Articles published in GRE Strategies

The GRE’s not a math test – it’s a foreign language test!


Blog-GRE-LanguageImagine that you asked a friend of yours what she got on the Quant section of the GRE. Instead of answering you directly, she said “let’s just say that 4 times my score is a multiple of 44, and 3 times my score is a multiple of 45.”

Could you tell what score she got? If not… you may need to work on your GRE translation skills!  Read more

How to “Read” Your Practice Tests


So, you’ve taken a practice test!  Maybe you’re closing in on the score you want, or maybe you still have some distance left to travel.  Regardless of which scenario applies to you, “reading” your practice test data is an incredibly crucial element to GRE progress!

I write this assuming I don’t need to discuss looking at your score, comparing overall quantitative to overall verbal, etc.  Everyone looks at the ‘big’ numbers.  The question is, what eureka moments can we gain from a deeper analysis?

There are three components to analyzing a practice test: analyzing timing, analyzing accuracy by question type, and analyzing accuracy by topic tested.

Analyzing Timing

You can’t analyze your timing until you know what your timing should look like.

GRE 1 edited

Does anything stand out to you in image above?  Why do some questions take you less than one minute, while some take more than three?  We expect some variation across different questions – Reading Comprehension should take longer than Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence, and Data Interpretation questions (especially the first DI question) will usually take longer than Quantitative Comparison.  But why are there such wide swings in question time within the QC question?  And I can’t help but notice that the two Discrete Quantity questions both took less time than the vast majority of the QC questions.  Perhaps this is someone who is skilled in math, but doesn’t yet truly grasp the logic underlying the QC questions.

A review of QC as a question type is probably called for from this practice test.

Another element of timing is more fundamental (and the above image captures this concept also).  Do you know when to let a question go, guess, and move on to the next question?  Any time you spent three minutes on a question, you had a problem letting go.  Right or wrong, that question hurt you.

Bottom line, when you analyze timing in a practice test, you want to see two things: 1) question by question timing – were you able to let a question go when needed, and 2) question type timing – do you have the desired timing for each question type?

Now it’s time to Generate an Assessment Report!!!  (It’s exciting because it’s got three exclamation points :)  )

Analyzing Accuracy by Question Type

GRE 2 edited

Take a few moments and see what you can find in the image above.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait  :)

Seriously, there’s a lot you should consider here.  If you haven’t been looking for at least 5 minutes, you haven’t spent enough time.  And although I *said* this is the Accuracy analysis portion of this post, we’re not done with timing.

First, let’s talk good decisions vs poor decisions.  Good decisions – on TC, you know when to get out of a question.  Look at the Average Time Wrong vs Average Time right for the Harder and Devilish TC questions.  That’s what we want to see!  This indicates you recognize when more time will/won’t pay off.  (Maybe… more on this in a moment.)

So why aren’t you making the same decisions in SE?

Finally, why, why, why are you spending five minutes – on AVERAGE across three questions – in RC?  What’s going on here?  There’s some leeway in RC, because of the time needed to read and process a longer passage, but not five minutes leeway.

On the Easier RC question that you missed, you missed it in one minute.  This indicates you were confident in your answer.  Confident in the wrong answer – somewhere in this question is a trap that you fell for, and you need to figure out what that trap was!

Back to the TC timing: one possibility is you know when to get out of TC, and that’s why your wrong answers take less time than the right answers.  Another, more disturbing possibility, is you’re cheating yourself on TC time.  How do I know this?  Look at the variation between TC and SE accuracy – it’s not huge, but the discrepancy is there.  Why is TC accuracy lower?

Finally, the most obvious element of this analysis is that RC is your lowest accuracy.  Time to go back and study!!!

Analyzing Accuracy by Topic Tested

This issue cannot be addressed by looking at one image – you will generate an assessment report, and view the Analysis by Content Area and Topic.  There are a few things you’re looking for here.

First, and foremost, are you seeing accuracy and speed in topics you’ve studied?  If you haven’t studied Geometry yet, who cares if your Geometry accuracy is 20%!  But you’ve spent two full weeks reviewing algebra, so why are you missing 2 out of 3 function/formula questions?  Bright side though, your accuracy in Quadratics is through the roof!!

