Vince's Best GRE Reddit Posts
GRE Reddit: Vince's 31 Most Helpful GRE Prep Posts
In these 31 short posts that originally appeared on Reddit (r/GRE), Vince gives you his uncensored perspective on GRE prep - what people do wrong and why, and what actually works to raise your score.
Vince has been a GRE prep tutor since 2008, and has written GRE books for Barron’s, created GRE prep apps, and created GRE video courses for LinkedIn Learning.
(no need to read these in order; click on anything that looks interesting)
- Don’t Fall For It: Why “New Versions” of GRE Books Aren’t New
- Goldilocks and the Three GRE Math Study Plans
- How To Learn Words That Look Similar
- Calibrate Your Pace to Your Ability
- A Common Quant Dilemma
- Don't Listen To The Evil You
- Low Effort Begets Low Learning
- My Opinion On “Is The GRE Harder?”
- Help Us Help You
- Making It Easier To Get A Good Answer
- Powerprep PSA
- Tools, Not Rules
- GRE Prep Vs. Your Twenties
- My Worst GRE Prep Advice
- Don’t Let Data Points Reassure You
- The “Why” Behind “Do Official Company Math”
- Educated Guesses
- The ETS Books Are Just Samples
- The Streetlight Effect
- 3rd Party GRE Test Accuracy
- The GRE Prep “Complete Solution” Fallacy
- GRE Verbal Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
- Analyzing Before Asking
- Why Isn’t This Working? A Verbal Strategy PSA
- 3 Things You Didn’t Know About The GRE Prep Industry
- Why We Say “ETS, ETS, ETS!”
- A Tale of Two Quant High Scorers (170 and 167)
- You Want Answers? I’ve Got Questions.
- Following The Crowd… Or Going Beyond the Crowd
- What Your GRE Study Plan Is Missing
- How To Curate 3rd party Quant
Nearly every GRE prep company puts out a "new version" of their prep book every year, knowing that people mistakenly think the GRE changes every year, and they need the latest version of advice and practice.
The GRE hasn't changed since 2011. Neither have 99.9% of these prep company books, other than their covers.
I should know; I co-wrote Barron's 6 GRE Practice Tests. When they ask me to update it for a new edition, I literally change nothing.
If you hang out on this sub, you're probably not gonna buy those books anyway. But it's kind of a travesty how many people will. Brand names like Kaplan and The Princeton Review are incredibly resilient.
Watching people use GRE prep products often reminds me of the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Remember? Goldilocks tries one bowl of the bears’ porridge, and it’s too hot. Another bowl is too cold. But, score! The third bowl is just right and she eats it.
If we start with the premise that people studying for GRE math have different abilities, goals, and timeframes, it seems clear that they need different study plans.Some companies offer plans that are too simple and short. They might be ok to get you to a 153, but they ain’t gonna get you a 165. I almost never recommend these.
Some companies have plans that are way too comprehensive. When I work with students using those plans, I weed out about 20-30% of the plan even for people who want 170Q. These plans are bloated. They’re not great for the average or below average student unless they have 3 or more months to study 2+ hours a day. However, these students, by finishing those plans, will be spending an inordinate amount of time on some concepts that are unlikely to be tested, and often will not finish the plans despite good intentions.
Some people can get through a given plan in one month; some might need three months to finish the very same plan. This depends a lot on their initial math ability.
So what plan is just right for you? It’s complicated. But at any plan’s core is knowledge of the concepts the ETS Math Review lists, repetition with those concepts at a GRE level, and then experience-building with all released ETS material.
This is why I often recommend the Math Review + 5lb. + all ETS, with the caveat that you only need to do 90% of the problems in each 5-lb chapter, and that you only need to do 50% of the problems in chapters 9, 10, 17, 18, 22, and 25, and that you should skip the "advanced quant" chapter entirely. People who want higher scores need to do more.
I got this question from a native speaker in a class and realized, or re-realized, this is an issue a lot of people have.
How the hell are you supposed to learn words that look so similar? Expatiate and expatriate are a fun example - expatriate is expatiate with an "r" thrown in, but they mean completely different things!
- Don't study words in alphabetical order. Randomize them.
- Find a visual cue in the word you're learning that strips away the prefix or suffix it has in common with similarly spelled words.
For expatiate, we might take out PATI. For expatriate, we might take out PATR.
- Try making a mnemonic with the part you took out.
