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GRE Prep in 6 Steps

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I've been a private GRE tutor since 2008, and I know that the vast majority of people self-study for the test. However, there is so much information out there about how to prepare than it can be confusing. To make things worse, a lot of popular GRE study material, in my opinion, really isn't very good. So if you're self-studying for the test, I've put together a guide to organizing what can feel like an overwhelming project. Ready? Let's get started.

Step 1: Get Familiar with the GRE

The company that writes the standardized test known as the GRE (which stands for Graduate Record Exam) is called ETS (Educational Testing Services). On its website, you can get information about the test's structure, scoring method, and about how to sign up for the exam. You can get a baseline score by downloading their practice test software, called PowerPrep2. Once you install the software, you can take one of the timed practice tests. You can save and resume the test, but take each section all at once for a realistic score.

Step 2: Goal Setting and Planning

Think about an achievable goal, and carve out some regular study time in your planner. 1-2 hours a day is realistic for most people. Make sure that, each week, you work on all of the different parts of the GRE (verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing).

Step 3: Build Fundamentals

Vocabulary: try to learn around 10 words a day.  Construct flashcards, and learn word roots as well.

Reading: read for about 30 minutes a day from publications such as Arts and Letters Daily, or the Economist. Vary the topics that you read as much as you can. Your comprehension of a topic with which you're familiar will be much higher than for a topic you've never read about.

Math: Manhattan Prep is the most comprehensive GRE prep option out there (but it will take you more time to get through). Use CliffsNotes Math Review for Standardized Tests to build math ability if you have less time, or if you don't really need to master every little thing. It's also important to go through the math review in ETS’s Official Guide to the GRE, too.

Essays: Break out The Official Guide and thoroughly read Chapter 2, which explains what they're looking for in the essays. Read all the sample essays, too, including the ones in ETS’s verbal practice book. Go to the ETS website and begin brainstorming topics for the Issue essay and the topics for the Argument essay.

Logic: Get a new or used copy of the Official GMAT Verbal Review and practice their Critical Reasoning questions, which are just like certain GRE questions.

Step 4: Learn Technique

It's helpful to have a method with which to attack most GRE question types. If you buy the Manhattan GRE books, their technique is better than that of most companies. Princeton Review also has adequate technique. But experiment to figure out the best way for you to do math questions, read passages, etc. 

Step 5: Get the Right Practice Material

ETS’s Official Guide to the GRE and its verbal and quantitative supplements are the most crucial materials, since they're the real deal. 3rd party materials, like those written by Kaplan, are usually not worth your time or money, since they don't capture the complexities and nuances of the real test. 

First, practice untimed, so you can focus on skill-building.

Next, practice timed, so you can get used to the decision making you'll use on the real test. To get more practice tests, I recommend buying any of the books in the Manhattan GRE Prep set - which will give you access to six online practice tests.

Circle ANY question you don't feel 100% on. It really doesn’t matter whether you got the question right or not – if you can’t fully explain where your answer is coming from, you can learn more from the question.

Avoid actually writing in your books - when you review a question, it should be blank, so you're forced to think it through again.

Step 6: Review and Analysis

Review problems to the point where you can explain them to a friend. This is so important that I’ll say it again: you’re not done with a question until you can explain it to someone else.

Go back and work on any concepts or techniques that you didn't do well with until you're ready to practice again!

How Not to Prepare

Don't buy a giant book, class, or course that claims to be the only thing you need. Serious students will need multiple prep sources.

Don't use 3rd party material as your primary practice source. Make sure to mostly study ETS questions, since any other company's will be much less like the real test.

Don't over-study vocabulary at the expense of learning how verbal questions work - most do not depend on vocab.

Don't cram. There is too much material on the GRE and too much to get used to for short-term prep to work for most people.

Remember, GRE prep is not like studying for a normal test in school. For most, taking a slow, steady, long-term approach will yield the best results. Good luck!



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