Obviously that paragraph is a hypothetical, but notice two things: first, you need to decide which area(s) deserve your analysis; second, you need to look not just at the overall topic, but also at the subtopics.

You’re looking for improvements and discrepancies.  Which areas are strong?  Which are weak?  Do you have a mix of strong and weak areas in one major topic?  These are all question you need to ask yourself.

BUT you need to take this with a grain of salt – don’t neglect to consider the difficulty of the individual questions!  Yes, maybe you missed 2 function questions.  But they were both Devilish difficulty!  You’re not weak in this area, you just got hit by some of the worst questions.

Finally, don’t neglect to examine timing in this area of analysis.  Yes, you were accurate in Rates questions.  But you spent 4 minutes on them.  Time to study!!

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve found this helpful.  If you go back and look at my previous GRE blog posts, I think you’ll notice that this post contains many, many more rhetorical questions.  That’s the point of practice test analysis.  In the test, and when you’re studying, the computer, or the book, or whatever study source you’re using is asking you questions.

Analyzing your practice tests is the time for you to ask the questions.  What are the weak areas?  Strong areas?  Why am I performing differently in Word Problems vs Geometry?

And there’s one question you must ask, which I haven’t addresses, simply because of how much space it would require – Are you seeing improvement???

Every time you take a practice test, from the second practice test on to the last, look at the most recent test, do all this analysis.  Then look at the test prior – what’s changed?  What has stayed the same?  Have you improved in your weaknesses, and have strengths remained strong?

A practice test doesn’t teach you anything in and of itself – but it tells you where you are, and where you’re moving, and what you *should* be teaching yourself.

Good Luck!!!

Want a Better GRE Score? Go to Sleep!


2-12-Sleep-GREThis is going to be a short post. It will also possibly have the biggest impact on your study of anything you do all day (or all month!).

When people ramp up to study for the GRE, they typically find the time to study by cutting down on other activities—no more Thursday night happy hour with the gang or Sunday brunch with the family until the test is over.

There are two activities, though, that you should never cut—and, unfortunately, I talk to students every day who do cut these two activities. I hear this so much that I abandoned what I was going to cover today and wrote this instead. We’re not going to cover any problems or discuss specific test strategies in this article. We’re going to discuss something infinitely more important!

#1: You must get a full night’s sleep

Period. Never cut your sleep in order to study for this test. NEVER.

Your brain does not work as well when trying to function on less sleep than it needs. You know this already. Think back to those times that you pulled an all-nighter to study for a final or get a client presentation out the door. You may have felt as though you were flying high in the moment, adrenaline coursing through your veins. Afterwards, though, your brain felt fuzzy and slow. Worse, you don’t really have great memories of exactly what you did—maybe you did okay on the test that morning, but afterwards, it was as though you’d never studied the material at all.

There are two broad (and very negative) symptoms of this mental fatigue that you need to avoid when studying for the GRE (and doing other mentally-taxing things in life). First, when you are mentally fatigued, you can’t function as well as normal in the moment. You’re going to make more careless mistakes and you’re just going to think more slowly and painfully than usual.
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Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence: A Little Grammar Does a World of Good (Part 3)


2-19-Grammar-PtIII-2In a way, the environmental movement can still be said to be _________ movement, for while it has been around for decades, only recently has it become a serious organization associated with political parties and platforms.

The above sentence is a SE example from the 5Lb Book of GRE Practice Problems, #89.  Today’s discussion explores a third element of sentence structure that is easily overlooked – pronouns!  They can greatly help you clarify the meaning of a sentence.  (And if you didn’t notice already, do you see what I did in the previous sentence?  They – did this pronoun catch your eye?)

The challenge with pronouns isn’t that they are difficult to address, it’s that they are nearly invisible to us, because we have spent our entire adult lives ignoring them when we read and speak.  As a test, how many pronouns have I used just in this short paragraph?

Here’s one way I want you to ‘see’ the earlier SE example:

In a way, the environmental movement can still be said to be ________ movement, for while it has been around for decades, only recently has it become a serious organization associated with political parties and platforms.

