Rachel Buchman - August 2010
When I began my search for graduate programs in creative writing, one of the first things I did was sign up to take the GRE general test. Nearly a year before any of my applications were due, even before I was certain where I wanted to apply, I hit the study prep books. I took copious notes in the workbook portions and locked myself in my bedroom with a stopwatch for the practice tests.
On the day of the exam, three months later, I arrived feeling confident and proficient. Then I sat down at the computer and stared at the instructions in disbelief. What was required of me had nothing at all to do with what I'd so diligently studied. In fact, I had used the study guide my husband purchased several years before when he had considered obtaining a social work degree. I mistakenly thought the test could not have changed that much since the study guide was published, a mere four years before my test date. I was wrong.While some books are classics for all ages, study guides are not. Nor are they all created equal. The guides vary not just in quality, but also in philosophy and learning style. Since most advanced degree programs require at least the GRE general test for admission, choosing the right study guide is of utmost importance.
Timing is everything
The GRE changes at record speed. This is meant to prevent cheating and to conform to the latest academic research. The test is administered and graded by only one company, a non-profit called Educational Testing Services (ETS), based in Princeton, New Jersey. It is the same company that administers the SAT, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and many other standardized exams. That means the decision to change the test and its policies are completely up to ETS administrators.
The best way to make sure your study guide is up to date is to explore the ETS website before buying a book or test prep software. Had I bothered to do that before my test date, I would have realized the exam is currently organized into three parts: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. As it was, I spent hours practice solving puzzles - which are no longer on the test - and had no idea I would have to write an essay of any sort. Whenever ETS makes any changes to its tests, from content to grading to identification policies, its website will let you know.
Which study guide you use depends a lot on the way you learn. Theories about standardized test taking abound. One of the most common is that choosing between A, B, C or D tells a lot less about how smart or educated you are than how well you take tests. Guides that take this approach teach you how to master test taking skills. Other guides promote the idea that passing the test requires true knowledge of the material to be covered. These encourage brushing up on math skills and provide extensive vocabulary lists. Most combine these philosophies, advocating a mix of content retention with "tricks" on how to decode the structure of the test.
Your test taking temperament
Most people who have ever taken a standardized test - and every graduate candidate has likely taken the SATs or ACTs - has learned the basics of test taking shortcuts. These include narrowing down multiple choice answers and learning to rephrase difficult questions. In taking today's computerized tests, it's also important to perform the best on the earliest questions, because correct answers lead to harder questions which lead to higher scores. Most study guides offer much more specific strategies and it's important to find the one that works best for you.
My study guide relied on the philosophy that the GRE was little more than a test of your ability to take tests. Though it did include some basic math refreshers and an index full of vocabulary words, most of the exercises relied on learning the test's format. It advised requesting as much blank paper as administrators would provide, dividing the paper into eight to twelve blocks, and using each block to rewrite the questions in a different way. The new question format differed from section to section and for different types of questions. For each question, I was to write down the letters of the multiple choice answers and cross off each letter when I decided it was not the correct answer. The idea was that I would be left with only one or two letters on my blank paper and would therefore be able to make a much narrower guess than if I had been staring at all four or five answer choices on the screen at once.
At first, this strategy seemed absurd, but as I began to practice it, I found I liked the approach. Despite having studied the wrong format, I was still able to perform reasonably well by applying the book's narrowing strategy. While this technique worked well for me, it's not for everyone and other methods abound. Some rely on becoming familiar with common types of analogies and rounding rather than calculating exact answers for math questions. One humorous tip for the essay section warns against taking poetic license. The computer that scores the writing looks for structure and transition words, and does not have an appreciation for witty sarcasm, creative metaphors or offhand references to pop culture.
Basic test taking tips are readily and freely available online, but guides that lead you through the test, show sample questions, provide common vocab words and include practice tests usually cost money. Students can choose between paid online subscriptions, purchased software - either downloaded or on CD Rom - and old fashioned workbooks. Some people love being able to sit at the computer and focus on the screen while others prefer to jot notes in the margins of books or even study in the backyard.
While individual preference should guide the choice for initial study, be sure you have the opportunity to practice the test at a computer, since that will give you the best feel for the actual exam. Most critically, you will not be able to change your answers and your new questions will be based on your early answers. On the other hand, it is also helpful to take some practice exams on paper, which will allow you to go back and see where you made mistakes and learn to correct them. Some books offer practice tests printed in the book as well as on CD Rom. If yours does not, be sure to find online practice exams or invest in a combination of books and software.
However you choose to study, be sure to begin long before your exam date and, even if you no longer live with your folks, be sure to remember some basic "mom" rules. Always rest and eat well before the exam. Do some light stretching and deep breathing to calm your nerves before entering the exam room. Wear comfortable clothes. Most of all, don't panic. You can always retake the GRE and hey, that will give you a chance to explore more study guides.