Posted by: Ken Brown | October 9, 2009

GRE Preperation and Approach

Priceton Review Cracking the GREI received my official GRE scores this week and along with several other bibliobloggers, I was a little disappointed in my Verbal. My scores are still competitive (certainly not poor enough to justify a re-test, especially since I felt very good as I was taking it) but not as high as on my practice tests, which is frustrating.1 Trying not to be bitter, then, I wanted to offer a few reflections on my test preparation for the sake of those yet to take it. If nothing else, hopefully I can save some other benighted souls the from making the same mistakes I did. 😉

Overall Approach

I actually used three different test prep books–Peterson’s Master the GRE 2010 (by Mark Stewert), Kaplan’s GRE Premier Live Online 2010 Edition (various), and Princeton Review’s Cracking the GRE 2010 Edition (by Doug Pierce)–but I only read the last of these all the way through. I was drawn to Pierce’s book over the others by his cynically defiant tone and straightforward explanations, and found the book both informative and easy to read, though as we’ll see, I don’t agree with all his advice.

As Pierce sees it, the GRE tests little more than your ability to take the GRE. Yes, you need a good vocabulary and some basic math skills, but the multiple choice sections of the test especially rely so much upon misdirection that, according to Pierce, success on the GRE has as much to do with learning how to game the system as it does with your innate verbal or mathematical ability.

After taking it I’m more convinced than ever that he’s right about that, but I’m not sure it is all that helpful to dwell on it. In the end, I tried to take a more optimistic approach. Really, the GRE feels more like a battle than a game, and as a matter of fact come test day I found myself praying for courage more than anything else. Psalm 138 seemed particularly appropriate, and I went in praying that God truly would “make me bold and stout-hearted” (138:3). It was a great help in calming my nerves.

Verbal Section

Like I said, however, while preparing I largely bought into Pierce’s cynical approach, so I spent quite a bit of my time learning his strategies for tackling questions from the side rather than answering them directly. I’m not sure that time was all well spent, however, as much of it is only helpful if, for instance, you do not know the vocabulary being tested. Especially on the Verbal section I did not end up using very much of his advice (then again, perhaps I would have done better if I had. Who can say?), and some of it was downright counter-productive.

For instance, on Reading Comprehension questions he suggests that you only read the first paragraph in full, and just scan the rest to get a rough idea of the contents–then treat the questions like a “treasure hunt,” only reading the specific sections of the text when they are asked about. On the one hand, he is right to urge you not to try and memorize all the details of the passage–it will stay on the screen the whole time you are answering the questions–but the whole “treasure hunt” approach really did not work for me, and I finally abandoned it after several failed sets of practice questions.

Kaplan’s advice at this point was much better. It also suggests that you read the first paragraph most closely and not worry about all the technical details that follow, but it emphasizes reading the whole passage quickly and summarizing its contents for yourself before tackling the questions. This not only makes the broad-level questions a snap (with Pierce’s approach they almost felt like a guessing game), it also makes it much easier to find the details asked about in the specific questions. Using this method I got 7 of 8 Reading Comprehension questions correct without spending an inordinate amount of time on them.

On the other hand, Pierce’s vocabulary “Hit Parade” was very helpful (and inspiring!), and if I were to do the GRE again, I would have studied such vocab lists even more closely than I did. Even if your vocabulary is very good, there are bound to be words you only “sort of know”  on these lists (and on the test) and those are the ones most likely to trip you up. Do not assume that just because you read a lot in regular life that the Verbal section will be easy; that is not generally the case.

In fact, according to ETS’s own numbers, even humanities majors tend to do better on the Quantitative section than the Verbal. The cynic in me thinks that only proves the ineffectiveness of this testing method as a measure of ability, but that attitude won’t help you. Instead take that as motivation not to slouch on the Verbal preparation, no matter how well your practice tests go. Think of the test like a wily enemy that knows you’d beat it in a fair fight, so it deliberately avoids giving you one. Don’t give in.

