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FAQ — What Materials Should I Use to Study for the GRE? (Part I – The Good)

Update: This is an older post about books/software for the “Old” GRE. For reviews on study material for the Revised GRE, click here.  

This is a great question, and the way in which you answer it can greatly affect your final test result. Pick a GRE prep book at random, and you could very well be jeopardizing your score. Choosing the right materials, on the other hand, will increase your chance of reaching your full potential.

Below is the beginning of a two-part series to answer this vital question.

The Good

After all these years, I still recommend the ETS book, The GRE: Practicing to Take the General Test.

Chock full of dense reading comprehension passages, craftily engineered analogies and head-scratching convoluted sentence completions, the ETS book offers the most effective paper-based prep for the Verbal Section. Much of ETS “pet vocab”—the words ETS favors—can be found here.

The Quantitative Section on computer-based test has changed a lot over the years. While still sufficient practice for those looking to score 600, the math section in the ETS book will not adequately prepare those looking for a higher score on test day. Nevertheless, the manner in which the questions try to trap or trick you is vintage ETS—and nobody does it better than our boys (and girls) out in Princeton, New Jersey, home of ETS.

Other notable paper-based sources for math prep include Barron and Nova books. The latter has a book out that offers hundreds and hundreds of GRE questions. My only warning is that the explanations in the back can be so byzantine and opaque that you may be better off trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone.

The Barron’s general guide, in addition to providing math questions that accurately model the actual test, also includes the 3500-word list; the Bible, so to speak, of GRE vocabulary. Learn all of these words and you will do well on the test (of course, staring at a list of 3,500 words is not only ineffective but may also induce temporary psychosis).

Finally, there are the computer-based tests. Again, nobody does it better than ETS. To download this software simply go to gre.org and type “powerprep” into the search box. That will take you to the relevant screen. Once you’ve done so, you’ll have at your fingertips the best preparation for test day. Not only are the questions very similar but you’ll be taking a computer-adapted tested, and that is something that a paper-based test can never do.

Not to be overlooked, the score you receive on the PowerPrep test correlates very strongly with your performance on test day. You can prep with all the other materials on the market, without every really knowing where you’d score on the actual test. And that’s why PowerPrep is so great: taking the test will allow you to chart your progress as you train for the big day. Again, the last place you want to learn about your score for the first time is the testing center. This is a mistake far too many students make.

So, before you close your browser and head to gre.org to download the software, you may want to read this. And I’ll see you soon for Part II, where we’ll tackle both “The Bad” and “The Ugly” of the test prep world.

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4 Responses to FAQ — What Materials Should I Use to Study for the GRE? (Part I – The Good)

  1. Cynthia Benjamin May 28, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    I am thinking about applying to graduate school. However, because I attended a British university, I have not taken any math classes since high school, which was over 25 years ago. Before I even look at a prep course, how would you recommend I brush up on my necessary math skills without having to take another four years’ worth of courses in a community college?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele May 28, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

      Hi Cynthia,

      Not to get all sale-sy here :), but we (Magoosh) offers great math video lessons that go from the very basic to the extreme. Many testimonials are something to the extent of “I was out of college for the last 20 years and had forgotten all the math, but your lessons, etc.”.

      If video is not your thing, Manhattan GRE books are really good. They thoroughly cover all the basics and then offer a 5 lbs. book of practice problems to test your new skills on.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Chris Lele
    Chris Lele August 25, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    The PowerPrep test draws from a vast bank of questions. This is good news for you – you’ll be able to take the test multiple times and not necessarily see the same questions. A good strategy is to take the test at the outset of your prep, thereby establishing a baseline. Your performance can inform your studies – do you need to focus more on math, vocab, etc.

    In your case, focus your prep on math, relearn the fundamentals, attack progressively more difficult problems (Magoosh has lots!), build up your confidence, try doing a Barron’s test for math in between, and then, about a week or so before your test try another PowerPrep test. Doing so will help focus your prep during that final week.

    Hope that helps!

  3. shara August 25, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    Hi Chris!

    Do have any suggestions on what order to use these materials? Would you suggest taking the Power Prep test towards the end of my studying and closer to my test date?
    I’m thinking that since I haven’t worked on my math enough and I took the test, I wouldn’t get an accurate score.

    I’d appreciate it if you could help me on this issue.


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