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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 Cooley 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.