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Xavier is a GRE aspirant. He has been preparing for the exam on his own for six months now, and he is so frustrated that he’s close to giving up. Besides, he hasn’t booked a date yet because he doesn’t feel prepared. The more time he spends on his preparation, the less ready he feels.

“I’m comfortable with Quant, I think I’ll mange 160. I just don’t know what to do about vocabulary. I cannot remember any of the words.”

A friend suggested that he meet a GRE counselor, so he did. Here is what the counselor told him.

Test Dates

You should book your test date about midway through the preparation. For instance, if you’ve taken a ten session program, you should book a date when you’re five sessions in. You might worry about entering the exam hall while still underprepared, but booking a date gives you a definite deadline to work with, and ensures that your preparation is focused. As for feeling underprepared, remember that there isn’t a definite syllabus to finish, so it isn’t as if you’ll leave out portions. The point is skill and strategy development, and that happens with quality prep as opposed to merely quantity prep.

Let’s elaborate. Quantity prep means solving 100 SC questions a day, but not analyzing the questions as to where you went wrong. Even if you got the answer right this time, but were confused between two options, you should review the question and be 100% sure you know why the other options are wrong. Otherwise you might end up choosing incorrectly in the exam on a similar question. Reviewing even the questions you got right is part of quality prep.

Booking the right slot is also crucial. As far as possible, don’t book the evening slot because it results in undue stress throughout the day.

Now, let’s say you don’t get your desired score in the first attempt. Now what? Nothing is lost yet, for you have the option of retaking the test after 21 days. Besides, the ScoreSelect option lets you decide which score you want to send to the universities, and they wouldn’t be any wiser as to how many attempts it took you to finally score that 320. Remind yourself of this if you find yourself getting too nervous.

Do I have to get 320+?

Actually, no. 320+ is very desirable of course, and very achievable too (see below for details), but by no means is it essential. Admission depends on your entire profile, not just on your GRE score. Of course, a good score in a standardized test means that your profile will look stronger, but other things such as your academic record, essays and recommendations matter as much.

And one thing that you mustn’t forget: you ignore the AWA at your own peril. No matter how good your GRE score, if you don’t have at least a 4 in the AWA, it wouldn’t be considered.

Strategy: Grab the low-hanging fruit first

In general, the Quant section tends to be easier to get full marks in, for the answers are clear cut. In Verbal, things get a little interpretative, so getting the right answer takes more time. So ensure that you’re able to get a 170 in Quant before you sweat it over Verbal, for then you’d have to score only a 150 in Verbal to get through.

Now, vocabulary. Most students fear vocabulary, and the prospect of learning so many new words doesn’t excite anyone. However, let’s do a little breakdown. Out of the 340 GRE points, the computer gives you 260. You have to gain only 80 more to score full points. Out of these, you don’t need Verbal for the Quant 40. Out of the remaining 40, 20 are RC and 20 SC. You can manage RC without heavy vocabulary, so long as you can understand what the question is asking you to do. Out of the 20 SC points, there would be only 10 points worth of questions that would require heavy vocabulary. So when you spend most of your time either worrying about vocabulary or preparing for it, you’re working towards only 10 points.

Once you’ve realized the point breakdown, you’ll feel confident. This is why we stress on booking the lowest hanging fruit before you begin to worry about the harder questions. And please do remember that the GRE Verbal section isn’t about being good at English or having perfect grammar. It is a test of reasoning, not of knowledge. You can choose to improve your grammar and vocabulary in general, but that is independent of your prep.

How to Prepare

Ideally, you should go for a hybrid preparation mode where you’re spending as much time studying on your own as you are attending classes. It doesn’t do to just passively sit in class and expect the magic to happen. You’ll have to devote an hour of self-study to every hour that you spend in class.

Practise questions keeping time management in mind. Use keywords for both SC and RC. Keywords help you decide the tone of the word you need, help you break the RC down into manageable portions. Don’t read RCs passively; read them as you would an SC and look for hints throughout.

The time of your study matters as much as the number of hours. Don’t attempt new questions while you’re tired at night. You will make silly mistakes, thereby demoralizing yourself and wasting the questions you could’ve used for practice later. Also don’t mark in your books while practising, because you wouldn’t get to mark on the screen during the test, and you’ll also make your books useless for revision.

A word about the material: do finish all the official material (Official Guide, Verbal Review, Quant Review, AWA pool of topics, ETS tests) before you move on to other material.

In short, the GRE is a very specific exam with a predictable pattern of questions. Arm yourself with information about the exam and get the strategy right before you start preparing.

Thanks for reading!

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