Tips for tackling the GRE from a tutor who has scored perfectly... twice!
By Sarah Fader
Published March 9, 2012
1. So Jen, what is the GRE?
It depends on whom you ask. Some people would say that it is a computer-based torture program intended to terrify liberal arts majors with questions about probability and prime numbers. Some people would say that it is a trip-to-Mordor-level trial of the will intended to force engineers and math majors to know what "aspersion" and "hoity-toity" mean. Some people would say that it's a reasonable test -- if they didn't make you speed-read and speed-calculate the whole thing like some kind of crazy game show.
I think ETS, the makers of the test, would say that it is a test that measures verbal and mathematical skills important for grad school. There's some truth to all of these.
For instance, I do think that everyone who wants to attend grad school should be able to read at a graduate level and practice close reading of a text -- that is, explain precisely what the author is both saying and implying, before getting all liberal-artsy and adding our own insights and interpretations.
I also think that everyone should be able to interpret charts and tables and make mathematically supported inferences -- for instance, if I give you two charts containing 1) the GDP per capita of ten nations, and 2) the actual GDPs of those nations, you should be able to figure out which nation has the largest population.
That said, my class is full of future therapists who probably won't be splitting numbers into prime factors in their careers, future MBAs who would be roundly castigated by their bosses for using words like "obloquy" and "animadversion" in corporate communications, and future veterinarians, forensic scientists, Russian literature scholars, and more, all of whom are a little terrified by at least part of the GRE.
I abate terror! I teach math to “mathphobes” and explain sentences like, "Hardly a debased example of the form, the work is in fact paradigmatic of Beat poetry, which, for all its idiosyncrasy, has gained canonicity in the development of the American literary voice."
2. How important is the GRE in terms of getting into graduate school? Are there certain programs that weigh it more heavily than others?
Fortunately for many of my students, the GRE is generally a smaller part of the big picture in admissions than the LSAT usually is for law school, or the GMAT for business school. But because GRE students have such widely divergent goals (as opposed to my GMAT students, for instance, who are all looking to enter MBA programs), the best source of information is really the program to which you are applying. I had one student call the Latin American Studies program to which he was applying to be told point-blank, "We don't look that much at the math," whereas I also had the head of a department at an Ivy League university tell me he really cared about the essays and the verbal section -- for astrophysics Ph.D.s! -- because he assumed that all applicants would all nail the math, so the verbal was actually the thing that would distinguish certain students from others.
One caveat: for those using the GRE to apply to business school, I think the GRE will be a much larger part of the application package, since the GRE will be replacing the GMAT for those students, and the GMAT has traditionally been a fairly large part of a b-school application package. Also, the GMAT has much harder math than the GRE, so an applicant really needs to excel on the math GRE in order to demonstrate solid quant skills. My students who are taking the GRE for business school are all pretty cognizant of the fact that they really, really need to vanquish, pummel, and otherwise subjugate the math section -- and we have some advanced resources for those students, including advanced problems in our section-level adaptive online practice tests, our weekly Challenge Problems, and recorded online workshops to move on to after completing our nine-week course.
3. Tell us about your role as a GRE Prep instructor. What led you to the field?
Once upon a time, I was a teenager in Virginia, and I really wanted to be the first person in my family to go to college. I memorized about 1,500 SAT words in the course of a year.
I went to Dartmouth, majored in philosophy, and tried a lot of things afterward, like being a professional epistemologist (just kidding). Actually, I did some standup comedy, and in 2007 traveled to the Middle East to entertain the troops. During this time I was tutoring for the SAT (and the ISEE, SHSAT, SSAT, ACT, APs, and then the GMAT and GRE). I ultimately realized that these two pursuits could affect a beautiful marriage. And, of course, many people find that they achieve more career success, and more fulfilling lives, when they make their careers less about themselves and more about providing value to others.
