What I learned from taking the GRE

Last year, I decided to take an official GRE. To be honest, the main reason I took the test was to see if I could get a perfect score (bragging rights!). But I also wanted to get more familiar with the test - the GRE only provides one computer test and one paper test (the new version of its study guide will have four tests). So I paid the fee and scheduled a test.

Preparation: I didn't do any serious preparation for the test, other than reviewing statistics and hard probability a little bit (the only math areas in which I didn't feel confident). I didn't review all the weird stat stuff in the ETS guide (I had a gut feeling I wouldn't see it). I didn't take the ETS computer GRE practice test since I've been over it so many times with students, and I didn't do any verbal review (I figured I taught that stuff every day and didn't need to work on it).

Goal: the goal going into the test was 170 verbal 170 quantitative and 6 essay (perfect scores)... why not? I had nothing to lose.

Mental state: I actually had a couple of GRE nightmares a few days before the test in which I was running out of time, didn't know any of the words in a text completion questions, etc. Pretty scary - and telling of my attitude toward the test. I had told a few of my friends I was taking the test, so I knew I'd have to report how I did. The day of the test, I wasn't anxious though (after all, the only thing at stake was my ego!)

Physical: The morning of the test, I ran for a few miles (I knew it would calm me down), and made sure I ate a solid breakfast and lunch (the test was at 12:30).

Check in: At the test center, they didn't let me bring anything into the testing room except my locker key and driver's license. Luckily, they had water available in the lobby. No need to bring pens or pencils. After checking me in, they gave me two pencils and a book of blue scratch paper (which was a little bit annoying - harder to see your own writing on blue than on white).

Essays: my essay prompts were exactly what I would have expected given the examples in the ETS GRE book and on the ETS website. I did a little brainstorming and started writing. I finished both essays early, which was great since I had time to correct a few typos I'd made and add a sentence or two. I think I rocked the essays - which made me feel good since though I've been tutoring essays for years I also haven't written one for years.

First Verbal Section: like I expected, all the questions were in the medium-difficulty range. The text completions didn't really try to get too tricky with things like double negatives or double shifts; most of the sentences were straightforward. I realized I have an eye for the types of topics the GRE likes - they like to throw in a couple of sentences where the right answers initially contradict your first instinct. For instance, there was a question about mountains and the atmosphere where I could pick either that the mountains warmed or cooled the air - I suspected the answer would turn out to be cooled, since I thought they'd try to prey on people's first instinct, that the atmosphere is warming (due to global warming). I forced myself to justify my words based on context clues.

The first verbal section had one long reading comp passage, which I read. Don't remember the topic. There was one GMAT-critical-reasoning style question which was pretty easy - strengthen the argument (BTW, doing GMAT critical reasoning practice is good practice for these types of questions on the GRE). They also threw in the requisite "select a sentence" and "two highlighted portion" types of questions.

First math section: again, all medium-difficulty. Nice variety of questions. Very similar to the ETS CD test.

Second verbal: big jump in vocab difficulty, but surprisingly, not in sentence complexity. I have a good vocabulary, so this section actually seemed easier than the first. There were not any vocab words I thought were obscure - I think the GRE does a good job of selecting realistic words that one might come across in the real world. I was excited to see a word I'd learned recently (sophist) as an answer to one of the text completion questions. However, I might have gotten a sentence equivalence wrong here - could not remember what either "proscribe" or "enjoin" meant, and I don't remember if they were the right answers. I may at one point have considered making mnemonics for those words but decided against it since, for me, their definitions are the opposite of what I'd expect (they both mean to prohibit/condemn). The reading comprehension had an obvious difficulty jump as well - I remember a dense passage about literature and a very science-y science passage. Another "critical reasoning" style question, which I thought was easy. The "select one or more" types of question were easier than I thought they'd be.

Second math: this was the toughest section for me. The difficulty jumped, but most of the questions were easy-ish for me. The problem was, I didn't, for whatever reason, go fast enough on the easier questions. And there were two questions that I did not immediately know how to do. If I had built up enough of a time surplus, I would have probably gotten both (I figured both out at home). One was a weird perimeter question with two trapezoids that turned out to be straight-up logic and no real math, and the other was a creative permutation (i.e., I couldn't just use a formula). Both weren't HARD, but since I didn't know how to do them, I had to guess on both. And unfortunately, I didn't have time to do the last question in the section (which I DID know how to do).

Another thing I encountered on this section was mild panic - when I had those two questions left and only about 3 minutes on the clock, my brain definitely didn't work as well as it usually does. I am used to doing math questions in a relaxed setting with no time pressure - I wish I'd practiced a few CATs before taking the real test to build my speed and get used to the pressure.

Third verbal: I suppose this might have been the experimental verbal - but I have no way of knowing, since it was just as hard as the second verbal. Tough vocab everywhere. Again, no really confusing text completion or sentence equivalence, but I encountered a question with "proscribe" and "enjoin" AGAIN. I guessed those words, and they turned out to be right (now that I know what they mean). Super dense reading comp, but when I wrote my GRE practice tests, I studied the test so much that I could kind of predict what the answer would be. I didn't use a whole lot of technique for the passages - just read the passages and eliminated wrong answers. Getting the point of the area was the main skill tested.

And the scores were.... 169V, 166Q (unofficially). 99th and 94th percentile, respectively. I think I have a shot at a 6 on the essays, but I'll find out in a few weeks.

In addition to my usual advice for students, I'd recommend reading scholarly journals about literature, science, social sciences, etc. to get used to the density of the passages on the test. Get the GMAT study guide and do a bunch of critical reasoning questions (since the GRE only publishes a few). Timed practice is essential; scrutiny of official GRE material is crucial (no one, including me, imitates the little nuances of their questions perfectly).

Math questions: there were NO hard probability or stats questions. I have no idea why the ETS GRE book spends twenty pages explaining things like interquartile range and mutually exclusive probability. There were plenty of word problems, a hard question that mixed sequences and exponent rules, frequency, range, median plus all the algebra and geometry you'd expect. I had to know what standard deviation was but not how to calculate it. Basically, the same stuff that came up on the CD test and in the book.

Also, NEVER and I mean NEVER skip past a question without filling in a guess. Mark it, but guess. I can almost guarantee that you'll either forget or not have time to come back to it when you're running out of time and using all your brainpower to figure out a hard question.

Overall, I'm a little bummed because I wanted a perfect score, but I don't think it could have happened this time. If I retook the test, I'd spend more time doing CATs so I could have a time surplus to deal with the math problems that stumped me.

For tutors: I'd highly recommend taking a real GRE, if only to get more familiar with the test and to have "been there / done that". At the very least, take the CD test all at once. Imitating a real GRE question is hard for test-prep writers and that's why it's rarely done very well. I definitely have more confidence now about telling students what I think will appear on the test.


Vince K.

GRE Specialist

50+ hours
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