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Fan: Hard vs. Easy questions on the GRE

Here’s a write-up from Fan, who took his exam a few days ago and got a great score. You can submit your own or check out the list of stories from other students at Student New GRE Experiences.  Enjoy!



“Hey Magoosh readers. I just finished the revised GRE test a few hours ago. After recovering, I decided to share my experience with you all.

My name is Fan, and I graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Statistics this year. Looking to take a break and work before I head back to school, I’ve decided to take the GRE now and worry about applying to schools later, not sure whether that’d be this year or 4 down the road. I got a nice paying job in Madison, WI, so I moved to the midwest and started working full time while preparing for my exam.

Since I decided to apply to Stats programs at top schools, I had to do fairly well on my GREs. Most schools don’t release applicant statistics. Fortunately for me, Duke did, and I’m looking at an average applicant score of 600 on verbal and 800 on math. I’ve been taking math classes for the last 4 years, but I can’t recall the last time I read a book with difficult vocabulary. Obviously, getting a good verbal score would be challenging, and I focused the most time on that.

Here is my preparation, which I realized afterwards is quite a lengthy read:

I started in mid-June with Kaplan’s New GRE Verbal Workbook. Many reviewers caution that Kaplan’s verbal tends to be on the easy side, but I found it to be a reasonable introduction to the world of GRE verbal. I finished the practice problems within two weeks, and started working on their word list on the back of the book. Like Chris and one of the fellow student experience posters asserted, Kaplan’s word groups were not helpful. I did gain some insight from word roots, but didn’t find it helpful for actual GRE questions.

Next I looked at Kaplan’s New Math workbook and decided it was too easy. Before I even started on their curriculum, I finished all the practice exams with over 90% accuracy, so I decided to put it aside for now.

At this point I was at 90% math and about 70% verbal. But I suspected Kaplan tests may not be the most accurate indicator of my score on test day, so I went out and bought:

ETS Official GRE Guide

Barron’s New GRE 19th Edition

Manhattan GRE Text Completion & Sentence Equivalence Strategy Guide

I also started using Magoosh, obviously!

In the next month I started working full time, but I went through Manhattan GRE’s strategy guide and also all of Magoosh’s verbal questions in my free time. Manhattan also had a 500 basic and 500 advanced word lists at the back of their book. I found the 500 basic words list very helpful. There were a bit of overlap with Kaplan’s word list, but those two lists combined really helped me along with my vocabulary. I didn’t run into too many problems in reading comp; college required me to do my fair share of reading of dense text. I did a ScoreItNow! essay diagnostic and found not very helpful either, apart from telling me that I wrote well enough to get 9-10 combined. I was not worried about writing.

I did the Powerprep II diagnostic at this point. And it seemed like my scores were on track (600 verbal, high 700’s math).

Now came August, which was about 2 months before the test. I’m not stressing, but I like to be very over prepared, so I increased the intensity of my studying. I started working through Barron’s and Magoosh at the rate of one verbal section (30 min) 2 nights a week and an entire diagnostic test every weekend. To this end Barron provided 3 diagnostic tests (2 on the cd-rom, but like some others mentioned it’s done very poorly). For buying any Manhattan GRE strategy guide, you get access to 5 full-length diagnostics on their website. Not bad for paying 10 dollars for one book. Kaplan,Princeton Review and each offered one free diagnostic test for signing up with their website. The difficulty of each of these company’s tests varied, but I found them to be good pacing practice. The downside of this is that I didn’t find myself improving too much through the verbal sections as the weeks went on. My vocab retention had plateaued.

When September came, 3 weeks before the test, I decided to do the ETS Official guide’s diagnostic test. I was getting the score I wanted on verbal, but still managed to only have a 85-90% accuracy on math. This was mostly due to me rushing through math sections and making stupid mistakes. I continued to the diagnostic tests as pacing practice. I found Manhattan GRE’s math sections a bit harder than what ETS was offering as practice. I was getting the same accuracy but now taking the full 35 minutes to finish. I started doing Magoosh’s very hard math practice questions as well, and was getting only half right. This was a major bummer, but I kept reassuring myself that the real GRE test question are not as hard. 2 weeks before the test I did 3 diagnostic tests and saw a decrease in math because I was rushing the harder math sections to compensate for the longer time it took to finish the sections.

I did more work the last week, but mostly finding myself getting very stressed because the harder math tests were messing with my pacing and my confidence. My test was on Saturday, and I took Chris’s advice by stopping preparation completely on Thursday night and Friday to help de-stress and get into the right headspace.

Saturday (today) came, and my test was at 12:30, which was extremely fortunate. I was so used to standardized testing at 8am from the SAT days that I forgot how nice it is to not go through a very important test first thing in the morning. I went for a jog and went out to a nice brunch before I went to the testing center.

My test experience was mostly positive:

I was pleasantly surprised, in fact. All the extremely hard questions I worked through immunized me against the easier GRE questions. I was not phased. The revised GRE claimed to do away with cramming vocab definitions: I saw the effect here. I knew the meaning of almost every word, and rarely saw a “hard” word that I learned from the lists. The hard part was the GRE’s tricky language and figuring out what they were really trying to say. I encountered a lot of text completions where at least two of the words could reasonably fit and I couldn’t decide which fit best. The reading comp was easy as well. There were two or three challenging passages, but nothing impenetrably dense. On each section, I ended up with 10 minutes left over to review my answers.

The math sections were also easier than I was used to. Historically I spent a lot of time on data analysis. My silly and potentially inaccurate insight is that many of the GRE’s geometry questions tend to emphasize the fact that we don’t have every good spatial awareness just by “eyeballing” something. It seemed like their data anaylsis questions recognized that and reflected it by not making me eyeball bar graph values on the y axis. Most of the math questions were easy-medium, and I ended up with 15 minutes to spare to check my answers in each section. There were 2 or 3 tricky and sneaky questions, and I definitely realized I mistakenly answered a question after the time was up, so I know I didn’t get 100% accuracy.

In the end, the test went by quickly and smoothly and I clicked to the scoring screen with confidence.

Verbal : 650-750

Math: 750-800

I was pretty comfortable with this range, but because I went through the verbal so easily I was hoping for a 750-800. Too greedy, maybe!

If I had to do it differently, I probably wouldn’t have waited to look over Magoosh’s hard math questions until the last minute. They were difficult but very good at getting me in the right mindset to spot tricks and consider every possibility. Working on very hard questions a week before the test was also very stressful. I should have done that a lot earlier in my preparation as well. I don’t want to say that the word lists were not helpful, as they certainly helped to acquire a greater vocabulary, but I did not encounter many hard words during the verbal sections. In regards to that, I’m not sure what I would recommend.

Anyways, I realized I rambled a whole bunch, but I hope some Magooshers might find my experience and advice insightful. I certainly read everyone’s new GRE experience up to this point. Good luck on your exams!!”

By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

One Response to Fan: Hard vs. Easy questions on the GRE

  1. vsn September 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    Hey Fan,
    Thanks for the great post.

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