How I Got a 340 on the GRE

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - How I scored a 340 on the GRE by Chelsey Cooley

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The last time I took the GRE was about a year ago, and I scored a perfect 170 on both sections. Obviously, it helped to have taught GRE classes for years! But that wasn’t the whole story. Here are a few notes on how I studied, and how I took the test.

I focused on my weaknesses, but didn’t ignore my strengths.

My biggest GRE weaknesses are statistics and geometry on Quant and Sentence Equivalence on Verbal. (Everyone has weaknesses—even your GRE instructor.) I studied these areas mainly by doing sets of problems from the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems. I also jotted down notes on specific concepts that I missed and mistakes that I made. This is actually how I realized that on Sentence Equivalence, I often miss problems by choosing two answers that might both fit the sentence, but that aren’t great synonyms. Whenever I spotted a trend like this, I added it to a short list of ‘things to be careful about on test day.’

To reward myself for doing a few sets of (ugh) statistics problems, I’d do a handful of problems from a section that I enjoyed, such as number properties or percentages. I also frequently switched back and forth between Quant and Verbal. I find Quant more interesting to study, so when Verbal started becoming a slog, I’d take a break and do ten minutes of Quant drills. Then I’d be refreshed and ready to give Verbal my full attention.

I learned some vocabulary.

I went through the Manhattan Prep 500 Essential Words and copied down the words I wasn’t sure about on first glance. Then, I copied the definition down by hand on the opposite side of the page. I also created example sentences for words like belie, whose definitions are hard to put into words.

I studied these tricky words using spaced repetition. Specifically, I went through the words in order and tried to recall each definition. Each time I remembered a definition correctly, I marked the word with a check mark. I reviewed the words with fewer check marks more frequently; the ones with a lot of check marks, that I’d remembered correctly multiple times, only got looked at every couple of days.

I found that only a couple of words I’d deliberately learned for the test actually showed up on test day. There were a handful of problems—maybe two or three—that I might have missed if I hadn’t specifically studied vocabulary. But they were vastly outnumbered by the problems I could’ve solved without those vocabulary words. And the 500 Essential Words, plus the handful of vocabulary words I learned from doing Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence problems, turned out to be more than enough. There were one or two words on the test that I still didn’t know, but in all of those cases, I was able to solve the problem anyways.

I worked neatly and carefully.

Two things that hurt me on standardized tests are overconfidence and terrible handwriting. When I went in to get a 340 on the GRE, I decided not to trust my usual sloppy, back-of-the-napkin math. There’s no excuse for missing a problem you know how to do, just because of bad math or a bad assumption. Here’s what I did:

  • I divided up my scratch paper and used only one section for each Quant problem, so I wouldn’t mix up my work among multiple problems. I went out of my way to write very carefully, particularly when it came to numbers. The last thing I wanted was to confuse a 1 and a 7 while choosing the answer.
  • I simplified every equation one step at a time. Even if I knew I could take multiple steps at once and save a few seconds, I chose to write out every step individually.
  • Every time I created an equation, and every time I was about to select an answer, I took a moment to check it for sanity.
  • When I had a bit of extra time on Verbal questions, I used it to convince myself that each wrong answer was wrong. I glanced over the answers I wasn’t choosing, and tried to explain to myself why they couldn’t be correct.

Depending on where you’re starting, your study process might be different from mine. You may need some time to discover your strengths and weaknesses (take our free GRE practice test!) and you may need to learn or re-learn some of the basic content. But many of my recommendations to GRE students are based on how I actually study for and take standardized tests myself. Regardless of what score you’re aiming for, try some of the tips above and take the GRE like a GRE instructor. 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

  1. Manhattan Prep July 8, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Hi, Ritesh.

    The 500 Essential Words GRE Flash Cards are a great way to master the vocab. You might also be interested in checking out this blog post on how to tackle problems in which you aren’t familiar with the vocab. Best of luck!

