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So you want to score a 330+ on the GRE? There’s no question that such a score will help you maximize the effectiveness of your application to top graduate programs or business schools. To break the 330 barrier, you’ll need to study hard, and you’ll need to study smart. In addition, you’ll have to make some sacrifices along the way.
Although I could write an entire book on just this subject, I think the following discussion will be of major help to students with ambitious GRE goals.
Let’s begin by discussing some reasons that a 330+ GRE score, which puts you in the 90th percentile or above, is desirable for many programs.
Grad School Admissions Are Competitive, and a 330+ GRE Score Provides a Great Boost
Don’t think that a great undergraduate GPA and a solid personal statement alone will get you admitted to the best grad programs or the top business schools. Almost all applicants will have a stellar GPA and a fantastic application package! The one thing you can do to make yourself an outstanding prospect is to wow the selection committee with a stunning GRE score. Such a score will help set you high on the list for admission.
Although it’s not the only factor in your application, your GRE score can be a wind in your sails during the application process. Conversely, a poor score can be a mark against you. Why let it be the latter? Why not put your best foot forward?
Understand That Earning a 330+ Won’t Be Easy But It Will Be Worthwhile
It is improbable that you will earn a 330 after only a week of quick studying, so be prepared for some hard work in the coming months. Let your friends and family know that you’re pursuing a top score—their support will help you stay positive after long nights of studying. If you start to get discouraged by all the practice problems ahead, remember what you’re working toward. An awesome score will help open doors to top programs, and that success will be a great reward for your time spent studying now. Dedicate yourself to earning a high score, and get excited about the results you will be able to achieve.
Begin With the End Goal in Mind
Don’t make the mistake of going into your GRE without a plan. I sometimes see students who say the following: “I just want the highest GRE score possible.” Earning the “highest GRE score possible” is not a plan. In fact, this mindset will make it difficult for you to follow a strategic plan for improvement. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you navigate there?
Research the programs you’d like to attend. See what the admissions profiles consistently look like. Does almost no one secure admittance without a 330+ GRE? Or, do many matriculated students have 300s or even less? You also can familiarize yourself with GRE percentiles in order to determine how various scores will compare to the scores of your peers. Once you have a reasonable idea of what your GMAT score will need to be, work backwards from that score and set up a study plan. For example, if your goal is to earn a 330, you’ll have to master trickier and more complicated concepts and problems than if your goal is a 300. To earn that 330, you’ll also have to study more, and smarter.
Once you know what your GRE goal is, it’s time to figure out what your current abilities are.
Determine Your Baseline GRE Score, But Don’t Over-Infer From the Results
In order to develop a strategic study plan, you must determine your current abilities. Some of you already have taken an official GRE, but many of you have not. If you’ve taken an official GRE, then you already have an accurate baseline indicator of your abilities. If you don’t have an official GRE score, it’s important to take a free practice test from ETS. Make sure to take the test in a quiet place where you can concentrate and simulate test-like conditions, and, above all, try your best!
Although your practice test score provides a baseline indication of your abilities, you should interpret those results carefully. For example, if you incorrectly answered one rate-time-distance question, does that mean that you struggle with rate-time-distance questions in general? Probably not. Similarly, if you correctly answered one probability question, does that automatically mean you’re well-equipped to answer every probability question you’ll encounter? Probably not. In other words, use the practice test score as a rough estimate of your abilities, and then spend time analyzing your skills and abilities more closely.
Be Realistic About How Long the GRE Process Takes
First, remember that the GRE is most amenable to students who are properly prepared. That is, those who have actually developed the necessary skills. The first key to being properly prepared is to set a realistic and strategic study plan that spans several months. Even if you have great math or verbal skills overall, you still have to learn how to apply them in the GRE setting. This process will take some time. And if you are weak in either, then you will need to plan even more time, to get those skills up to speed. It is not unusual for a 330+ scorer to spend several hundred hours preparing for the exam. Hard work and devoted study are the norm, not the exception.
Find and Prepare With Material That is Accurate, Applicable, Efficient, and Effective
More than ever, students preparing for the GRE have a variety of test prep resources available. However, not all of these resources are created equal. The materials you use while you study can be either assets or liabilities. Content matters! Do your due diligence on the courses and prep material you’re considering. See what other students have had to say. Look at course reviews on sites such as GRE Prep Club. Most online courses offer a free or low-cost trial—pick several resources and give them a test drive. Your goal is to find a course that presents clear, practical, and actionable content, in a way that makes sense to you, along with skills, strategies, and techniques for acing the exam.
If you need outstanding GRE math help, sign up for a free trial of Target Test Prep’s GRE Quant Course. The entire course is designed to help students break through longstanding barriers to success on the quant section. In addition to helping students master content tested on the GRE, the TTP Quant Course introduces novel approaches toward developing sophisticated critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and decision making skills. Mastery in these areas pays off on the GRE. Whether you’re completely new to the exam or whether you’ve been studying with limited success for some time is immaterial—either way, Target Test Prep will provide you with the tools necessary to achieve an impressive GRE score.
Once you’ve found excellent test prep material to fit your needs, the next step is to create a strategic plan of attack.
Create an Actionable Plan
To cross the 330 barrier on the GRE, you’ll need to understand the content tested (have conceptual knowledge), be able to apply your knowledge and skills to practice problems (have procedural knowledge), and be comfortable performing under test day conditions (have operational knowledge). This means you have three goals: (1) know and understand all of the material tested; (2) apply your knowledge to realistic practice GRE questions; and (3) be cool, calm, and confident come test day, because you know your stuff, can apply your stuff, and have taken enough practice tests to make test day a day just like any other. Thus, a good strategic plan is to divide your studying into three major phases with some overlap between each phase.
To set up a strategic GRE study plan that allows for the systematic construction of conceptual, procedural, and operational knowledge, divide the number of months you plan to study for the GRE by three. During the first third of your study months, spend 75% of your time building conceptual knowledge and 25% building procedural knowledge. During the second third, spend 50% of your time building more conceptual knowledge, 25% building more procedural knowledge, and 25% building operational knowledge. During the final third, spend 50% of your time building operational knowledge and 50% building conceptual and procedural knowledge.
For more information on the types of knowledge necessary for a great GRE score and on putting together a strategic plan, check out Three Critical Types of Knowledge for a High GRE® Score.
