How I dramatically improved my GRE score

I did a lot of crazed googling before I sat for the GRE exam, so I wanted to pay it forward, and leave a story for those who come later! If you are reading this in advance of taking the GRE, “You can do it!” I hope this is helpful! If you are reading this the night before your exam: GO TO SLEEP!

I need to give a caveat, which will also serve as a spoiler alert: although I started out poorly, I scored well enough on the GRE that I took a job test-taking strategy for the GRE! To avoid representing my employer publicly, this blog will focus on how I raised my GRE score (well before I started working for a test prep company).

Where did I start? I’ve wanted to do research since I found out it was an option, but I knew I hadn’t done nearly enough (read: anything) to prepare for it before that point. Therefore, I dedicated a full year to getting research experience and knocking the GRE out of the park.

My Master’s degree required a different standardized test (the GMAT) so I had some experience with this. The first thing I did was take a practice test.  This confirmed my suspicions (that I was not remotely prepared for the math section) and gave me a sense of the landscape of math I was going to have to get comfortable with. For example, I was going to have to remember something about combinations and permutations, but calculus was out of scope.

BEWARE: The ETS practice tests do not include an experimental section, but the real test does! This means that there is one full section more on the real test than the practice tests. I did not know this, so imagine my horror when I thought I was done and there was another math section of all things. The last section is not necessarily the experimental one, so you want to do your best on all of them! I recommend taking at least one full length exam. Some test prep companies offer one free “diagnostic” exam, so call one up and ask them whether it has an experimental section in it.

Math: I don’t remember my first GRE math score, but I can tell you my final GMAT Quant score (5 years before this) was in the 56th percentile (that’s after lots of memorizing times tables to get it up from the 30s!)

Verbal: My verbal scores tend to be good; I planned to only studied for the verbal section when I needed a break from the math. I knew if anything was going to keep me out of grad school, it was my math score. I think my initial verbal percentile score was in the 80s or 90s.

How do you study for the GRE? Well, I can tell you what I did!

Because my math score was my weak point, I focused on studying both the content and the strategy. There were a few traps I saw myself falling into:

  1. Forgetting concepts I hadn’t seen since I learned them (in 8th grade)
  2. Selecting trap answers (and feeling stupid and frustrated later)
  3. Getting stuck and wasting time when I kept getting an answer that wasn’t there
  4. Having to try several different approaches to the same problem before I found one that worked

Here’s how I tackled them each:

  1. Relearned my multiplication tables, geometry rules, power rules, and practicing. Basically, reviewing content that I had forgotten. I used “Math for Dummies” style books and the ETS guides for this instead of the test prep company’s books, which mostly focus on strategy.
  2. Learning and practicing strategy. This is where the test company books come in. You want anyone but ETS to tell you how to game the test– ETS is not going to tell me how they write trap answers. One key thing I noticed is that if the solution seems too easy to be on the GRE, it might in fact be. Take a second look at the set up (are they taking a percent of a percent?) and the question itself (am I giving an answer to a different, easier question?)This is important. Don’t feel stupid when you pick a trap answer. That is literally their whole purpose. And generally, don’t let this arbitrary, tricky, test tell you anything about yourself. It is not a measure of your intelligence or predictor of your success. It’s a measure of your GRE score, full stop.
  3. SKIP. I had to learn how to “mark” a question and come back later. Not only will it give me the opportunity to answer more, easier questions during the time I would be spinning my wheels, I often found I’d have fresh eyes when I looked back nearer the end of the exam, and could see what I was missing. It was hard to get out of the normal, school habit of answering all the questions in order, but this probably earned me more additional points than any other strategy I employed. It’s worth it. (Just make sure to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to guess all the ones you left blank– might as well!)
  4. Practice on GRE-style questions helps prevent frustration here. They have a lot of concepts and question set ups that they reuse, and having figured out how to do it once makes the second time much easier. And needless to say, doing this before your butt is in the seat on test day is ideal. However, having figured out problems in the past will help you figure out new kinds of problems, too. Test prep companies have figured out some very neat ways of laying out information for certain kinds of common problems, like averages, ratios, algebra problems, and combination problems. If you find yourself struggling with this, a test prep book or even a class may be a wise investment.

As for verbal, I learned a LOT of vocabulary.

You may also want to familiarize yourself with the question formats and learn some process of elimination strategy if you are struggling with this section, but for me, the big road block was words I didn’t know.

The difficulty with vocabulary is that it takes time to build up. I always tell my SAT students that vocabulary may be a pain, but it’s about the only thing from your test prep that you will carry with you after the test is over, and that’s true with GRE, too. If you know you want to take the GRE at any point in the future, even before you start prepping in earnest, get yourself some flashcards

Here’s how I make the most of flashcards:

  1. If you purchased your own flashcards, put them in three piles: “Words I know,” “Words I don’t know,” and “Words I kind of know.” In the rest of life, “kind of know” is basically the same as “don’t know,” but here, “kind of know” is golden. If you see a word you recognize, and you wouldn’t use it in a sentence, but you know it’s a positive word, that might be enough to eliminate it if the question calls for a negative word! Don’t discount the words you “only” kind of know! My goal is to move cards from “don’t” to “kinda” and from “kinda” to “do.” Much less daunting task than memorizing a full deck.
  2. DRAW ON THE BACK. If you haven’t read “Moonwalking with Einstein” or heard Jonathan Foer speak, I recommend that you check out his TED talk. What you’ll learn is that your brain loves visual mnemonics, and you can do crazy things (like memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards) by attaching pictures to things. Do this with your vocab words– the wilder and more personal, the better. It can be something simple:

    For “felicitous” (meaning “well-fitting, well-chosen, or pleasing) imagine a woman named Felicity trying on a beautiful dress.

    Or something crazy:

    For “copious” (meaning “a lot”) imagine a someone fighting tooth and nail to keep his head above the ever-growing sea of paper spewing from a malfunctioning copier.

    These may not suit your fancy, but that’s OK– this is the part where you get to do whatever you want in the privacy of your own head. I think you’ll find that not only does this make studying vocab more effective, it also makes it way more fun.

How did I do? 

I raised my score on the math to the 81st percentile: up 25 percentile from my actual GMAT score and up about 50 percentile from my first GMAT practice test (yeah, that one was seared into my brain.) What you should learn from this is don’t be discouraged my low initial scores. You are not alone, nor without hope! The GRE is a skill like anything else: it can be improved with deliberate practice. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it, or even invest in it. Two interesting notes about this: the last practice test I took before the real exam, my math percentile was in the 60s– I guess it was that good old focused anxiety! Also, on my qualifying exam to teach the GRE, my math score was in the 93rd percentile. This means that although this was over years and with a level of immersion that no one would be expected to match with test prep, by reviewing content, learning strategy, and practicing deliberately, I brought my math scores up about 70 percentile points.

I got a perfect score on the verbal. This was a pleasant surprise, but wasn’t really important to my feeling like I succeeded at the exam– my verbal score is never what was holding me back. I had gotten a few perfect scores on the practice tests in the week leading up to the real thing, it mostly served to freak me out instead of encourage me. All that said, I was delighted with this score, and it is why I will never take the GRE again (and risk scoring lower 😉

I hope this is helpful! Remember that studies show that students who thought of the happiest day of their lives right before taking a standardized test out scored those who did not: do what ever you need to do to be as happy and confident as you can be before you take the GRE!

Continue Reading