"Expatiate" means "to speak at length on". My mnemonic: I always hear PATI pattering on about something - she likes to expatiate.
"Expatriate" means "someone who left his native country". My mnemonic: Georges is an ex-PATRiot - he expatriated to France.
Anyway, hope that helps - comment if you've found another way to differentiate similar-looking words!
I've got more vocab tips in my article here.
If your goal is < 160, forcing yourself to to work on all 20 questions will probably cause a few errors on questions you could've gotten right had you not been rushing.
Instead, make peace with the idea that you may not finish all the questions. Just save time to bubble in guesses on the ones you don't get to.
If you're stuck any time after the 20 second mark on a question, guess and skip.
On a given ETS question, the algebra way is in my experience usually harder / more error prone than the "pick numbers" / "backsolve" way.
When practicing, solve problems that can be solved both ways both ways! You'll learn more about which kinds of problems you're better at solving a particular way.
When in doubt, if the mental math in the problem is easy and the numbers look friendly, I recommend using numbers / backsolving.
If you're stuck on a question:
click "next question"
Many a GRE score was undermined by the person's unwillingness to admit temporary (or permanent) defeat on a question.
After you get a question wrong, there's a correlation between how much work you put in trying to...
redo the question
for verbal, clearly articulating why what you picked was wrong and why the right answer is justified - and jotting this down.
for quant, fiddling around to see if you found the most efficient way to do the question - and making concrete plans to remedy any conceptual weakness the question revealed
thinking about what broader ETS patterns your conclusions about this question might reveal
writing down the specific reason you think you got it wrong
writing down - if you can think of something concrete and actionable - what you wish you did differently
...and how much you learn about the test and how much you sharpen your skill.
It's your choice, but I wouldn't recommend just looking at the right answer and thinking how it makes sense. I also wouldn't recommend asking for help until you've done your best with #1 thru #6 above.
I'd say 98% of people who post questions on r/GRE just post the question and effectively say "help me". Getting spoonfed a solution makes your brain work less and learn less. You're also asking the commenter to do all the work and start from scratch.
Hint: this is why most essay postings get no comments.
Instead, when you want help with a question, you could post what you tried, what your best interpretation is, and what you think is the lesson to learn. That will sharpen your GRE skills and make it much easier for someone to build off what you wrote to give you feedback.
P.S. this is a life skill. Notice the difference when someone goes to their boss with a problem and says "please help" vs. going to their boss and saying, "here's the issue, here's what I tried, here's my plan to solve it from here, please give me feedback."
The "is quant harder" question literally gets asked once a day on this sub; posting this so I can link to it in the future.
So, IS quant (and the GRE in general) getting harder?
Longer slightly more nuanced version:
My simple heuristic: the worse you've prepared, the harder the real test will seem compared to your practice tests.
There are lots of ways to prepare sub-optimally - here's a partial list:
you haven't done all the available ETS questions (there are 1473 in the ETS books and Powerpreps combined between all the PP difficulty levels). Also do the harder questions in the ETS Big Book for quant (#11-15 and #24-30 in the quant sections).
you haven't analyzed ALL THOSE ETS questions to find the fastest way to do them
you haven't practiced under conditions similar to the real test
you don't have an error journal to analyze your mistakes
you've relied mostly on third-party quant
If you're trying for a very high score, you haven't cross-trained with GMAT official problem solving and maybe even pre-2016 SAT official quant. ETS wrote the SAT pre-2016.
ETS is very good at making new questions look different than old ones. The worse your prep, the more different they'll look and therefore, the harder they'll seem.
Typically, a score report with a "the real test is harder" also reveals the person only took the two free Powerpreps (and probably didn't do some of the things above in the bullet point list). The 3 paid PP+ tests are more recent and slightly harder for quant than the free ones. Like 2% harder.
We could say, "the real GRE's quant has gotten a wee bit harder than the 2 free Powerpreps" and I'd agree.
The Bottom Line
The better your prep, the more similar the real test will probably seem compared to your practice.
A quick word of warning, now, about prep companies who claim the GRE is now harder and you should use their material instead of ETS's.
They're trying to sell you their shit.
Any prep company can write devilishly hard quant questions. However, these questions are usually convoluted in ways the real GRE won't be. They'll make you break a sweat but won't really be getting you used to ETS's trickiness, wording, and logical shortcut opportunities.