Once you’ve planned a strategic course of study, the next step is to make time in your busy schedule.
Be Proactive in Making Time for Yourself
How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t have time for X,” or “I don’t have time for Y?” We hear such statements constantly. Here’s the reality—there is only time for the things we make time for. With a demanding job or other commitments, it’s important to make time for yourself and for your personal growth and development. Otherwise, you may find that your days become occupied only with the demands of your immediate concerns. This lack of growth can lead to self-stagnation. Don’t let self-stagnation happen! Your first step on the path toward career development or professional advancement is to create time for studying.
Many busy students who go on to earn competitive GRE scores study early in the morning before work, during lunch breaks, while running on the treadmill, and late into the evening. In addition, these students maximize weekend study time. If you carefully organize your schedule and make your GRE study a top priority, you can find the time to rack up an impressive number of study hours.
If you’d like to read more about how to prepare for the GRE while working at a demanding job, here’s a helpful article.
Your Goal is a Relatively Balanced GRE Score
You will receive two separate GRE scores, one for verbal reasoning and one for quantitative reasoning. These scores are separate, but each is based on a maximum score of 170. A combined score of 330 doesn’t mean you need 165 on each section; in fact, you have to consider the program to which you’re applying. If you are an English major, you probably don’t want to apply to UC Berkeley or Columbia, for example, with a 160 verbal (84th percentile) and a 170 math (98th percentile). You generally want to earn the higher score in your area of intended study. But what if your major is somewhere in between English and Math, like Psychology or Business? In these disciplines, a balanced score indicates that you possess superior skills in both verbal and math, and both are necessary for success in these disciplines at the graduate level. A 165 verbal and 165 quant would be highly competitive for those applying to prestigious schools in these types of disciplines.
One way to fit in math and verbal studying each day is to do an hour of math work and then an hour of verbal work. In fact, you may find that you learn better by breaking up your studying into alternating chunks of math and verbal. This approach is recommended, because the GRE itself alternates the two math and two verbal sections, and your mind needs practice performing left-brain and then right-brain activities in relatively short time frames.
Some might find that a 50/50 time and topic split helps, but others may see that after spending equal time on quant and verbal, they’re still struggling with math while acing verbal questions. If that’s the case, try a 60/40 split in favor of math, or, if necessary, an even higher split. Furthermore, if your verbal (or quant) score is already high, you can adjust the study ratio to better suit your needs.
Don’t Neglect Analytical Writing
The two Analytical Writing essays can spell success or failure for those who need a solid writing ability for graduate school. You might have scored 165 on Verbal Reasoning, but if your essay score is below a 5.0, and you’re applying to a program in English or Political Science, you could still end up on the waitlist for acceptance, because programs such as these demand the ability to write extremely well. It’s imperative to be familiar with the types of prompts that will be given on test day; you can actually preview the topic pool for the Issue and the Argument essays at gre.org. Set aside time each week to write at least one essay, and remember, there’s no spell-check, grammar check, or word count on the word processor provided to you on test day.
When Studying, Master Content Before Solving Practice Problems
Too many students make the mistake of solving tons of practice questions without first taking the time to understand the fundamental skills being tested. Instead of wasting your time solving questions without understanding the foundational skills needed, take the necessary time to master the fundamentals. That is, first you must build your conceptual knowledge. Once you’ve developed your conceptual knowledge, it makes sense to put that new knowledge into practice by solving many realistic sample GRE questions.
Practice does not always make perfect. In fact, when you practice with a lack of understanding of what you’re practicing, or worse, when you practice improperly, you can actually become less rather than more proficient. Golf presents us with a great analogy. Imagine hitting golf balls at the driving range all summer without a coach and without anyone helping you understand how to fix your swing and your technique. Will you be a better golfer at the end of the summer? Probably not. You likely will have ingrained your mistakes into your swing. However, if you understand how to swing a golf club and you put this understanding into action with each swing, you can improve substantially. Proper practice makes perfect.
Hold Off on Sample Tests Until You’ve Mastered Content and Practiced With this Mastery
Too many students make the mistake of taking multiple practice tests before they have properly learned the fundamental material and have properly drilled those skills. If you make this mistake, practice tests will simply tell you what you already know: you haven’t mastered the content. For example, you’re weak in functions or slow with geometry, but that’s only because you have not studied these areas sufficiently. Instead of spending your valuable time taking practice tests and hoping that a higher score will magically appear on the screen, work hard to master the essential concepts behind the GRE questions. Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, then you may begin taking practice tests.
With this said, integrating practice tests at the appropriate time in your training is important.
Leave Ample Time Before Exam Day for Practice Tests
You now know that it’s a mistake to jump right into practice tests before you’ve put in study time. Some students make the opposite mistake—they study content and solve practice questions until right before their GRE, but they don’t take a sufficient number of practice tests. Most of these students find the test-taking experience uncomfortable. Either their timing is off, or they get tired near the end of the quant section, or they, in general, just don’t feel they are on their game. Don’t let this happen to you.
In an ideal world, you’d end your content study and practice problem work a month prior to your GRE. During the final month, you’d take two or three practice tests each week. After each test, spend time analyzing what you answered correctly and incorrectly. Keep a log of the question types you’re getting wrong. Then, go back and further study these specific areas. Also, keep a log of your timing, how you felt while taking the test, and how many of the questions you answered incorrectly because of careless mistakes. At this point in your study, your goal is to fine-tune your test-taking skills, because you’re getting yourself in fighting shape for gameday.
When You Study, Focus on Quality and Employ the Tabula Rasa Rule
Remember that your goal is to learn the material well. Don’t make the mistake of blazing your way through a chapter just to say you “read” it. Unfortunately, self-deception often works too well. Be honest with yourself. Instead, read deliberately and methodically. And if you fail to do so the first time through, make yourself repeat the material. Take the necessary time to truly master the material.
The same goes for practice problems. I see too many students who binge problem solve. They solve dozens and dozens of problems at each sitting, only to realize that they’ve learned little that can be applied in the future and have “burned” through an already limited set of useful practice problems. Don’t make this mistake. Instead, when you solve problems, squeeze as much juice out of them as you can. Ten thoughtful attempts at ten practice problems in which you learn how to overcome your mistakes will help you far more than answering fifty questions in a rush.