    – Chelsey

  2. Ritesh Sharma July 7, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Hi Chelsey,
    Its the verbal section that i am having a problem with specially some of the words that i come across in Sentence Completion as there are many words that I have never come across before but I see that 500 essential words seem to be best way of studying and overcoming this weakness, should I keep anything else in mind while preparing and congratulations on your perfect score I am aiming to get one too.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your study tips i found it very helpful.

  3. Manhattan Prep July 6, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    Hi, Phyllis.

    What this sounds like to me is test anxiety. You probably know your stuff, given the amount of effort you’ve put into studying, but you’re having a hard time bringing it all together on test day. There are as many solutions to test anxiety as there are GRE test-takers, but the common thread is that you have to work on it as deliberately as you’ve worked on learning the content. That’s a little outside the scope of this comment, but here are some things to think about: what helps you reduce your anxiety level in general? What would make you feel more comfortable when taking the test? How can you practice the ‘test experience’ so you’re more used to it when test day rolls around?

    Good luck on your retake, and keep working 🙂

    Best,
    Chelsey

  4. Manhattan Prep July 6, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story, Nnamdi. Your perseverance should carry you far. Good luck on your MPhil!

  5. Manhattan Prep July 6, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Hi, DeeAngela. Thanks for your interest in our classes. You can check out our upcoming courses here to select one that works best for you.

  6. DeeAngela Thomas July 2, 2016 at 12:43 am

    Would like to participate in the next class. Please send me your information. Thanks, DeeAngela

  7. Nnamdi I. July 1, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    Thanks Chelsey for this article. It’s really encouraging. I gave up on myself after receiving mediocre scores on the GRE in February. I had studied no less than 5 hours daily for about 3 months. I used prep materials from Kaplan (I discovered Manhattan prep few weeks to the test day). I utilized some of the study and test taking techniques you used and my practice tests were good. I was confident I was going to make a 160+ on both the Quant & Verbal sections. I was devastated after seeing a 151Q and 152V pop up on the screen. After that, I fell into a serious wave of depression, self pity and condemnation. My dreams of attending a top grad school became tarnished. I have not gotten over my failure till today. I however got a little glimpse of hope after receiving my AWA score of 5/6 a few days later. But since I was applying to an Econ. program, the AWA didn’t matter as much as the Quant.
    I’m scared of retaking the test because I still fear that I’ll receive mediocre scores again (even after re-strategizing my study plans) and my retake would end up being a waste of money. As a result, I have started looking at reputable grad. programs in other fields/courses outside the US that don’t require GRE (e.g Most Social Science Mphils @ Oxbridge and LSE).
    I still feel hurt whenever I hear anyone mention ‘GRE’. Whenever I hear my friends and mates tell of their success stories on the GRE, I get so sad and at a point, I even became suicidal.
    I know I’m an amazing student (graduated top of my class; 3.95/4.0 GPA plus awarded best undergraduate dissertation in my department) and can deal with the rigors of grad school hence, I need no standardized test to tell me that. The views that I now hold may be partly due to my low scores after putting in long hours of study. It just goes to show how standardized testing may favour a certain group and hurt another. I’m in tears as I write this. It was my dream to score on the top percentiles.
    I just want ETS to know that although their test may have disqualified me from applying to top econ. programs in the States, I’ll make it big as a Cambridge grad and contribute immensely to social science policy research and someday win a Nobel Prize.

    Once again, congrats on your perfect score. If I got that score, I wouldn’t sound this sentimental. I didn’t get it or near it. That’s why it hurts. I can go on and on but I’ll have to end here because it seems I’ve gotten my point across.

    Cambridge mphil in development studies, here I come. . Standardized tests, thanks for teaching me that you don’t treat everyone equally.

  8. Phyllis July 1, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    Hi Chelsey, I studied for the GRE, and even got a tutor. But sitting in front of the computer on test day, nothing registered. Everything looked foreign. I did horribly. I have to retake it and I am scared too death. Any suggestion .