Imagine, if you will, a subreddit called r/pizza (which of course exists). Who goes there? Who are the mods? What gets discussed?
Pizza, in every possible permutation. Duh.
If I go there and make a post, "how do I make pizza?", I would imagine that I'd get told "read the FAQ" or yelled at. ("Dio santo!") Some kind soul might reply with follow-up questions to my low-effort query, but I've basically asked them to transcribe the cookbook.
Here on r/GRE, we want to help you improve your score. But if your post is a general "how do I improve my score in x days?", there are a couple of issues:
You've given us little or nothing to go on. What prep have you done thus far? What specific topics are you struggling with? What's your goal?
Since there are (many) discussions here about how to improve in every aspect of the GRE, you're asking us to discuss something that we've already talked about (many times). Don't get me wrong... we are happy to do that if your question has a specific or seldom-talked-about angle, or if there's something you couldn't figure out after researching it. But if you're just asking "how do I improve quant", it makes it tough to write anything new or meaningful.
We want to make this the best place on the internet to get GRE prep advice - by making your questions specific, you can help us do that. Our FAQ, wiki, and rules are a good place to start.
Ever notice how a lot of times on r/GRE you'll see posts like "evaluate my essay" that literally no one responds to?
It's not that people don't want to help you; it's that you're asking them for something that requires several minutes (or more) of their time and you're giving them nothing specific to focus on.
This also holds true for extremely low-effort posts like "how can I prepare for the GRE?" or "help me with tips for GRE quant".
be more specific with your question and keep the scope limited. "Here's an essay body paragraph I wrote. I think my examples are clear in terms of supporting my point, but I could use some feedback on that."
Show that you've put some effort in. "I've searched on here for a recommendation for the best type of practice for combinations and permutations questions, but I can't find much. Does anyone have a suggestion?"
Thank the people who took the time to help you for free when you do get a helpful response.
You guys know permutations, right? Like I have 3 kinds of bread, 8 condiments, and 4 types of meat - how many different sandwiches can I make?
The GRE is no different, except instead of 3 kinds of bread, there are more like 300 different math concepts that can be tested, and 300 different ways of testing them. Lots of different ways to word them, rearrange them, package them.
Verbal's not that extreme, but the same principle applies - the passages, questions, and answer choices have a lot of variety in terms of subject matter and structure.
So when you think about your Powerprep test in that light, realize that you only saw 40 math and 40 verbal questions. That's a very limited barometer for your ability to adapt to the myriad of possible things the GRE can throw at you. For that reason, your Powerprep scores should neither excessively comfort nor scare you. Of course the more PP scores you have as evidence of your ability the more indicative they most likely are!
This is why you should probably do ALL 1473 available post-2011 ETS GRE questions, big book hard quant, the 5-lb book quant, etc., and make sure you truly understand the math concepts you're dealing with.
I just wrote this for my verbal course - thought it might provide insight to some of you:
An important thing to know about GRE verbal reasoning is that just because a strategy works on one question doesn't mean it'll work on EVERY question.
The way I see it is that I'm going to give you tools so that you become more versatile in terms of figuring out questions. Over time, you'll gain experience that will enable you to make better decisions about which tool to use when.
For example, in text completion questions, understanding the gist of the passage - or the story it's telling - is sometimes crucial and sometimes largely unnecessary. So for vocab questions, we use our normal reading ability and when in doubt, we can get more mechanical with our strategies.
There's no need to whip out every tool every time. Use discretion; be as mechanical as needed with your strategies but not at the expense of your own instincts about what's going on.
Note: the stronger your reading comprehension, the more help you'll get from those instincts. And vice versa.
I've worked with a lot of people for GRE prep over the years, and I've noticed that the biggest problem many people have with GRE prep seems to be motivation and discipline in terms of getting the work done. But that might not really tell the story.
Most people I work with are in their early to mid-twenties. If I think back to my early twenties (I'm in my 40s) now, I certainly wasn't in the best shape. I didn't really have a direction, and was learning a lot of lessons through trial and error - mostly error. The tools I have today to overcome obstacles were just beginning to develop, and I didn't have a good handle on how the world around me worked. This led to frustration and anxiety in almost every part of my life.
I was recently divorced from a system (college) that provided structure and rules. I (purposefully) didn't talk much to my family. Though I had plenty of advantages, more than most people, I was adrift and unproductive, and basically foundered for several years.