Stop mid-sentence, and address those ‘it’s.  This mental exercise is not about finding the target, clues, and pivots, although you should be aware a pronoun could certainly be the target.  This is about making sure you understand the sentence.  Mentally, you should read the sentence as
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GRE Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence: A Little Grammar Does a World of Good (Part 2)


2-17-GrammarPtIISo, in my last post, I discussed finding the core sentence, using punctuation to help us break a sentence into manageable chunks.  We looked at two sentences; I’ve re-copied one of them below.

The director’s commercially-motivated attempts to (i)_______ the imperatives of the mass marketplace were (ii)_______, as evidenced by the critical acclaim but low attendance garnered by his film.

We focused on how the comma breaks the sentence in half: one half is the actual core sentence, and the other half describes how the director’s attempts were critically, but not commercially, successful.

This time, let’s dive into what’s happening with that first blank, and now I’ll give you the answer options:




Many, many students in my classes choose ‘secure’, and that really puzzled me.  If a class doesn’t know the answer, there’s usually a fairly even division among the choices.  What I saw wasn’t students guessing; they thought they had the correct choice in ‘secure’.  Somehow, the third option was a trap.  How?

I have a theory: ‘secure’ is a trap because students link the first blank to the wrong element, the wrong target.  I think many students link that first blank to the word ‘marketplace’, and then think about how someone would want to ‘secure’ a ‘market’ for a product (in this case, a film).
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GRE Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence: A Little Grammar Does a World of Good (Part 1)


2-9-LittleGrammarWhile studying for the GRE Text Completion (TC) and Sentence Equivalence (SE) questions, you naturally want to study vocabulary.  After all, that’s what the test is testing, right?

Yes and no.  The GRE does test vocabulary, but it also tests your ability to analyze a sentence and divine the author’s intended meaning.  (And for those of you keeping score at home, did I use the word ‘divine’ correctly?  Are you familiar with this less common usage?)

And so, we preach (sorry, with the word ‘divine’ earlier, I had to!) a method for TC and SE that involves identifying the Target, Clues, and Pivots in the sentence.  All well and good, but how do you to this?  Here’s where the following limited grammar discussion should help, because although the GRE does not directly test grammar, a little grammar knowledge can be immensely helpful!

We begin with the core elements that every sentence contains: the subject and the verb.  Separating the subjecting and the verb from other elements (which I will generically call descriptors) is part 1 of my TC and SE analysis.  Part 2 is matching each descriptor to what it describes.

So let’s see two examples.  One is a TC example from Lesson 1, the other is a SE example from the 5 lb. Book.
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Break Your “Good” Study Habits! What Learning Science Can Teach Us About Effective GRE Studying


2-6-HabitsDistractions are bad. Routine, concentration, and hard work are good. These all seem like common-sense rules for studying, right? Surprisingly (for many people, at least), learning science tells us that these “good habits” may actually be hurting your learning process!

When you were in college, your study process probably looked something like this: for a given class, you’d attend a lecture each week, do the readings (or at least most of them), and maybe turn in an assignment or problem set. Then, at the end of the semester, you’d spend a week furiously cramming all of that information to prepare for the test.

Since this is the way you’ve always studied, it’s probably how you’re approaching the GRE, too. But I have bad news: this is not an effective approach for the GRE!

Taking notes then cramming the night before the test is beneficial for tests that ask you to recite knowledge: “what were the major consequences of the Hawley-Smoot tariff” or “explain Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.” You can hold a lot of facts  -for a brief time – in your short-term memory when cramming. You memorize facts, you spit them out for the test… and then, if you’re like me, you find that you’ve forgotten half of what you memorized by the next semester.

Why the GRE is Different

The GRE doesn’t reward this style of studying because it’s not simply a test of facts or knowledge. The GRE requires you to know a lot of rules, of course, but the main thing that it’s testing is your ability to apply those concepts to new problems, to adapt familiar patterns, and to use strategic decision-making. You’ll never see the same problem twice. Even with vocabulary, you need a robust understanding of words, not just memorized definitions.
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3 Things You Need To Know Before Beginning Your GRE Prep


greSo, at the risk of boring you with some personal information, my girlfriend is planning on taking the GRE this spring.  And, of course, she wants my advice.  While thinking about how to best help her, it occurred to me that many of the things I’m telling her apply to everyone who is beginning her GRE preparations.

