[The article is a continuation of the series about applying for higher education (https://malithjayaweera.com/2018/12/apply-phd-usa-10-steps/) written with the intention of helping young and brilliant undergraduates to succeed in their graduate studies]
An important question that I students always ask is “how much time do you need to prepare for GRE”? Honestly, I cannot answer that question because it varies from person to person. But I only had 2 months (60 days) before my exam and I had to follow a strict plan. There were a few days when I could not achieve my targets but I adjusted my study plan to cover all the material that I had.
With such a tight schedule, although I was comfortable with the quantitative section, I was worried about the verbal section. However, I planned to achieve a perfect score and the mentality is really important. Because when things get tough, your ambitions are the main driving factor.
Having established a clear goal in your mind, I will explain all the steps that I took and the strict techniques I followed aimed at getting a perfect score.
1. Study Materials
Study Materials can be a crucial factor. I purchased the following two sets of books.
There are other many other publishers who sell material for GRE but according to what I have experienced they are not worth the investment. The worse thing that could happen is not loosing money but hindering your opportunities of getting a higher score. Therefore, you need to be very careful in selecting your study material.
2. Know Your Game
You need to have an overall plan to master the GRE. The General GRE test has three sections.
- Analytical Writing (60 minute section)
- Quantitative Reasoning (Two 35 minute sections)
- Verbal Reasoning (Two 30 minute sections)
The GRE also has an experimental section. This means that you will get either a verbal or a quantitative UNSCORED section. This will be additional to the four scored sections mentioned above and there is no way of knowing which section is scored or not. So, you will have to do your best in all of the sections. According to GRE, the statistics from the unscored sections are used to improve their future tests. Next we will briefly look at the sections and the specific strategy I followed.
2.1 Analytical Writing
In this section, you will get two sub tasks (each will be 30 minutes): issue task and the argument task. The issue task is where you have to decide on a position with respect to the topic and present your own views. You can use your own experiences, knowledge and examples. The argument task is where you have to analyze the logic of the given position and suggest how and where the reasoning might be faulty.
I prepared for the section just to get a score above 4. The total score is 6. Investing a large amount of time to the section will not affect other sections. However, I did dedicate 3 days out of my plan to fully concentrate on the analytical writing section. The official GRE guides were very useful as they contained detailed essay examples.
2.2 Quantitative Section
To succeed in the quantitative section, I knew I had to practice a lot. As soon as you read the question, you have to be able to figure out the steps necessary to get to the answer. Since it’s a race against time, you cannot make mistakes.
5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems or commonly known as the Manhattan Prep is the best choice because it has sample questions from different areas such as probability, prime numbers and combinatorics. I completed all the chapters and the sample tests at the end. Specially the section marked as “If you are not aiming for a perfect math score, we absolutely recommend that you skip these problems” (Chapter 30. Advanced Quant). I ensured to do everything timed. On average you will get 1.75 minutes per question but I always targeted to achieve an average time of 1.5 minutes per question.
2.3 Verbal Section
This is the section where most students get it wrong. Most students blindly believe that it’s just about studying the whole dictionary (some study 3000+ words). But the GRE tests your logical and reasoning capabilities. Therefore, you need a very specific strategy to master the verbal section.
The verbal section consists of three types of questions: Sentence Completion, Sentence Equivalence and Reading Comprehension. Vocabulary is important for Sentence Completion, Sentence Equivalence. However, usually 50% of the questions are from Reading Comprehension (This is not a rule. Rather something that I observed). Therefore, you have to be able to read, understand and interpret the information to succeed in this section. This is a skill that you will need in your academic life.
Only knowing words and their meanings won’t help for Sentence Completion and Equivalence. There are specific ways to identify the flow of phrases and to figure out the correct answer. For me, Official GRE Super Power Pack, Second Edition was very helpful in learning different techniques.
Does this mean that you don’t have to study words? I think you have to. I learnt 800+ words during the two month period. However, I did not use flashcards. My technique was to do GRE verbal exercises in the study materials and whenever I came across a word I didn’t know, I wrote it in a notebook, looked up the meaning and wrote a usage. I did this to all 800+ words. It was tough but definitely worth it. Every two weeks, I revise all the words covered up to then by repeating the same exercise. But this time, I do not use a dictionary to find the meanings but I try to remember the meanings.
I saw a lot of reviews online that the Manhattan verbal exercises are not effective. The words in their sentence completion exercises are difficult. But I studied those words and it really helped to figure out the word roots. Some words have interesting histories behind them. During the time period, my go to dictionary was https://www.merriam-webster.com/. Merriam-Webster provides a comprehensive knowledge on words and their roots.
I was on a tight schedule and I had no time to lose. Therefore, planning was a critical step. I used Google Calendars and I have been using it for all my academic planning since then. It has been very helpful to keep track of multiple meetings with advisors, teaching hours, research work, toastmasters club responsibilities and personal goals.
3.1 How to Plan?
First I marked the exam date on my calendar and scheduled all of my test exams. For example, my actual exam was on a Wednesday. Therefore, on each Wednesday of every week, I scheduled a mock GRE exam. I had four GRE exams (2 online tests freely available and 2 tests from Official GRE Super Power Pack, Second Edition).
Next, I scheduled all the Math chapters and Verbal Chapters from 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems to be completed in the first 30 days. During the next 15 days, I planned to do exercises from Official GRE Super Power Pack, Second Edition) and the last 15 days were reserved for mixed exercises from both the Manhattan book and the Official GRE study guide. Especially, the last week was reserved for warmup exercises (Practice sets). I started with the easy sets, then moved on to difficult sets and finally closer to the exam, attempted medium difficulty questions. I did this to improve my confidence as I was approaching the real exam.
3.2 Sticking to the Plan
Sometimes unforeseen events happen. I remember, that I was sick for four days with fever. Therefore, I had to reschedule the work that I planned to do during those days. But force yourself to stick to the plan as much as possible and have goals in your way. My goal to finish the Manhattan book within the first 30 days, really helped to motivate me to stick to the plan.
It doesn’t really matter if you plan perfectly and prepare 100%, if you don’t execute it to perfection. On the exam date, you need to consider food and hydration. The exam could go up to 4 hours and you need a lot of energy to solve problems and make decisions.
You need to do a carb loading. If you’re in a cutting phase for physique purposes just forget about it for one day. I made omelette sandwiches so that I could eat when I was traveling to the exam center. Each sandwich used two slices of toasted butter bread coated with peanut butter, sandwiching an omelette with shallots in between.
Traffic is beyond control. Therefore, three days before the exam, I did a mock travel plan. I woke up and followed the same route that I would take to the exam on the real day. This gave me the opportunity to identify any places that I should be careful (eg:- missing a bus, if so when is the next bus).
My exam was scheduled at 8.30 AM. But I went to the test center around 7.30 AM. As soon as I went to the center, the staff started the screening process. During this time, I figured out where the rest rooms were. Because, in between the GRE exam, you get a 10 minute break. I had already planned to take the break as it would allow me to relax ;). In this particular test center, the restrooms were located far away. Therefore, I had to run on my way but decided to walk back so that would allow me to calm down.
Was I nervous? Yes. But I had worked hard and I knew I had to calm down and focus. When I saw my results on the screen at the end of the exam, I was over the moon. I was sad that I lost one point in the quant section but I was very happy about my verbal score.
Hope this clears some doubts about the GRE general test. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.