Thinking about adding GRE prep and grad school admissions as a task to someone who is going through what I did might not sound hard, but it certainly can be. It might be the straw that breaks the camel's back, so to speak, for whatever reason.
IMO, those years tend to be tough for a lot of people. The timing is unfortunate, since that's when many people are making decisions about their future career. But I would say although it might not seem like it, it's very normal. Plus, you most likely have more time and options than you might think.
This isn't true for everyone, and it might not literally be true for you, but if you think back five years, do you see other paths now you could have taken that you weren't aware of back then? That will probably happen as you get older, too - the looking back and seeing those potential paths.
If the path you're on right now doesn't work out, or doesn't suit you, there is probably a different one that you can take that might lead somewhere even better.
In no particular order and off the top of my head.
Just take it and see how you do.
Trust the Google and Amazon search algorithms to guide you to the best prep.
Buy something with a brand name you've heard before.
Buy the book or course with the most practice problems!
Convenience is an important factor when selecting resources.
You need the 2022 edition of any book you buy.
Everyone should budget 1.5 minutes for each verbal question and 1.75 minutes for each math question so they pace themselves to finish each section.
Make sure to cram really hard in the days leading up to the exam, especially if you need to make up for lost time earlier in your prep.
If you've memorized all the math formulas, you're good to go for quant.
If you get a practice question wrong, just read the solution and move on.
Hope you caught the "worst" in the title. Happy new year r/GRE! Comment if you have any bad advice I didn't cover.
Every day, there seem to be a few posts that have the same theme:
"I got xxx on practice test abc. Can I expect the same score on the real GRE?"
"I studied xxx vocab list. Will that be enough for a xxx score on the GRE?"
No one can answer these types of questions in any meaningful way.
I get it - we all want reassurance that what we're doing will pay off. But I am here to remind you that the data points you get from practice shouldn't really reassure you that much if you're serious about your score. Especially if those data points are from third-party material. Data points from other people are similarly unhelpful. You're not that person, nor are you the average of those people.
Granted, if you walk up to a Powerprep test and get a 165/164 and don't really care where you fall in the 160s on the real test, you're probably good to go. But if that's not you, I'd keep grinding and assume the real test will have lots of quant surprises for you (since it probably will).
How to deal with these inevitable surprises? More ETS practice and more ETS analysis. GMAT official quant is also a good idea. I'd rather see someone overprepare than get complacent.
(This is an excerpt from my Complete Guide to Learning GRE Math)
Being able to solve math questions on the real GRE is a skill that comes from practice with real GRE questions. Shocking, right?
Real GRE questions are hard until they're easy. By that, I mean that they're often wordy and complicated but often can be solved by cutting through the words to figure out what the question's asking, or by using a logical shortcut. They're testing your ability to think with math skills - which is why the section is called "Quantitative Reasoning".
This means that memorizing GRE math formulas, reviewing notes, using GRE math cheat sheets, and watching videos are WAY less important than getting your hands dirty by doing a ton of ETS math questions by yourself from a blank page (i.e., you're solving them, not just following a solution that has been taught to you) then keeping a detailed mistake journal.
Studying for GRE math is not like studying for a math test in school. GRE math performance demands fluency with concepts and experience with official questions, which are written in varied and creative ways. This is why I'm always saying "Do as many official company-written math questions (ETS and even GMAT and SAT) as you can". A giant database of experience from questions you've done makes it more likely the questions on the real GRE will remind you of ones you've done before.
The good news is that when you study for GRE math, the experience you accumulate doesn't go away easily since you're not memorizing; you're doing. It builds over time as long as you're still studying. Every ETS question you solve is a step in the right direction toward a higher score.
Ever wonder why some people can read really fast?
One of the reasons is experience. If you’re familiar with, say, a magazine article’s subject matter, you can make educated guesses, often subconsciously, about what’s going on as you read. Like if you read an article in your field of specialty, it’s probably easy to understand.
The same is true (regarding speed) if you (consciously or subconsciously) are familiar with article purposes/structures typical to that subject matter.
All this is probably why your parents are faster and stronger readers than you are (no offense - they’ve been alive longer and therefore have accumulated more experience with both of the above).
So let’s consider ETS GRE math questions in this context:
I daresay I’m good at GRE math. But concept-wise, many of you are much, much stronger at math than I am. I got a D in AP Calculus for god’s sake and I think I scraped by Algebra 2 with a B or so.
