I wrote this post to document my preparation for the GRE General Test and share it with friends who are appearing for the GRE soon. As if there isn’t enough of this out there 🙂
Part I has general preparation gyaan that helped me focus. Skip to Part II for GRE specific stuff.
Part I: General advice on prepping for a competitive exam
Cal Newport argues in this book that deep work is a skill with massive payoffs and surprising rarity. What is deep work, as he defines it? the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It sounds so obvious that you wonder why this needs to be proven or argued for at all. The first part of the book, The Idea of Deep Work uses examples of deep work from practitioners in widely different domains. The second part presents four rules to get better at deep work. I find myself going back to his most provocative chapter, “Quit Social Media” every time I feel that deluge of resentment at having wasted 58 minutes on Facebook & Instagram on a weekday night. But that keeda needs to removed from the jadd.
Watch his TEDx talk on quitting social media here.
Why is this relevant? Like a ton of people my age, I find it awfully hard to sit with a single task and complete it at one go, let alone to do it well. This incompetence, especially when it comes to academics, is cloaked under the oft heard “I’m only good when I study at the last minute”. BS. I think the relief at completing a task last minute dwarfs the regret at pushing things to the end, and we continue this self-deception as long as we can. Eventually you find that you really want to get good at something, and this isn’t the best way to do things.
That the GRE test itself requires deep focus (~4 hours). And since it tests a skill — not familiarity with material you can cram for with an all-nighter as was the case with most college/school exams — mastering the skill requires consistent, focused effort. A lot of arguments made in Deep Work helped me avoid the rationalisation of haphazard effort. I also tweaked & used some of his methods to structure my study period of 25 days.
Speaking of scheduling study periods, some more obvious but oft disregarded advice from an actuarial coaching site:
“Scheduling your day around your study sessions is far more effective than scheduling studying around your day.”
Replacing ‘I don’t have enough time’ with ‘This isn’t a priority on my calendar.’ is a good way to call yourself out for not making the time. Why you didn’t make the time is irrelevant: the function of this is to avoid the self-deception of whether one did or did not study for that day with some vague “I tried”, “I did a little bit” etc.
More from that article: “If it rains and a baseball team is unable to practice, they go indoors and practice what they can. Similarly, if you’re pressed for time or energy over the course of the day, studying for your exam may be difficult. However, if you let yourself take a day off today, it will be even easier to take a day off the next time that studying is inconvenient. Maintain your rhythm and practice what you can. Don’t let yourself get off track, even if you promise to do twice the work tomorrow. Those promises are difficult to keep with this level of material.”
Magoosh & a whole bunch of other websites have study plans for different lengths of time, depending on your situation. I had blocked off a month and kept nothing on my agenda except for GRE prep and think that was an ideal scenario.
Part II: GRE-specific prep
Before getting into resources & tips for different sections, I want to talk about my process. Building your GRE error log was probably the most useful advice I found. I cannot recommend it enough.
This spreadsheet has all my logs. The first sheet has me setting my targets each morning in one column, and then info about what I actually ended up doing that day. I think it’s really important to know the very specific gap between what you planned and what you think you did – because it’s easy to say that “I did some Reading comprehension” without mentioning how many questions you did, how many you corrected, and what your initial plan was. After a couple of days I had a good idea of what my capacity to work was like, (and also began freaking out about the test) leading to my next sheet, “Planning backwards”. The difference between the previous sheet and this one is that I was setting targets working backwards, and much more realistically. Still marked “done”/”not done” for each unit. (Red row is test day! The colour scheme was to make sure I was freaking out adequately enough.)
The next two sheets have my error logs for Verbal Reasoning & Reading Comprehension. I set up a loop for every single question I did: marking ones I got wrong, screenshotting & putting them into the sheet, explaining why I picked a certain answer and writing down what I should have looked for if I wanted to get the answer right. Making your reasons explicit for each incorrect answer — for example: rushed reading, unfamiliar with the word, got lost in the “forest” of clauses, etc — gives you very specific skills to work on.
The sheet also also has bits and pieces of tips that organically emerged when I was looking for why I was making certain mistakes. This is where I think guides like Magoosh & Manhattan Prep are super helpful: they have tagged the types of mistakes people make, and then suggested strategies for not making those mistakes. Their most useful advice isn’t along the lines of “Do RC well by doing X”, but “You will make X mistake. Here’s how to not make it.”
But the most important thing the Error Log did for me is to reduce how often I said the following statements: “How could I get such a dumb question wrong?” “There’s no way I’m getting that 165 in Verbal.” “Don’t want to go to grad school anymore :(“. These useless ego battles & disappointment spirals were replaced by a very detached process of noting down errors, redoing questions, and looking for tips.
Start with thoroughly going through the ETS website about the kinds of questions asked across all the sections. Download the POWERPREP software that gives you two full length free tests. It’s a good idea to do your first mock from this test & get a sense of where you stand, and what the types of questions are. I did this & a couple of free online sections to get a sense of what I really need to focus on.
The Quantitative Reasoning pdf on the ETS website is great and reviews all the material you need to know. Mostly 10th Grade math, plus some basic statistics concepts.
