Preparing for the GRE: What the Test is Really About

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Preparing for the GRE: What the Test is Really About by Cat Powell

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In the first session of each GRE class that I teach, I ask students which sections they see as strengths and which they see as weaknesses. Almost all students have a strong preference for either Quant or Verbal. Often, these preferences aren’t based in actual test experience—rather, they reflect the student’s sense of him- or herself as a “math person” or a “language person.”

After this first session, I send students home to take a practice test. In many cases, the results are surprising. Students who described themselves as being dramatically stronger in one section or the other find that their scores are actually pretty close together. In some cases, what a student had thought would be a strength turns out to be a weakness. Why?

If my students are only going to remember one thing from session one, I hope that it’s this: the GRE is not really a test of either verbal or mathematical aptitude, even though this is what it may look like on the surface. Rather, the test uses reading passages, vocabulary words, and mathematical concepts to assess reasoning and decision-making skills. In essence, it’s a four-hour strategy game.

This is why students sometimes underperform on sections of the test that they think of as their strength. Take, for example, a friend who asked me to help him study for the GRE last winter. He was applying to an engineering Ph.D. program, moving from one quant-intensive discipline to another; his math skills are far beyond what mine will ever be. And yet he was having a lot of trouble with GRE Quant. I realized why when I gave him a fairly straightforward Quantitative Comparison question, walked away, and came back five minutes later to find him still working on it; he was trying to solve it using trigonometry and had drawn out the unit circle from memory.

I showed him the 30-second trick for solving the problem. He got frustrated and stalked off, muttering about how it was a stupid test, not even really a math test. Yup, I said; that’s the point. It’s not a math test. And if you think of it as a math test, you’ll end up making questions way more complicated than they need to be, especially if you have strong math skills.

I’ve seen the opposite case as well, with students who are excellent readers and writers and yet struggle to bring up their Verbal scores. Like my stubborn engineer friend, they overcomplicate questions, looking for nuance and subtlety when what’s required is a literal, logical approach.

In general, students who see the test as evaluating their mathematical or verbal aptitude have a much harder time preparing for it. They often eschew quick, scrappy solutions in favor of more elegant—but also more time-consuming—approaches. They get frustrated and discouraged more readily, too, particularly when their performance on the test doesn’t align with their sense of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Personally, I think that preparing for the GRE is a lot more fun when you approach it as a game, a test of strategy in which you’re trying to outwit a devious opponent (the writers of the test). First, games are fun, and (if you’re like me) an extra competitive edge will inspire you to study harder. Second, the test feels less personal this way—and therefore less anxiety-inducing. Third, approaching the test as a game encourages you to use more efficient tricks and strategies—things like backsolving, picking numbers, or process of elimination. Overall, this mindset makes preparing for the GRE less painful and more effective.

As I tell my students in session one, no one is born being good at the GRE; there are no “GRE prodigies.” Rather, the GRE is a unique task, a game with its own rules that anyone can master with time and effort. So put aside your ideas about what you will and will not be good at, take a practice test, and start learning the rules of the game. 📝


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cat-powell-1Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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