In other words, focus on the quality of your studying, not on the quantity. If you get a question wrong, stop and analyze why you chose the wrong answer. Then you won’t make the same mistake with future questions on the same topic.
Students often have a hard time gauging their level of knowledge. Here’s a simple, effective rule of thumb that I call the “Tabula Rasa Rule.” If you could not sit down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper and teach a concept to somebody else, you need to keep studying until you can. When you study a new topic, use this rule to help you gauge whether you’ve sufficiently learned that topic.
Build a Strong Foundation Prior to Working on More Complicated Material
Too often, students spend an inordinate amount of time working on the most difficult material they can find, such as probability and advanced combinations and permutations. This study happens at the expense of other crucial, more fundamental material. Don’t adopt this inverted strategy. Instead, take the necessary time to build a strong foundation. Learn the basics. Master the integral ideas. Then, once you have a solid foundation, invest any remaining time into working on the difficult stuff.
The added benefit of mastering the fundamentals is that once you’re ready to attack the more difficult material, you’ll be more efficient because you’ll have a solid foundation. Instead of rushing to the challenging concepts, first ensure you have the basics down cold.
Be A Pianist When it Comes to the GRE —Focus on Eliminating Your Weaknesses
If any of you have ever played the piano, you know that there are a number of similarities between how one masters music and how one masters the GRE. For example, some of the worst piano players continue to play the parts of a song that they know well and avoid the parts with which they struggle. Why? I’m not completely sure, but the reason probably has to do with wanting the instant gratification that comes with an easy win and not wanting the discomfort that hard work and struggle can induce. However, the best pianists know that the way to get better at playing a difficult song is to spend most of their time on the tough spots.
So, when it comes to your GRE prep, your goal should be to determine your weak spots. Rectifying mistakes in these areas offers you your biggest opportunity for growth and for score improvement. Once you’ve determined these weaknesses, be a pianist of the GRE and attack them with gusto. You’ll be amazed at how much more quickly you will improve.
Of course, devote some time to nurturing your strengths—the amount of time depends on your memory. If you’re a person who retains knowledge and skills for a long period, you’ll be able to spend fewer study hours on your strengths. But if your skills deteriorate quickly, you’ll want to engage in frequent and well-spaced reviews.
Speaking of memory, it’s always important to frequently review the material you’ve been learning.
Review the Material Often—GRE Skills Are Perishable
Knowledge and skills are perishable. That is, once you learn something, you can’t expect that knowledge to last forever, unless you nurture it.
Quite often, I see students who work hard at mastering some GRE material and who, in fact, get really good at it. Then they happily move on and master new material. At some point, they realize that they have forgotten the earlier material. Don’t let this information spoilage happen to you.
In your studying, plan to review often. If you tend to have a strong memory, maybe you can get away with one hour of dedicated review for every three hours of new material. However, if your memory is not so great, then perhaps you should consider doing a dedicated hour of review for every two hours of studying new material.
Don’t Worry About What Others Are Doing—Focus on Yourself and on Doing Your Best
If you read GRE forums or listen to people talking about their scores, you can be easily convinced that every person who takes the GRE scores 330 or higher after only a few “hard weeks” of studying. First, statistically speaking, the number of people who score a 330 or higher is small. Second, the number of people who score a 330 or higher and do so after studying for a “few hard weeks” probably approaches zero. If you focus on these rare animals and convince yourself that they’re the norm, you’ll drive yourself bonkers and probably throw in the towel. Instead, focus on doing the best job you can do. Don’t listen to the guy in class who claims he earned a 330 without studying or to your friend’s sister who scored a 335 supposedly by doing nothing more than reading a prep book for two weeks.
Some Helpful Verbal Tips
Many native speakers of English make the incorrect assumption that verbal section of the GRE will be easy because they have been speaking English all their lives. However, many of these students soon discover that they have not learned the vocabulary words that are commonly found on the GRE, and they begin a panic-stricken quest to memorize these long lists of words… Additionally, some native English students approach reading comprehension passages the same way they do when reading any other written material without analyzing them as testable content—a big mistake.
Words, Words, Words…
The time to start learning the extensive number of vocabulary words tested on the GRE is probably 5th grade. However, you probably didn’t know back then that you would be taking the GRE 10 years later. But all is not lost! Even though you have just a few months to study, there are many tips to make the task of learning a plethora of vocabulary words less painful.
First, download one of the many free GRE vocabulary apps. Review or quiz yourself often, even if for just a few minutes. You can review quite a few words while you’re in line at the store, waiting at a red light, or even using the restroom! Another strategy is to analyze the list of common GRE words, which most test prep books and courses provide. Categorize each word, as follows: (1) I know its meaning already, (2) I am familiar with the word but don’t know what it means, or (3) I have never heard of this word and have no idea what it means. Then concentrate on learning those words with which you are familiar but whose meaning you don’t know. It is much easier to learn the meaning of a word that you have encountered before. A third way to learn vocabulary is to learn root words, from which many GRE vocabulary words have been derived. For example, the root “am” or “ami” means “friend” (think ‘amigo’). Many GRE words can be learned from just this one root: amity, amenable, amicable, amorous. Root words allow you to benefit from the “multiplier effect.” By learning one root, you can often master 3 or more GRE words. Root word lists are available in many GRE prep books or online.
Another point to keep in mind is that both the Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions on the GRE give context clues. Thus, you don’t need to know the exact dictionary definition of every word that you study. Even though the words amity, amenable, and amicable have slightly different meanings, they all could be appropriate choices if the context clues in the sentences indicated that a word meaning “friendly” or “agreeable” was desired.
When it comes to reading comprehension problems, starting from the first sentence and ending with the last sentence without re-organizing the material in your mind will often ensure that you spend more time answering the questions at a much lower rate of accuracy than you would if you spent some time organizing and analyzing the material before attacking the questions. Learn some basic principles of critical reading to supplement your logic training in approaching the Reading Comprehension section of the GRE.
Put Your New Vocabulary Knowledge into Action
We communicate constantly, and we tend to use our “go to” words all the time. As you learn new vocabulary words, weave them into your speech, texts, emails, and term papers. Instead of saying that happiness surrounds you in your life, state that it is ubiquitous. If you are very sad, describe yourself as morose. Say that you have a “penchant” rather than a “desire” for solving math problems. Use the words you are learning, and they will become part of your permanent vocabulary.
