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A Clemmonsdogparker Takes the GRE

Let me start off by saying that while I may be a Clemmonsdogparker named Chris, I’m not Chris Lele. That means I’m not some verbal fiend who devours vocabulary like manna from heaven. It also means that I haven’t memorized all of the prime numbers up to 1,000. Or 10,000. Or however many Lele knows. Still I like reading and writing (a lot actually) and I aced my math classes in high school and college. I also spend part of my time at Clemmonsdogpark helping out as a support tutor, primarily in math. But when I decided that instead of just watching everyone shoot for their dreams of grad school and to pursue my own plans, I knew that I couldn’t take my GRE prep lightly. I’m aiming for some top schools, and after having written so many blogs about GRE scores, I was well aware of the scores I should aim for. They weren’t low. My future seemed to hang in the balance and so I had to make a plan.

But I was a bit concerned. My level was well above average, especially in math. How could I take it to the next level? No, I didn’t have “perfect” on my mind, but I wanted an elite score. After fumbling through a bunch of Clemmonsdogpark questions without much of a plan, I decided to settle down with the one month schedule and adapt it to my needs. After a hundred questions or so from the Clemmonsdogpark bank, I could see where my gaps were and I forged ahead.

First I accepted (and you should as well) that Verbal and Quant should be studied separately. They’re just two completely different beasts. So I approached them differently.

Quant Strategy

This one was actually a challenge. Early on, I realized that there were few concepts I didn’t really understand. If someone put a problem in front of my face, then given enough time I could not only answer the question, but I could pick it apart to explain the underlying mechanisms. This is essential because who knows what’s going to be thrown at you on test day. The problem for me was that in the actual test you simply aren’t given enough time. So as I went through the various concepts covered on the test I made sure to use the timer. At first this was dizzying. In fact, the first time I replicated a math section (20 questions, 35 minutes), I almost had a nervous breakdown. Looking at these problems, I knew how to get to the answer, but the pressure of time distracted me from being able to work through the steps. I’d look a problem and my brain would scream, “Ahh! There’s no time to work through this problem!” I wasted most of my time thinking about how I didn’t have time to answer the problems.

So how did I overcome this? Turn off the part of my brain that senses pressure? I wish, but no. Unfortunately, for me at least, the only solution was practice, practice, practice. Sometimes I’d even give myself less time per question than I’d actually have. This wasn’t to prove how fast I could go, but rather to train my brain to calm down and focus. It was infuriating at times, and crushing at others. But I was persistent and knew it was something that simply would take practice.

Verbal Strategy

Verbal was a different story. A timed practice session told me that timing would never be an issue here. My real problem was vocabulary for Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion, and focus and understanding of the nuances in Reading Comprehension passages. So I first set out to organize my vocabulary studies. Our GRE flashcards are pretty cool in that they utilize the spaced repetition technique. When I’ve studied languages in the past, this really helped so I decided to take it to the next level. After I learned a new deck of words (which I did every other day), I self imposed the spacing for the deck. It would look like this:

Monday: learn deck
Tuesday: review
Wednesday: don’t review
Thursday: review
Friday: don’t review
Saturday: don’t review
Sunday: review

And the spacing would continue to increase the farther away from the “learn date” I got. I layered all of the flashcard decks over like this. It was a bit complicated to set up, but once I did, I knew exactly what I needed to learn and review each day. Sticking with my schedule took quite a bit of diligence. By test day, all of the words were firmly planted in my memory. On top of that, I continued to read the New York Times and added in the Atlantic and the New Yorker. I’ve been reading the New York Times on an almost daily basis for years now, so I’m pretty fortunate to be used to seeing these words in context.

For Reading Comprehension, in addition to reading the above publications, I forced myself through the toughest passages. With a lot of practice, I was able to “see” the subtleties in answer choices. I honestly never really liked or felt comfortable with the scientific focused passages, though.

AWA Strategy

It took me awhile to convince myself to write an essay that nobody would ever read. I know, I know, I have some experts who sit just a few feet away from me everyday and who would be more than happy to review my essays. A lot of you would kill for that. I, however, let pride get the best of me and my essays to myself. I fancy myself a pretty solid writer and I didn’t want anybody stepping on that idea. I did a few practice essays and reviewed some of the basic strategies until I got pretty comfortable with the format.

Test Day

I got a halfway decent night’s sleep and headed for my test, which I smartly scheduled for the afternoon. If your brain isn’t typically functioning at full steam at 8am, then I definitely do not recommend taking the early tests. I can imagine how waiting around until 1pm might make someone anxious, though. Before really getting started, I stretched and actually did a little meditation. This was a calming way to start a stressful day. I had a nice brunch and listened to some classical music. I had listened to classical music throughout my GRE studies, and I was hoping that would send some Pavlovian symbol to my brain to get ready to be challenged.

I headed to San Francisco from Berkeley on a route I was pretty familiar with. It was nice outside and I was a few minutes early, so I sat outside and enjoyed the buzz of the city. I listened to the Mars Volta, a favorite of mine, to switch my brain from calm and relaxed to pumped and ready to go. All of this worked wonders and I was calm but excited as I checked in and got ready.

The test proctors actually surprised me in their geniality and professionalism. It wasn’t as cold of an experience as I had expect. But I also came in understanding just how important their process is, so I offered no resistance, externally or internally.

I was a bit nervous as I started, but I settled into the essays quickly. Five minutes planning and 25 minutes writing. Then again. I actually enjoyed writing the argument essay. After that it was verbal, math, verbal, math, verbal. About five questions into the second verbal section it dawned on me that either the first or the second verbal section was the experimental section. The second verbal was just far too easy. As the second math section rolled around I began to lose steam. I saw that I was edging closer to the finish line and my brain took that as already being done. My eyes glossed over on the last five or so math questions. That, I’m certain, cost me. I realized this was happening so I refocused and plowed through the last verbal section. Then it was done.

The Results

I’ll cut to the chase:

Math: 164
Verbal: 168
AWA: 5.0

I was a bit disappointed in my math, but not really that surprised since I lost steam. It was tough to swallow considering I got a 170 on the Powerprep test. My verbal score made up for the disappointment, though. I was pretty surprised and satisfied. The AWA results are pretty satisfactory as well, though could have been higher with a bit more preparation. In the end, I achieved well beyond what I needed for the programs I’m aiming at.

Some Words of Advice

  • First it’s really important have a schedule and stick to it. Studying aimlessly is easy and can make you feel good but it doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to your goals.
  • Know your weaknesses and take them head on. Really look at your mistakes and see what the fundamental misunderstanding was.
  • Be prepared for the test to wear you down, no matter how confident you are in the material. There aren’t many situations where your brain is expected to be at full strength for such a long period.
  • Know what really matters to the programs. Several days after taking the GRE, I learned that my top program actually weighed the AWA score more heavily than the verbal or math scores. I got lucky, but definitely make sure you know what’s important before you take the test.
  • Don’t beat yourself up over the results. The test day doesn’t always mirror your practice tests.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate after your test, even part of your celebration includes a retake!

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