Studying for the GRE: Overview

I wrote down a few thoughts about the GRE during and after my time of preparing for and taking it in 2011. This and a few accompanying posts contain those thoughts. I thought I might get back to these materials and develop them further. It wasn’t a priority. It is now yearend 2012.  Time to post them in this incomplete state, for whatever assistance they may provide.

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I was studying for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) revised General Test, produced by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), in the form given after August 1, 2011. The General Test was distinct from GRE tests on specific subjects (e.g., biology, psychology). No subject test was required for the fields that interested me.

Scores from the GRE general test (commonly called just “the GRE” for short) were reported on three areas: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. In its increasingly dominant computer- (as distinct from paper-) based form, the Verbal Reasoning component consisted of two 30-minute sections, each of which required the test-taker to answer about 20 questions; the Quantitative Reasoning component consisted of two 35-minute sections, containing about 20 questions each; and the Analytical Writing component consisted of two 30-minute writing tasks (“Analyze an Issue” and “Analyze an Argument“). There would also typically be at least one unscored section for research purposes.

There were many different materials to assist in test preparation. ETS itself provided FAQs and a variety of free and paid materials. Other commonly mentioned publishers of GRE test prep materials included Princeton Review, Kaplan, Barron’s, McGraw-Hill, and Nova. (Note: The “Princeton” Review is not significantly connected with Princeton University or Princeton, New Jersey. Wikipedia says it started in New York City and moved to Framingham, MA, and also that it’s not doing too well.) There were also face-to-face test prep courses, tutoring, flash cards, and other kinds of materials and training, available through numerous colleges, university, and for-profit sources.

My funds were limited, so I was going to have to choose among one or more books, and forgo the in-person training option (e.g., $1,249 for clasroom, $2,199 for one-on-one via Kaplan). In this process, I relied heavily on the reviews written by previous users of test prep books, especially as provided at If I were doing it again, I would supplement those reviews with a more diligent search for comparative professional reviews, since it gradually seemed that a person at a different ability level might find a particular book very helpful, whereas I might not. My limited searching led me to appreciate especially the book reviews at

I had a second problem, which I won’t discuss at length here: boredom. I had already taken the GRE once, some years earlier. I had worked hard, for quite a while, and had scored 760 verbal, 780 math. That was on four hours of sleep, and after a screwup at the testing center where they left me standing in the lobby until well after everyone else had started. They were calling names, and I figured that, being a W, I would be at the end of the list as usual. So of course I got the squeaky chair and the computer in direct sunlight from a window on the opposite wall — in other words, the workstation nobody else wanted — along with a crappy, distracting start to the whole process. Naturally, I preferred to imagine that I would otherwise have scored 800s. Be that as it may, I knew I could do it. It was boring enough the first time. Now that I had proved the point, I found it even harder to get motivated this time around.

Boredom was related to the amount of time allowed for test prep. Studying for this test was not intrinsically interesting, though there were rewarding moments in the writing of essays and the rediscovery of old math concepts. I think the general idea was that, when you study for the GRE, you would be starting from your personal average score and trying to push the envelope toward the highest that you were practically capable of. If you just couldn’t do well with words or numbers, you probably couldn’t get a top score at all, or at least not without a large amount of remedial training; but with study and practice you will probably be able to improve your score considerably — possibly enough to make a difference in your future.

In that light, the GRE was to some extent a competition against people who might have a higher boredom threshold, which could mean they didn’t have anything more valuable to do with their time than to devote months to GRE prep. And that could be reasonable if, for example, they were an international student from a hopelessly impoverished village; their family saved for a half-year to pay the fee and buy a GRE prep book; and the GRE represented their one big chance. Who knows? Maybe a person from that kind of beginning would have a degree of motivation that would make them superior in graduate school and throughout the rest of their lives. Or maybe not. In my superficial inquiries, these sorts of questions had not been definitively resolved. Contacts with a variety of international students over the years suggested that it could go either way. But when I heard that some international students had spent six to twelve months preparing for the GRE, I had to have some concerns, not only about the enormous time investment in mastering this semi-relevant fragment of useful knowledge, but also about the priorities of the applicants and the programs alike. Was there really nothing better that the applicant could have been doing with all that time, for the benefit of him/herself and his/her country and community? Great question. Much more interesting to contemplate that, with all its educational and ethical implications, than to study for the GRE.

