I’m Vince Kotchian, and I’ve been a private tutor for the GRE for about eight years. I’ve seen students who’ve scored 170 on a section without my help and students who could barely answer any of the questions correctly. I thought it might be interesting to give you a few pieces of advice I commonly give students no matter what level they’re at – advice that I find that almost everyone can benefit from. The GRE is an important test, so creating smart study habits is crucial.
- Practice the essays more.
The most difficult part of the GRE to practice for most students is the Analytical Writing Assessment, better known as the essays. It is usually much more fun to pick up a book and do some math problems or to study some vocabulary than to sit for 30 minutes and write. To make matters worse, when you’re done with your practice essay, you may not have any idea if it’s good or not, since you may not know anyone who can grade it!
Here’s what I recommend: First, read what ETS has to say about the essay and how it’s graded, and read all of the sample essays that ETS provides, along with the grader commentary. This advice is the most accurate you can find, since ETS writes the test. You can model the high scoring essays to improve your own writing.
Next, locate the pools of essay topics on the GRE’s official website. Practice brainstorming as many topics as you can, so that you increase the chances you’ll get a topic on test day with which you’re familiar. After you’re more comfortable brainstorming, write some essays untimed. Compare them to the ETS sample essays. Even better, find someone who is a good writer to critique your work.
Finally, practice writing timed essays until you’ve written a few good ones within the 30-minute time limit. This will make the essays tasks go much more smoothly when you take the real GRE.
- Verbal Reasoning success means proving your answer.
For the questions in the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE, most people think about learning vocabulary, or about how to read long passages better. These skills are important, but I think an even more important – but often overlooked – skill is being able to prove your answers.
What most students do after doing a Verbal Reasoning practice question is look up the answer. If they got the question right, they probably never look at it again. If they get it wrong, they probably look at the right answer and think about why it’s correct. However, this typical process is inadequate if students truly want to maximize their scores.
What I’d suggest is this: For EVERY ETS verbal question a student does, before looking to see if their answer is right or not, they should think about what in the text justifies the answer. Verbal Reasoning questions are written very carefully, and there is always some kind of evidence in the text for the answer, or at least something in the text that makes the right answer unavoidably true.
The skill you want to develop is determining exactly what in the text is the evidence you need to prove the right answer. Similarly, you want to think about exactly what is wrong with each wrong answer. There will always be a specific reason each wrong answer is wrong – after all, this is a standardized test, and it’s extremely fair.
This process, of course, will take much longer than your old manner of working on questions. But it will make you understand the test much more deeply, and consequently, make you much better at Verbal Reasoning.
- Reason your way through Quantitative Reasoning
It’s pretty obvious that the Quantitative Reasoning section of the GRE requires students to know math: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, statistics, data analysis, etc. But I’ve worked with engineering students – some of whom were very good at math – who had trouble with the math on the GRE. One reason many students have trouble with GRE questions is the way the questions are written: unlike most math books you’ve seen, GRE questions will disguise concepts and require thinking. That’s why the section is called Quantitative Reasoning!
Here’s my advice: when you’re working on an ETS math question, or when you’re reviewing it, think about the easiest way to do the question. What can you notice to make the question easier? Many – if not most – GRE math questions are written so that if you notice something, they will become easier to do. This could be something like rewriting expressions so they can be compared, or finding a pattern in a question that would take too long to do otherwise.
Before you look at the answer key, think about whether there is another, easier way to do the question. By doing this, you will be getting more familiar with how the test is written, and you’ll be building your skill to recognize helpful things in math questions in the future.
You may have noticed that I always specify “when working on ETS questions”. That’s because ETS-written questions are the only questions that always play by the same rules as the real GRE does (which is written by ETS). Therefore, questions written by ETS should be the cornerstone of your GRE prep, not matter what other sources you use.
Another thing I’d like to emphasize is that you should structure more review time into your study time. Most students spend a lot of time taking practice tests, but often do not review those tests enough. Reviewing ETS practice questions, figuring out why answers are right or wrong, and figuring out the most efficient way to do math questions are the times when you will be learning the most about the GRE.
Good luck, study hard, and feel free to let me know if you have any GRE prep questions. I can be reached at vincekotchian.com.