prompts on each of these lists will be what you encounter on test day. The only problem is that the pools are huge. If you think that writing essay after essay in response to the prompt will be useful, go ahead. To me, it seems like a huge waste of time. MY suggestion is to outline various essays in each category. You don’t need to write the whole essay, but try coming up with a topic sentence and three or four arguments that you might make. This is the core of the AW section of the GRE. And this is something that you can practice ad infinitum, until you’ve got your strategy down pat.

I also recommend reading to prep for this section. While emphasis is certainly placed on the efficacy of the points your essay makes, style counts too. Your writing should be clear and well-organized, and should make use of varied sentence structures and elevated vocabulary. One of the best ways to improve your writing is by reading good writing. For this section, however, you may find expository writing to be more applicable to the skill you’re trying to learn.

Studying for the GRE takes an inordinate amount of time (drop that word on a flashcard, folks). To cover the material you need to, it’s important to strategize, divide, and conquer. These are the methods that I used, but they are no means the only strategies—experiment a little and find out what works best for you. Next week, I’ll be going over some of the aspects of taking the exam itself, and how to prepare for test day itself. Happy studying, warriors!