gre preparation tips
October 30, 2002

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I took the GRE this morning. It's been a long time coming. Damn am I glad it's over.

My math score exceeded my expectations. I'm very happy about that. My verbal score, while still fairly high, wasn't as good as I'd anticipated. Since I'll probably be applying to Computer Science departments, that's less important. I don't think I did very well on the analytical writing section. I'm not sure how important that is. (Ed. note:  The author wound up doing just fine on the analytical section.)

By and large, though, I'm happy with my performance. My preparation, though spotty and undisciplined, was mostly sufficient.

Here are some tips based on my personal experience that you may find useful if you're preparing for the GRE. This is written mostly for adult students returning to school after a potentially long hiatus, as was the case with me. The tips are haphazardly presented and poorly worded, I realize. In addition, they are math-centric, as that's where most of my preparation was focused. Hopefully there's a little useful information for everyone.

Start Early, Ease Into It

Plan to start studying at least six months out. That way you don't have to cram all of your preparation into the last month or two. Furthermore, you'll have time to judge whether or not you've truly internalized the material. This is particularly important for returning students.

(Don't despair if you don't have six months. You don't really need six months; I just wish I'd done it slowly over a longer period of time rather than intensely at the end. It would have been far less stressful that way. I did my preparation in less than two months.)

Buying Books

When I thought about spending money on GRE books, the normally inactive neurons in my brain responsible for frugality started firing. "Why don't I just buy books over Ebay?" I thought.

I'm not saying this is a bad idea. You should just be aware that not all GRE books are created equal. First, be aware that the composition of the GRE does change over the years. Buying old books is not necessarily a bad thing, but you can't rely on them exclusively. In addition, the GRE format has changed since certain editions. Books that are a few years old will give you problems oriented towards a 30 problems in 30 minutes pacing, which is very different from the current format of 28 problems in 45 minutes.

(Additionally, of course, as of October 2002, the format of the analytical section dramatically changed, becoming an analytical writing section instead, and completely invalidating the sections devoted to analytical preparation in older books. If you're not aware of this change, you should definitely read about it on the official GRE site.)

Second, some books just suck. Maybe they're just not geared toward high performers, or are trying to be all things to everyone. But I went through a couple of books that didn't even mention some of the more difficult problem types.

In particular, the 2000 Arco GRE was a complete waste of money and time. In the early stages of my preparation, when I was getting 75% on the practice tests from some other books, I was getting 95% and higher on the Arco tests. Eventually I stopped working out of the Arco book altogether.

Books that I had good luck with include:

o GRE: Practicing to Take the General Test, the book of sample exams published by ETS, was indispensable. Don't even think about going without.

o I found Kaplan GRE Math Workbook to be a halfway decent math review. There's a lot of cruft -- you'll probably want to ignore all of the "basic" and many of the "intermediate" problems -- but in the end it's probably worth the $12.

Obtaining Software

Given that the GRE is a computer-based test now, it's surprising that there isn't a ton of similar computer-adaptive testing software out there for praciticing. Of course, each of the major test prep companies (Kaplan, Peterson, etc.) offers online GRE CATs (computer adaptive tests). But it's not always clear what you're getting for your money, and generally speaking, those companies use the CATs as a carrot to try to draw you into purchasing additional prep services from them. I'm not saying that you shouldn't use them. Presumably their material is at least passable.

I preferred tests that I could download to my hard drive and peruse at my leisure to the online services provided by the major companies. Unfortunately, there aren't that many tests out there like that. The two that I used primarily were:

PowerPrep (the sample ETS tests): This is the online test package that you can download for free from ETS, the organization that writes the actual GRE. It's the best gauge of your preparation, and you can't beat the price. Since there are only two tests, here's how I'd suggest using them: Take toward the beginning of your preparation. The score will tell you where you're at and help set your expectations appropriately. Take the other one toward the end of your preparation. (Actually, take them both -- you'll probably have forgotten the first one by then, if you've given yourself at least a few months to prepare. But don't take them any more often than that.)

