I’m a Test Dummy: Some Thoughts on GRE Prep


I’ve written previously on the long and arduous road to graduate school. If you are like me, the GRE is the most anxiety-producing, and challenging, barrier between you and graduate study. Most schools claim to make admittance decisions using a combination of GRE scores and other materials, such as a personal statement. This is a partial truth. The GRE is first used as a filter. In other words, if your scores fail to meet a certain threshold it is unlikely admittance committees will read your personal statement. To ensure you are considered, aim for a GRE score at or above the average for students admitted to your target program. But, you ask, is it really possible to control what score you get on the GRE? I’m here to tell you it is (to some degree). Despite what ETS or others say, you can improve your GRE score.

If you are like me, or most people I know, you didn’t go to college to learn how to take a 4+ hour multiple-choice test on arcane vocabulary and abstracted math. You probably feel that the GRE is a waste of time, a poor measure of your intelligence and ability to succeed, and unrelated to what you want to study in grad school. You are right. The GRE is all these things, but don’t let this get in the way of you achieving that threshold score. It takes time and energy to master new skills, like GRE test-taking, and it is hard to commit to learning new skills when you don’t believe these new skills hold any value. Think of it this way. Like many things in life the GRE is tedious, bureaucratic, nonsensical, even corrupt.  In and of itself the GRE has zero value to your personal growth, but it must be completed to move your life/career from point A to point B. It is like doing your taxes. Everyone (well, normal people) hate doing their taxes. It takes time and energy, and it is hard to argue that you, as an individual, improve because of it. But doing your taxes enables you to continue living in society. So, really, the GRE is better than taxes—it enables you to do what you really want to do (many people don’t like living in society).

So place your feelings for the GRE aside and make a plan.

Here’s the plan I outlined for improving my GRE score:

  1. Commit to a test date roughly 2 months in the future.
  2. Make a practice schedule and commit to objectives:
    1. On day one, take a practice test to set a baseline score.
    2. Spend time reading about strategies for taking the test.
    3. Take practice test to see if strategies learned improve your score.
    4. Complete at least two practice sets (40 question) twice per week until the day of the exam. After completing practice sets spend time reviewing incorrect answer and false positives. Identify the underlining logic for solving these questions and mark them for future practice.
    5. Take practice test and review, analyze, and revisit.
    6. Repeat previous step as many times as needed to achieve target score.
  3. Time everything with a stopwatch and track progress in a spreadsheet.

If a plan is not enough to motivate you, give yourself an incentive. I had my eye on a Garmin running watch for a while but could never justify the sticker price. While studying for the GRE I set up a “Garmin Account” to which I transferred $1 for every 10 questions answered and understood. My fiancée arbitrated the account to prevent me from cheating myself. Not only did the “Garmin Account” motivate my studying, it also showed my fiancée that I totally earned the luxury of spending our savings on an expensive GPS watch.

Did I stick to the plan? Did my score improve? See results in table 1 below.

Table 1. Test scores, and GRE practice data. Test scores are displayed as a percent change and difference from my first GRE score of two years prior (red highlights). Number of questions answer and the time spent on practice questions and test-taking strategies are highlighted in blue.

*Percentile score for practice tests are calculated from raw scores using the performance of all examinees who tested between August 1, 2011 and April 30, 2013 (source: http://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_guide_table1a.pdf)

Results and Take-Aways

  • In less than two months I improved my verbal and quantitative GRE score by 22 and 32 percentage points respectively. Improvement was largely a function of the # of questions answered and the time spent analyzing responses. I can’t emphasize this enough: after taking a practice test, identify your incorrect and false-positive responses. By false positives I mean guesses and incorrect logic that happened to lead to a correct answer.  Once these questions are identified figure out the underlying logic and how you can apply this logic to similar questions. For example, the quantitative section asks a lot of what you might call work-rate questions. These can take many different forms, so learn how this kind of question can be asked and how to break it down (this will help). Once you think you understand the underlying logic, mark the question and return to it in a few days to retest yourself. Time spent engaged in this kind of practice will be the largest predictor of any improvement on the GRE.
  • My baseline practice test score was similar to the actual test score of two years prior indicating that without focused practice there was little improvement on the GRE (no surprise).
  • On it’s own, an understanding of strategies and the kind of questions asked on the GRE will not improve your score much if at all. There is a lot of rhetoric about how improving your GRE score is simply a matter of knowing the right test-taking strategy or understanding the “tricks” ETS throws at you on test day. But the benefits of this approach are overstated. I spent 4.5 hours learning all the strategies, tips, and tricks from the Internet and various prep books, but, as demonstrated by table 1, my score on practice test 1 was exactly the same as baseline.
  • I focused most of my time on quantitative problem sets, which is reflected in substantial improvement in my scores by practice test 2. I spent less time with the verbal section, but as I gathered more questions under my belt my verbal score began to improve as well.  Again, more time spent answering questions and rigorously engaging with incorrect responses will lead to better results.
  • Make a schedule, track your progress and reward yourself for sticking to your schedule. My disdain for standardized tests falls somewhere between long-lines at the DMV and puppy abusers, so it was no surprise to find it hard to stick to my practice schedule.  But having a schedule along with a tracking and reward mechanism ensured I worked with enough consistency and duration to get from point A to point B. You can do the same if you put your mind to it.


Cartoon credit Bernard Schoenbaum.


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