Sunday, July 17, 2011

How to Ace the GRE

When you are focused on a goal, you have to prioritize everything accordingly so you can accomplish it.  Since I signed up to take the GRE back a few months ago, I have put most things on the back burner.  Blogging was one of those things.  There were still things that had to be done like taking care of my family, my church calling, housework, etc.  But high on my list was preparing for the test which was a challenge given that it had to be worked around the other things in my life.  When Charlie was in school it was pretty simple since I could just study while Ellie was taking her afternoon nap.  However, once school let out I found it much more difficult to find time to study.  We were busy with swim lessons, story time at the library, and play dates at the parks in the mornings.  During Ellie's naps, Charlie would usually want to play a game or need my attention for some reason.  I admit I have put on a movie for him more than once in order to get the quiet I needed to focus and practice.  It is for that reason that I scheduled my test for the week after school let out.  Unfortunately, my math score was not high enough to be competitive with the average score of those entering grad school in the program I am considering so I signed up to retake the exam this month.  That was not the best time since it's summer and I had even less time than before to study.

Luckily, I had learned from taking the test the first time that I didn't have to study for the verbal section and could just focus on the math section.  I reread the sections about math in the GRE study guides I had and practiced solving math problems, lots of math problems.  One very important thing I learned about the scoring method was that omitting questions was highly penalized.  On the GRE, you cannot skip questions.  The computer does not allow you to skip questions - it forces you to pick an answer to a question before you can move on to the next question.  However, if you run out of time, you will not be able to complete all the problems.  The problems at the end that you don't answer will count against your score.  One of my study guides said that the percentage of the problems you miss for that section is subtracted from your score.  For example, if you would've gotten a score of 660 but you missed 3 out of the 28 problems for the math section, your final score for the math section would be 590.  (3/28=11%, 11% of 660 is about 70, subtract 70 from 660 and you get 590.)

Another key to doing well on the math section is to work carefully so that you get as many questions right as possible, especially in the beginning.  The GRE is a computer adaptive test, which means that the questions you get are based on how you answered the previous questions.  The first question is usually of a medium difficulty level.  If you answer the question correctly, the next question you get is more difficult; however, if you answer the question incorrectly, the next question is less difficult.  You want to get the more difficult questions get them right because they lead to the higher score.  The computer is constantly guaging your score based on how well you solve each problem and the difficulty of the problems.  However, since each subsequent question is based on your performance on the previous problem, the earlier problems have more bearing on your overall score.  Therefore, it's important to do the best you can on the first ten problems.

Finally, I believe that another key to doing well on the GRE is to relax.  There's no doubt it's a challenging exam and most people get stressed out about it.  However, if you are too stressed out during the exam, your stress will distract you and keep you from doing your best.  I knew that I needed to relax the night before the test so I didn't do much studying.  I looked over a couple things but other than that, I didn't think too much about the test.  I spent most of the day cleaning my house and that evening my husband and I went on a date and then rented a video.  I went to bed at my normal bedtime.  In the morning, I went for my usual run, which is a big stress-reliever for me, and got ready for the day.  My test wasn't until 12 noon but I had a two-hour drive on a busy highway, that in itself is stressful as well.  (There's a long story related to my having to drive two hours away for this test which I won't get into right now.  Suffice it to say this added to my stress level and I feel pretty good that I was still able to to do well on the test despite the long drive and added stress.)  I just kept thinking that there wasn't anything I could do about having to drive that far so I did my best to stay calm and think positive.  I told myself that I was ready for the test and that I would do just fine.  Another positive thought running through my mind was that I would be done by the end of the day and that I could enjoy the rest of the summer with my kids without having to worry about this test anymore.  Also, if I didn't do well, which wasn't likely since I had done my best to prepare, it wouldn't be the end of the world.  Life would go on, I could pursue other avenues and interests besides grad school.

The test consists of a 45 minute analysis of an issue essay and a 30 minute analysis of an argument essay.  There's a 10-minute break and then a 30 minute verbal section and lastly, a 45 minute quantitative (math) section.  For me, the issue essay is a challenge because the issue is worded very broadly and you have to think about it and write it in 45 minutes.  The argument essay is a little easier since you're just critiquing an argument and poking holes in the assumptions made in the argument.  This exam seems to also be a test of one's patience and endurance since it lasts over two-and-a-half hours. 

During the test, I made sure to take deep breaths and focus on the questions rather than how I thought I was doing.  Also, I did my best to be comfortable: I wore comfortable clothing, adjusted the chair, took off my sandals, and took advantage of the breaks I was given.  Finally, the test was over!  The computer asks me whether I wish to report my scores before it would let me see my scores.  Of course!  There wasn't any other way to see how well I did.  If I didn't report my scores, I would never know how I did and I would have to pay to retake it.  Why would I want to do that?  Then, I was asked to select the schools to which I wish to send my scores.  After all that, the computer shows me the verbal and quantitative (math) scores.

Finally!  I was pleased to see that my verbal improved by 20 points and that my quantitative score had increased by 130 points, which was significantly better than my score from last time.  Now that the test is over, I can look back and see that all my efforts had paid off and that my strategy of completing the test and relaxing had helped me do well on the test.  I may not have aced the test but I came pretty close!