I had one other problem: age. At this point, I had accumulated assorted strengths, experiences, and baggage. By the time someone got through reading my application essay and other materials, I suspected, they would love me or hate me. The GRE score might not make much difference unless it was at an extreme one way or the other. Whether this was true, again, I can’t say; but this was the sort of thought that has probably afflicted countless GRE-takers around the world. “I’m white, and in my field they want blacks in these graduate programs” or “I’m black, and they want whites” or “I’m female” or “I’m no good with math” or ____ (fill in the blank). The GRE was to some extent an exercise in discouragement, one more costly and time-consuming hoop to jump through, and it has doubtless deterred some who would have made a valuable contribution in graduate schools and in the ensuing careers. For me, this thought did have an impact on my preparation. While I appreciated that each part of a grad school application was important, it was somewhat discouraging to know — as I had now learned — that there is such a thing as being too inquisitive in a PhD program. What was the point of taking a test that would examine my ability to think critically, if I was then going to wind up in a program where they would punish me for thinking critically? (If you doubt me on this, I encourage you: question things that need to be questioned in your own PhD program.)

This very discussion tends to support the point. Nobody is asking you for your views on whether the GRE tests things that you will actually need, in or after graduate school. Such things have been decided for you. So suppose you noticed all these books and articles observing that half of the people who began PhD programs in the U.S. wouldn’t graduate, and that being able to play the graduate school game was at least as important as being smart. Wouldn’t you tend to doubt the proposition that the most important kinds of knowledge and skill, for purposes of succeeding in graduate school, could be examined in a single test — regardless of whether you were applying to a program in horticulture, sociology, or poetry?

As I say, all very interesting questions, logically preceding the notion of spending months studying for the GRE — but dismissible questions, because the people asking them were unimportant people, like you and me. As a foretaste of what grad school could be like, our role in the process would be to pay the money and shut up. My point in offering these remarks here is mainly to underscore that the task of studying for the GRE could be significantly more difficult for people who try to understand why they were doing something, as distinct from those who would do whatever someone tells them to do.

And so it came down to the task of buying a book and studying for the GRE. I knew, from taking it previously, that I had to buy the official ETS book. This was the indispensable source of guidance on exactly what the test was about. Many of the things in the book were already available for free on the ETS website, or substantially matched by other sorts of materials. But especially with a new version of the test, I was not sure which other publishers would provide the best alternatives, and in any event I wanted the DVD, included with the ETS book, containing an exact replica of a GRE test. At test time, I didn’t want to be encountering any nasty surprises about such things as how to use the onscreen calculator or how to go back and change an answer.

There weren’t many clear indications of what to do beyond that. I saw that some people swore by Nova’s GRE Math Prep Course book (2008 edition, updated in 2011, as distinct from the new 2011 edition, which wasn’t available yet), so I got a used copy of that. I found that it had very few errors (e.g., things misstated, wrong answers), and that had been a major complaint that Amazon reviewers had expressed, in their reviews of other GRE math prep books. After going through the ETS Official Guide, I felt that my tour through the Nova book had substantially prepared me for the quantitative portion of the GRE. The chapter on permutations and combinations was the main exception. I didn’t have much prior basis in that area, and the Nova book didn’t help much.

For a small amount, I also got a used copy of Princeton Review’s Cracking the GRE (2009 edition). Aside from the parts that were now outdated, it did have some explanations and questions that I found helpful, and not only in the math section. Finally, with just a few weeks to go, I started working through Kaplan’s New GRE Math Workbook (eighth edition). Altogether, with free shipping from in most cases, I spent about $50 for these books. The GRE itself cost $160, but I got it for half-price because I was able to sign up to take it during August or September 2011, when they were apparently still working out the kinks. Kaplan was offering a free GRE practice test at several nearby locations, so I signed up for one of those too.

The Kaplan book was too new to have an errata list (i.e., list of known errors) along with its lists for previous volumes. I couldn’t find errata lists for the ETS or Nova books, and didn’t look for one for the Princeton Review book. Also, unfortunately, none of these books had indexes. So on a number of occasions, when I couldn’t find or understand an explanation for a specific item, I searched websites instead. For instance, to learn about permutations, I found relatively helpful information from The Math Page, Brightstorm, Omega Math, West Texas A&M’s Virtual Math Lab, and Patrick’s Just Math. To review the equation for a line in coordinate geometry, I used Khan Academy. Vertex of a parabola? Had to Know.

Eventually, that online-research approach proved frustrating and time-consuming, and I opted to buy a Kindle (i.e., available immediately) copy of Schaum’s College Algebra (third edition, apparently not much changed from the second edition, and available either way for $5-8 in hard copy). (I wound up posting a critical review of the Kindle version on, primarily because of formatting issues; I would have been happier with a paper copy.) I had forgotten that I still had an old copy of Schaum’s Geometry (2nd ed.), so I belatedly fell back on that as well. These were more textbook-like, and for some of these questions that was what I needed; the GRE prep books really didn’t explain things well if you had really forgotten or never really learned something. (I thought I really needed Schaum’s Analytic Geometryfor coordinate geometry, available only in paper, but that was probably overkill; there was geometry stuff in their algebra guide as well.)

This was as far as my notes went in this particular post. Some additional notes appear in 1 2 3 other posts from about this same time. A later post contains notes on the 4th edition of Schaum’s College Algebra.

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