Keep a Short List of Significant Notes—Review It Each Day
It’s essential to determine your weak spots. These areas present the greatest opportunity for score improvement. However, it’s easy to learn important material and then later forget it. Avoid that!
As you come across valuable skills, strategies, or techniques that you want to remember and practice, keep a clean, neat “hit list” or set of flashcards with these valuable nuggets. Don’t clutter up this list with scratch work or anything else that will diminish the list’s clarity or usability.
Your list may look something like this:
Scott’s Crucial Math Concepts to Remember
1) The difference of squares: x^2 – y^2 = (x + y) (x – y)
2) algebra rule: (x – y) = -1(y – x)
3) exponent rule: (a^p)(b^p) = (ab)^p
4) simple interest formula: I = PRT
5) look out for 3-4-5 and 5-12-13 right triangles!
6) 0! = 1
Scott’s Tough Vocabulary Words
The beauty of keeping such a list is that it will be your list, and what’s more valuable than having a clear account of the skills you need to remember and work on? Review this list every day.
Keep a Short List of Your Common Errors—Review Daily
If you’re like most students, you tend to make some fundamental mistakes again and again. Eliminating these common mistakes presents a great opportunity for growth. For example, let’s say that you frequently get questions wrong because you forget that two is the only even prime number. Add this fact to your list. Review this list each day. If you like digital lists, Evernote is a great, inexpensive app you can use to construct and review your list. However, if you are more old school, flashcards are a great option. You can study them on your commute to work or even on your lunch break. However you keep your list, just remember that one of the most powerful ways to grow is to work on your weaknesses.
Focus on Getting Better Before You Focus on Getting Faster
The time limit per question is one major source of the GRE’s difficulty. It’s quite common for students to be anxious about the time constraints, and time and pacing must be considered while preparing for the test. The way in which a student prepares for these time constraints can make or break a final GRE score.
Too often, students practice as if there were some magical strategy that would increase their speed. In fact, the best way to get faster is to get better! Don’t waste your time searching for a fast fix—it does not exist. Instead, invest your time into learning the material thoroughly. Master the concepts. Allow the techniques to become second nature. Ensure that all important facts, figures, and formulas are at the tip of your fingers. Spend ample time practicing these concepts, strategies, and techniques.
You’ll find that as you become more comfortable with the material, you’ll get faster. If you’d like more information about gaining speed on the GRE, read my article How to Get Faster at Solving GRE Questions.
Don’t Trick Yourself Into Saying: “I know the material, but I just don’t have my timing down.”
This follows from the previous point. We just discussed how the way to speed up is to know the material better. From time to time, I hear students proclaim that the reason their GRE scores are low is that they still have to “get the timing down.” If your score is not where you need it to be, take a good hard look at your conceptual and procedural knowledge levels. You’ll likely find that however much you may need to refine your timing strategy, what you really need to do is strengthen your grasp of the material. In my 15 years of teaching the GRE, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of students who actually had the content down cold but had a legitimate problem with test day timing. Thus, plan to improve your knowledge of the content. Once you improve your ability to recognize and solve problems, working out any minor timing issues won’t be a big deal.
Some Helpful Quant Tips
Quantitative Comparison (QC) Questions—Put in the Time and Calculations
Too often, students believe that since QC questions don’t often require that an actual numerical value be calculated, these questions don’t need very much thought, energy, or ink. In fact, the opposite is often true. These questions typically require even more thought than their problem-solving counterparts. In addition, solving most QC questions necessitates substituting appropriate values for the variables to ensure that all possibilities have been considered. It’s very difficult to simply “look” at a quantitative comparison question and determine the correct answer. Give these questions the time and energy that they require.
Be Careful of Making the Easiest Deduction, Especially on Quantitative Comparison Questions
Many GRE questions contain a number of trap answers. A trap answer is one that seems correct but is based on a common miscalculation, a common misinterpretation, a classic mistake in reasoning, an incorrect assumption, a faulty inference, or an invalid deduction. Quite often, particularly on QC questions, the easiest deduction is often the trap. For example, if Quantity A is x and Quantity B is x^2, nearly all new GRE students quickly answer “B,” that Quantity B is greater than Quantity A. They have yet to see the complexity of the construction and logic of QC questions. They hurtle forward into picking the trap answer. They have forgotten to consider that if x = 0, then Quantities A and B are equal, or that if x is a proper fraction, such as ½ , that the answer will be that Quantity A is greater than Quantity B. Thus, there is not a consistent relationship between Quantity A and Quantity B, and the true correct answer is D (cannot be determined).
Try to Master the Algebra: Don’t Rely Solely on Picking Numbers and Backsolving
Students are always looking for shortcuts, and who can blame them? Quite often students will master the art of picking numbers and backsolving. They typically master these techniques at the expense of actually learning the underlying math.
When you rely on picking numbers and backsolving, you create an unfortunate situation in which each problem is a never-before-seen island that must be explored. That is, you’re not actually learning skills that will allow you to be successful on future problems. However, if you invest the time to learn the math, you’re building a set of tools that will be available to you for use on problems where backsolving won’t yield a reliable answer or is too lengthy a process. With these tools, you’ll have a much easier time recognizing how to solve a problem and then execute that solution.
With that said, there is a time and a place where backsolving and picking numbers can be handy. For example, these techniques can make solving extremely difficult QC problems much easier. In addition, they can help you to solve some problems that require complicated algebra.
If you choose to practice using backsolving and number picking, make a deal with yourself. Learn how to solve each problem algebraically before you pick numbers or backsolve. If you follow this approach, you’ll learn more efficiently, and you’ll have a much greater command of the material. Come test day, you’ll have a powerful array of tactics that you can deploy to quickly and confidently solve whatever the test throws at you.
Nip Careless Mistakes in the Bud
If you are answering incorrectly because you aren’t paying enough attention to detail, are missing important parameters of a problem, or are passing over significant remarks that govern the problem, then you are approaching the material in a negligent manner, and it’s important to fix this issue right away. You absolutely need to read the material more carefully.
Careless mistakes can destroy your GRE score, and in my eyes, errors due to negligence are the worst type that a student can make for two big reasons. First, it’s a shame not to get credit for a GRE question that you are able to solve and thereby able to answer correctly. Second, focus and practice can usually reduce or eliminate a the majority of these errors.