Quantitative Section

Still, if you’re like me you probably feel more stressed by the Math section, and for that I would definitely recommend Pierce’s treatment. I will not attempt to summarize it for you (I’d probably screw it up), but I will say this: I hadn’t done any serious math since high school (my score on the AP Calculus test fulfilled my college requirement, so I never took math again), and I couldn’t even remember how to do long division, let alone algebra. Pierce got me back up to speed quickly and easily. I don’t recall anything appearing on the test that he did not cover.

Further, his strategies for attacking questions from the side proved much more helpful here than in the Verbal section. Especially useful was the tip to plug in your own numbers for the variables in difficult algebra questions (which, if done correctly, turns them into much simpler arithmetic problems). Sometimes you can also plug in the answer choices for the same effect on non-algebra problems. I only used these methods a few times, but where I did it solved problems that I probably would not have been able to answer quickly enough otherwise.

Writing Section

Pierce’s most helpful advice, however, was on the Writing section. In one sense, this is probably the easiest section for humanities majors (especially those of us with blogs), since we write all the time and the test more or less gives free rein on this section. But you don’t want to take it for granted either–why settle for a 5 if you might be able to get a 6?–and if it’s been a while since you’ve written a five paragraph essay (on a timer) it can take a bit of practice to get back in the habit.

The first thing I would say is that you want to familiarize yourself with the kind of questions they ask (be sure to read through at least a healthy portion of prompts–they are all posted on the ETS website), but don’t waste your time trying to prepare answers to all or even most of them (unless that’s your cup of tea); you’ve got better things to do and you can write an excellent essay without all that. Instead, focus on the structure and general contents that you will need to employ no matter what questions you’re given.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is prepare a template in advance.  You don’t want to have to waste a bunch of time deciding how to structure your essay (or worse, lapse into writer’s block!) while the clock is running, so if you can memorize a useful but adaptable structural template before you go in, it will make it much easier to jump right into writing, and will also help if you get stuck. This is a lot more important on the Issues essay than the argument essay (where your structure matters less than your effectiveness in dismantling the prompt).

Pierce gives a number of stock templates, but unfortunately (as even he admits) they are exceedingly dull, so you don’t want to follow them mechanically. Just take one or two or (better yet) create your own, and practice using them so that you’ll have something to fall back on if the essay doesn’t come naturally as well as you’d like. For instance, here’s the template I created for the Issues Essay (which you are welcome to borrow, though I’d encourage you to adapt it to your own style). I did not follow it exactly on test day, but it definitely helped me organize my thoughts and helped me do well on the Writing section (5.5 out of 6):

  • Introduction: If possible, begin with an illustrative example or relevant quotation (it’s important that the first sentence be as engaging as possible, do not simply restate the prompt); summarize the appeal of the opposing view; state the thesis to be defended.
  • Body 1: Acknowledge the strongest argument(s) for the opposition and rebut them using one or more detailed counter-examples drawn from history, literature or current events.
  • Body 2: Highlight issues overlooked by the opposing view and explain how they support the thesis, again using specific examples and reasons.
  • Body 3: Explain the most important argument or most evocative example in favor of your position, again trying to be as specific as possible.
  • Conclusion: Restate the argument and draw one or two further inferences from it, be sure to make the final sentence as engaging as possible (even if by inversion).

Whatever your template, just be sure to practice with it as much as you can. Use it to write several timed essays until it becomes natural enough that you can follow it without being a slave to it. In fact, that’s the advice I would give for the test as a whole: practice, practice, practice. I wish I had done more of that myself, especially on the Verbal section.

Of course, however you structure your essays, you want to fill them with detailed and evocative examples. Be sure to vary your sentence length and vocabulary (don’t keep using the same terms from the prompt again and again), and try to make your language as specific and visual as possible.  I know that seems elementary, but trust me, it’s easy to forget when you are scrambling to write on test day. Just remember that the people marking these things fly though a ton of essays in a very short amount of time so you don’t need to be Shakespeare, but anything you can do to catch their attention will make you stand out.


