If you are reading this article, you probably know what the GRE means. Just in case you don’t, the GRE is a standardized test that is widely accepted internationally as an evaluation metric at universities to rank prospective graduate students who apply to these universities for their higher education programs. Though it is most commonly accepted at institutions in the USA and Canada, several institutions in other countries too require GRE scores as a part of the admissions procedure.
Without further ado, I shall cut straight to the topic of this article which is to help you, the reader and prospective GRE taker to improve your scores by the careful analysis of your performance. I shall provide you with some very useful tips that did work for me when I wrote the GRE and also leave you with an objective way of evaluating your progress.
In my first GRE mock test, I scored a 309 and skipped the essay section as I was too impatient to write it. 2 months later when I finally wrote the GRE, I received much improved scores of 325 and a 5.5 in the essay section. And I am really excited to write about the techniques that helped me bring about this improvement and I hope it finds you well.
Knowing your Playfield
The GRE is nothing like most of the routine exams that we are accustomed to writing at school or college. The pattern is objective and even the portions are not as complex. The main aim of the exam is to test the strength of foundational ideas that test takers have. Interestingly, there is no age limit for writing the GRE and this means that whether you are 20 years old or 40 years, you will be tested on the same syllabus that you would have studied at school(at least the quantitative section). Therefore, the most important point to note is that the GRE tests your fundamentals. It does not test your calculus and definitely does not want you to solve polynomial degree equations.
With the hope that you are a lot more relieved after knowing that, let’s get to the different sections within the GRE. There are 3 main types of sections you need to know about:
- Quantitative Reasoning - Tests your Math
- Verbal Reasoning - Tests your English
- Analytical Writing - Tests your Writing skills
You can read more about each of these sections and the different types of questions you will encounter in these sections in this link.
Also, the GRE scoring is unlike most exams, the minimum score is not 0! The possible scores for quant and verbal lie within a range of 130-170 with unit increments possible. The analytical writing section is scored between 0.0 to 6.0 in 0.5 increments. In other words, your GRE scores(quant + verbal) will lie in an 80 point range between 260-340.
The GRE Scoring Intervals
NOTE: Do not compare your scores to the world averages. Some universities have lower requirements than you think and some might have higher. So, check with your university as to what “minimum score” you need to achieve to be considered. The idea must always be to score as high as possible, because a good GRE score can even help get scholarships.
Knowing your Errors
A good aspect of the GRE is that the test follows a pattern. It has certain types of questions and questions of the same type have similar kinds of approaches. This is of course easy to understand. But what many of us overlook is that the errors we make in the test can also be grouped into types. Our errors too have patterns and if we identify these erroneous cases, it will help improve our scores.
Scoring higher is not always achieved by covering more topics or doing more questions. Significant improvement can be brought about by merely detecting common errors and avoiding the same.
Quantitative Reasoning Errors
These errors can be broadly classified into computation errors or conceptual errors. Conceptual errors can be further categorized into the following types - Formulae-related errors, Topic-related errors, No-shortcut errors and Assumption errors.
As the name suggests, these are errors that arise when we do not know or forget relevant formulae to solve a particular problem. Eg: We have a problem that asks us to calculate the volume of ice cream in a cone and we do not remember the volume of a cone.
These errors arise when we lack good understanding of the topic itself on which a question is based. Eg: We are asked to calculate the Euclidean distance between two points in an XY plane, but we do not know co-ordinate geometry.
These errors are not exactly errors, but they often end up causing significant damage to our GRE scores. These errors occur when we clearly understand a question and also figure out a method to solve it, but the method is too time consuming and we are unable to find a shortcut to do it. In such a case, we either spend plenty of time trying to figure out a shorter way or we squander too much time by working out pages of calculations for one single problem. Either of the cases will hurt our final scores.
In our normal lives, how easily do we make assumptions about the people around us. Similarly, we also tend to assume several parameters to questions in the GRE and such assumptions cause us to drop points.
If the radius of the circle above is 10 cm, what is the distance between the points A and C?
If your answer is 10 cm, you need to work hard on not making assumptions not given in the question. If that’s not your answer, your tendency to assume might be at a lower rate.
In the question, there is no mention that C is the centre. But, it looks like the centre to us. Hence, we assume!
But, don’t. Unless it is specified, do not assume anything.
Unlike conceptual errors, computation errors are hard to get rid of. These errors are those engendered by careless or overlooked mistakes during computation.
A common approach undertaken by students to detect computation errors in an examination is to recheck all questions towards the end. While this might work for some, it is not easy to find time to recheck questions at the end in the GRE.
You have 1.5 minutes per question and if you are not a speedy test taker, finding time to recheck can be a bit difficult. And even if you have time to recheck, you might not have time to do so for all questions.
In such a case, it is important to prepare to reduce the chances of computation errors before you write the real test.
One method that can work in spite of its relative rudimentary nature is to make a personal list of computation errors that you commonly make. A couple of the errors I found out that I made too often were
- Forgetting to consider the negative root of a number. For example, square-root(25) is both +5 and -5. I always considered only +5!
