How to Study for the GRE

I must admit that when I was studying for the GRE, I at some point decided to throw the quantitive section. I have bipolar disorder type I, and I was going through a rapid cycling episode where I was switching between some form of mania and mixed episodes/depression. I was able to easily concentrate on verbal because I graduated with a degree in English, I’m a small press author, and I read all the time so it was easy to hyper-focus, but I could not at the time get my mind to focus on quantitative when it was always moving so fast. But I threw that section with the knowledge that the school I got into, which is the University of St. Augustine, only cares about having a combined score. So some PT schools only care about combined while others do care about individual scores in each section. You just need to be sure of which one your school is.

When I was studying for it I asked a friend of mine who got into an English graduate program how she handled the quantitative section, and she, too, threw it. Even so, she came away with a good score thanks to her verbal, so I took her advice and decided to put all of my energy into studying verbal, because it just came easily to me; thus, I’m mostly going to talk about the verbal. I’ll try to offer some advice for the quantitative, but keep in mind I am writing this post largely assuming at least one of your schools cares only for combined scores. So this is Tip One: if you’re weak in one section but strong in another, put your energy into the strong section if your school doesn’t care about individual scores.

Tip Two: Don’t even bother with flashcards. I bought an entire stack of Manhattan’s 1,000 flashcards, but as I went through them, I began to realize how laborious studying and memorizing all of that was going to be. I thought to myself, ‘There has to be a better way to study than this,’ and it turns out it is highly recommended that you don’t utilize rote memorization. The GRE isn’t about that–and it won’t let you get away with that and will in fact find ways to punish you for doing so. You can’t simply know what a word means, after all. You have to fully understand how to use it, which flashcards don’t teach. You have three sets of questions you can be asked in the verbal:

1. Reading Comprehension: exactly what it sounds like.
2. Text Completion: you have one to three blanks you have to fill in with the correct word(s).
3. Sentence Equivalence: consists of only one sentence with one blank and a myriad of answer choices that involve what words fit into this blank.

You can receive more details here.

Tip Three: As a continuation of tip two, some people do have a hard time trying to understand why you simply can’t memorize a bunch of words and do fine. After all, the words you’re memorizing are likely to pop up on the GRE, right? Perhaps, but the English language also has what seems like an infinite number of words, and any one of those words can and will pop up on the GRE. When are you going to have time to actually study anything else if you’re spending all of that time memorizing?

But here’s a little known secret for you (at least, in my experience, it’s been little known to people I have told who are studying the GRE): The better you do on a section, the harder it gets. This is why you can’t merely memorize. I believe you start out medium and can get flung to either easy or hard or even very hard depending on how you’re doing. If you’re doing well, you will get flung to hard and you will most likely see words you have never seen in your life, which is why context is crucial, plus process of elimination. If you’re doing the paper test, which I think is hard to get, count your lucky stars.

So how do you study then if the odds seem already stacked against you?

Tip Four: Begin by already practicing the verbal sections. I used the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems when I didn’t have computer availability. When I had computer availability, I used Magoosh. The latter does cost a subscription fee, but for me it was the BEST study aid I had. I had ETS’s book, but I wasn’t impressed with it at all and thought it did a rather horrible job explaining answers for both quantitative and verbal, which is why I’m not recommending it here.

Magoosh is amazing because you have what seems an infinite number of practice problems and even a couple of practice tests you can do. It does a constant score calculation that gives you a general idea of how you’ll do test day, and mine was pretty darn close. It will also automatically change the difficulty for you depending on how you do if you have the questions set up that way during any one study session.

You have a 7 day free trial, so go on ahead and give it a try now. I honestly wish I would have done better on the GRE because I put Magoosh to shame, but my rapid cycling episode really made it difficult to study for the GRE and I already had it scheduled so I just had to do the best I could.

In any case, choose your favorite study aid and practice, practice, practice whenever you can. The only way to get good with the verbal section is to understand how each of the three works.

Tip Five: Instead of using flashcards, read books. I would list books, but all you simply need to do is type ‘books to read for the GRE’ in Google, and you’ll be presented with plenty of choices. Now while I couldn’t recognize some words on the GRE itself, I was actually surprised by how many words from Magoosh were in the novels I read. ‘Verdant’ comes to mind. However, reading instead of memorizing flashcards serves to do two things:

1. Because you're reading, you already don't feel like you're studying. Hopefully you love reading (you're applying to graduate school, so you probably should by this point in your life). But it will be much easier to retain new words you learn, especially if you're using a dictionary for all the words you don't know.
2. It'll be easier to recall the words. While you're taking the test, if you come across a word you know you read, you can simply recall it by reaching deep within your mind for the book you read it from. It's much easier to recall memorable moments than it is dull moments--and let's be honest, who wouldn't prefer to be on the porch, sipping lemonade, reading a book, versus being locked up in your room in silence doing some dry studying?

