A Magoosher Takes the GRE

Let me start off by saying that while I may be a Magoosher named Chris, I’m not Chris Lele. That means I’m not some verbal fiend who devours vocabulary like manna from heaven. It also means that I haven’t memorized all of the prime numbers up to 1,000. Or 10,000. Or however many Lele knows. Still I like reading and writing (a lot actually) and I aced my math classes in high school and college. I also spend part of my time at Magoosh helping out as a support tutor, primarily in math. But when I decided that instead of just watching everyone shoot for their dreams of grad school and to pursue my own plans, I knew that I couldn’t take my GRE prep lightly. I’m aiming for some top schools, and after having written so many blogs about GRE scores, I was well aware of the scores I should aim for. They weren’t low. My future seemed to hang in the balance and so I had to make a plan.

But I was a bit concerned. My level was well above average, especially in math. How could I take it to the next level? No, I didn’t have “perfect” on my mind, but I wanted an elite score. After fumbling through a bunch of Magoosh questions without much of a plan, I decided to settle down with the one month schedule and adapt it to my needs. After a hundred questions or so from the Magoosh bank, I could see where my gaps were and I forged ahead.

First I accepted (and you should as well) that Verbal and Quant should be studied separately. They’re just two completely different beasts. So I approached them differently.

Quant Strategy

This one was actually a challenge. Early on, I realized that there were few concepts I didn’t really understand. If someone put a problem in front of my face, then given enough time I could not only answer the question, but I could pick it apart to explain the underlying mechanisms. This is essential because who knows what’s going to be thrown at you on test day. The problem for me was that in the actual test you simply aren’t given enough time. So as I went through the various concepts covered on the test I made sure to use the timer. At first this was dizzying. In fact, the first time I replicated a math section (20 questions, 35 minutes), I almost had a nervous breakdown. Looking at these problems, I knew how to get to the answer, but the pressure of time distracted me from being able to work through the steps. I’d look a problem and my brain would scream, “Ahh! There’s no time to work through this problem!” I wasted most of my time thinking about how I didn’t have time to answer the problems.

So how did I overcome this? Turn off the part of my brain that senses pressure? I wish, but no. Unfortunately, for me at least, the only solution was practice, practice, practice. Sometimes I’d even give myself less time per question than I’d actually have. This wasn’t to prove how fast I could go, but rather to train my brain to calm down and focus. It was infuriating at times, and crushing at others. But I was persistent and knew it was something that simply would take practice.

Verbal Strategy

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Verbal was a different story. A timed practice session told me that timing would never be an issue here. My real problem was vocabulary for Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion, and focus and understanding of the nuances in Reading Comprehension passages. So I first set out to organize my vocabulary studies. Our GRE flashcards are pretty cool in that they utilize the spaced repetition technique. When I’ve studied languages in the past, this really helped so I decided to take it to the next level. After I learned a new deck of words (which I did every other day), I self imposed the spacing for the deck. It would look like this:

Monday: learn deck
Tuesday: review
Wednesday: don’t review
Thursday: review
Friday: don’t review
Saturday: don’t review
Sunday: review

And the spacing would continue to increase the farther away from the “learn date” I got. I layered all of the flashcard decks over like this. It was a bit complicated to set up, but once I did, I knew exactly what I needed to learn and review each day. Sticking with my schedule took quite a bit of diligence. By test day, all of the words were firmly planted in my memory. On top of that, I continued to read the New York Times and added in the Atlantic and the New Yorker. I’ve been reading the New York Times on an almost daily basis for years now, so I’m pretty fortunate to be used to seeing these words in context.

For Reading Comprehension, in addition to reading the above publications, I forced myself through the toughest passages. With a lot of practice, I was able to “see” the subtleties in answer choices. I honestly never really liked or felt comfortable with the scientific focused passages, though.

AWA Strategy

It took me awhile to convince myself to write an essay that nobody would ever read. I know, I know, I have some experts who sit just a few feet away from me everyday and who would be more than happy to review my essays. A lot of you would kill for that. I, however, let pride get the best of me and my essays to myself. I fancy myself a pretty solid writer and I didn’t want anybody stepping on that idea. I did a few practice essays and reviewed some of the basic strategies until I got pretty comfortable with the format.

Test Day

I got a halfway decent night’s sleep and headed for my test, which I smartly scheduled for the afternoon. If your brain isn’t typically functioning at full steam at 8am, then I definitely do not recommend taking the early tests. I can imagine how waiting around until 1pm might make someone anxious, though. Before really getting started, I stretched and actually did a little meditation. This was a calming way to start a stressful day. I had a nice brunch and listened to some classical music. I had listened to classical music throughout my GRE studies, and I was hoping that would send some Pavlovian symbol to my brain to get ready to be challenged.