Here are some strategies that should help:
We make mistakes when we go too fast. When you try to calculate faster than your brain can process, you will make mistakes. To cut down on the number of careless errors you make, slow down. Take your time. Focus. It makes little sense to spend an hour rushing through fifty problems only to get thirty of them wrong. Instead, work at the fastest pace you can while still approaching the problems effectively. Focus carefully on each problem. Remember, the goal is to learn, not to speed through a bunch of problems.
Be More Present
It’s so important to be centered and focused when attempting to solve a GRE problem. I see two types of behavior that tend to destroy student accuracy.
First, sometimes a student’s mind is clearly someplace other than on his or her GRE practice. It’s easy to lose focus, but real learning requires a student develop the skill of compartmentalizing. To compartmentalize is simply to stop yourself from thinking about anything before the present moment and to stop yourself from worrying about what will come after the present moment. When you can compartmentalize, you can fully devote yourself to the task at hand. When you allow your brain to be fully immersed in whatever you are doing at that moment, you’ll be amazed at how much more accurate you can be.
Second, some students really are focused on their GRE practice, but their pens are not in sync with their brains. For example, a student may be writing a given line of a solution to a problem while her mind is already visualizing the next step in the problem. It would be great to always be a step or two ahead, but that’s just not practical for most students. It’s difficult to be accurate when the pen and brain are out of sync.
The way to fix this problem is to focus intensely only on the step you’re on at that moment. In fact, watch carefully as you write. Focus on each letter, number, and variable. When you focus as you write, your brain has the opportunity to catch simple, yet score-eroding errors that would likely be otherwise missed. If you’re thinking one or two steps ahead of what you’re doing, you’re bound to make mistakes. Keep your pen, eyes, and brain in sync at all times.
Read More Carefully
Being a strong reader will help you significantly on all sections of the GRE. Strive to read everything carefully and methodically. Focus when you read. Make sure that you understand the main point of each sentence and the key concepts in each problem. It’s not unusual to have to reread math and verbal questions, so if you don’t fully understand what you just read, read it again.
Visualization can also help you to read more carefully. When you read, imagine what you are reading unfolding as if you were watching a movie. Picture what you read. By engaging in this visualization process, you’ll help your brain better assimilate and connect the information.
If you get stuck on a math problem, it may be due to your having overlooked or misread a critical piece of information given in the question stem. Test makers almost never give extraneous information in a question stem. If you find yourself stuck on a math problem, re-read the question. Have you used every given piece of information? Did you read in the stem that, for example, angle ACD is equal to 37 degrees? If you haven’t used this piece of information, look at what you’ve done thus far in your solution, and see where or how that information can be used. It wasn’t put there to confuse you; it must be used somewhere in your solution.
Write Neatly and Legibly
It’s easy to make silly mistakes when your own writing is illegible. For example, if your numeral “2” has a funny habit of morphing into the letter z, you’re likely to make mistakes. As someone with shockingly poor handwriting, I’ve found that by writing in capital letters, my handwriting has become much less prone to misreading. You may like this penmanship strategy as well.
In addition to writing neatly, it’s important to organize your work carefully. Get in the habit of using well-defined regions for each problem. Don’t spread your work across the page haphazardly. On test day, you will be provided a limited initial supply of scratch paper. If you have learned to organize your work, using the scratch paper strategically will keep you organized while you’re under stress, and, if you use it carefully, you won’t have to waste valuable test time to ask the test proctor for another supply.
Regularly Practice Multiplication and Division by Hand
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen students elegantly power through a tough math problem only to mess up a multiplication or division step. Don’t be this person. Each day, solve one or two ugly multiplication and division problems by hand. Review your multiplication facts, and don’t use a calculator for simple calculations. Yes, there is an online calculator provided to you on test day, but its use is unwieldy, and using it is time-consuming. Save its use for rough calculations, not basic arithmetic.
Watch Out for Unit Conversions
Many GRE quant problems contain unit conversions. For example, a rate may be presented in miles per hour, but the answers are given in miles per minute. Be on the lookout for unit conversions in GRE quant problems, since it’s easy to choose an incorrect answer with incorrect units just because the number looks correct.
Watch Out For “Except” Problems
Some problems say “All of the following would weaken the argument except?” Or, “n is divisible by all of the following except?” Pay close attention to the specific language given in the problem. It stinks to do all the work properly only to forget that the question was asking for “all of the following except.” You might even want to actually say to yourself, “I am looking for the wrong answer,” or “there will be four right answers and one wrong answer.”
Another great strategy on these questions is to write down A through E on your scratch paper and give each one that does fit the criteria a checkmark and the one that doesn’t fit the criteria an X. Then you have a visual reminder to pick the odd man out. Your work might look like this:
Before You Select an Answer, Double Check Whether You’re Answering the Question
Read carefully and double check what you read before choosing the answer. Imagine a complicated word problem involving two Shiba Inus, Blaze and Molly. What if you carefully and elegantly solve for Molly’s age, which, not coincidentally, is also an answer choice, but the question is actually asking for Blaze’s age? Make sure you’re actually answering the question being asked.
Pay Careful Attention to Restrictive Information in the Question Stem.
Quite often, particularly on quantitative comparison questions, there will be restrictive information provided in the stem. For example, we may be told that “k is an integer” or “ 0 < m < 1.” Pay close attention to such information. In the heat of solving a problem, it’s easy to forget about a small but important piece of data that may change the outcome. Sometimes taking a second to write this information down can help make it stick in your mind.
Don’t Perform Calculations in Your Head
What are surefire ways to make mistakes? Do mental math. For most people, doing calculations in their heads is a bad move. Instead, do as much work as you can on your paper.
If you’d like additional tips on how to become more accurate, read this article.
Keep A Log of Your Mistakes
Each time you commit one the above mistakes, put a hash mark in your log. The goal of tallying your mistakes is to make yourself fully aware of them and, most importantly, to AVOID them in the future. For example, if you consistently make careless mistakes on “except” problems, be aware of that fact. Make sure the word “except” sets off alarms to be extra careful.
