How to Study for the GRE

Recently, my former research assistant reached out to me:

Hi Nhi!

I just thought I’d email to see how grad school is going. I’m in the process of applying to schools. I also recently took the GRE, and used the study materials you gave me several years ago to prepare for the reading/vocab section. After getting a 50th percentile on the practice test, I think my 95th percentile on the real test shows they worked!

I was ecstatic to receive this email as I was (and am) very invested in the success of my mentees. To hear how well they’re doing gives motivation for my style of pedagogy. As more and more students seek me for GRE help, I thought I would summarize my tips in a blog entry:

How I prepared for the GRE (in a nutshell)
First, I took a free test on Princeton to figure my areas of weakness. No surprise, my Verbal was weaker than my Quantitative. So I purchased the Princeton’s Verbal Workout, the Barron’s flashcards, subscribed myself to The Atlantic, and perused novels after novels. I learned new vocabulary best by clustering them into groups of similar meanings. For words that are most difficult to remember, I create funny (mental) images of them based on their pronunciations. Reading the news, novels, and research articles also helped me focus on short passages and quickly comprehend their gist.

Let’s break down the GRE
It’s a gruesome computerized test that takes roughly 4 hours. It consists of three main sections:

Verbal: Two 30-minute sections testing vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. Question types include text completion, sentence equivalence and reading comprehension.

Quantitative: Two 35-minute sections testing arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis skills. Question types including comparing values, solving word problems and analyzing data. As of Aug. 1, 2011, a calculator is permitted.

Analytical Writing: One section with two separately timed 30-minute essays testing your ability to write clearly and effectively. The first asks you to state and support your opinion on an issue, and the second asks you to evaluate an argument.

The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are graded on a 130- to 170-point scale in 1-point increments, and the analytical writing section is scored on a 0-6 scale in half-point increments.

Create a Study Plan
You should always start by taking a practice test. They are readily available at Princeton, Kaplan, and around campus. Carefully evaluate the answers you got wrong so you can pinpoint general areas for improvement. Then, depending on when you will be taking the GRE and what your target score is, develop a study timeline. You can find example study plans here. No matter how busy you are, you should count on studying every single day. Cramming will not build your vocabulary.

Prepare for Verbal
Follow what I did in the nutshell above. Study daily! My main resources:
Princeton’s Verbal Workout
Barron’s flashcards
General tips for Reading Comprehension:
– Read questions before passage
– Spend 1-2 minutes to familiarize passage: Focus on topic & concluding sentences; Come up with main idea
– Paraphrase answer before looking at choices
– Avoid extreme answers
– Avoid direct repetition
– Don’t answer specific questions from memory
– Half wrong = all wrong
– Focus on flaws during process of elimination
– Main idea questions: cross out specific answers; cross out narrow & broad answers
– Inferences: look for what’s implied, not stated directly
– Tone: usually it’s politically correct; cross out too negative or too extreme; cross out detached tone
General tips for Sentence Completion:
– Ignore answer choices; come up with your own terms first
– If presented with two blanks: eliminate answer choices using one blank at a time (with the blank you’re more comfortable with)
– Re-read sentence with selected answer(s) to make sure it’s/they’re fitting

Prepare for Quantitative
I find the Barron’s guide to have the most comprehensive and effective Math section. [The Princeton’s dumbed it down like you’re studying for a 5th grade exam. The Kaplan’s made Math sounds more like Verbal.] No matter how good you are at Math, Barron will make you re-think your approach and arrive at a solution faster. Their flashcards also offered new patterns and insights. I honestly fell in love with Math all over again when I was prepping for the GRE. Additionally, I did daily drills with number 2.
Here are general tips I have:
– Always draw diagrams for geometry questions
– To find area of shaded region, subtract area of white region from total area
– If you get stuck, back solve starting with C (because answers are ordered from small to big or vice versa)
– If presented with a percent of an unspecified number, assume number is 100
– On quantitative comparison, ask can they be equal and must they be equal. Also, don’t calculate. Compare!
– Read answer choices before solving

Prepare for Analytical Writing
I suggest the following timeline:
– 2 mins: choose a topic
– 7 mins: outline your response
– 30 mins: type your response
– 6 mins: edit
It is a good idea to practice outlining a response on a daily basis. You only need 7 minutes! Then, once a week, type up a full response. Click here for the official essay prompts! Also, we are happy to provide feedback on your writing.
Basic Plan for an Issue Prompt
Introduction: State your opinion on the issue (agree/disagree/agree with some elements)
Second paragraph: One reason why you have this opinion – facts or evidence to support this reason
Third paragraph: Another reason why you have this opinion – facts or evidence to support this reason
Fourth paragraph: Another reason why you have this opinion – facts or evidence to support this reason
Fifth paragraph: Any counter-arguments. Show that you are aware of other possible opinions, and explain briefly why you do not think these opinions are as valid as yours.
Conclusion: Reaffirm the opinion you expressed in the introduction in slightly different words. Sum up how the evidence you have given in the essay supports your opinion.
Basic Plan for an Argument Prompt
Introduction: Make it clear how you rate the writer’s argument – is is perfect? Slightly flawed? Very flawed? Or utterly unconvincing and deeply flawed?
Supporting Paragraphs: Write one paragraph for each flaw in your list. For each flaw, quote from the writer’s argument: e.g., “The writer states that..” . Then argue how the writer should have interpreted the facts: “In fact, the evidence contained in the piece actually suggests that…”
>> Common Fallacies: correlation is not causation; drawing general rules from specific examples; small/unrepresentative sample; unstated assumptions; missing information
Conclusion: Give your opinion overall on what has been the writer’s key mistake(s) – have they misinterpreted facts? Made false assumtions? Ignored evidence? Based their argument on limited data? The conclusion is a good chance to sum up what is wrong with the argument and what argument should have been constructed from the evidence instead.

Practice Full-Length Exams
Make sure you take at least three full-length exams before taking the real thing! And be sure to take the exams provided by ETS as the software mimics the layout/features of the real exam. It is ideal to study and take the practice exam the same time as your registered exam. This way, you are wiring your brain to be more alert and focused at a certain hour of the day. Be sure to mimic the testing environment – no noise, no distraction.

Prepare Physically
The exam takes four hours. You bet it will be mentally draining! Make sure you give your body sufficient rest and nutrition. Do not study, review, or take a practice exam the night before. Just sleep. On the day of the exam, drink apple juice instead of water to give yourself an energy/glucose boost. Stay away from coffee unless that’s your everyday routine (don’t change life habits on the day of). Eat an orange before taking your exam. Oranges are a great source of folate, which boosts recall and information processing. Vitamin C in oranges also reduces your stress hormones so you won’t be as nervous. Breathe deeply. Take a moment to do relaxation exercises if you need.

Best of luck! Please feel free to hit the Comments below if you have any specific questions or concerns!


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