  1. Vocabulary is much more than just flash cards.

So you will, of course, be studying vocabulary.  And one of the most effective ways to create a base vocab level is to create flash cards.  Let’s be honest, some of this is just memorization, pure and simple.  But if you stop at flashcards, you’re not preparing yourself for the GRE.  The test will ask you to use your vocabulary in context, so why not study that way?  Take a deck of 10-20 cards, and use each word in a sentence (bonus if you can get more than one in the same sentence!) to make a story.  Anything you can think of that will push your vocabulary studies beyond flat memorization is helpful.

  1. The quantitative sections test strategy selection, not math.

And nowhere is this more apparent than in the Quantitative Comparison questions.  Do you need to know math?  Of course.  Will math by itself get you a great score on the GRE?  A resounding, definitive NO.

Think about it for a moment: you need to do some of these math questions in 60 seconds.  There is no such thing as a challenging math question that can be answered in one minute; the GRE can’t be testing math, because the math simply isn’t at a terribly high level.  There is no calculus, no trig.  So what is the GRE testing, if not math?

It’s testing your ability to quickly and accurately analyze an abstract problem (in a mathematics context) and select a method that will supply an answer.  Many times, if not the majority of the time, application of pure mathematics to arrive at an exact answer is wasting your time.  So what other methods are there?  Sometimes you’ll just want to throw numbers at a problem; other times, you may want to estimate a “close enough” answer.

The key is to REVIEW the questions you do, and identify exactly WHY a particular strategy is the best!  While there are some general guidelines, the key is to identify why you like a particular strategy for a given problem.

What follows is the reason I wrote this post.  The above is important, but I left the best for last!!

  1. You need a plan.

After all, it’s the New Year and we’re all trying to keep up with resolutions. What is a resolution?  A commitment.  A plan.  You need one.

One challenge you may face is direct: how do you maintain the energy to study, and study well, after an exhausting day of work?  In thinking of how to address this, I have tried to apply a method commonly used in a non-test preparation setting: exercise.  (Again with the New Year’s Resolution theme, I guess!)

You need a plan, and you need variation in that plan.  For example, many weight training programs alternate exercises by muscle group.  Marathon trainers recommend switching exercises; you’re not running every day.  And also, very importantly, you need REST.

So how does this apply to a GRE study plan?  You can model your GRE plan on an exercise regimen; in an odd way, exercise is what you’re doing – exercising particular skills in the hope that these skills will improve.  Here’s a sample plan for one week’s worth of GRE studies.  (Important note: Just as you warm up before beginning an exercise routine, there is an unstated warm-up for each of these days: vocabulary.  Each study session should begin with a vocabulary warm-up, and end with a vocabulary cool-down.)

Day 1: Intense Quant.  Pick an area of math tested on the GRE, and push yourself to learn as much of this math as you can, both by reading and working problems (and REVIEW!  Always review your work!).  Maybe you’ve decided to learn everything there is to know about exponents?  Or maybe you want to find out all the ways the GRE will test circle geometry?

Day 2: Text Completion.  Do a set of one blank TC questions, then a set of 2-blank TC questions, and finally a set of 3-blank TC questions.  What were some similarities in how you addressed the different questions?  Where there any differences?  Did you find a particular type more or less difficult?

Day 3: Rest.  This is your day for outside reading.  What novel, periodical, or journal are you reading that, while not directly related to the GRE, uses GRE level vocabulary?  Or are you perhaps reading some science journals, because you really struggle with science-based Reading Comprehension passages?

Day 4: Quant v. 2.0.  Dive into a particular question type. Maybe you want to focus on Data Interpretation questions, or perhaps you want to examine strategies for Quantitative Comparison questions?

Day 5: Reading Comprehension.  Time to do the longest passage(s) you can find! Do you have a strategy to read effectively?  And does your method for answering a RC question change based on how specific the question is?

Day 6: Vocabulary.  This is the day to pull old vocabulary words into the more current studies.  What words did you learn 4 days ago?  10 days ago?  Note that this goes beyond just “what words will I learn today?”  This is the day to create connections between words you learned in the last few days with words you learned a few weeks ago.

