This article originally appeared in the Sigma Tau Delta Fall 2010 Newsletter.
Standardized testing is a blight on our educational system. It exists simply because of the overwhelming number of applications to undergraduate and graduate programs. When grades, personal statements, portfolios, and letters of recommendation fail to winnow, admissions committees look to a timed multiple-choice exam. They need a tiebreaker and this is the “best” the system has come up with. It’s deplorable, but I’m here to offer you advice about how to do better on the GRE, not to complain about things we can’t change.
Before you start worrying about this test, make sure the schools you are looking at actually require it. If they do, ask if they care only about the verbal score or about both the math and the verbal. You will also want to know whether they require you to write the two preliminary essays in front of the test. Some schools rely on your portfolio and allow you to simply skip those essays when you are testing.
Make sure that you ask about the relationship of those scores to admission as well as funding; for example, some schools may only care about your verbal score for admissions, but if you want money, your math score will matter, too.
The verbal section, then, is almost an afterthought for an English major. There are four components to it: sentence completions, analogies, reading comprehension, and antonyms. Thus, vocabulary is the dominant skill tested. Now, everyone knows that you develop great vocabulary by reading, but that doesn’t mean the occasional arcane word won’t make it in to your particular exam. That’s because each exam is different.
I don’t mean different just because it’s on a computer. It’s different because the test is adaptive. As a CAT (computer-adaptive test), the test responds to your right or wrong answers and gives you more difficult or easier problems, respectively, based on your answers. The catch? Difficult problems are worth more, so if you are doing well, it should feel challenging all the way through.
So, when you are looking at that more difficult problem, and you have it narrowed down between two or three answers, remember to stop focusing on those answers and go back to the problem and think about what word you would use if you weren’t looking at the answers. When you have that firmly in your mind, only then go back to your answers. At that point you will hopefully be leaning more one way than the other.
As for the reading comprehension, try not to fall into old habits. Look at the question presented before you feel the need to read or skim the passage. If the question is about line #12, read the context and then answer. Reading the whole passage may make you feel psychologically better, but with a ticking clock, it doesn’t really help. If, on the other hand, the question is about “the author’s tone,” then of course you have to read/skim the passage.
As far as the math goes, the handicap is not that the math is difficult. It is that many English majors didn’t have to take too many math classes in college so they are rusty, to say the least. There are resources that cover the math that you will need. The Princeton Review puts out a great series called Math Smart, which has two volumes. If you know the math covered in these books you will have the raw material in order to do well.
Before you even start studying for the test, you should visit the websites of either Kaplan or the Princeton Review. They offer free practice GREs, and you can take one to see how you would do and also to figure out what you need to study. If you choose the self-study route (you are a disciplined nerd), then pick up The Official Guide to the GRE, 10th edition. It’s the only book put out by the test makers and it offers answer explanations to questions that have actually appeared on past GREs. You will also want to take the free practice GREs provided here: http://www.ets.org/gre/general/prepare/powerprep/download/
For those of you less-disciplined nerds, or those who feel like a test prep course might help, make sure that you get a referral from a friend or colleague. Test prep does help, but at the graduate level, it’s very dependent on the quality of the instructor, and that is uneven throughout this great land of ours.
Finally, if you do not prep at all, have the good sense to at least take a practice test before you go in there. English majors may procrastinate, but hopefully, we don’t resist good advice.
Stephen Heiner has, for the last six years, owned a test prep company called Get Smarter Prep. It is currently based in Kansas City, with branch offices in Omaha and St. Louis. He earned his BA in English Literature at Rockhurst University. He was the Midwestern Region Student Representative for 2009-2010.
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