Update June 2015: Review of the second edition of this book is now available here!
Manhattan GRE (MGRE) is one of the best study sources for the GRE. However, one thing they’ve always been lacking is book-based practice questions—most of their questions comprise their six online tests. Well, the folks over at MGRE have more than redressed this omission. The 5 lb Book of GRE Practice Problems has over 1,800 practice questions.
Such a massive book, clearly calls for a massive review. I’ve broken up the review into Intro, Verbal (which is broken down into different question types) and Math so you can home in on the part that is most pertinent to you.
Intro to the 5 lb Book of GRE Practice Problems
Creating a GRE question that mimics the real thing is no easy feat. This is especially the case for verbal. Just finding a reading comprehension passage that would pass ETS’s rigorous standards is tough enough (each prospective passage must meet a certain number of guidelines, and even then may not make the final cut) is a case of looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Even if a GRE content writer finds such a passage, there is no guarantee that they would focus on the part of the passage that the GRE would. The prospect of writing a question in the style and manner of test writers makes creating content an even more daunting—if downright impossible—task. And let us not forget those artfully crafted distractors, or wrong answers, that can make a seemingly easy question diabolical.
I think it is safe to say that no publisher will be able to create a test that, at least to experts, is indistinguishable from the actual test. At the same time, as a test taker, you should only use prep material that comes as close to the original as possible. The implicit assumption is that the more closely material hews to the real deal, the more effectively you can practice (and, by extension, the higher you can score).
In this sense, Manhattan GRE has done a fair job: You will get practice material that approximates what you’ll see on the actual test. That is not to say that the questions in this book are perfect. It is clear that many people authored the questions in this book, and thus the quality, especially in the verbal, is inconsistent. But with one notable exception (I’ll elaborate on below), using Manhattan’s massive 5 lb book will not hurt your score GRE, and in some cases, especially on the math section, it will definitely help your score.
Ever since MGRE released its first TC/SE book, I’ve been grousing how the questions relied more on obscure vocabulary, you would never see on the test, and less on convoluted sentence structure. Fortunately, the words in the Text Completions section are not nearly as obscure. There is still the odd ‘Myrmidon’ (or two!) in there, but otherwise most the words could conceivably show up on the test.
In terms of convoluted structure, there are sentences that parallel what you’ll see on the test. However, some questions are nothing more than really basic level sentences, e.g., (It was very <blank> outside, and so John was sweating) followed by ridiculously tough words (this is something Kaplan does).
Even questions that are written in sophisticated prose don’t mirror the algorithm (for lack of a better word) used on the real GRE. That is you won’t have to decipher what the blanks have to be based on the context; instead, the word that goes in the blank is the only possible word given the answer choices, and given that you know the vocabulary. So despite the plethora of questions, many of the questions in the TC section feel more like vocabulary exercises than actual GRE questions.
Usually, I group SE with TC. However, the SE questions in this book were noticeably inferior to their TC counterparts. Synonymous sentences oftentimes did not result (‘to bedazzle’ and ‘to flabbergast’ create two totally different meanings). The vocab could be ridiculously obscure. For example, one question was simply worded but one of the correct answers was “bootless”, a word so obscure that it would most likely never show up on today’s GRE. This is but one example in a sea of subpar questions.
In both the TC and SE questions, there is an exception to what I’ve stated above: the verbal practice sets at the very back of the book. The quality of questions here is higher and, except for the fact that the difficulty assigned to the questions is not consistent, the questions themselves more closely parallel what you’ll see on the actual test.
As I noted at the beginning, finding passages that are very similar to those on the test can be difficult. Again, the 5lbs. book is a mixed bag in this case: some passages were suffused with that unmistakable GRE-ness; others not so much. Many questions dealt with a specific part of the passage, whereas GRE questions tend to deal with more general meaning.
I also felt that the inference questions on Manhattan were very different from those written by ETS. Whereas the latter want you to be able to formulate big-picture inferences, I found that the MGRE questions were very literal and specific about the inference questions. When I employed the MGRE logic on the ETS inference questions, I could make a case for why the credited answer wasn’t correct. My big concern here is that students who only practice inference questions from the 5 lbs. book may struggle with the inference questions on the GRE.
These questions were drawn from Manhattan’s GMAT product, which is a good thing. Those questions have stood the test of time, in forums where such things are debated ad nauseam. That’s good news for test takers. Lots of questions to practice logical reasoning should definitely help test day. That said the questions have a slightly different “flavor” than the ETS questions, but overall the logical structure is similar.
The Quantitative Section
The good news is the math section is so good that I don’t have to spend another 1,000 words pontificating on the nuances of each question type. MGRE has created hundreds of GRE-like problems that are conveniently broken up into different sections. Many concepts that most prep books overlook—standard deviation, weighted averages, and combinatorics—are given their own section replete with dozens of practice problems.
I also like how the explanations are clearly presented. With many books I feel like I often have to decode the explanation just to understand what should be a relatively simple problem. Those who wrote the MGRE explanations anticipated the difficulties students would typically have and clearly addressed them.
But I do have one quibble: the questions were not assigned difficulty levels. Therefore, students may become frustrated if they miss a string of questions, not knowing that those questions were tough questions, or overly confident if they hit a patch of easier questions. Breaking the questions based not just on type but on difficulty would have improved this book.
Verbal: C+/ Math: A