If you are reading this blog you are most likely preparing for the GRE, considering it or contemplating if a second attempt is worthwhile. Before we go ahead and explore these options let me give you a little background about myself. I studied Bachelors in Business Management in India and MBA in the USA. The Business school I graduated from in the US did not require a GRE or GMAT (there were other parameters like work experience, strong SOP, letter of recommendation, and, under graduate GPA) however, now that I aspire to do a PhD it is mandatory to attempt either GMAT or GRE. I am going to bifurcate this blog into two parts; here, I will tell you what went wrong in my initial attempt (you must avoid my mistakes!) and in part two of this blog I will share tips and tricks of what worked out for me and resources I used for preparation.
Following are factors that contributed to my poor initial performance (V 142, Q 153; Total 295)
Poor Scheduling: while I did start planning ahead of time to apply for a PhD program I focused majorly on shortlisting schools and going through class profiles. In due process I skipped checking for the application deadlines assuming that there might be seasonal intakes like it is for a Master’s program. Only few months before the deadline I realized that fully funded PhD programs only offer one application window annually (mostly between October and January) following which, I started my GRE preparation by hitting the panic button. I gave the GRE in December and had less than fifteen days to prepare a SOP and arrange for letters of recommendation and transcripts. Luckily, my former professors were available though it was the holiday season but never the less it was a big risk. I was able to apply only to one university and obviously, got rejected. I did not set my expectation high knowing that I had a very low GRE score (295) and a poorly curated SOP. I applied anyways, to experience the application process so that I would be able to better organize timelines the next time I apply. My sincere advice to you is to allow at least two to three months before your application deadline. ETS takes about ten days to upload and send your score to the Universities and also, ETS has a freeze period of 21 days before you retake the exam (if you decide to).
Lack of Confidence: after going through tons of videos and blogs by successful test takers I found that majority of them were from an engineering background and that intimidated me. I have always been an above average student but this would be my first competitive exam of this nature (that too with only one month of preparation time available) So I joined a coaching institute thinking it will help me organize my time and help me prepare more effectively. I am not going to comment whether or not I recommend going to a coaching institute but it certainly did not help me. It was not only expensive but quite digressive from the learning requirements. They did share plenty of reading material but I found out later that there are ways to obtain these materials online at minimum to no cost. For Verbal we practiced many sample questions in the class but the logic behind identifying the correct answer was not rightly shared. Similarly, in quant only problems of a certain difficulty level was discussed and learning formulas was greatly emphasized while ignoring discussing basic concepts and different ways of approaching a problem. In my opinion one does not require a coaching institute. Self-learning might be frustrating if you are stuck with a certain concept or problem but with the plethora of information and resource available online this can be overcome. Also, self-learning will enable you to study at your own phase as long as you stay focused and disciplined. After my first attempt I erased everything I learned from the institute and started anew; preparing by myself I scored a 317 (V: 154, Q: 163).
Underestimation: I was influenced by the popular consensus on the internet and from friends that the GRE verbal is more challenging than the quantitative section (this is not entirely misleading but it is subjective to one’s strengths) I invested 80 percent of my time on the verbal section learning at least 50 words every day and would revise them on the weekends. By doing this I did learn a lot of vocabulary which is essential for the exam but I did not practice enough to make myself aware of the usage of these words. Just like in quant how there are many ways to arrive at the solution similarly in verbal a word can be used in different contexts. On test day there wasn’t a single word I did not know the meaning of but I ended up scoring poorly because I failed to recognize the logic behind using a word in the given context. For example in text completion you might be bias towards a certain word because it “sounds” right but the correct answer might be the one that is logically appropriate (based on clues given in the sentence) though it is not commonly found in such a context in our everyday language.
I am an avid reader and got overconfident thinking that reading comprehension should be a piece of cake (surprise! surprise!) undoubtedly, the RC section can be very unforgiving especially for those who are not fond of reading. RCs in the GRE are comprised of various topics from arts to science. Fifty percent of the verbal section is based on RCs with at least one long passage, one short passage, and, few logic based passages. Everyone has different approaches towards answering the RC questions; many students like to read the question first and then fetch for the answers in the passage. While, others like to read the entire passage first and then answer the questions. There is no proven method that is superior or more effective but whatever approach you decide to follow it is important you make up your mind before the exam. Being totally oblivious to how crooked and sinuous the answer choices are on the exam I kept changing my approach with every question. For the longer passages I would read the question first and vice versa for the shorter passages. This confusion and poor planning reflected on my score as I was overwhelmed during the exam and was not able to attempt all questions within time.
It is true that being familiar with formulae is helpful for saving time in the quant section but one should still budget enough time to practice quant. On the exam most of the questions can be solved using a formula but they do not give you all the information you need directly. Also, there are quite a few real time scenario based questions and questions without multiple choices (hence cannot completely depend on trial and error method) had I invested 60/40 on verbal and quant preparation instead of 80/20 of my time I would have been more familiar with different types of questions and shortcuts to arrive at a solution. You can run out of time in quant even if you know how to attempt the questions if time saving strategies to solve them are not applied. Also, while giving practice tests at home I always used the calculator on the phone; I recommend you use an on-screen calculator even during practice to get used to moving the mouse around. Using the on-screen calculator takes more time so it is better to do simpler calculations on paper instead of being completely reliant on the calculator.
Poor endurance: there is no guarantee that someone who performs well in the GRE will perform well in graduate school too. The GRE only tests how well one can take the exam. It is a test of endurance more than a test of aptitude. It is not easy to sit in front of a computer screen for about four hours with only one ten minutes break and intermittent sixty seconds break between sections. During the practice tests at home I would skip the AWA section thinking that I will have to sit for an extra hour on test day anyways so why stress myself prior. On test day I was not only mentally exhausted by the end of section three but also I was physically uncomfortable and sore. I strongly recommend that you give the AWA section at least for two practice tests; if you are not able to convince yourself to write an essay on your practice tests at least make it a point that you remain seated throughout the section. It is imperative that you take the ten minutes break during your exam to grab a snack or drink some water. On my first attempt I did not take the break thinking that it was only ten minutes and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to return to my seat in time. So I took the break at my desk but watching the clock did not ease my stress and made me more anxious if not anything.
In retrospect I realize that a lot of these mistakes could have been avoided and I would probably have achieved a much better score on my first attempt itself. Never the less, I hope you are able to learn from my mistakes just like I was able to. I will soon publish part 2 of this blog discussing how I planned my preparation strategy for my next attempt and improved my score from 295 to 317.
Please feel free to ask any questions or let me know if there is anything in specific you would like to discuss in more detail.