Manhattan Prep, the company I work for, teaches the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, and only hires instructors who score in the 99th percentile of these tests, have real teaching experience, are dynamic and interesting, and can pass a Sisyphean series of pedagogical hurdles and challenges to their didactic methodology. In other words, when I give pep talks to my students about how hard we're all going to work to master the GRE, it's backed up by the fact that I worked really hard mastering these tests to get my awesome job here.
Since then, I've taught thousands of students (I also tutor SAT students on my own), written or contributed to half a dozen test prep books, and worked through a masters in education so I can get even better at helping people -- especially people who are different from me in a variety of ways -- also beat their tests.
4. What is one of your greatest student success stories?
One thing I love about the GRE is that it is so coachable! I feel like I get to see a little light bulb above people's heads all day long. People who think they hate math say things like, "That's so cool!"
For instance, how many zeros does the number (6^56)(8^70)(25^12) end in? Of course, this number is much too large to be plugged into a calculator. But the answer is really simple -- any number will end in as many zeros as there are pairs of one 2 and one 5 in that number's prime factors. For instance, 20 ends in 1 zero because its prime factors (remember that thing with the tree?) are 2, 2, and 5. Similarly, 700 ends in two zeros because its prime factors are 7, 2, 2, 5, and 5.
(6^56)(8^70)(25^12) ends in 24 zeros, because 25^12 is just 5^24, and we have way more than 24 2's so we don't need to worry about them. We can make 24 pairs of a 5 and a 2, so the answer is 24. (It's cooler when I can demonstrate that rather than you having to read it. Or, if you're REALLY interested: 6^56 has 56 2's and 8^70 has 210 2's, since 6 = 2x3 and 8 = 2x2x2.
Anyway, I think I got a little excited and consequently divagated.
In answer to your question, I can specifically remember a guy named Andrew Lee, here is his story, who scored almost perfectly on both math and verbal, and memorized a couple thousand words that I'm sure are making him sound brilliant right now. But another favorite of mine was a student named Tara Tabassi, who had gotten her masters in Europe and didn't have much experience with standardized testing. She ended up nearly doubling her score! Her field is gender studies and conflict resolution, and it makes me happy to help people jump the hurdle of the GRE and get on to doing more important things. Like, obviously, conflict resolution.
More simply, if I can just convince everyone that 200% OF a number is not the same as 200% GREATER than a number (200% of 6 is 12, 200% GREATER THAN 6 is 18), I'll sleep well at night.
5. What advice would you give to potential graduate students preparing for the GRE?
Take this seriously, the same way you would approach a quantitative subject in school. Remember 10th grade chemistry? A handful of "tricks" and a some positive self-talk did not teach you stoichiometry. If it took you a couple of years to learn algebra the first time, it's going to take at least a couple months of serious study to bring it back. That's okay! Just get started.
Also, you can't cram vocab! So, again: get started right away. Here are some of my tips for vocab learning.
The Manhattan GRE series of Strategy Guides is eight books, written by our instructors. That's probably twenty pounds of books! They start pretty basic and work up to very advanced material. I'm serious that everything on the test is learnable (promise!), but successful test takers usually spend over 100 hours preparing. That's why I'm here -- for help, motivation, and answering the inevitable, "Wait, what do you mean 200% greater than 6 is 18?!"
Overall, a good place to start is to take an online practice test. The GRE, and any reputable practice tests that simulate it, is section-level adaptive -- meaning that everyone gets a medium-level math section and verbal section to start, and then after the break you are given an easy, medium, or hard math and an easy, medium, or hard verbal based on your performance on the first section of each type. To get a top score, you need to score well enough on the first section of each type to get the hard second section. In any case, you can give the test a shot by downloading the PowerPrep II exams from ETS (a standalone application for PC only), or taking a free test from Manhattan Prep (we have six of these, and the first one is free for anyone).
Good luck with your studies, everyone!
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Sarah Fader holds a bachelor’s degree from New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a concentration in ancient theater and philosophy. She is currently raising two children while applying to graduate school.