But books don’t have to be the only thing. Any form of entertainment with colorful words that keeps your attention can work.

Tip Six: Do the easiest first and save the hardest for last. This is especially true for the reading comprehension, which will take up most of your time in the verbal section. And as for the reading comprehension, all you can do is practice this, and again I highly recommend Magoosh because it will explain to you why your answer was wrong, which makes you better at doing the reading comprehension section. This section is not trying to trick you.

The GRE, at the end of the day, is all about knowing how to do the GRE. It’s not really about testing if you know 10,000 words or remember geometry from 9th or 10th grade. It’s testing your adaptability, which grad school demands of you.

Tip Seven: When studying for the GRE AW, it actually does help to practice. You’ll have two essays to write: an issue and an argument–and yes, any of those topics linked can be on the exam. I got one that I practiced the day prior, which was great luck for me.

You’ll have thirty minutes for each one. Here is the basic structure that will help you get the score you need, which goes from 1-6. I averaged out a 4.5. Some schools will list the AW score (mine didn’t), but aim for a 3.5-4.0 at the minimum.

First off, you should do a quick outline that has your thesis and three main points that you want to talk about. Having it in front of you will keep you from developing writer’s block.

Your first paragraph should be your introductory paragraph that includes your thesis statement, which is basically a summarized answer to whatever topic question you’re given. Your next 2-3 paragraphs should then be your main points that expand upon the thesis statement. Generally it’s best to have at least five sentences in each paragraph, but it’s the quality of your essay, not the quantity, that matters, although essays that are longer typically do have more quality to them than those that are shorter. And you’ll learn this if you decide to read actual scored essays that have been written. (I recommend doing so.)

Your last paragraph, your conclusion, should simply summarize everything you’ve said in the essay. You don’t want it to be a repeat of your first paragraph, but you also do not want it introducing any new points.

Don’t panic that you only have thirty minutes. Absolutely no one can produce a masterpiece in thirty minutes. But also try not to use up the whole thirty minutes because you do want to leave enough time to go back and seek out any errors. From what I understand, scorers aren’t super picky about typos because of that time limit, but write the essay and proofread as though you don’t want any.

Please do a thorough reading of the difference between an issue and argumentative essay. In my opinion, one is more difficult than the other. I believe I struggled more with the argumentative one than the issue one because you have to write based on a lot of assumptions of information that isn’t given to you. I think the topic had something to do with a hospital switching to a new hand sanitizer because other hospitals were using the same hand sanitizer and noticed a reduction in bacteria. But I had to explain there could be other factors behind the reduction in bacteria, a whole correlation does not imply causation thing. It was difficult because it felt like it required a base of knowledge that I simply did not have at the time, but you can make stuff up so long as it is not so outlandish that it is an obvious falsehood. After all, the scorers are not going to be fact checking.

Tip Eight: This is my last one, which is quantitative. All I can tell you for this one is that going back and re-learning algebra and geometry and even statistics won’t help you. Like the flashcards, it’s simply too much information to cram into your head. Granted, I’m the last person who should be telling you anything considering my score was pitiful for quant, but, at some point, I stopped studying because I. Just. Could. Not. Concentrate. Hypomania/mania consists of bullet train thoughts, and because GRE math did not come easily to me, it was impossible to practice. I can do math. I was taking precalculus the summer I was studying for the GRE and getting 100s on all my tests. GRE math is just different.

You’ll read recommendations not to use the calculator, but I did, and I am being honest when I say I did my best not to do any guessing during the actual exam but to actually try based on the limited practice that I had. I still had some time left over using that calculator. I think Magoosh has tricks you can use for calculating decimals and the like, because I can tell you I had a heck of a time trying to re-learn dividing decimals. Ultimately, however, I didn’t use any of them, though they are clever; I suggest learning them.

But when I was actually studying, Magoosh did a very good job at explaining why my answers were wrong because they include videos that detail how to go about getting the right answers. So just practicing this section is the best thing you can do for yourself. Again, don’t try to relearn math you haven’t done in some time. Dive in headfirst, and you will be ahead of those who sit around trying to learn math they haven’t taken in a few years.

Next post will look into writing your essay for PTCAS or any essay in general, as some schools require their own essays.

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