Day 7: Rest.  Truly rest today.  No GRE stress at all!

There are a few things you should keep in mind looking at the above plan:

  1. It’s a model, not a prescription.  This is meant merely to show you the kind of plan you can create on a weekly basis; it’s not a “Do This and Exactly This!” thing.
  2. This is for one week; you should plan on several months of GRE preparation. Each week’s plan should change a bit – you want a plan, with planned variety!
  3. Just as you don’t spend 4 hours at the gym, you shouldn’t try to study for four hours. Take it one hour at a time; if you’re going to double-up, give yourself some rest in between study sessions.
  4. Take your practice tests, but take them purposefully! Check out this post for how that’s done.


Finally, I highly recommend you read this next!

The GRE Review Game


11-10-ReviewingSo you’ve just taken a practice test. Chances are, you didn’t get a perfect 340. (If you did, stop studying and come work for us!). You probably didn’t even get a score that you like yet. That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, though. In fact, you’ve barely started, because…


Most people take tests, then look at the score, then click on the explanations to the ones they got wrong. Their review process takes about 15 minutes, and just involves “oh, I did that wrong. Oh, that’s the right answer.” This kind of review process teaches you next to nothing about how to do better on the next one.

So here’s what you need to do. The test gave you a score from 130-170 on accuracy, but you need to give yourself your own score on your review process. Here’s how it works…

For every single question – not just the ones you got wrong! – you should be going back and re-solving. Take yourself through this checklist for quant problems:



1) Did I fully understand the concept and the rules behind it? +1
Give yourself a point if you could tell that a question was asking about DIVISIBILITY, or understood the RATE x TIME = DISTANCE relationship.

2) Did I understand what the question was asking for? +1
Did you rephrase DS questions to pinpoint what they were really asking for? Did you notice that it asked for “Amy’s age in 5 years,” and wrote down A + 5 instead of just A? Did you understand what it means when they ask for “x in terms of y and z”?

3) Did you solve it correctly? up to +5
Give yourself up to 5 points if you solved correctly the first time and got the right answer. Subtract a point or two if you took longer than you should have, or made a mistake before ultimately correcting it. Only give yourself +1 for a random lucky guess and +2 for an educated guess.

4) … or if you didn’t solve correctly, did you make a good decision to skip? +2
You’re not aiming to get every single question right on the GRE. Some may be too hard to solve in the time given! So you should pat yourself on the back whenever you recognize that a question is too hard to solve, and you make the decision not to attempt it. Lock in an educated guess and save that extra time for a problem that is doable for you.
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GRE Geometry: The Impossible Task


GRE-Geometry-tips-and-helpIn one of my recent classes, I told the students “You’ll never know how to answer a geometry question.”  The reaction was fairly predictable: “Why would you say that?!?  That’s so discouraging!!”

Of course, I certainly was NOT trying to discourage them.  I used that statement to illustrate that geometry questions are often a type of quantitative question that can feel immensely frustrating!  You know what shape you have, you know what quantity the question wants, but you have no idea how to solve for that quantity.

This is what I meant when I said you’ll never know how to answer these questions. That “leap” to the correct answer is impossible.  You can’t get to the answer in one step, but that’s all right: you’re not supposed to!

(An important aside: if you’ve read my post regarding calculation v. principle on the GRE, you should be aware that I am discussing the calculation heavy geometry questions in this post.)

The efficient, effective approach to a calculation-based geometry question is NOT to try and jump to the final answer, but instead to simply move to the next “piece”.  For example, let’s say a geometry question gives me an isosceles triangle with two angles equaling x.  I don’t know what x is, and I don’t know how to use it to find the answer to the question.  But I DO know that the third angle is 180-2x.

That’s the game.  Find the next little piece.  And the piece after that.  And the piece after that.  Let’s see an example.


The correct response to this problem is “Bu-whah???  I know nothing about the large circle!”

But you do know the area of the smaller circle.  What piece will that give you?  Ok, you say, area gives me the radius.  A = pi*r^2, so pi = pi*r^2, so r^2 = 1, so r = 1.  Done, and let’s put that in the diagram.
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