800score: This company sells five downloadable computer adaptive tests for $18. One math section is available for free so you can see what you're getting. I found these to be worth my while.

It's important to note that these tests -- the math sections, anyway -- are more difficult than the actual GRE, and near as I can tell, the scoring is more aggressive (you're penalized more for wrong answers). At first I was very disappointed -- frightened, even -- by my performance on these tests. It was only after taking the ETS-supplied tests that I realized that I would not have to commit seppiku to avoid dishonoring my family.

Whether the difficulty level is intentional I don't know, but I found it to be helpful -- having a target to shoot at that was above the level of the actual GRE meant that I spent more time working on the things that I found to be difficult, rather than patsy problems and busywork. It also meant that I had a much lower stress level during the actual test.

The important thing to remember is to use these practice tests as benchmarks, not as the primary material for your preparation. You should use static material -- GRE prep books, etc. -- to study. The practice tests should serve to prepare you for the format. Space them out at regular intervals throughout your months of practice. Take a verbal section here, and a math section there, maybe once a week or so. I, for one, was always tempted to take another test right away if I did poorly. Don't yeild to that impulse -- it won't do you any good in the long run. Your computer adaptive tests are precious; don't abuse them.

Studying for the Verbal Section

Unfortunately, I didn't take a single practice verbal test or do any verbal preparation whatever until two days before my test. What I would have done, though, if I'd been a bit more proactive and had a little more time, would be to start studying vocabulary at the very beginning. There are a lot of good vocabulary lists available on the web for free, e.g., here. Download a bunch of them. Delete the words that are in your working vocabulary -- words that you actually use. Leave words on the list even if you know what they mean but don't use them. You can always take them off later. Use the edited, compiled list as your basis for study. There's a lot of good information out there on vocabulary preparation, so I won't rehash it. The aforementioned site also has links to decent preparation software.

The only way that I can think of to prepare for the reading comprehension questions is to take sample GRE tests.

Studying for the Math Section

Personally, I feel that good preparation can have more of an impact on your scores on the math section than anywhere else on the GRE.

Studying for the math section, if you're a returning student or a even a student who majored in a non-technical discipline, will have two phases. The first one is deficiency. You'll need to remember all of the high school math that you never use. You'll need to brush up on ratios and fractions, factoring, and all that nonsense. This really shouldn't take too long. Take a few practice tests, go through a few diagnostic tests in the books you bought. Figure out what you've forgotten (or never knew) and commit it to memory. That's it. The math itself is not complicated or difficult.

The second phase is the longest, most difficult, and most crucial. It's here that you face the real obstacles to getting a high GRE score. And the only solution is enlightented practice. Each time you take a practice test in a book or on the computer, you must go back through and diagnose your errors.

The primary skills you must develop through practice are:

o Pacing -- Unless you're mathematically gifted, you must pay close attention to your pacing strategy for taking the GRE. Pacing the CAT is very different from pacing a paper-based test, since all problems on the CAT are not equally important. There's a lot of information out there on CAT pacing that covers the subject more completely than I could, so I won't offer specific strategies here.

Once I'd implemented a basic pacing strategy, I found that the major obstacle for me was my own nature. I'd be working on a problem and know in the back of my mind that I was taking too long, I'd find myself thinking, "I can do this problem. I know how; I just need a little more time!" It was hard for me to sacrifice a problem that I knew how to do even if I was way off of my pace. (The strange nature of GRE scoring makes assessing whether or not to give up on a problem even more difficult.)

Only by practicing -- primarily on CATs -- can you get a good internal sense of how long to take on a problem and understand when to give up. The 800score tests are good because they have a built-in pacer that lets you know how far off pace you are, and when you're reviewing the answers, it shows you which questions you took too long on.

o Number Sense -- The GRE is easiest if you have an intimate relationship with numbers. This is not the case for me, nor is it the case for most people. The good news is that you can significantly improve your relationship with numbers in ways that will help your GRE score with a little investigation and practice.