Join or Start a GRE Study Group
Peer learning can be a great way to stay motivated and accelerate your learning rate and even have some fun. Get five or six people together who are studying for the GRE and meet up one night a week. Pick five or ten questions to solve. Each person individually tries the questions, and then the group discusses them. It should be interesting to see how different people solve problems differently. You are almost guaranteed to pick up some new tricks and techniques. Also, having to explain what you do is probably the best way to fix it in your own mind. Don’t worry if the group is composed of students with varying abilities. If you’re the strongest member of the group, you learn a ton by showing others how to do things well. If you’re the weakest member of the group, you’ll benefit from the knowledge and expertise of the stronger members.
Plan to Take the Exam More Than Once
For many students, planning to take the exam more than once is a smart move. For example, if you’d like to sit for your final GRE on October 31st, it would be be wise to schedule one or two real GRE exams prior to that date. For example, you may schedule a real GRE on September 1st and on October 1st. By taking one (or two) GREs prior to the “real deal,” one of two things can happen. First, you may end up earning the score you need earlier than you expected. Great! Reward yourself with a trip to the Italian Riviera (or a night out on the town). Second, if you don’t reach your target score early, you’ll be better positioned the next time you sit for the exam. You’ll have an increased understanding of the test, and you’ll become more comfortable with the testing process.
Remember, too, that you can decide which scores are sent to which schools, so taking the test multiple times won’t hurt. Make note, however, that you can’t combine your best verbal score with your best math score if they were earned on different days (there is no “super scoring” on the GRE). For example, assume that on April 21st you scored 167 verbal and 155 math. A month later, on May 18th, you scored 162 verbal and 165 math. Your best verbal score was in April and your best math score was in May. In order for the schools to see those two great scores, you would have to send the full score report for both tests.
Get Excited About Taking the GRE!
Research from Harvard and other universities suggests that students who get excited about taking standardized exams, such as the GRE, perform better on those tests than students who don’t.
Your state of mind can have a profound impact on your performance. In fact, read this article for a discussion of a simple, yet profound strategy you can use to help increase your GRE score by simply changing the way you internalize thoughts and emotions.
So—pump yourself up about taking the test. Get excited. Don’t be stressed or anxious. Be bold!
Take Care of Yourself, Both Mentally and Physically
It’s hard to thrive when you live a spartan life of only GRE study. Though I’m a huge proponent of rolling up the sleeves, making some strong coffee, and working until a task is done, there’s something to be said for balance. It’s difficult to make yourself sit with a prep book or with the Target Test Prep Quant Course all day, every day. In fact, for some, such a colorless few months can be downright depressing. Do some yoga. Go for a run. Drink the proper amount of water. Go out and eat some healthy food. Meditate. Go hiking once in awhile. See a movie or two each month. I’m not saying you should turn your GRE study into Club Med. I’m saying take good care of yourself during this study process.
Master Your Test Day Timing
Proper pacing on the GRE is essential. If you work too quickly, you’ll likely make careless mistakes or not fully solve the problems, falling for the easiest (and most likely incorrect) deductions that can be made. If you work too slowly, you’ll run out of time near the end of a section and have to guess on the final questions, a far-from-ideal strategy.
Assume that in Math Section 1 you spent 3 minutes on each of the first ten questions. You would then have spent 30 minutes on questions that should have taken about 18 minutes. You would then be at question 11, with 5 minutes remaining (35 minutes – 30 minutes). How will the remaining 10 questions go? Not well at all. Pure guessing is never a good strategy, but that might be your only recourse.
You’re looking for a Goldilocks timing strategy, not too slow and not too fast. During the test, you can’t set a kitchen timer to keep yourself on track, nor can you worry about your question-by-question timing performance. You need to concentrate on answering questions. One good strategy is to set approximate quarterly benchmarks for yourself, using the time clock on the GRE screen. When you finish question 5, roughly 10 minutes should have passed. Question 10 should be completed around the 18- minute mark, and so on. If you notice, at any of these benchmark points, that you are running behind, catching up will only require hustling through one or two questions, rather than that large block of 5 or more questions at the end. You also have more opportunity to pick and choose which questions to hustle through, rather than being stuck with what is left. You can make quick guesses on the questions that represent your areas of greatest weakness, thereby leaving yourself adequate time for the questions you know you can ace.
And remember, proper, extensive practice makes perfect. Be sure to use those time benchmarks when you practice full tests or full test sections. The more you practice, the more the timing will become second nature.
Use the”Skip” and “Review” Features Sparingly, If at All
One feature of the GRE that naive students overuse is the ability to skip a question within the current section and come back to it later. Experienced students almost never do this. Even if they have no idea how to answer a question, they guess an answer and then flag the question. They then continue answering questions in the section. When they have finished the entire section, if there is time remaining, they pull up the “Review” screen, which shows which questions have not been answered and which ones have been flagged, and they return to the unanswered or flagged questions for further consideration.
The key point here is that you will almost never have leftover time to go back to the question(s) that you skipped! Therefore, you should guess on every question that you’re unsure of, before going to the next question, but be sure to flag that question. If you end the section with time remaining, by all means pull up the “Review” screen to return to the flagged question and work on it. But if you have run out of time (which is more likely), then you will at least have an answer for that question. Remember that there is no penalty for an incorrect answer. And if you happen to have guessed correctly, that’s one more correct answer to help your score.
Separate GRE Fact From Fiction
Many myths surround the GRE. It’s important to know what’s true (or at least what’s supported by reasonable evidence) and what’s clearly false.
For example, many students believe that a high score on, say, Math Section 1 will spell doom, because Math Section 2 will present really difficult questions, which they fear they will be unable to answer correctly, thus eroding their score. This is faulty reasoning! If you perform really well on Section 1, your score is already good! The GRE is adaptive by section, not by question. So by acing Section 1, the GRE has already decided that you are in the better half of scorers. Section 2 is basically going to fine tune your score, and it does so by presenting more difficult problems that will separate, say, the 159 score from the 168 score. That’s not to say you can relax on Section 2. If you miss every question, bad things will happen! The point here is to do as well as possible, especially on Section 1.
Another myth believed by many is that one must answer every question correctly in order to earn a high score. In fact, one can incorrectly answer a reasonable number of questions and still earn a 330+ score. Furthermore, the scoring algorithm heavily depends on the difficulty level of the questions you’re answering. It’s not enough to answer a bunch of easy questions properly; you must also answer a number of hard questions correctly. Remember, to earn a high score on the GRE, you must perform better than most of your peers. You can use the scoring algorithm to your advantage by over performing on the difficult questions.
