The 3 Worst GRE Books of 2020
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Ever look for reviews of a product on Amazon or Google? Duh. Of course you have. We all have. When I've bought something in a field in which I have little expertise, I often have relied on the judgement of "expert reviewers"... (record scratching sound)
Hold on, now. Why am I putting "expert reviewers" in quotes?
1. Most review websites are affiliate marketing sites. This means that anything you buy from one of their links earns them a commission as a percentage of the sale.
A common (and unethical) business model for these sites is to pick their "top 10" whatevers, and write reviews of each one. But you may notice that the first 6 or 7 reviews - maybe even all of the reviews - are positive. They just want you to buy something - anything - so they'll make a commission.
2. Amazon reviews are extremely gameable. Let's say you're a publisher. You have money. You pay 100 people to buy your book (so it's a "verified" purchase) and write a 5-star review of it. Boom! Your book very quickly rises to the top of the search results, which attracts more people to buy it, which raises its ranking even more.
Now, for Amazon reviews of GRE books, you'd think crappy books would get exposed eventually. Sometimes that's true. But other times, they don't. If the book is halfway decent, people often either blame themselves for their test scores or aren't worked up enough to write a negative review. So the book sales keep on truckin'.
(Big company GRE book sales.)
Another assertion I feel pretty confident making in this diatribe is that you've seen Jurassic Park. Great movie. Blew my mind when I saw it in the theater (yep, I'm that old). Michael Crichton, the author of the book the movie was based on, is credited with explaining a cognitive deficiency many people suffer from called "Gell-Mann Amnesia":
“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”
Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory explains Gell-Mann amnesia so well that I'll defer to his words:
"If you or your company has EVER been the primary subject of a newspaper article, you know exactly what Crichton is talking about. The article is simply wrong. Not just wrong in minor detail, but wrong in motivation, cause, implication, fundamental facts … everything. You read it and you think, “how can I get this travesty of an article edited/retracted/rewritten? how is it possible that the writer got this situation so wrong?”
And yet, despite having this searing experience with media articles where we actually have meaningful personal knowledge, we believe without hesitation the next story we read where we don’t!"
Maybe you can relate to this if you've read an article by a journalist about something in a field in which you have expertise. It's really common for the journalist to either dilute the meaning by dumbing the subject matter down, or even get something entirely wrong or backwards.
I'm bringing this up because I'm a GRE expert. And I can tell when a GRE book or course review is bullshit because I'm so familiar with the industry and its major players. It's a reminder to myself to be suspicious about ANY review I see on Amazon or on a "review" website.
(had to use a dinosaur pic somewhere after mentioning Jurassic Park.)
The 3 Worst GRE Books
Without further ado, here are my votes for the worst GRE books of 2020. Did I review every single GRE book known to man? No, but these include the worst one I've ever seen and two extremely popular other books.
GRE Prep 2020 & 2021: GRE Study Book 2020-2021 & Practice Test Questions for the Graduate Record Examination (Test Prep Books)
(Yep, that tortured, keyword-stuffing title is the real title.)
"I've been a full-time GRE tutor since 2008, so I write this review from that perspective.
If you don't have any experience with the GRE, you might be fooled into thinking this book will be useful, since it has so many 5-star reviews. (BTW, Amazon's review system is extremely gameable). However, this book is truly awful. I'm actually pissed off right now since I think a lot of people actually buy this thing.
Note: I am not saying it's completely useless. I actually did like some of its advice about breaking down a reading passage. However, compared to the rest of the GRE prep industry, this book is amateur, inaccurate, and, in general, misleading.
1. Hey, you're studying for the GRE, right? How'd you like to actually WASTE your time learning things that won't be tested? Then this book is the one for you! Just a sampling of the things this book includes that the real GRE will NOT test are: onomatopoeia, puns, fictional passages, TRIGONOMETRY?!, logarithms, spheres, matrices, etc.
Guys, these are hard math concepts for a lot of people, and it pains me that all the people who bought this book probably wasted weeks learning those things. WTF.
2. GRE Prep Plus 2021 (Kaplan)
(I know it's not 2021, but companies publish a "new" version of their books every June and say it's for the upcoming year. "New" is in quotes since 99.9% of the content is the same as the previous edition.)
"I've been a GRE tutor since 2008, so I've seen a thing or two. TL;DR version of this review: Book not good. Don't buy.
Normal version: Here's what I'll cover:
1. Why Kaplan (or any big brand name) creates inferior GRE material.
2. What I liked and didn't like about the book itself.
3. My tips for what you should do to prepare for the GRE.
Kaplan labors under a set of constraints that make it difficult to produce effective GRE materials. First, the goal (like any company's) is to sell as many books as they can. In order to do this, they have to portray their material as the absolute best and as a complete solution.
The second constraint is that to create a book that IS a complete solution would be cost-prohibitive. For example, to provide thorough coverage and adequate basic-level practice for every possible math concept would make the book balloon to twice or three times its current size, which would turn a lot of prospective buyers off.
Third, developing realistic GRE questions is very time-consuming, particularly for verbal. Instead, companies like Kaplan opt for quantity, not quality, since they don't want to spend a ton of money of development. Licensing official ETS questions would cost $450 per question, so even though those ETS questions would be ten times more realistic than Kaplan's, it'd be too expensive to use them.
Finally, Kaplan must pretend that ETS, the company that creates the GRE, doesn't exist. Mentioning ETS materials and suggesting their use might make some prospective buyers buy the ETS books instead of the Kaplan book, and that wouldn't be very good for sales.
The result? A book that is neither realistic nor a complete solution but that pretends to be both. This is what pisses me off! I'm an independent tutor, so I have no constraints, and am free to tell you exactly what I think works."
3. Cracking the GRE Premium Edition (The Princeton Review)
(P.S. This book isn't bad, it's just probably not worth buying. I feel compelled to include it since it's such a huge seller.)
"I’ve been tutoring the GRE for 11 years, so I review this book from the perspective of whether I think it is worth your money and time.
TL;DR: If you want to learn technique and methods to answer GRE question types, this book should be helpful. However, although it claims to be comprehensive in its coverage of the GRE, it is not (for math), and the practice questions in the book are not very realistic.
Before I get started, let me explain one of my premises: ETS, the company that creates the GRE, writes the most realistic practice questions, especially for verbal. Third-party companies’ questions (like this book’s) are not only less complex than the real thing, they have inconsistencies that can create confusion and worse, bad habits.
Ok, here are a few thoughts:
1. I’ll start with the front cover’s claim that this is an “all-in-one solution for your highest possible score”. Though it would be nice if this were true, this book by no means will give you the quality of verbal practice you need nor the quantity (or quality) of math practice. As I’ll explain below, several math concepts the GRE might test are not covered in this book."
The Bottom Line
I don't mean to discourage you, but I want to make you more informed. Not only because you'll probably spend some money on GRE prep, but because for God's sake I hate to think of people working hard on the wrong materials, getting low scores, and not getting into graduate school.
So what do I actually recommend? It's all in my free GRE study plans.
Here are the four ways we can help you prepare if you want more help.
Good luck studying, and let me know if you have any questions about GRE prep.
Vince's 4 main options to help you with your GRE prep are HERE.