2003 should have been an auspicious year for the twin border towns of Laufenburg, Germany and Laufenburg, Switzerland. Separated by the Rhine River, the two municipalities had jointly begun construction on a bridge that would meet in the middle. But as the two sides approached each other, it became apparent that one half was taller than the other. The problem? Both teams had used “sea level” to determine the height of the bridge, but they had used different seas! The Germans used the North Sea, while the Swiss used the Mediterranean. Although the engineers were aware of this difference, they had made a calculation error when trying to account for it.
When embarking on a grand project like building a bridge – or studying for graduate school admissions tests like the GRE – small errors in the process can have large consequences down the road. When deciding how to study for the GRE, it’s important to avoid bad habits and common mistakes. Take a look at a few of them below!
Mistake 1: Studying without preparing
You know the Pythagorean theorem cold, and you’ve practiced on hundreds of reading passages. So you show up on test day ready to rock the GRE’s socks, but things don’t quite go as planned.First, you have to wait for 20 minutes while the person checking in ahead of you sorts out a paperwork issue with his GRE registration. Then, the test center administrator is inexplicably rude to you. After being patted down for contraband (yes, this actually happens), you walk uncomfortably into the test room and see dozens of test-takers all working on different exams. People are coming and going. You start the test with a full hour of GRE Analytical Writing, which you haven’t really been practicing (after all, the essays don’t really matter). Now it’s time for the most important sections on the GRE–Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning–but you’re exhausted and famished! Should have brought a snack…The next few hours are a blur. Finally the test is over, and you have no idea if you should even choose to see your GRE scores.
In the immortal words of Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth (if you’d prefer a more literary quip, see the one from Robert Burns about mice and men). The point here is that you must be prepared for a few extra layers of stress on test day. How do you do this?
First, be sure to simulate the testing environment while you practice. This means that rather than holing up in the comfort of your own room with a nice cup of cocoa, study at the library, where you’ll have to deal with the kind of minor distractions that come up on test day. If you have a friend who recently took the test, ask him or her about the logistics (do NOT ask about actual test material—that will get you in trouble). If you have several testing centers to choose from in your city, take a look at online reviews to determine which one has the best reputation.
Mistake 2: The infinite practice loop
Many students complete a practice set, get frustrated at the results, and immediately take another to try and feel better. Before long, they’ve exhausted all of the good practice material, and they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.
A much more productive use of your time involves carefully reviewing the errors you’ve already made. Here’s what that looks like:
- Take a timed practice set/practice test.
- Mark the questions you miss.
- Re-attempt those questions without looking at the correct answers.
- For the problems you can’t self-correct, carefully read through the answer explanations.
- Identify whether your mistakes fall under one content area or question format (e.g, Geometry Quantitative Comparison questions).
- Keep the focus of future practice on those question types.
Facing your own silly mistakes is the equivalent of burning your finger on the stove. It’s something you have to experience tangibly–not just intellectually–to avoid repeating in the future. Obviously, this is one of the most frustrating ways to study. It’s also one of the most effective. Like any skill or mindset in life, success on the GRE hinges on self-reflection and self-evaluation. If that seems daunting, you might consider working with a tutor who can provide some more analysis on your performance.
And speaking of exhausting good practice material…be sure to treat the official PowerPrep GRE practice tests like the rare resources that they are. Remember that you only get two free PowerPrep tests. The other two cost about $40 each!
Mistake 3: The walking dictionary
Fully half of the questions on the Verbal section are Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence. So that means you’re going to have to memorize thousands of new words in the next few weeks, right?
Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose you spend an hour every night drilling vocab and committing high-level words to memory. What’s the probability that a given word you study will actually appear on the test? Pretty low. What’s the probability that there will still be words you don’t know? Pretty high.
A better way to study is to expose yourself to a large amount of vocabulary without worrying about memorization. Very often, all you need to pick the correct answer is a vague sense of what a word means. Let’s have a look at the example below:
“John had trouble inviting visitors to his house due to the _____ smell.”
First off, are we talking about a good smell or a bad smell? Clearly bad, as John is having trouble inviting people over. Now, you might not know what “putrid” (the correct answer) means, but you still pick it, because you have a sense that it is a “bad” word. Why do you get that feeling? Because you’ve seen it before. You don’t remember the exact definition, but that’s OK–you don’t need to!
Thus, in your vocabulary studying, you should favor quantity over quality. If you have a pack of GRE vocab flashcards, crack it out once a week and read through it. But don’t waste your time trying to commit all of the words to memory.
Mistake 4: Binge studying
The GRE is an important test. So important that some students decide they will do nothing but study for several weeks. They take time off work. They have 8 hour marathon study sessions. They neglect social niceties like cutting their fingernails.
The problem with the above approach (aside from hygiene considerations) is that it’s not particularly effective. Even if you only have a few weeks to study, working on GRE material for more than 3 or 4 hours a day will yield diminishing returns and likely lead to burnout.
This means that rather than doing practice for the sake of practice, you want to be intentional about it. Don’t fall into an infinite practice loop (see Mistake #2). Instead, identify exactly which content areas and question formats you’re struggling with, and focus on those.
Mistake 5: Misusing tutoring Sessions
A knowledgeable, patient GRE tutor can be a lifesaver. However, many students use tutors as a crutch: they’ll go into tutoring sessions with a laundry list of missed problems and ask for a step-by-step demonstration of how to solve them. Since tutors are generally helpful people who enjoy GRE questions, they will likely oblige. While this dynamic might feel productive in the moment, it will not help you long-term.
You should view your tutoring sessions as the “tip of the spear”–precious time to cover new material and focus on higher-level concepts. To that end, make sure that every meeting with your tutor has at least a rough agenda beforehand. Make it clear to the tutor which areas are giving you trouble so that he or she can prepare a detailed lesson – if you need help with GRE math, ask for it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never go over questions with your tutor. But you should only review those you are unable to figure out yourself after multiple attempts. Consider how cases are triaged in medicine: Does every sprained pinky toe need to go straight to the operating room? No. Certain situations are more urgent than others. It’s a waste of time to have your tutor explain a problem for 3 minutes, only to find that you simply forgot to distribute a negative!
Mistake 6: Premature focus on the clock
There’s no way around it–the GRE is a timed test. You’ll have less than two minutes per question on the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections. Knowing this, you might want to immediately break out the stopwatch and time every practice set you take. However, this is not a great idea–at least, not at first.
When training for a sport like track or weightlifting, you always start with form. It is crucial to know how to perform a movement well before attempting to do it quickly. A premature focus on speed can lead to injury!
At the start of your GRE journey, you should primarily be concerned with accuracy, no matter how long a question takes you. Taking problems slowly at first will allow you to think creatively without the added stress of the clock. Once you start hitting your score goals on practice sets, you can add in that pressure. Until then, though, keep it slow and steady.
Take the lesson from the two Laufenburgs – a little misstep can derail a huge project. The GRE is one of the most important grad school requirements. As you build the bridge that will carry you toward test day success and formulate a GRE study plan, be sure to avoid the common mistakes above!