Also, many students are worried that if they miss one or two easy questions, they will earn a low score. First, this notion is statistically inaccurate. Think about it this way. Imagine having 36 people in a room who earn $5,000,000 each per year. If one person who earns $500,000 per year enters the room, does the the average salary of all the people drop much? No, it does not drop much at all. The person earning $500,000 a year is referred to as an outlier. An outlier is a value that is far away from the other values. Outliers (a few easy questions missed in an otherwise strong performance) will not have a major effect on your score, especially if those missed questions are in Section 2.
Here’s one key concept to consider. While taking the GRE, you should never try to determine how well you’re doing. Besides the fact that you are almost certain to be mistaken, anything that distracts you from the next problem can only be a drag on your performance. Have a short memory, and forget what has already happened in favor of focusing on doing your best going forward. A baseball player who can’t forget his last at-bat has a lot more trouble hitting the pitch coming toward him!
Not only should you not self-assess during the exam, don’t even try to guess which section is the experimental one. On test day you would expect 2 verbal sections and 2 quantitative sections, but in reality you will be presented with 5 sections, either 3 verbal and 2 math, or 2 verbal and 3 math. One of these extra sections is experimental and does not count toward your score. Do not spend even one second trying to guess which is the experimental section. This will destroy your focus and your timing. Do your absolute best on every section. Period.
Finally, some students are under the impression that it’s ok to leave a few answers blank at the end of the test. It is not okay. There is no penalty for incorrect responses, and it’s likely that you will get one or two guessed responses correct, thus increasing your score. Be sure that you answer all of the questions on each section, even if the final responses reflect nothing but guesses.
Understand What to Do and What Not to Do in the Week Before the Exam
After all your hard months preparing for the GRE, it all comes down to test day. It’s important to understand what to expect on test day and what to do in the days leading up to the exam.
I’ve written in more detail about the test day experience here, but I’ll summarize some of the most important points.
In the Days Before the Test:
Don’t take practice tests. You’ll want to be well rested.
Eat healthy food.
Get proper exercise.
Taper off your studying and give your brain a rest.
Prepare yourself for some ups and downs on test day, but be confident and excited.
Do some light studying and review.
On Test Day:
Eat a healthy breakfast.
Hydrate well, but remember that you will only have a few breaks during the exam.
Listen to some inspirational music—get pumped up. Rocky 4 montage, anyone?
Get to the test center early.
Do a few problems in the car before the exam to get your brain warmed up.
Take one last look at any math formulas or vocabulary words that you’ve had trouble remembering.
Say some positive affirmations out loud.
During the Test
Manage your time properly—don’t get behind on the clock.
Take each question as it comes—stay focused. Don’t think about anything except the question you’re on.
Never try to determine how well you’re doing.
Remember that you can get a number of questions wrong and still do well.
If you don’t know an answer, make an educated guess and move on.
Answer every question as you encounter it; flag questions, if need be, for later review.
Don’t worry too much if you have trouble with the first few questions—you have lots of opportunities to improve.
Remember that you’ll encounter one experimental section.
You can always get another set of scratch paper, so don’t worry if you run out of room.
Take your breaks.
Remember that you can cancel your score and retake the exam in 21 days.
Show the GRE what you know! Have fun!
Don’t Put Too Much Pressure on Yourself! Plan Ahead
So, it’s November 15, and you just decided that you’d like to submit round two applications for a number of top grad programs or business schools. Furthermore, you have not taken the GRE yet. How well, on average, can the next few months go? Why do this to yourself? Wouldn’t it be better (and less stressful) to plan ahead and give yourself enough time to prepare for the GRE properly?
Realize that there is never a better time than the present to begin a project. Get started on the GRE. Put in a few solid months of studying. If you earn the score you need, awesome! If you need more study time, give yourself the latitude to study into the spring and take the test at a later date.
Don’t Give Up!
Here’s a secret. When smart, hardworking students study hard and study smart yet still don’t reach their goals on the GRE, it’s typically because they threw in the towel too soon. Consider this scenario.
On July 1, a certain student decides she will sit for the GRE on September 1. Her goal is a 330. To determine her initial abilities, she takes a practice test and earns a 295. Subsequently, she studies really hard and really smart all summer. She earns a 310 on her real GRE, a decent score but well below her target. Frustrated by this score, she tells herself that she’s done everything she can and decides not to retake the GRE.
Instead, our student could have said to herself, “Look, my overall performance has improved from about the 40th percentile to about the 65th percentile in a few months. I now know so much more than I did when I began studying. If I can improve this much in only a few months, just think about how much more I can improve if I continue to work for another few months. I can do this!!”
It would be sad for a student in this situation to give up. Don’t tell yourself that you’ve done all you can. Very rarely in life do we ever even come close to doing all we can. Quite often, tasks, especially complex ones, take more time and more energy than we initially expect. Get used to it.
This is the best advice I can give you. If you have worked hard for a number of months yet still have not earned the GRE score you need, keep studying! Many others have found themselves in a similar situation. The ones who haven’t given up but have worked past their seemingly permanent plateaus are the ones who have finally reached the summit. Consolidate what you have learned and then add to that knowledge, and you too can be among them!
Eliminate Hazardous Attitudes
There are a number of hazardous, self-defeating attitudes that can do nothing but hold back your progress. You should learn to recognize them and do your best to eliminate them.
Below is a summary of some common ways in which students allow themselves to be defeated. Beware, I’m about to dispense some tough love.
See the GRE as an Opportunity, Not as a Curse
If your plan is to attend a top grad program or business school, then you’ll be taking the GRE (or GMAT for business programs). You have little choice in the matter. However, you do have a choice about how you view the GRE and about your attitude in approaching the test. You can spend your days disgruntled over the fact that this thing called the GRE is standing in the way of your dreams, thus turning your study time into an even greater torture. Conversely, you can look at the GRE as an opportunity to separate yourself from peers who may be less committed, less devoted, or less prepared. This is also an opportunity to learn things you’ve always known you should have learned in the first place. I suspect that you’ll progress much faster if you take the latter course, treating the GRE as an opportunity and as a tool for personal and professional development. The GRE is designed to separate people. The more frustrated or angry or upset you become over the GRE, the less likely your chances of ending up on the favorable side of that separation.
