Thoughts on the GRE as a 335 Scorer17 Feb 2020
I’ve been done with my undergrad for a while now, and I’ve been looking at going to grad school. The general GRE is something I didn’t even know existed back in late November (3 months ago). However, I managed to get a 335 (out of 340) when I took the test in late January. Now, how did I do that? I will share some of my thoughts in this post and hopefully, they will be of help to someone out there. I also plan to write more about the GRE in general, since I am still learning more about it to this day and, even though, I don’t plan on retaking it, I’m still gonna be expose myself to resources regarding the test.
First of all, the GRE tests for three specific things (one of them isn’t reflected in the 335 I mentioned earlier). It claims to test your quantitative skills, that is to say math; it tests your verbal skills, that is to say your (English) language skills; and, finally, it tests your writing and analytical skills. The quant and verbal sections are graded on a scale from 130 to 170 and the analytical writing section is graded on a scale from 0 to 6.0. Since a lot of schools mainly care about the quant and verbal sections, most people only really mention the sum of the scores they get on those two sections. I, personally, got a 167 on the verbal section, a 168 on the quant section and a 5.0 on the analytical writing section. All of these scores belong to the 90th+ percentile and cumulatively they’re around 99th percentile scores.
As for how I approached my studying, because this test does require some studying or, rather, practice, I merely took a few practice tests, drilled some vocabulary words, and drilled some practice exercise sets. Now, this sounds very simple (and it is) but you can’t just go ahead and pick any type of material and just solve all the problems you’re presented with. You have to pick the right kind of material. This will, almost invariably, be ETS material. I was lucky to have found out about gregmat and his stuff was just instrumental for me to get the score that I did. His no-BS approach helped me get on the right track from the get-go and not lose any time using materials from third-party companies (which I’m not even gonna name).
I initially took the test after only taking a practice test (also by ETS) and I figured I would do alright since I’ve always been good at math and the verbal sections didn’t seem too rough either. That was a mistake, I simply wasn’t ready enough or acquainted enough with the test, the types of questions, the vocabulary, etc. I ended up getting a 158 for the quant and a 159 for the verbal which is honestly pretty average and realistically subpar if I wanted to apply to good CS grad programs. So here’s what I changed and how I approached my studying (or practice, whatever you wanna call them) sessions:
I quickly realized my geometry concepts were pretty rusty. The math that ETS tests you on is pretty basic, don’t think that your undergrad math courses are gonna be helping you out here. ETS tests you on high school only math. Easy math. Math I hadn’t given much thought in maybe a decade. So I grabbed myself the 5lb book by Manhattan (which is pretty much the only third party resource I’d recommend using) and did the problem sets on geometry. Since I was having problems with the arithmetic type of problems as well, I tackled those too.
Having an already good base knowledge allowed me to just focus on my weaknesses and focus I did. Once I was done with the 5lb book practice sets, I moved on to the official Quant practice book by ETS and solved the mixed problem sets on it. It only includes 3 of those, which is a shame. They are kinda tough so they will for sure help you out when prepping.
If you’re like me, an educated English speaker (I’ll eventually write a blog post on why I consider myself to be a native English speaker), this section should not give you too much trouble. However, I did have to learn a lot of vocabulary. Since I’m not an avid reader, a lot of the vocab that shows up on the GRE was just completely foreign to me. I have some experience with language learning so I applied some of the concepts I’ve used to before in order to learn these new words. I knew spaced repetition was something I had to use, so I went ahead and downloaded Anki (flashcard sofwtare that handles the SRS aspect of learning by itself) and downloaded a deck of GRE words. This particular deck contained 569 words. Some of the cards in the deck were poorly designed, but overall the quality of the words, and by that I mean the likelihood of them appearing on the test, was pretty high.
Other than drilling vocab, I also learned some strategies from gregmat videos, the most useful one probably being the pairing strategy.
Finally, I also did one practice set from the official verbal practice book and that was that.
For this section I simply watched gregmat’s vids on the matter and practiced writing a few essays to get a feel for the timing and the structure of the essays. I did buy the e-grader service (Scoreitnow) which lets you simulate test day conditions and gives you an actual grade for your essay. This is a service provided by ETS and it lets you submit up to 6 or 8 essay responses. I only used up three, but I’m sure the other 3-5 are very useful if you need more time to get used to some specific aspect of this section.
Overall, I’m really happy with what I did. There are lots of things to unpack about the GRE and I have a lot of thoughts regarding the whole ordeal. I’ll eventually write posts on topics such as:
- Good scores and how it’s all subjective
- How CS programs seem to evaluate GRE results
- Best way to approach certain types of problems
- Random tricks and hacks that could prove useful on test day