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How to Study for the GRE – The Total Immersion Approach

Over the years, I’ve witnessed a diverse range of study approaches. Some students like it when I give them a very structured homework environment. Many complete this work, but rarely ask for more. In these cases, my job as a tutor becomes two-fold—not only do I aim to provide clear explanations when I meet with my students 1:1, I also have to create a study program. As long as students stick to the program, the results are always auspicious.

Yet, some of the highest scoring students are the ones who, while needing some form of structure, go far beyond my program. These students do not only complete everything I assign them, they immerse themselves fully in a GRE world. How exactly do they do so?

By way of analogy, let me talk about a far more familiar context (at least to most) – learning another language.

A Tale of Two Teachers (and One City)

Two teachers, let’s call them Pete and Mike, have landed in Seoul, South Korea, where they will spend a year working at an English school. During this time, both are serious about learning Korean.

Pete decides to enroll in a language course that meets five days a week for a couple of hours at a time. He always completes the homework and asks as many questions as possible. Pete enjoys the class, but, after a few months, realizes that he still can only speak very basic Korean, despite his understanding of the language—grammar and vocabulary—having become more sophisticated. Pete wishes he would speak Korean more, but finds that many Koreans—at least in the cosmopolitan Seoul—are more than happy to practice their English on him. Anyway, Pete is always nervous, thinking he will make a mistake if he tries to speak Korean, so it is better he keep quiet.

Mike tries out the class but drops out, finding the vocabulary drills monotonous and the accents—his included—grating. Instead, he buys an audio CD and book and teaches himself.

At this point, the two aren’t very different. But Mike is really intent on learning Korean, so, unlike Pete—who spends most of his time with other English teachers—Mike goes out of his way to make Korean friends and practice his Korean whenever possible. He spends hours each day watching Korean television, and whenever he is out and about, he always tries to speak with Koreans. Sometimes, he goes so far as to even dissemble by saying he can’t speak English when a Korean tries to speak to him in English. Whenever he encounters a new word, he is sure to write it down so he doesn’t forget. Within a few months, Mike is speaking conversational Korean comfortably, and ,before the year is up, he is laughing along with Koreans to the zany variety shows broadcasted nightly.

The difference between the two is clear: for Pete, learning was an enclosed process, something he only did when in a classroom. Mike, on the other hand, treated every moment as an opportunity to practice and refine his Korean.

As GRE students, we have to have the same attitude as Mike. In other words, we have to do our best to learn the language of the GRE.

GRE – Total Immersion

So, let’s now meet David (he never went to Korea). David, instead, is studying for the GRE. He is acutely aware that his verbal ability is subpar for the competitive economics program he hopes to get into. He buys the requisite prep books, quickly defines his weaknesses—vocabulary and reading comprehension—and then begins the next pivotal step: immersion. David subscribes to GRE vocabulary podcasts, learning words such as sedulous and indefatigable, while running on a treadmill or taking the bus. Reading—something he tried to avoid whenever he could—now also becomes a part of this life. He borrows his brother’s Foreign Affairs and Economist, and when he tires of current events, he heads to the book stores and finds a couple of books that are somewhat interesting but, more importantly, challenging. Indeed, each page abounds in GRE vocabulary words. Mike has a large notebook in which he writes all of these words, and he makes sure to commit the particularly confusing words to flashcards. He also begins to group words by synonyms and antonyms.

Next, he scours all the online sources he can doing (forums, Clemmonsdogpark, etc.). Finally, he hires a tutor to help him with some of the fine points. Within a few months of beginning, David finds inscrutable GRE passages far easier to comprehend. Words in the antonyms are now, mostly, familiar. And his score, in verbal alone, shoots up 200 points. Not only that, but David realizes that the prepping has made him not only a better reader, but also a better writer. David is accepted to the program and, upon looking back at his GRE experience, realizes that the prepping actually helped him perform near the top of his class.

We can see that David and Mike approached the area of study, Korean and GRE, respectively, in a similar fashion, and with similar results. Pete, however, was not successful. The unfortunate reality is most students who study for the GRE are more similar to Pete—they see GRE prepping as a circumscribed activity that they have to slog through an hour a day. Yet slogging each day, as I’ve witnessed many times, does not equate to learning.

So, get creative, and learn to make GRE prepping part of your life– that is definitely the most effective way to study for the GRE. And, by the way, while David was based on a composite of a few students, Pete and Mike, the two studying Korean, were actually both me. On first arriving to Korea, I was Pete, trying to learn Korean via the classroom. It was only when I became Mike, so to speak, and fully immersed myself in the language, that I was actually able to learn it.

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