- Making mistakes while drawing figures onto my working sheet, especially missing out on crucial measurements
Similarly, each test taker has their own set of recurring computation errors. It is important to find these and be aware of questions that can cause such errors.
Now, the pertinent question is “How to reduce quantitative reasoning errors?” An approach that can work well is to maintain a list of errors made. It starts with creating a table on spreadsheet software such as Google Sheets or MS Excel and create a table with the following columns:
- Practice Drill ID: A drill can be any continuous period of time when you are working on practicing questions for the GRE
- Total no. of questions: The total count of all questions attempted in the given drill
- No. of formulae-related errors
- What formulae were missed?
- No. of topic-related errors
- What topics were missed?
- No. of no-shortcut errors
- What questions and methods seemed too lengthy?
- No. of assumption errors
- What assumptions were made?
- No. of computation errors
- What were the computational or silly errors made?
Updating this table after every drill will help have a single-stop location to detect and identify regions of improvement. The table will also serve as a quick means of revision before the actual test.
The key is to be more aware of common mistakes made from an early stage itself. And these mistakes are never the same for everybody. Therefore, having a specific plan will help tackle these errors.
Verbal Reasoning Errors
Unlike quant, there is very little scope for careless errors in verbal questions. In Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion questions, there are essentially only 3 cases
- You know all the words in the options
- You don’t know all the words, but you know some in the options
- You know none of the words in the options
Most of us, if not all fall in the case 2. As much as I hate to break it to the reader, the only real way of doing better is to learn more words, understand their usage, pick up root words and practice using these words in daily life.
The words that you add into your verbal cauldron can mix together to form that perfect recipe for verbal success in the GRE only if you add the stabilising ingredient of practice.
One very efficient way of practicing is to create sentences with words so as to remember the context and meaning of difficult words. Associating drawings to specific words can also help in learning a word. The drawings need not be artistic pieces. If it can stick in our heads with the word, it is safe to say that it does the job. Since this has been a long read, here are a few sentences(some make no sense) that I made for my GRE prep to cheer you up!
- A perfunctory glance at my classmate’s screen was not enough for me to discern details in the network topology schematic that we were expected to draw. Hence, I lost marks.
- The sight of several dismembered bodies of soldiers on the battlefield was a very poignant sight for Emperor Asoka and forced him to recant on his beliefs about war.
- The enigma machine was a mystery that was solved by Alan Turing.
- Our early goal against mechanical in the inter-department game failed to galvanize the team as we lost the game 3:1 at full time.
- Salubrious Brutus had good health.
- A politician who speaks with candor is a rarity as most of them are dishonest in speech.
- The belly dancer’s undulatory moves are testimony to years of training and assiduousness coupled with a penchant for dancing.
And my favourite bad pun - Mendacity is a city where the people always lie!
The Leitner System is a really good way to use flashcards to learn new words and perfect them in memory. I personally used a variant of the system that seemed to work well with me. I strongly urge the reader to have a look at the system and use it to enhance your lexical abilities.
Reading Comprehension questions test your skill to identify meaningful answers amongst the vast amount of clutter the articles present. As far as I realised, RCs are all about cutting the clutter and looking at only what matters. Two useful links that seem to cover this idea of tackling RCs in good depth are
Mock Test yourself
Mock tests help simulate an environment of the real test and play very useful roles in improving candidates’ performance. A few great resources to take free mocks from are
These mock tests provide objective reports on student performances and will help identify individual strengths and weaknesses. Reviewing the mistakes and unknown answers made in each mock test will also help identify points of improvement. Here is a snapshot of a template that could be of help to candidates for their reviewing their mock tests.
Books to Read
A lot of good GRE books exist on the internet. However, a couple of them that I used were
This brings me to the end of this article and I hope the tips provided above would help the readers in improving their GRE scores. A few other points that I would like to leave you with here are
- Essays with strong, bold language built on concrete opinions are often scored higher on the GRE.
- In your essays, try to use a good amount of transition words like however, furthermore, although, but etc.
- Always have a Letter of the Day(LOTD) **with you. If you have very little time and you are sure you do not know how to solve a question, mark the LOTD. Do not leave any question unanswered. There is **NO NEGATIVE MARKING.
- Use the 20 second rule. It’s something that worked like magic for me. Do not spend more than 20 seconds on a question to understand it. If the approach to a question does not hit you within 20 seconds, skip it and go to the next one. Come back to it in the next iteration. The idea is to answer as much as possible as all questions have equal weightage.
- Make sure your calculations for quant problems are performed horizontally. This saves a lot of space and you don’t need to ask for extra sheets during the test.
- Enjoy the test! No matter how well you have prepared, if you can’t hold yourself together during the test, you will not score well. So, it’s important to remain calm. And the best way to not be affected negatively during a test is to enjoy it.
All the Best for your Test!