I headed to San Francisco from Berkeley on a route I was pretty familiar with. It was nice outside and I was a few minutes early, so I sat outside and enjoyed the buzz of the city. I listened to the Mars Volta, a favorite of mine, to switch my brain from calm and relaxed to pumped and ready to go. All of this worked wonders and I was calm but excited as I checked in and got ready.

The test proctors actually surprised me in their geniality and professionalism. It wasn’t as cold of an experience as I had expect. But I also came in understanding just how important their process is, so I offered no resistance, externally or internally.

I was a bit nervous as I started, but I settled into the essays quickly. Five minutes planning and 25 minutes writing. Then again. I actually enjoyed writing the argument essay. After that it was verbal, math, verbal, math, verbal. About five questions into the second verbal section it dawned on me that either the first or the second verbal section was the experimental section. The second verbal was just far too easy. As the second math section rolled around I began to lose steam. I saw that I was edging closer to the finish line and my brain took that as already being done. My eyes glossed over on the last five or so math questions. That, I’m certain, cost me. I realized this was happening so I refocused and plowed through the last verbal section. Then it was done.

The Results

I’ll cut to the chase:

Math: 164
Verbal: 168
AWA: 5.0

I was a bit disappointed in my math, but not really that surprised since I lost steam. It was tough to swallow considering I got a 170 on the Powerprep test. My verbal score made up for the disappointment, though. I was pretty surprised and satisfied. The AWA results are pretty satisfactory as well, though could have been higher with a bit more preparation. In the end, I achieved well beyond what I needed for the programs I’m aiming at.

Some Words of Advice

  • First it’s really important have a schedule and stick to it. Studying aimlessly is easy and can make you feel good but it doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to your goals.
  • Know your weaknesses and take them head on. Really look at your mistakes and see what the fundamental misunderstanding was.
  • Be prepared for the test to wear you down, no matter how confident you are in the material. There aren’t many situations where your brain is expected to be at full strength for such a long period.
  • Know what really matters to the programs. Several days after taking the GRE, I learned that my top program actually weighed the AWA score more heavily than the verbal or math scores. I got lucky, but definitely make sure you know what’s important before you take the test.
  • Don’t beat yourself up over the results. The test day doesn’t always mirror your practice tests.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate after your test, even part of your celebration includes a retake!

P.S. Ready to improve your GRE score? Get started today.

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34 Responses to A Magoosher Takes the GRE

  1. Aswin October 9, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    Hey Chris,
    It is fantastic job that you guys are doing.

    I took the GRE test and got a total score of 307(Q-159, V-148 AWA-4.0).
    I intend to pursue MS in Civil Engineering with specialization in Structural Engineering.

    I’m in my undergraduate final year with a GPA of 7.7/10. But I have better grades in the subjects related to my intended specialization area.

    My question is that while taking into consideration the GPA, will there be any extra weightage given to the courses which correlated with my area of specialization?

    Also, do I stand a chance to get through to the top 50 universities or will my below par GRE score pull me down?

    I cannot afford to retake the test with limited time available. ( I consistently got 165 in quants in all mock tests, just that it was not my day)

    Thank you,

  2. Lins August 17, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

    Hi Chris!

    I recently took the GRE, and prepared using your program. I really liked it, but I did much better on your practice tests than on the real test! Maybe it was nerves 🙂 I scored a 157 (74th%) on Verbal and a 160 (78th%) on Quant. I got a 5.0 on the writing, however. I am applying to Harvard’s graduate school of education, and was wondering what your thoughts are. I am above average (or right around there) for math and the writing, but I am well below where I would like to be for verbal (there average is in the 90th percentile). Should I take the test again, and focus more on the verbal? I think my biggest challenge is the RC passages. Let me know when you can–thanks!


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 18, 2014 at 11:00 am #

      Hi Lins,

      Actually, Mr. Swimmer no longer does blogposts but is a part-time support tutor as he prepares to head off to Harvard for–quite coincidentally–the graduate school of education :).

      So I’ll do my best to answer your question! It definitely could be nerves. Students usually do pretty similarly on the two tests–in fact, many tend to do better on the real GRE verbal. I’d take the test again, focusing on Reading Comp. as much as possible. In addition to using Magoosh materials, prep with ETS (they just came out with a new verbal guide). You’ll also want to consider going through some LSAT official tests.

      Hope that helps, and good luck 🙂

      • Lins August 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

        Hi Chris!

        Thanks so much for getting back to me and for the helpful advice. I think the second time around will be better, now that I am more familiar with taking the test. I get nervous because of the pressure (aka Harvard), so I think I can do a better job too of really sticking to a study plan and feeling more confident during the test. I also have to admit that I didn’t study the vocab as diligently as I could have….:) Thanks again, Chris!


