As a test prep tutor, and one who just recently took the new GRE, I approach the test from a different angle than a student who is just beginning their prep. Specifically, I am especially exacting on content, which those just starting off have no reliable reference point on which to judge.
These students are more apt to judge a book on the way it presents information—namely, are strategies presented in a way that is easy to digest, are there enough practice sets so that students feel they are applying what they just learned, and are explanations clear and comprehensive, or is the reader throwing their hands in the air in frustration?
Not to be forgotten, published books should have minimum typos. Meaning that even a book with the best strategies, the best content and the best explanations would be sabotaged by numerous errors. On the other hand, a reader would be more approbatory of a book that has no editing errors, even if the content is poor and uneven (remember, most students are not familiar with the content of the actual test).
Putting myself in a student’s shoes, I can see how Barron’s New GRE guide can seem downright ugly in it’s presentation (at least compared to Princeton Review and Kaplan – though, not McGraw-Hill). That is not to say that it’s content is great—at least, it’s not consistent—but I think many will simply judge this book superficially, and dismiss it as inferior to Kaplan (though Barron’s content is actually much better than Kaplan’s).
But that is just the layout. How does Barron’s rank, from both a tutor’s and a student’s standpoint?
To answer that question, I am going to look at how Barron’s handles the strategies for the math, verbal and writing section, and, finally, the quality of its content: does it mirror the content found on the new GRE?
In terms of strategies, Barron’s is definitely comprehensive. Over the course of 20-pages, they delineate numerous strategies, some helpful, some not so much. This format is an example of how Barron’s isn’t user-friendly. Even if the information had been arranged a little more judiciously, I could still see a student becoming overwhelmed with all the different tactics, some of which can even be misleading.
Had Barron’s pared down the number of tactics to the most essential ones, and then, more importantly, provided more practice questions to highlight each tactic, a student would have gotten much more out of each strategy. Instead, Barron’s only has one wrap up for all of 15 different tactics, without referencing any of them in the explanations to the questions. The reason they didn’t do this isn’t so surprising – they do not provide any explanations for their practice sets.
Text Completions/Sentence Equivalence
Even though these types of question are new to the test, I would have expected more from Barron’s in terms of comprehensiveness and efficacy of the strategies. They offer some strategies that are so generic as to almost be superfluous. Sometimes, they are simply wrong: to say that one can look at part of a word to discern its meaning is tantamount to a lie, and I don’t mean to sound impertinent (case in point, impertinent isn’t the opposite of pertinent, in that it does not mean irrelevant).
At least, compared to the Princeton Review, Barron’s offers copious questions, though the content isn’t always of the highest quality. And, again, Barron’s makes the egregious error of providing a practice set without any explanations. Answers alone aren’t going to help you avoid mistakes in the future. Clear explanations are essential.
In this section, Barron’s shines and offers effective strategies to help students score 5 and above. Other books either offer strategies that are a little too stripped down, or, like Kaplan, complicate the essay (many students I’ve tutored on the AWA were victims of Kaplan’s method). And while I’m criticizing Kaplan, Barron’s includes issues that you are likely to see on test day, instead of providing issue prompts that presuppose knowledge in a very specific field.
Much of the math is recycled from their old GRE General Guide. While the GRE hasn’t changed that much, as many concepts are still the same, the test has (and for those who used Barron’s to prep for the old GRE, the problems may feel a little stale). Because Barron’s old GRE guide was recycled throughout the years with the publisher simply stamping a new face on the cover (Kaplan and The Princeton Review also are guilty in this regard), some of the problems were inspired by an old Old GRE test (I’ve taken the new GRE, and I wouldn’t say Barron’s content is really that accurate on the math).
Nonetheless, many concepts are the same, and Barron’s does a relatively comprehensive job of including math strategies and concepts that are likely to help you on the day of the exam. Again, their strategies are dumped one after another, so if you are working through this guide alone, you may find it very tedious.
Finally, if you are new to math, you may simply become lost in what seems a quagmire of arcane math concepts. Unlike Princeton Review, Barron’s does not do a good job of making the complex seem simple. They make the complex seem…well, still somewhat complex. For instance, I’ve had many students over the years come to me struggling on a certain concept they learned in Barron’s. When I show them an easier way of doing it, or simply explain it more clearly, they understand the concept, and, in turn, become frustrated with Barron’s.
Compared with Kaplan, Barron’s content is definitely much stronger, as it captures the actual feel and difficulty of the real test. The content, though, is uneven – some text completions (which Barron’s mistakenly calls Sentence Completions – that was the old test) feel rushed together as to create enough practice problem sets. While I commend Barron’s for providing far more than the parsimonious Princeton Review, in future editions it should try to do a better job of creating consistent content.
Remember how Barron’s used to provide the Holy Grail of vocab lists, the 3500 List? Well, now they provide the Zero List. That’s right - not a single word or a single list. What’s even more startling is Barron’s does not even mention vocabulary: how to learn it, which words to focus on, etc. This omission is definitely puzzling, and one I hope Barron’s remedies in future editions. For now, I can’t help but think that this book, like Princeton Review’s, was rushed to print (remember, most questions did not even provide explanations).
Barron’s does a relatively good job here; however, there is much room for improvement. As a tutor, I will definitely use some questions, probably more so on reading comprehension and on math.
For those students who are working without a tutor, especially those who haven’t seen math in awhile, Barron’s can seem very daunting. I advise using Princeton Review for math and and/or McGraw Hills Math (note I say math – stay away from McGraw Hill’s general guide as though it were the bubonic plague) for those who really need to (re)learn the fundamentals.
Finally, the strategies are lumped together in a way that is not very user-friendly. Aside from the AWA section, I would recommend learning strategies from other books, and applying them when you do the questions from this book.
This is the third in a series of new GRE book reviews.