Probably the most important advice, though, is not to stress yourself out over this. Be sure to get good sleep in the days leading up to it (they say the night before the night before is the most important), and I’d stay away from caffeine on test day; you’ll have enough adrenaline to keep you going without it, and it’ll only make you jittery and need to pee. Make sure you give yourself extra time to get there, you don’t want the added stress of getting caught in traffic and worrying about being late.

Take the GRE seriously and study hard for it, but don’t beat yourself up about it, whether before or after you take it. It is only one aspect of your application and even if you do not do as well as you’d like, it doesn’t prove you’re an idiot–plenty of people have gotten into great programs and excelled in them with less than stellar GRE scores. But it’s not just a hoop to jump through either (or, at least, you shouldn’t treat it as one); it’s a battle you can win.


1I actually think my Verbal score is a mistake, though I know how that sounds. According to ETS’s Diagnostic Service, I left the last question on the Verbal Section unanswered, but in fact I finished the section with more than a minute to spare.

What happened was this:  They only give you one minute between sections and I was dying to pee, so when I finished the Verbal section early I chose my last answer and clicked “Next,” but purposely did not click “Confirm”  (as ending the section early doesn’t buy you a longer break; it simply begins it early). I confirmed with the  staff at the testing facility that this was OK to do, and they assured me that the program automatically records your answer for whatever question you are on when time expires, even if you do not click “Next” or “Confirm.” The GRE prep books I have say the same thing, and in fact suggest that if you are running out of time you should click an answer to the final question before trying to solve it, just in case time expires–apparently leaving a question unanswered hurts your score more than a wrong answer does.

After the test was over I was suspicious of my score and so asked another staff member about this issue, and he also assured me that “even if the entire computer crashes before you click Next, it will still give you credit for your answer.” I took his word for it and just figured I’d overestimated how well I’d done, but the diagnostic clearly shows that my final answer was not recorded (it just shows that I spent extra time on the last question), so it appears both the staff and the prep books were wrong on that–and I would urge you not to try the same thing, no matter how badly you need to pee. I emailed ETS about the issue, but I seriously doubt they’re going to help me–I’ll update if they do.

The worst of it, though, is that the next section on the test–the one I was trying so hard not to be late for–turned out to be the unscored “Research” section. And there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

UPDATE: I did finally hear back from ETS, who confirmed that I did in fact enter an answer on the last question, with time to spare, but they still refused to give me credit for answering it. So I repeat again: do not attempt to leave the last question unconfirmed to make a bathroom run. If you really need to go, you’re better off finishing the section first and beginning the next one a minute or two late.


  1. Thanks Ken, that is very helpful, especially how you lay out your outline for the essay response. The book I am using (I think it is Kaplan but don’t have it on me), also suggested that not everyone has to do 5 paragraph essay but could do 3 solid paragraphs too and do well. Not sure what I will do, guess depends on how slow a writer I am.

  2. I think you’ll want to have separate introductory and conclusion paragraphs (even if they are not “full” paragraphs) to frame things for your reader. In fact, one good tip I’ve seen is to write a brief conclusion before starting the body paragraphs, just in case you run out of time. The idea is, it’s easier to wrap up a body paragraph under the gun than to try and come up with a memorable conclusion in the final seconds. And of course, if you don’t run out of time you can always return to the conclusion (and intro) at the end and improve it based on what you ended up writing in the body.

    That said, while it may be best, I don’t think you necessarily have to have three body paragraphs in addition to the intro and conclusion. If you only have two really good points and you can develop them both well, it might be worth doing a four paragraph essay rather than wasting time trying to force a third paragraph with a sub-par example. Don’t use this as an excuse to write less though, just use the extra time to make the two body paragraphs you have even fuller and better developed.

  3. […] the past few days, however, I have had a different perspective. Ken Brown posted about his GRE Preparation and Approach a few days ago and he ended his post with the line: it’s a battle you can […]

  4. […] of me wants to rebel against the test and complain (as I did, perhaps unfairly, about the GRE) that it is a frustrating and unnecessary hoop to jump though. After all, I’m in Göttingen […]

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