  3. Greg March 18, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    Hi Chris,
    Congrats on the score! Do you ever wonder about the percentile of the combined score? I am trying to ‘market’ myself in the workplace and have to fight being slightly older than the traditional grad student/recent graduate (am 40). However, I did score 170 verbal/168 quant. I was hoping to declare I got the high score on the GRE in 2012, or something like that to resonate with employers.. any ideas?

    • Rita Neumann
      Rita Kreig March 18, 2014 at 10:46 am #

      Hi Greg! Congrats on your amazing GRE score!

      I think your future employers would definitely be interested to learn how well you scored on the GRE. I’d say that you’re definitely in the 99th percentile, so rather than saying that you received a “high score”, you could say that you scored in the top 1% of students who take the GRE. You could even briefly mention your score breakdown, if you’d like.

      Good luck on your job search!


  4. Nish November 19, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    Sorry to ask a question off-topic (maybe). I was wondering if schools (for PhD in Engineering) would accept the highest scores from different test dates? For example, I seem to have done my best on the verbal, quant, and AW on three different test dates. Is this dependent on the University? Any educated guess (i.e., if not sure) from you would be highly appreciated and may ameliorate my agony.

    Many thanks,

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer November 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Hey Nish! Unfortunately this is highly dependant upon the programs, but the good news is that this is likely information they’d willingly divulge. My best guess for you is the score that emphasizes your quant abilities, but it depends on the variation, really. Reach out to the schools and see what they say!

      Chris S

  5. Nora October 25, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Hey Chris,

    How are you doing?
    I’d like to know the materials you used to learn quant and verbal
    And, did you use anything besides the Magoosh flashcards for vocabulary. ?


    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 25, 2013 at 11:57 am #

      Hey Nora! I’m doing great in the post-GRE (pre-app submission!) world. 🙂 I used Magoosh to learn all of the material, with a bit of help from the Manhattan series as well. I only used the Magoosh GRE flashcards. 🙂

      Chris S

  6. Nancy October 24, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Hello chris,

    Congrats for awesome score…. felt great after seeing your score and also got inspired for doing better.

    But I’ve a question. you mentioned that you regularly read “The Atlantic”, “New York Times” and “New Yorker”, so is there any particular section you used to read or randomly you pick any article??? And how many words did you memorize? Do magoosh vocab book and manhattan 1000 words suffice the purpose??

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 25, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      Hey Nancy! Definitely have a look at the science articles. Those are great because they present them to the uninitiated, but in a complex way. The general news articles have lower vocabulary levels, so I’d focus on feature pieces. 🙂 As for straight memorization of vocabulary, I used solely the Magoosh flash cards. I know my opinion is thoroughly biased, but I felt those words alone were worth about 5 points on my verbal.

      Chris S

  7. LS October 17, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Hello Chris.
    Have a few questions about your post.Could you provide a bit more details on how you were able to adapt to the 1 month schedule as a working person. I’m looking at taking the GRE in mid-December which is a little under 2 months, so would you recommend the 1 month expanded a bit. Also, how many words did you learn weekly and what exactly do you mean by spacing the words increased further away from learn date? Would you review all words learnt on review days or just the new words of the week? For quant, did you only use Magoosh practice videos? I am horrible at math and really terrified about that, but also not the best test taker especially standardized tests.

    Thanks for the feedback

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

      Hey LS! It’s definitely tough working full time, studying for the GRE, applying to graduate school, and trying to have any kind of life. Essentially I just told my family and friends that would not be very accessible for a month, and studied after work every evening. A lot of beautiful Saturday afternoons were spent holed up taking practice tests. But it’s grad school and my future, so it’s worth the sacrifice. 🙂 As for the flashcard learning, check out the comment I just posted to MM. 🙂

      Chris S

  8. MM October 15, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    Hi Chris S.,

    Thank you so much! This post was very helpful. I am retaking the GRE and using the 1 month schedule. I have a question about your verbal strategy: do you have a sample schedule for your spaced repetition technique with the GRE decks??? Any help would be much appreciated !!!! -M

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

      Hey MM!

      When I say I used the spaced repetition it looked a bit like this:

      M: Learn Deck 1
      T: Review Deck 1
      W: Learn Deck 2
      Th: Review Decks 1, 2
      F: Learn Deck 3
      Sa: Review Decks 2, 3
      Su: Learn Deck 4, Review Deck 1
      M: Review Decks 3, 4
      T: Learn Deck 5, Review Deck 2
      W: Review Decks 4, 5
      Th: Review Decks 1, 3
      F: Review Deck 5

      This becomes more intricate the longer you do it, so I recommend making a kind of spreadsheet. 🙂 Essentially all you’re doing is learning a deck, reviewing it the next day, skipping a day and then another review, and then skipping two days and another review, then skipping three days, then four and so on. Meanwhile simply learn a new deck every other day and add the same spacing process to it. All in all it’s a bit over a month to learn 1000 words, but you really really know them. The easier decks you can drop off, obviously. 🙂

      Hope this helps!

