Update 8/29/12: The post is now updated to account for the new materials released in July/August 2012
You may have heard that there is no better way to practice for the GRE than by taking a mock exam, especially one written by ETS.
The extent to which this is true depends on how you use the exam. Taking a test once, figuring out your score, and then hoping that your brain will avoid the same kinds of mistakes on the test is wishful thinking. Following the steps below will help you get the most out of a practice test.
ETS (the best source for the most accurate practice material) offers a few resources. There are two separate sets of material:
Set 1 (released in 2010/2011 for the revised GRE):
- PDF1: One free PDF practice test: here.
- OG1: The Official Guide book for the Revised GRE (1st edition): practice questions and exam overviews as well as 1 full-length practice test. Free video explanations here.
- CD1: A CD that comes with the book above
- PP1: Powerprep II, Version 1.0 (Practice Test 1)
Set 2 (released in July/August 2012):
- PDF2: One free PDF practice test: here.
- OG2: The Official Guide book for the Revised GRE (2nd edition): practice questions and exam overviews as well as 2 full-length practice tests. Free video explanations here.
- CD2: A CD that comes with the book above
- PP2: Powerprep II, Version 2.0 (Practice Test 1 and Practice Test 2)
The tests written by ETS are the best in terms of preparation. ETS creates the GRE you will see on test day, so it provides the best indicator of your score test day. However, some of the material on these tests overlap. Here’s a quick guide to keep track:
Overlap between Set 1 and Set 2:
- There is no overlap between PDF1 and PDF2
- The practice questions, exam overviews, and the first practice test in OG1 and OG2 are exactly the same. The only difference between these two books is the extra practice test at the end of OG2
- CD1 and CD2 have one test in common. CD1 has only one test. CD2 has two tests—the old one and a new one. There is no overlap between those two tests.
- The software of PP2 is simply an updated version of PP1, so Practice Test 1 will be the same regardless of when you downloaded it, but if you’d like to get the new Practice Test 2 as well, you should update your Powerprep software to PP2.
Overlap within Set 1:
- PP1 and CD1 are identical, with 100% of the same material.
- The material on PDF1 is a subset of the material found on both PP1 Practice Test 1 and CD1. That means you will see all of the questions on the PDF in Powerprep/CD material, but you won’t see all of the Powerprep/CD material on the PDFs.
- Completely separate is the one practice test at the end of OG1, which does not have any overlap with any other material.
Overlap within Set 2 (basically, a very similar breakdown to Set 1):
- PP2 and CD2 are identical, with 100% of the same material.
- The material on PDF2 is a subset of the material found on both PP2 Practice Test 2 and CD2. That means you will see all of the questions on the PDF2 in Powerprep/CD material, but you won’t see all of the Powerprep/CD material on the PDFs.
- Completely separate are the two practice tests at the end of OG2, which does not have any overlap with any other material.
Confusing, right? It’s best to do as much practice as possible, so you shouldn’t worry about overlapping material too much. However, you should keep the above distinctions in mind because if you see a question that you’ve seen previously, you may get the correct answer not because you knew how to do it, but because your brain may just have remembered the answer from last time!
Mark the questions you get wrong
This process unfortunately is not at all straightforward – but it will help immensely. Because the GRE offers the PowerPrep exam for free, it has no incentive to drop snazzy functionality in there. And boy are they Spartan when it comes to that. You basically see the question, and after answering all the questions, your score. You cannot go back to see which ones you’ve missed. However, there is a way to see the correct answers. The PowerPrep 2.0 test #2 corresponds to the paper-based test, so you can see the very same questions, along with the answers, afterwards (a few questions from PowerPrep do not overlap with the paper-based test). Doing this allows you to see which ones you missed. While not a perfect means–you may have forgotten which answer you put in some cases–you should be able to catch the few that you missed.
Figure out the question on your own
Looking at an explanation can be harmful in a few ways. First off, many explanations seem more confusing than the actual question. Secondly, by relying on an explanation, you do not force yourself to really think through a question.
There are no explanations given with any of the tests. Again, this will force you to really think through a problem. Of course the reality is you will sometimes be stumped. If that happens…
Watch my free video explanations
If you can’t figure out a problem after trying to work it out on your own, check out my video explanations to all of the officially released practice material here.
Find questions similar to Powerprep II and the Official Guide
Practice tests allow you to determine your strengths and weaknesses. Focus on your weaknesses by finding practice problems that test the concept with which you are struggling. Manhattan GRE and Magoosh are both great resources.
Take the tests multiple times
The PDF file is static so you the questions will not change. The Powerprep II test, however, differs slightly so that you will see a few new questions when you retake the test. Either way, if you space out enough time between tests, you shouldn’t remember too many questions. While the score will not be valid (it will probably be slightly inflated), taking an ETS test under timed conditions is the best way to prepare for test day.
Be sure to review questions, both mistakes and lucky guesses, the way enumerated above.
No mock test is the same as that provided by ETS. Still, it is important to remember that some are better than others. Manhattan GRE provides six practice tests, all of which have challenging content. Magoosh also allows you to create your own mock tests.
Kaplan tests, judging from their book content, are a poor approximation of the real test. Princeton Review also contains questions that are suspect, too easy, or both. And those tests you find on-line…well, let’s put it this way. I ventured to a site that offered mock “GRE tests.” In the math section, almost every other question was a permutation/combination problem. On the actual test you only get one such question.
Anyhow, hope that helps demystify and simplify what’s out there regarding practice tests!