Realize That You Won’t Be Rewarded Just For Putting in the Time
Most of you reading this are likely to be successful undergraduates. Some of you may have succeeded by “dressing up, showing up, and putting in the time” in your undergraduate classes. This is not a bad thing. However, don’t expect to earn a 330+ on the GRE just by showing up and putting in the time. Though putting in the time is certainly necessary, it isn’t enough to guarantee a top score. One needs to work both hard and smart. So, if you’re just putting in the time and letting the information wash over you, months could pass without your getting any closer to your goal. Strive to understand. Flush out your weaknesses and eliminate them. Become the master of your material, and thereby, the captain of your own success. Don’t make the mistake of believing that the passage of time itself guarantees you a higher score.
Don’t Tell Yourself the Story That You are Bad at Standardized Tests
That story will make you defeat yourself before you start. Maybe you didn’t do so well on the SAT or ACT. Maybe you don’t like taking tests. Maybe you’ve bombed a practice GRE or two. So what? One great thing about life and about living in the United States in general is that people can change the paths they’re on. In other words, past performance does not perfectly predict future performance. You control your own destiny and have the ability to alter your behavior, to work harder, smarter, and better, and to improve your overall performance as a consequence. Don’t accept the past as a barometer of your future! At one point, you weren’t able to walk. You learned. Take a stand! Make it happen!
Training yourself to do well on standardized tests is no different than training yourself to make any type of change: difficult at first, but easier as you gain steam. Instead of defeating yourself ahead of time by telling yourself that you can’t do well, start off correctly by telling yourself that you can do well. Then, tell yourself that you will do well. Then, your job is to take a different approach than you have in the past and force yourself to consciously practice that approach rather than falling back into those old self-defeating habits. This article should be a good starting place in helping you do things differently.
Don’t Tell Yourself the Story that Others Are Acing the GRE Quickly and Easily
It’s easy to begin feeling that the process is taking longer than it “should.” It’s also easy to begin feeling that your peers are earning great scores effortlessly. In fact, they are working hard at improving, and there is no “should” about the length of time it takes to prepare. It’s easy to assume that others are having an easy time with the GRE since you don’t see their paths to action. In other words, you don’t see their late nights of studying. You don’t see their Saturdays spent taking practice tests. You don’t see the dozens of hours they spend with private tutors. You don’t see that they took the GRE three times before they finally earned their scores. You don’t get to see any of the hard work and elbow grease that went into the final product.
It’s easy to look at someone’s final product and assume that no effort was expended in producing it. Also, sometimes people try to make the process look easy. Think about watching Tiger Woods play golf. Does it look hard? No, he makes it look as if he never breaks a sweat. However, Tiger has spent probably 20,000 hours practicing in order to make it look easy.
I’ve Done Great Things in Both My Personal and Professional Life, so the GRE Shouldn’t Matter Much
Your personal, professional, and academic achievements will serve you well; there is no question about it. Don’t ever let anyone discount what you have done. Be proud of your hard work and your accomplishments. Continue doing great things. Find your passions and pursue them. However, please also be savvy enough to view the strength of your candidacy dispassionately and honestly. Take a look at the students at UC Berkeley, MIT, or Columbia.. See anyone who has not done seriously impressive stuff with her life? I didn’t think so. Although your accomplishments may be considerable, the accomplishments of your competition are also likely to be great. And, at the end of the day, if you’d like human eyes to actually read your application and take notice of all the great things you’ve done, a strong GRE score will certainly help.
Some Helpful Performance Coaching Tips
Believe You Can Do It, and Say You Can Do it
Do not talk yourself out of a great GRE score. Instead, talk yourself into a great GRE score! Remember, your thoughts become your words, and your words become your actions. Believe in yourself!!
Embrace Your Individuality
You have a number of things that make you special. Embrace them. Maybe you like studying at 3 am while listening to punk rock. Maybe you learn math very quickly but struggle with learning new vocabulary words. Maybe you are super hard working. Discover what makes you different from your peers and use these differences to your advantage.
Forget About What Others Think
One of the easiest ways to fail is to worry about what others think of you and then change your study habits because of that apprehension. Try your best to be the best person you can be. Strive to climb the highest peaks. Strive to find your passions. Strive to make a difference. However, forget about the impression on others that your efforts may make. You’re studying for the GRE on Friday nights. So what? You’ve already taken the test twice and are sitting for it again. So what? You goal is Stanford or bust. So what? You’re an obsessed perfectionist what it comes to learning quant. So what? Just let your light shine and forget about what others think or say.
Get Rid of Negative People
When studying for the GRE, one of the best things you can have is a positive network of people who are supporting and encouraging you. If your friends are urging you not to spend an extra hour reviewing vocabulary, ignore them. Stay close to people who understand how important it is that you meet your goals, not to those clueless folks who can’t see into you and don’t have your best interests at heart.
Be Optimistic, Not Pessimistic
You can do this! As with many activities in life, attitude has a big role to play in success. When you are optimistic about something, you are more open to it and more likely to absorb it and take advantage. Attitude also plays a big role in your well-being during your months of study.If you’re inwardly, or outwardly, grumbling each time you sit down to study, you’re likely to be less focused, and you’re definitely going to be unhappy. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your GRE study materials; don’t poison that time with unnecessary misery!
Don’t Unnecessarily Criticize Yourself—Don’t be Overly Judgemental About Yourself
We all experience bad days. We all encounter problems that are tough to solve. It’s important not to magnify the bad while discounting the good. Try to look at your progress objectively. If you’ve made significant progress over the last few months, it’s important not to criticize yourself over one unproductive day. Instead, take a step back and look at the big picture. Look at how you’re trending over time. Be fair and kind to yourself.
Be Inquisitive and Curious
I’ll be the first to admit that some GRE issues are difficult to master. However, I’ve found that the students who develop a genuine interest in learning the material are the ones who, in general, perform the best on the GRE. If you really care about what you are learning and if you become inquisitive about the content, you just may begin to see the elegance that exists within the GRE, and you may just earn that higher score that sets you on a path for higher personal and professional achievement.
I’m sorry for making you read such a long article. I have much more insight to share, and I could have continued writing, but to spare your sanity, I didn’t. I genuinely hope this article helps you to earn an impressive GRE score. If you have further questions or need advice or just need someone to bounce ideas off, I’d be more than pleased to help you. You can email me at:
Founder and CEO
Target Test Prep