However - I’ve done a ton of OFFICIAL math problems from the SAT, ACT, GMAT, ISEE, etc... and of course, from the GRE. In doing so, I’ve accumulated a huge mental database of experience with official questions for these tests - all of which test the same concepts and do so in WORDY WAYS that DISGUISE the concepts therein. Plus, they’re often crafted to reward noticing there’s an efficient shortcut to take to solve them.
(BTW, I’ve done relatively few third-party math questions from companies like Manhattan Prep and Magoosh. I hate these quant questions since they take few pains to disguise concepts, to make questions wordy, or to offer logical shortcuts like official questions do.)
So when I see a new ETS quant problem, I can draw from my extensive experience to notice things that remind me of things I’ve seen before. I can then make educated guesses about what’s really going on with the problem (and I’m usually right).
How does this apply to you guys?
By doing official ETS questions from all the books including the Big Book, from the old (pre-2016) SAT (written by ETS), from official GMAT, you’re building your database of questions you’ve seen from official companies — questions that test the same concepts as the GRE does in WORDY WAYS that DISGUISE the concepts therein.
It occurred to me that the best way for most people to think of the ETS material is that it's a *sample* of what ETS can do on the real GRE.
The math problems: samples.
The vocab words: samples.
The reading passage topics: samples.
If you expect ETS to reuse the same vocab words, math problem designs, and reading passage topics as they did in the books and Powerpreps, you're going to be unpleasantly surprised on test day.
If, instead, you learn lessons from ETS's books and tests about the types of vocabulary that may appear, the ways they test your math problem solving ability, and the ways reading passages are typically structured, you'll be more prepared.
So we not only want to do all available ETS material (including the ETS Big Book for quant), we want to learn lessons about the way ETS behaves from that material.
You may note that prep companies' material, since not written by ETS, has very little if not zero relevance to the above.
Not sure about what a particular ETS question teaches us about the way they write the test? You're in the right place. Post it, say how you think it's designed, and you'll get some feedback.
The Streetlight Effect is a bias that influences people to search where it's easiest to look.
I'm as guilty of it as anyone. I've bought many things in the past after clicking on a result from the first page of Google or Amazon.
Sometimes, I knew I wasn't really doing my homework, but for items I had no clue about, say an appliance, I just eventually gave up and went with what looked like it had the most good reviews after a few minutes of searching.
When I think about the GRE prep industry, it's easy for me to see the streetlight effect, since I'm intimately familiar with what's out there. The first pages of Google and Amazon are dominated by the biggest companies: Kaplan, Manhattan Prep, Magoosh, and the Princeton Review. Why? Money is a big reason - money pays for SEO consultants and for ads.
Unfortunately, like in many industries, the most visible GRE companies aren't imo very good. But due to the streetlight effect, people usually end up using them anyway. Worse, there are many GRE course "review" sites that aren't really designed to provide objective reviews - they're set up to get you to buy something and then make money via an affiliate link. These sites tend to give positive reviews to most or all of the courses.
The result? A lot, and I mean probably most, people end up preparing with mediocre stuff. Many of them do well despite this, but many don't.
If you're reading this, you're already ahead of most people, and on r/GRE you'll probably end up hearing about better resources (like gregmat.com) that you probably wouldn't have found on Google.
But if you're still new to all this, persevere in your search in terms of how to study - even though it might be tempting to just use the book or course your friend used, or buy the one that you keep seeing online.
Two tips: look for people who emphasize official (ETS) materials above all else, since they're not trying to sell you their practice material, and for people who aren't afraid to say that many of the products out there are shit.
“I took a Manhattan GRE test and got a 166V, 165Q and on the real GRE I got a 167V, 165Q. Therefore, MGRE tests are accurate representations of the real GRE.”
3rd party tests may give you an accurate score prediction for the real GRE. If that’s all you want, no problem.
I might suggest that a score prediction isn’t that useful, though. What you do want is realism, and 3rd party tests can’t do that for reasons that have been discussed at length many times (3rd party questions don’t mimic the real GRE’s complexity, fairness, etc).
The test prep companies out there have data for each test question they’ve written in terms of how many people get the question right. My theory is they match that data to ETS test questions for which the difficulty is known (like from the ETS Official Guide tests), or maybe they get their own data from having a bunch of people take the free Powerprep.
