Emily's GRE Experience


Note from Vince: Emily was easily one of the hardest-working students I've had. I've gone through her story and bolded things I think are especially important. The biggest takeaway: doing really well, for most people, takes more work than they think!


Getting Ready to Start Studying


I’m Emily! I studied Sociology and Communications at UCSD. I loved my academic/university experience and knew early in my college career that I would eventually like to pursue a graduate degree (and later settled on applying specifically for a Masters of Public Administration). After about a year out of college and working full time I decided I was ready to go back to school. I knew the first step in getting ready to apply was taking the GRE.


I had a feeling preparing for the GRE would be a pretty serious undertaking for someone like me. I had been out of school for a little while and felt that my study skills might be a little rusty. Moreover, I was never much of a math person and I knew that the GRE covered a pretty wide range of math topics. I came across Vince, who offered exactly what I was looking for—structured, small, personal classes taught by someone I could feel comfortable turning to with questions. I reached out to Vince, and before signing up for the class he encouraged me to take a Manhattan practice test, which was a great idea. I got an idea of where I was at (153 Q 157 V) and how much I needed to improve (Goal of 158 Q 160 V). Then I signed up!



During the bootcamp class I got a good feel for the test. I learned about the test sections and the different types of questions, as well as how to practice each of them. I took some time the day after every class to review what we had gone over the day before. What was really helpful about the class was that Vince provided a slide show about how to get started studying on your own and how to study at home. I ordered the Manhattan essential vocab words set and started to make my own flashcards, making one for each word that I came across in a problem that I didn’t know (this turned out to be very helpful—I remembered these words better because I had actually seen them in a problem rather than just on a flashcard). I also made a google doc where I kept all my practice essays and essay brainstorms. This was also really helpful -- both times that I took the GRE I had prompts that I had brainstormed for! Outside of vocab and essay practice, I spent most of my study time  working through the ETS math review. I would study a section or two each day, depending on how long they were and how familiar I was with each topic. After reading through the section and taking notes, I would identify practice problems in the Manhattan 5 lb. book. It took me the whole 5 weeks to do this, studying for at least an hour almost every day after work-- and I regret not being more thorough in my first pass through the ETS Math Review. I did practice problems almost as if just to say I did them. My notes weren’t very legible, I didn’t try to re-do the problems I got wrong (I just looked at the answer), and I didn’t think about what I was learning from each problem. I regret rushing through the math review (I eventually went back through it again) and would recommend really focusing on a few problems rather than burning through a lot of problems.


Overall, I felt like the class was a good introduction to the test and studying, covered important test topics, and provided lots of information on things to study and how to study at home. I knew however that I still had a long way to go before being prepared to take the test.


Class is over. Now what?


I gave myself a timeline of about 3 months to study for the GRE (it ended up being more than that). The class was a little less than half of that, so I figured that I would start my studying with the class and then self study for the second portion of those three months. The benefit of starting with the class is that I had learned study skills from a GRE pro and could now apply those to my own studying. After the class I took another practice test to see if I had improved and to see which areas I needed to work on. I scored 156Q and 157V. My scores went up in quant but I still wasn’t where I wanted to be, and I didn’t see any improvement yet in verbal (most likely because I had been concentrating almost solely on quant, other than vocab and essay practice). I signed up for a tutoring session with Vince and we set up a practice test schedule, which was great because I could identify concepts or sections that I wanted to have worked through by the time I took my next test. I started a GRE Journal Google Doc where I listed out the work that I needed to do, kept track of the work that I did every day, and wrote down all of the problems I got wrong, why they were wrong, and what I could learn from them. (Tip: Don't wait to add the problems you got wrong to your journal! When I waited a while to add them I found it was hard to remember why I got them wrong and what I was thinking while I was doing the problem)


I decided to go through the ETS Math Review again and pick out the concepts that I still wasn’t fully comfortable with. I made a list of the math concepts that I wanted to review and crossed off a topic or two each day that I studied. On the second time around I wrote down the problems, showed my working in solving them, checked the answer, retried if I got them wrong, and corrected them with red pen (things I should have done the first time around).  I made a binder and kept all my practice problems there. It was easy to look back at problems and also encouraging to see the binder grow thicker over the weeks and see how much work I had done!


In addition to working through the ETS Math Review again, I went through the ETS Verbal and ETS Quant books section by section. When I started getting closer to my Power Prep I test day, I started taking timed practice sections in the ETS books. I still wasn’t very happy with my scores/progress. I checked in with Vince about how I did on these, and we decided to adjust my practice test schedule to give me some time to build up skill and confidence before PP1.