I didn’t have a problem with concepts overall but needed to do a ton of practice questions. This book was perfect: 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems (Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides) . Buying this book also gives you access to Manhattan Prep’s online quizzes with 15-30 questions per chapter. Doing 2-3 concepts a day in timed & exam conditions (say, 25-30 mins a quiz) really got me comfortable with problem solving. After completing all the material, I looked for tougher math questions — extra tricky, or require using a bunch of concepts together — and did those. Even if you get them wrong, your mind gets some good warming up.
I don’t have any notes or links for this section because it was all written in a notebook that I left behind at home. Just one very useful link:
5 helpful tips for Quantitative comparison questions (these I learnt by heart because I hate comparison questions).
1) Vocab is a big fear – and legitimately so. Before I started learning new words, I looked at methods of learning them. Some principles stood out:
a) Cramming doesn’t work. Knowing the etymology & the usage of the words is key. I read Norman Lewis’ Word Power Made Easy. for the ‘word roots’ approach to learning vocab. He’s witty, kind and you get the impression that he was a widely adored professor. It would have been useless to just read and not do the exercises in the book, so don’t make that mistake!
After learning a new word, knowing how is is used in context is the only way to crack the Sentence Equivalence & Text completion section. They often have options that on the surface are very similar, but in usage they could be worlds apart.
b) I needed a system for learning, which involved a bunch of processes: finding words, noting them down, sorting them into different groups (ranging from “completely unfamiliar & needs daily revision” to “I sorta know this so looking at them once in 2-3 days should be OK”), quizzing yourself frequently, and liking the thrill of knowing new words.
i) Finding words & noting them
I primed myself to be almost automatic about noting down any word that I couldn’t confidently use in front of a room of well read. Don’t want to be a pretentious jerk! I kept a notebook with me at all times for this. First source of new words was the Word Power Made Easy book. Another source: the options of Sentence Equivalence & Text completion exercises. While doing every question, apart from just solving it, I highlighted every option that I didn’t understand & noted it down. After a couple of questions, as I checked my answers, I would go back to the dictionary & the “use in a sentence” sites to note down the meaning. After noting them down, at the end of each day I would feed these words onto my Quizlet app. (more about this in a bit) Only after a while of making this complete loop automatic did I get to lists of “Top 300 words to know for the GRE”. Lists otherwise can be so overwhelming. There are some good GRE vocab lists on Quizlet itself — but, get to it whenever you are ready with some knowledge of word roots & have a process for noting them down.
ii) Sorting them into different groups
Quizlet is so damn good! For learning anything, but especially for improving your vocab. Download it ASAP or open an account on your laptop/PC. Create a list with 5-6 words & do a quiz to get comfortable with the interface.
I had lists of words grouped on the different bases – some according to subject, some according to a common source, and some just relating to how much they frustrated me. Here are two examples:
The logic to the list names doesn’t matter so much as just letting them emerge organically. As you progress with building your vocab, your brain makes these patterns or baskets anyway — making those baskets explicit helps you remember them in these clusters. Grouping words under ‘scolding/lying’ helped me remember the nuances among different words that sort of mean the same. Magoosh has a bunch of these lists, for example: GRE Word List: The Dreaded “Imp” Vocabulary Words.
First thing in the morning, or during walks/waiting around, I’d keep quizzing on Quizlet, starring what I didn’t get, and sometimes creating a new list of words that I would consistently not remember.
3) Falling in love — or at least, trying to form a positive association with this activity! I would quiz dad sometimes and see how much he remembered from his GMAT days/if he had read these words somewhere. Or text my callipygian and tyro friends. Never hurts to annoy people with archaic words.
For Reading Comprehension:
This was the hardest part of my prep. I have never been a slow, voracious or careful reader, and like most humans, critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to me (part of the reason why we run Student Think Tank for India!) Resources I found useful:
- ETS Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions
Did this end to end. They have 3 practice sections for each type of Verbal Reasoning question, ranging from easy to hard. You’ll likely get a good mix of those. ETS-made questions are the most reliable types of questions to practice with, because, well, they make the GRE.
- GRE Reading Comprehension & Essays (Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides)
Great guide once you get around to making your error log for RC questions.
- Some chapters from the book Understanding Arguments that I had from a Coursera course. Not necessary reading for Reading Comprehension, but definitely helped to do the Logic-based RC questions well.
I started with the examples on the ETS site, and read typical examples of ‘6’ and ‘5’ essays. Magoosh’s article on the writing section was good next step that I followed quite religiously: did the brainstorming for a couple of days, and wrote about 9-10 essays in all. I tried to find 2-3 supporting examples for each of the “buckets” of essay topics from books/articles I had already read and things that I was interested in. In the final exam, I had a solid example for my issue essay because of this. I only looked for specific advice on organisation and clarity in writing, but completely disregarded any tips on “embellishing” your essay (like learning up quotations to use in your introduction! Who writes like that?)
Mock tests & the final exam
These were my scores on 3 mock tests, each taken 3-4 days apart:
160 V, 162 Q
162 V, 163 Q
162 V, 165 Q
Final score on the GRE:
165 V, 165 Q, 5.0 on the Writing section.
It’s a fairly linear curve, with 2-3 points added to my score with every test + 3 days of practice. I suppose this is what indicates the reliability and validity of GRE scoring. And completely does away with any wishful thinking that your poor mock test score is going to suddenly transform into a magical one.
If you’ve reached this point — I hope you found this useful!