Either way, they’re able to create tests that have the same difficulty as ETS tests, so test-takers’ scores on those these match their Powerprep / real GRE scores.
For example, let’s say an ETS test has an average difficulty of 3.4 out of 5 for verbal and 3.6 for quant. Manhattan or whomever makes sure their test has the same average difficulty.
But this doesn’t mean the questions are like ETS questions - it just means that the difficulty overall is the same.
The downside of the third-party test is learning the wrong lessons from how the real test behaves....learning the wrong lessons from your mistakes...
A mentality I often see amongst test-takers is this: I have a problem, i.e., I need to take the GRE and I'm unprepared or have a lower starting score than I'd like.
I need a solution: a book, a video course, a live class, a tutor.
Side note: many of these things will market themselves as a "complete solution", which is actually a great sign they're NOT a complete solution...
My hope: the "solution" will 100% solve my problem.
For a variety of reasons, the person assumes the "solution" is, in fact, a solution. But then it sometimes doesn't work, or only partially works. Since the person has seen others use the "solution" and succeed, he blames himself.
I'd suggest more of an experimental approach. Hang out here, read some posts, then make a choice and work hard on whatever prep method you chose for a few weeks. But then evaluate. Take a Powerprep. How much or how little have you improved?
That's the beauty of this subreddit - you have access to lots of data from people trying things that now you can try. Just remember to keep experimenting and evaluating.
Let’s say you’re a decent golfer who wants to become a great golfer. You have good natural ability and coordination, but you’re plateauing. So you go to a golf pro, who proceeds to teach you a new way to swing.
At first, it’s very possible you’ll play WORSE for a while. Your old instincts are battling with the new information. But you realize that if you want to become a great golfer, your old instincts just weren’t gonna get you there. So you keep practicing with the pro’s advice, and eventually, you’re at a new level. Maybe not Tiger Woods-level, but better.
Learning verbal technique can work the same way. At first, you may be confused and tentative about your original instincts as you apply what you’ve learned. But after a while, you may find a happy blend between your instincts and the new technique, where both work in concert to get you through tough questions.
Just persevere through the awkward stage, and you’ll get there.
When the new ETS quant and verbal books came out several years ago, I went through them and did all the questions. I got some of them wrong. But since explaining the GRE is my job, I had to figure them out, since I knew a student would eventually ask about them.
My point is, I had to figure them out. There was no one to ask. And I had to understand them to the point where I could explain them in plain English to a student. This process made me better at the test.
What many people do, on the other hand, when they get a question wrong, is look in the back of the book to see what the answer is. Then, knowing the answer, they look at the problem, and it now makes sense. They move on.
This isn't ideal for 3 main reasons:
They didn't build their muscles by trying to reason through it without knowing the answer.
They don't know if they could do the problem again once they forget the solution / method / answer.
ETS can get lazy with their explanations, which are often pretty obtuse or just unhelpful.
Furthermore, the student often doesn't analyze - to identify the type of question, concepts tested, cues to recognize that type / those concepts, and what broader lesson they might learn for future, similar questions.
So I'm bringing this up since there's an opportunity here for a lot of you. Instead of just posting a question that you don't understand, post it with your best answer to the above analysis after trying the question again without knowing the answer.
If someone just explains it to you before you analyze, you miss the opportunity to build more skill.
If you're struggling with verbal, I wanted to share my experience from working with students. It kind of boils down to this:
The lower your initial score, the harder it will probably be to successfully use verbal strategies that you learn.
For example, if you walk up to the first ETS Powerprep and score a 144V, you're probably going to find it harder to use verbal strategies that you learn than someone who gets a 154V - even if those strategies are good.
Just realize you are not alone. The remedy is to ask for help, and this sub is a good place to do it. If you can, even see if you can find a study buddy at a higher verbal level than you to talk with - a back and forth conversation about the question you're working on can help.
The good news is the more you build your vocab and reading ability, the easier it will be to apply strategy.
I was inspired to write this after seeing someone post a picture of Barron’s GRE book and reading u/gregmat ‘s comment to use it for kindling. Lol. I have said the same thing to people over the years about Kaplan’s books. Don’t even donate them - just burn them!
I know that sounds harsh to some of you. Why do tutors disparage big companies’ products so much? Sure, the questions are not realistic. But there are other reasons. Let me share my experience working with some publishing companies (which will go unnamed).
