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Student Post: GRE Tips from a former SAT Tutor

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 2.09.35 PMThis week, we’ll hear about Neil’s experience with the GRE. As a former SAT Tutor, Neil, who scored a 336 overall, has some great tips for you! Thanks, Neil!

About Me: I am a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, with degrees in both Mathematics and History.  After graduation, I worked for several years as a consultant for a large insurance group.  Currently, I reside in Boston, where I work in the relatively budding field of predictive analytics, building and applying statistical models to address business needs.   I would like to “take the next step” with an advanced degree focusing on business and computer science, specifically within the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence.  Obviously, a competitive score on the GRE is sine qua non (GRE term!) to these aspirations!

In my free time, I am passionate about education, and have been a tutor for almost eight years since my freshman year in college.  I am also a founding partner and the executive director at a Boston-based non-profit known as Reach-Higher,  which provides free education resources, such as SAT instruction, college preparation, and tutoring, to low-income community members.  In addition, I am a member, in Boston, of the leadership team for an outstanding program known as Leaders of Tomorrow, hosted by the National Black MBA Association, which supports aspiring minority business leaders.

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My GRE Experience: My previous work as an SAT instructor has instilled in me the confidence that, with the right preparation, anyone can “beat” a standardized test.  I believe this can be achieved by having an “action plan” for each and every question that arises on the test.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that, come test day, you have this literal playbook for dealing with each question; rather, your approach to each question should be almost unconscious, having been honed, through proper practice, to the point where it “kicks in” almost automatically.

Obviously, in order to develop such a comprehensive approach, it’s important to know the question formats to expect, the content that will be tested, and the “rules of the game,” meaning timing, order of the sections, when to expect a break, etc.  I think Magoosh was amazingly helpful in this regard.  Not only do their lectures provide phenomenal techniques for approaching each question, but they also emphasize the “intangible essentials” that are necessary for a mastery of the test—including timing and anxiety management.  More importantly, Magoosh has a large quantity of questions that are of extremely high quality; in my opinion, it’s the best resource, outside of the ETS official guide, for practice questions.  The importance of this cannot be overstated: in order to have a comprehensive approach, you need to not only learn content, but be able to APPLY that content to questions as they would be represented on the actual GRE.

Recognize that any plan or approach can break down—be prepared to improvise or move on to “Plan B” if necessary.  Many times, this will include making an educated guess and flagging the question for later review.  In my case, for instance, I know I have a tendency to get caught up on tough questions, sometimes spending inordinate amounts of extra time on a question when it isn’t necessary.  For me, therefore, being mentally prepared to make an educated guess and move on was absolutely critical to achieving success.  I believe that, for most people, these “crisis” situations do not arise until you work under the pressure of actual test conditions, which is why I recommend practicing questions (at least some of the time) under a realistic, timed environment.  That said, regardless of how you practice, NEVER neglect to do a post-mortem of questions you get wrong or struggled with, to understand how you could better approach these questions in the future.  Magoosh has great explanations for most of their questions, which can really help in this endeavor.

Other Tips: For me, the hardest section on the GRE was the text completions: some of the sentences are so complex that it was tough to piece things together.  Even if I did manage to know what word(s) to expect, I constantly found myself stymied by the recondite (another GRE word!) vocabulary.  However, rather than become frustrated, I tried to approach each sentence with enthusiasm.  To do this, I imagined myself as a sleuth, called in to crack the case of the missing words and tasked with finding the right culprits through clues leftover in the sentence.  As cheesy as this may sound, it made approaching each problem a little more fun, which I believe is important.

Of course, no single topic on the GRE English section is as important as a capable vocabulary.  Fortunately, the secret to learning vocabulary is not a secret at all: use (struggle if you have to) new words constantly, and read—a lot.  I used Magoosh’s free e-book of critical GRE words, which helped immensely.  Reading, as a general practice, is one of the most effective ways to score highly on the English and Writing sections.  Since I already read a few periodicals — the Economist and New York Times — pretty regularly, my vocabulary learning entailed listing words I did not know and making an effort to use them in conversations or writing every day.

I hope these tips help!  By studying hard, and using Magoosh as a crucial aid, I was able to obtain a 336 on my GRE.  If you have any questions or want further advice or details regarding my GRE experience, please don’t hesitate to email me:

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