Many problems on the GRE are quite workable via longhand, but are much simpler if you know a bit about the numbers involved. As a classic example, I've seen problems on practice tests that require you to calculate the length of the third side of various triangles as part of the solution. Often the lengths of the sides of these triangles are all whole numbers less than 20. There aren't that many of those! Memorizing them is not too much trouble.

Other simple examples:

o Knowing (and by knowing I don't simply mean "being able to calculate") the relationship between a circle's radius, its circumference, and its area

o Being able to tell if an arbitrary number is divisible by k, where k < 12

o Knowing various methods of judging whether one fraction is larger or smaller than another, and being able to pick the easiest method for the situation

One approach that I used is to read through the "tips and tricks" section of every GRE preparation book I could get ahold of. You'll likely be aware of most of the information, but every book will have at least a few choice bits. Write those bits down on flash cards and go through them periodically. If necessary, compile some sample problems that exercise those specific skills.

There a number of websites devoted to number sense. I wish I'd stumbled upon them while I was studying for the GRE -- I imagine they'd be a great aid if you were starting early enough. Some of the sites focus primarily on doing basic calculation, but even this could be very helpful. Probably most of the time you spend on the GRE Math will be performing calculations by hand. You have much better uses for that time, the more that you can reclaim for actual thinking or careful reading, the better.

The primary obstacles to a high GRE score, having factored out knowledge (of the problem types) and skills (such as those mentioned above) include:

o Misreading -- If you're anything like me, in the heat of taking the test will elicit a large number of errors. You will see right angle indicators where none existed or omit them when they are present. You will see "square" when the problem clearly says "rectangle" and decimal points will move around as though they were insects. The only way to avoid these kinds of errors is to take your time and read the problem carefully, whether you're under time pressure or not. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Diagnosis of your errors under test conditions is the only way to be sure you're not fooling yourself about the degree of your misreadings or any other errors.

o Calculation Error -- Screwing up the basic math is another major source of error. Having good number sense will help with this. So will good pacing, so you will be under less time pressure.

Note that once you pass the "deficiency" stage of your preparation, you should take tests from books as though you're taking a CAT. Observe strict time limits. Don't change answers once you've written them down. Don't skip problems and go back to them, even if you have time at the end. (It's fine if you want to go back after you've scored the test and work any problems you skipped.)

Studying for the Analytical Writing Section

I made a big mistake in eschewing practice of the analytical writing section. The main reason I did so (besides lack of time and general focus on the Math section) is lack of objective feedback using criteria similar to the ETS judging criteria.

What I should have realized is that pacing is crucial. It's important to have a good feel for the timing of writing a 30 or 45 minute essay. If you're in school and you take essay tests with some regularity, this may not be an issue. If you're like me, and you haven't written a timed essay in seven years, you should pay some attention to this.

There are plenty of sample questions on the web. Review ETS' judging criteria and write a few, periodically, under test conditions. Review your essay as objectively as you can. This is the very least you can do for your analytical writing preparation.

If you wish to have a more objective judge, there are GRE prep services which will give you a sample question and judge the result using the ETS criteria for around $20.


Good luck on your GRE!

October 30, 2002 in best, old_site | Permalink


Very good GRE Tips. Thanks for sharing this w/ everyone : )

Posted by: Cat at Nov 18, 2004 4:02:55 AM

please give some information about the preparation about CAT exam

Posted by: deepjyoti at Feb 8, 2005 4:05:36 AM

By CAT I did not mean the Common Admissions Test; I meant the Computer Adaptive Test form of the GRE. Were you looking for information about the former or the latter?

Posted by: Confabulist at Feb 9, 2005 2:17:05 PM

Thank a zillion for sharing such useful insights.It's a real time saver when compared to the so many promises made by authors and guides...

Posted by: Robin at Mar 10, 2005 8:59:52 AM

Pls can u suggest me some websites about the solution of GRE big Book with the explanations???? and thank u very much for your nice

Posted by: Farzana Islam at Aug 9, 2005 8:49:31 AM

Thanks for the tips. I nearly fainted after taking the 800score math test; I scored about 200 points less than the score I got with testing with the sample test downloaded from the official GRE website. Yes, I agree that the 800score helps me to quickly identify my weaker areas.