The people who write the books often aren’t tutors. An experienced tutor has good advice, since she has had to explain things in myriad ways to adapt to the different levels of all the students she’s taught over the years. Having a PhD in no way makes you good at explaining the GRE, especially if you’ve never had to explain a question to a real live person.
The pay isn’t very good. Most big publishing companies either pay the author 6 to 10% of the book’s profits, or pay a flat fee of up to around $10,000. If those numbers sound good to you, consider that it might take months to write a book. An experienced tutor will usually turn down those kinds of deals, since he can make way more per hour on his own by tutoring.
Who would work for low pay? Usually it’s people with not much experience and therefore without much insight about the test. (The books I did were pretty early in my tutoring career. I am way better now... after trial and error and lots of experience).
3. There’s no - and I mean no - editorial rigor. As I’ve mentioned previously, one person was paid $200 to review about 250 verbal questions I wrote once. Also, you know how most companies put out a “new edition” of their GRE book every year? It’s usually 99.9% the same thing as the previous year. There is no push from the publisher to improve or make changes, simply because the publisher doesn’t understand the material very well.
When you’re searching on Amazon, you’ll see the big companies’ books, because those companies can afford to market and advertise them 100x more than the little guys. Just realize that the people who are really good at what they do are not the ones working for those big companies.
Disclaimer: these are my opinions based on my experience. I realize there are exceptions to the above.
If you’re new here, you may wonder why the tutors / experts on this forum always seem to be talking about ETS questions being superior to questions written by third-parties (Magoosh, Kaplan, Manhattan Prep, etc.), especially for verbal.
The questions from these companies might all look the same at first, but ETS’s process for vetting questions is mind-bogglingly more rigorous than those of third-party companies.
We recently got a glimpse into this in this article published by the ACT (which is a college admissions test): http://leadershipblog.act.org/2019/05/developing-test-is-no-walk-in-park.html
In the article, the ACT details their process for creating and verifying questions. It’s... intense. I can’t imagine working there.
The fun fact is what stuck out: a single question undergoes 16 independent reviews before making it onto a real ACT. 16!
For comparison, when I wrote GRE questions for a well-known test-prep company (way back in 2012), guess how many independent reviews those questions got? One. And I highly doubt it was a careful review; the reviewer was paid about $200 to review more than 250 questions that I wrote. Kinda doubt he worked through them all...
I’m confident ETS operates in a manner similar to the ACT, and I’m confident most third-party companies operate in a manner similar to the company I worked for. This is why we want you to primarily learn from ETS questions.* They’re more fair, more consistent, and more realistic, and will teach you the right lessons if you analyze them.
*This isn’t to say third-party questions don’t have their place, and that place is for math, particularly for repetition with certain concepts / question types.
I’ve actually seen a few students get a 170Q. Notice I say “I’ve seen”, because I only tutored those students for verbal. Yep, they were able to walk up to the GRE and get a 170Q with no help from me, and little, if any, prep on their own.
Can we learn anything from these freaks of nature? Actually, they weren’t freaks. They just knew the math concepts very, very well. Can you imagine knowing math concepts as well as you know your native language? At that level, figuring out GRE questions isn’t very hard.
Well, great, Vince, you might say. How do I get to that level?
You probably don’t. Their math knowledge was baked in from years of working with math and deeply learning it in math classes (as opposed to temporarily learning it for a test then quickly losing it). All three were engineers. But stay tuned - you can improve massively.
Consider my last student who got a 167Q.
His first GRE was 164V, 156Q (this was after doing a couple of months of ETS, Magoosh, and Manhattan math ~2 hours a day)
His second GRE was 165V, 159Q (this was after another month of ETS and GMAT math ~ 2 hours a day)
His third GRE was 164V, 167Q. This was after finally keeping a GRE journal for any questions he got wrong, guessed on, or took a long time to finish, and writing down the answers to the below questions:
Could I redo the question without knowing the answer?
“What went wrong?”
“What was it testing?”
“Cue to notice it was testing that thing?”
“Easiest way to get answer?”
“Extra practice in 5-lb I should do based on this mistake?”
My student was finally able to stop making so many careless mistakes, and he crushed the real test (I was a little jealous, since 167Q is my highest score, too...) He got into Stanford business school.