      Chris S

  9. Mike October 5, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Hello, I’ve been using Magoosh to study and let me just say it is an amazing product. I took the GRE recently and scored 166 quant and 158 verbal. I plan on taking it again because I want to improve my verbal. Unfortunately I’ve exhausted most of the supplementary resources and finished all the Magoosh questions (redone some 2 – 3 times). I was wondering what are some good materials I should use for my second time around? (particularly for medium to harder text completion and reading comprehension) Thank you.

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 18, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

      Hey Mike! I definitely recommend checking out The Best GRE Books of 2013 to see what best suits your needs!

      Chris S

  10. WW October 2, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for this post. It was very helpful. Congratulations on your wonderful score! Good luck with grad school!!


    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

      Thanks WW! Glad you found it useful. 🙂

      Chris S

  11. mohit October 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    hey chris
    after reading this post, I attempted a powerprep test and scored 309. But my target score is 330. And with my GRE on 20th oct, is it realistic/possible that i can still achieve my target score??

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 4, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      Hey Mohit! I’ll be honest, that jump is on the close to impossible side. THat’s not to say it isn’t possible, but you’ll have a lot of ground to cover in just two weeks to get that kind of improvement. Definitely use this site and the Magoosh product if you can, along with anything else you can get your hands on. It’s going to be a battle.

  12. CR October 2, 2013 at 10:07 am #

    Haha, good job Chris NotLele Swimmer!!!!

    Sorry I mess up with your middle name. Good luck with graduate school!!!

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

      Hahah Thanks!

  13. sleepingsid7 October 2, 2013 at 6:49 am #

    Congrats Chris
    haha I did have a similar experience , The fact that The test day doesn’t always mirror your practice tests is an absolute true statement . Also Some test centers truly are comfortable with nice proctors . Celebration is an absolute must .

    Best of luck for your grad school preparations . hope to have more of your amazing college blogs in the future

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

      Yeah I think it’s good to remember that a lot will be outside your control on test day. I tried to be aware of what was under my control and controlled that, and whatever was outside of that control, I accepted as part of the challenge.

      I hope to be writing more about the application process, hopefully at least through the admissions process, and then maybe even actual grad school! Sometimes you get so caught up in the process that you lose sight of the end goal!

  14. DC October 1, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Hi Chris!

    Just reading your article, I was just so anxious, apprehensive and completely fraught with trepidation, as though I was taking the test (which I will in about wk and a half).

    I am so happy for you! Way to go! Congratulations! Those are EXCELLENT scores. Scoring above the 90th percentile across all sections, is AH-MA-ZING!

    I wish you well in Grad school!

    Well deserved.

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 2, 2013 at 11:58 am #

      Thanks DC! I hope you can draw on my experience as a bit of inspiration! Good luck on your test! Make sure you tell us how it goes. 🙂

  15. Gurpreet October 1, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Wow!! Congrats, Chris!! I m sitting for the GRE in about
    3 weeks or less. I have not finished memorising the 1000 words using te manhattan
    Flashcards and I also haven’t completed book 5/6 from the manhattan prep series.
    There is no time for me to even start on the 5LB book. I am really
    Freaking out. What do you recommend that i focus on or do (which materials) ??
    Do I have to finish the whole of the 5lb book??? Please advise! Congrats again!! I
    Would love to have your scores!

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 2, 2013 at 11:56 am #

      Hey Gurpreet! Thanks! I think freaking out is the last thing you want to do. The truth is that you’ll never get to every question available. Even if you did, it wouldn’t guarantee a good score! Practice what you can but try to find your Zen on test day. 🙂

  16. Ashutosh October 1, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Chris, That’s an amazing score. I would kill for it anyday. But thank you so much for sharing your schedule. I am in a similar situation and have to take the exam at the end of this month. I would try to adhere to this and would try to follow what works best for me.

    Thanks again and congratulations for your great score. 🙂

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 2, 2013 at 11:52 am #

      Yeah I think the best is definitely to keep in mind your own strengths and weaknesses. 🙂 Good luck!

  17. Nayani October 1, 2013 at 9:38 am #

    Congratulations….. Awesome

    • Chris Swimmer
      Chris Swimmer October 2, 2013 at 11:51 am #


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