Use What You Know: Applying College Survival Skills to the GREs

In these early weeks of summer, many of us are begining the unpleasant process of planning for the future…
As a recent Wesleyan graduate with future graduate school ambitions, I read over the Princeton Review study guide for the GREs to try and determine how well prepared I was to perform adequately on this test with minimal studying. Since the Educational Testing Service’s other gem is the SATs (which few know now stands only for the letters SAT rather than the scholastic aptitude or achievement test, since it measures neither our aptitude nor what we have learned in high school), I was concerned that the GREs would require the same amount of aggravatingly arbitrary test-taking skills, tricks, and techniques.


A fairly cursory examination of the reading and writing sections of the GREs made me more optimistic that this test was different.

The writing section has two major components. The first requires you to state your opinion on a particular debate in current events and back it up with evidence and clear argumentation—nothing beyond the scope of the kinds of writing assignments that students see in any social sciences or humanities class.


The second component involves reading a flawed argument and then critiquing its logical consistency. Ironically, any student with experience not doing the reading for a particular class is probably most equipped to handle this question. Like other sporadic slackers, in cases where I know little of the author’s general points but must contribute to class discussion or write a response, I think I am not alone in attempting to assess a sliver of the reading and comment on the author’s flawed logic or embedded bias. This is exactly what we are asked to do in the section: read a small portion of an argument and comment on what the logical flaws are in the argument. In sum, even the shirkers among us who have taken a couple social science courses would probably be well prepared for the GRE writing section, relying primarily on the writing skills that we have internalized to survive in college.


On the other hand, the reading section is reminiscent of the now-archaic 1600 point SATs, which most people reading this blog managed to avoid. It is loaded with analogies, antonyms, and fill-in-the-blank questions that all require an impressive and eccentric vocabulary. Compared to the SATs, I still find this section less daunting, primarily because—thanks to college—I have been exposed to literature and language more advanced than the spark notes write-up of Crime and Punishment. Nevertheless, increasing your vocabulary may be necessary for all those seeking ambitious scores for the reading section and who lack a photographic memory for four-syllable words. The GRE reading comprehension passages are not much more difficult than those found in the SATs. They involve grasping the main idea of four or five complex paragraphs of scientific or social science literature, understanding how the author uses evidence and argument to support their assertions, and assessing the tone and perspective of the author. I have found that succeeding in college courses with dense readings requires the very same capabilities, and therefore anyone who has applied these skills to texts in a discipline that is not intrinsically engaging will likely feel equipped to tackle this section.


There is also a math section in the GREs, but the skills it demands do not exceed an understanding algebra II and geometry. However, because students tend to perform much better on this section overall, even a few wrong answers can dramatically lower one’s score. So stand out by rocking the reading and writing sections!


One final note of caution: The GREs must be taken on the computer, a fact that in itself requires a frustrating amount of preparation and strategizing: skipping questions is not allowed (though it may be in the new version), wrong answers at the beginning of a section hurt more than wrong answers at the end (if you get initial questions wrong, the test will “track” you, giving you easier questions but lowering your overall score), and the word processing application is different from the widely-used Microsoft Word. At the very least, take an online practice test to get used to these changes before attempting the real thing. Overall, the GRE generally measures skills that we have already developed in order to be successful (and even sometimes lazy) college students, especially those of us who have taken reading- and writing-intensive classes. Fortunately, while taking an expensive course will always provide you with tricks that can bump you scores, I think the Wesleyan curriculum is a better preparation for the GREs than high school was for the SATs. So in the end, maybe we did get our money’s worth.

-By Max Yurkofsky ’11

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