Finding WHAT to do for GRE quant isn’t hard - it’s literally all over this forum. Even DOING the work isn’t that hard. Analyzing your mistakes and learning the appropriate lessons from them takes time and mental energy. But if you do it, I bet you’ll be happy you did.
You’re probably looking for answers on r/GRE, but I have a few questions for you to consider:
Is a GRE product popular because it’s good, or popular because it was early to market and benefitted from the snowball effect of people choosing what other people have used?
Is a GRE product well-known and well-used because of its efficacy, or because the company spent millions of venture capital to promote it?
Who wrote that review of GRE product? How many products have they tried, and how extensively did they use them all? Do they have deep knowledge of the GRE prep process?
Did the reviewer get a high score because of the product? Do we have causation or just correlation?
Is it a review or a “review”, i.e., do they stand to benefit financially if you use the product (i.e. through an affiliate link)?
Is quantity > quality or vice versa?
I hope thinking about these questions helps you make the best possible choices for your GRE prep.
Just some food for thought:
If we accept the premise that most people applying to graduate school are smart and serious about preparing for the GRE, then most of them are doing the same things you are. Reading reviews and forums, then following the advice they find. Magoosh, Manhattan, ETS, etc. etc.
What are you going to do for your GRE prep that they won’t do so you can outperform them?
I see a lot of study plans on here and have commented on a few, but I figured I’d actually post to get my thoughts out there on what people are often missing for both quant and verbal IMO after tutoring GRE students for 10+ years.
Quant: You need to learn the concepts. To be able to work with them at a GRE-level, you need repetition with GRE-style questions.
What you could be missing if your score isn’t as high as you’d like: Experience. This means doing all the ETS GRE questions, plus official GMAT problem solving questions and pre-2016 official SAT questions.
Why: official GMAT and SAT questions are more similar to ETS GRE questions than those written by companies like Manhattan Prep and Magoosh and will therefore better prepare you once you have done enough repetition with concepts to be competent. At high levels, experience is what enables you to figure out that random question that pops up on the screen.
Verbal: you need to be able to read and understand vocab at a graduate level.
What you could be missing if your score isn’t as high as you’d like: Deeper understanding of ETS verbal questions and verbal technique. This goes beyond getting questions right to being precisely able to articulate how questions are set up, how answer choices are trying to trick you, etc. This is probably not going to happen in the short-term unless you have in-depth discussions of these questions with a real GRE verbal expert. Note “discussions”, not “watching a video”.
Alternatively, you could spend much more time analyzing verbal questions than you spend doing them (like triple, minimum).
Cross-training with GMAT reading comp and critical reasoning can help build skill and experience, but quality practice and in-depth analysis for verbal is much more important than quantity.
Keep in mind that some people will be / were successful without the above. But if you want a really high score you probably have to do things differently than does the crowd. Magoosh and Manhattan are not complete solutions, despite what they purport and despite how many times you’ll hear people mention those companies.
3rd party quant is often a great way to build math concept strength, and some of it is even written in ways that mimic real ETS questions pretty well.
However, ALL 3rd party quant has pitfalls: some of the questions aren't going to be realistic. This isn't much of a problem if the questions are too simple since you'll solve them quickly. The problem is questions that are too hard.
Wait, won't I be better at the real GRE if I practice with quant questions that are harder? Won't that make the real test seem easier?
Well, not really. 3rd party quant is often hard in ways the real GRE will not be:
questions can be too convoluted, with lots of calculations and no logical shortcut
questions sometimes test concepts the real GRE won't
I feel bad for people wrestling with these questions, because they're using time that could be better spent elsewhere. Often a LOT of time. With that in mind, here's my idea: tailor your use of 3rd party quant to your skill level + goal.
Goal of 150Q: do 80% of the 3rd party quant practice you have for a particular topic
Goal of 160Q: do 90%
Goal of 165+Q: do 95%
These are not magical numbers, but I think you understand the principle. This can also be tailored to your study timeframe: shorter = do less.
Move on from questions you can't figure out after a few minutes and never come back to them or think about them again. As long as you hit those percentages overall, you're good to go (also do all the ETS quant, obv). What we want to avoid is wheel spinning - if a particular topic is draining lots of your time, ask us about it before you spend a week fighting with it.
Pro tip: do a much smaller percentage of 3rd party quant that calls itself "advanced" or "hardest quant" - in general, it will have a much higher percentage of unrealistic questions than that source's normal sections.