Power Prep I


Didn’t go so well! I scored 158Q and 152 V. My score went up a little in quant but went down dramatically in verbal. I was feeling so discouraged. I couldn’t understand how after so many weeks of studying, my score had gone down! I met with Vince again and we focused on verbal questions by going through the first Power Prep. I found that both the Manhattan and Power Prep practice tests were great study tools.  After taking the test I would review all the problems, paying special attention to the ones that I got wrong. It made for easy studying too-- all I had to do was pick a section or two to go through and that would be my work for the day. I adjusted my study schedule again and signed up for the test!


Vince assured me that it wouldn’t take too long to improve in verbal, and he was right! I saw my verbal scores go up in the Manhattan practice tests that I was taking. I hadn’t used the Official Guide to the GRE book too much yet, so I started to dig into it to practice my verbal skills as well as practice quant problems. I also used Khan Academy to practice math. The videos worked really well for me, and it was a nice change of pace to be watching and listening to something rather than just reading from a book all the time. It was also nice to be working outside of material that is specifically designed for the GRE. As I was approaching my second Power Prep test date I started taking timed practice sections again, having saved some in the books and some of the sections that I didn’t see in the first Power Prep.


Power Prep II


Was also kind of a bust! My scores flip flopped. I scored 162 V and 151 Q--high in verbal and low in quant. Again I felt discouraged. I was a good student in college and when I studied hard I saw results. Why wasn’t it working this time? With little time leading up to the test, I continued to work on vocabulary, essays, and any math topics that I still wasn’t comfortable with. I finished all the sections in the ETS books that I hadn’t done yet and even re-did a few. I finished correcting any Power Prep and Manhattan test sections that I hadn’t taken or reviewed yet.


Test day!


I woke up early, had a healthy breakfast, and gave myself plenty of time to arrive to my testing location. I took the test at SDSU, which was a little nerve racking because I wasn’t familiar with the campus. I found the center and was asked to sign a waiver. They took my picture before the test and also did a security screening. They explained to me I had to sign out and in every time I left or entered the room. They assigned me to a cubicle which had a little booklet of scratch paper, two pencils, and a set of noise cancelling headphones. I was really nervous and could feel my heart beating very fast. Even though I knew exactly what to expect, this still felt so much different than the practice tests. Once the test started I tried not to worry how I was doing. I tried to focus on doing the best I could for each section and then moving on to the next one. I took my 10 minute break to have some water and a snack and stretch my legs.


I ended up hitting my goal score in verbal but not in quant (155 Q 160 V). I was disappointed because I had scored higher in both sections on practice tests. Even though the last thing I wanted to do was spend more time studying, I decided to sign up to take the test again. Having exhausted most of the material in the ETS books, I turned to the 5 lb book (focusing mostly on quant because my test score was low). I did all the quant mixed practice sections.  I did some more specific quant sections that I wasn’t comfortable with. I even did some verbal practice in Manhattan. I reviewed the quant sections from the Power Prep tests and in the ETS books. I took my last Manhattan practice test and continued to build my vocabulary and essay prompts.


Test day 2!


In the days leading up to my second test and on test day itself I was already so much more comfortable and less stressed. I knew how to get to where I was going, what the room was like, what the process was like, and how I was going to feel. And since I had already taken the test once, I felt there was less pressure to get a good score. I knew that in taking the test again I was giving the process everything I had, putting everything out on the table, and that If I didn’t score better I would know that I tried my best and that there wasn’t much more that I could do. I was much calmer during the test, but didn’t necessarily feel like I was doing much better than the first time. When I saw my scores I was pleasantly surprised-- 160 Q 164 V! It was the best score I had ever gotten, higher than my goal score for both verbal and quant.



Studying for the GRE is a long and laborious process! In my case it required studying almost every day, carving out time on the weekends for practice tests, consistently reviewing topics, and making adjustments to my study schedule based on how I was doing. There were many times where I felt discouraged, that my score would never improve, and that I could be spending my evenings doing something much more enjoyable and worthwhile. I’m glad I stuck with it though, and especially glad that I decided to take the test a second time. Even though the test is just one piece of the application, it is nice to know that at least that one part will be a strong one.


I feel accomplished having taken the test, and am excited to be one step closer to furthering my education and pursuing my passions!

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