Posted by: yoke at Aug 11, 2005 9:35:22 PM

Excellent tips - really appreciate it!

Posted by: Alex at Nov 8, 2005 7:27:19 PM

Excellent tips!!!Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: Adi at May 5, 2006 9:05:03 AM

thaks a lot fot the tips. Ima now trying to find some material to prepare the GRE, But in Chile doesnt exist information or institutions that help you to prepare the test.

Thanks again and congratulatios for your scores.

Posted by: Sergio at May 9, 2006 12:51:24 PM

I've been preparing for the GRE myself. I know that vocabulary is very important for the verbal section, so I wrote a simple vocabulary quiz to help prepare myself.

You can find it online here:

Posted by: Rhett at Jul 12, 2006 7:52:02 AM

Hi there. I am preparing for the GRE and I am going to take it this November. would you please tell me from where i can download the GRE big book.

Posted by: Pankaj Ghosh at Aug 7, 2006 9:04:06 AM

would u pls suggest me some websites about the solution of GRE big Book with the explanations? n thank u very much........

Posted by: shrikant at Aug 28, 2006 5:17:12 AM

can u give me some websites which provide the complete solutions of GRE big Book for free

Posted by: viswanath at Sep 26, 2006 11:17:29 PM

just a quick note, Nova Language Consultants is based in Santiago de Chile and they prepare for GRE, GMAT, TOEFL and IELTS. Please see their URl and find out more about them. They are pretty good. Really.

Posted by: mauricio at Dec 29, 2006 4:00:36 AM

could anyone pls
inform me about the websites to download the solutions to the GRE big book.Please help.

Posted by: jasmine at Sep 25, 2007 4:07:50 AM

Thanks for the tips! I only wished I had found these tips sooner!

Posted by: erin at Feb 9, 2008 3:13:58 PM

Thank you for your time for the tips!
I finished my graduate school 20 years ago and I decided to go back to school again. You can imagine how stressful taking GRE exam for old people like me. I haven't written a timed essay in 18 years :-) Besides, vocabulary is like a nightmare. I can remember math better than I expected. Your writing gave me a good motivation that I can do it. Also, I will try Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

Posted by: Naime at Jul 2, 2008 2:17:55 PM

THIS IS AWESOME!! I take the GRE in Sept, but you have me so PUMPED and really feeling like I'm able to do this and succeed! Thank you for taking the time to write this! It was so conversational and great! Thanks again..wish me luck!

Posted by: Bridgette at Aug 4, 2008 4:22:14 PM

pls can anyone tell me where can i find the solutions for gre big book

Posted by: ramya at Aug 29, 2008 1:31:45 AM

Thanks a lot!!!!!!
I'm giving my exam in a few days.... the tips got me to be really optimistic.....

Posted by: Su123 at Sep 20, 2008 11:26:35 AM

very useful hints....i can jst adopt few of it... Thank u........

Posted by: Darshan at Sep 23, 2008 12:15:34 PM

Thank you! I am planing to take in fall, and think that I will success after all these tips that I have read above.

Posted by: Nurlan at Jan 26, 2009 11:54:11 PM

First of all thanks for sharing ur experience.
That will be very helpful for my GRE preperations.
Just one thing - Can u plz verify and change the link "here" at "Studying for the Verbal Section". The link has been changed I guess.
Anywayz thanks a ton again.
May god bless u.

Posted by: Megha at Apr 6, 2009 10:28:08 AM

hi, Are GRE bb solutions available anywhere??????

Posted by: rect at Apr 24, 2009 11:48:36 PM

While studying for the GRE Literature I started a study blog and podcast. I'm updating it regularly, and soon it will have audio books of everything you'll need to read for the test. It's called Check it out and let me know what you think!

Posted by: mdubs at Apr 29, 2009 2:51:38 PM