How I Studied for the GRE
Jan 18, 2020
Over the past 6 months, I got a better sense of how to study for the GRE. It took one mess up and a non-lethal dose of occassionally painful studying to figure this out. Here are my advice, resources, and study plan for the GRE.
My humbling GRE study experience
The first time I took the GRE, about 3.5 years ago, I had only two weeks to study. I took the test right before my graduate school application was due. I scored 159 Quant (Q) / 161 Verbal (V). Too much stress, not enough time. Luckily the rest of my profile was good enough to get me a spot in the master's program.
Later this year, I want to apply to competitive MBA programs. In the realm of competitive MBA programs, 159Q / 161V result isn't bad but it isn't particularly good either. Here is a sample of GRE scores I found by looking at MBA class profiles ...
Basically, the average at Stanford is above average everywhere else. I thought I should set my target goal at the top, 165Q / 165V. If you're average at Stanford, that's pretty good, am I right? A target score of 165Q / 165V seemed ambitious yet attainable considering that:
- I needed a +6 jump in quant,
- a +4 jump in verbal,
- and I only studied for 2 weeks the first time I took the GRE.
Through trial-and-error, I found I could study about 1-2 hours per weeknight. Sure, I could shoot for more hours, but with a full-time job and other commitments, it's tough to consistently exceed 2 hours per weeknight. Eventually my concentration abates.
Weekends are a different story. I usually studied closer to 5-8 hours per weekend because that's when I could find time and make up for the weeknights I missed during the week.
Over the course of roughly 3 months, I worked through seemingly comprehensive Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides twice over and took two Manhattan Prep practice tests. Despite a sense of foreboding, I went ahead and took the test . . . 159Q / 163V. Blah. Meh. Whatever. 3 months of studying for practically no improvement sucks. I didn't study correctly.
To improve my quant score, I decided to hire a GRE consultant to help me develop a math study plan (shout out to Vince Kotchian). The clear directional guidance was well worth the money. Also, I couldn't afford the time of taking the wrong study path again.
For the verbal side of the test, I tried a different verbal course and accompanying vocabulary building tools, but this time I did extra research to ensure I trusted the course content.
Studying after messing up the first time sucks. I had to get into the groove of studying again. I found the new methods of studying way more effective at pointing out my weakness, which sounds great until you realize that means confronting the things you aren't good at on a regular basis. Ugh. That's the grind. However, it is fun to finally 'get it.'
In the end, I sunk another 3 months of studying into the GRE. I really wanted to believe in the growth mindset, and that paid dividends. I scored a 167Q / 166V the second time around, exceeding my target score by a few points.
General philosophy to follow
- Believe in your abilities. You can improve (my principle).
- Official material is king (GregMat principle).
- It's all about the process you have for approaching questions (GregMat principle).
- Experiment with the process (GregMat principle put into my words).
- Discipline trumps motivation (GregMat principle).
- Thoroughly analyze every mistake (my principle).
What you definitely, certainly, undeniably need to use and what you would be stupid not to use:
- The Official Guide to the GRE General Test (~$25)
- The GRE Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions (~$25)
- ETS Official GRE Practice Tests
- 2 free - obviously get these (free)
- 3 paid - worth getting at least one (~$40/each)
- ETS Math Review PDF (free)
- Complete GRE Math Concept list with Khan Academy links (free)
- Any used GMAT Review Book (Used for ~$10)
- GRE Big Book (find it?)
- Vince Kotchian GRE Prep Journal (~$5)
- GregMat GRE Vocab Quizlet Flashcards (free)
What you would be smart to get but don't necessarily need:
- Vince Kotchian GRE Verbal Precision course (~$150)
- Manhattan Prep 5 lb Book (~$20)
- Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Builder app (free)
- Manhattan Prep Vocabulary Flashcards
Great free resources:
- GregMat website
- GregMat YouTube channel
- Vince Kotchian 3-month GRE study plan
- Vince Kotchian Blog
- Vince Kotchian YouTube channel
- GRE subreddit
Since I used so many of GregMat's free resources, I made a donation, and I recommend doing the same if you use the GregMat content!
The phases of my quant study plan in chronological order are...
Understand the math concepts. To understand the math concepts, I went through the entire GRE Math Review. When I encountered a concept I needed to work on, I used the Khan Academy Math Concept list to work on it.
Go through the Quant sections of the GRE Official Guide. Go through it. Brush up on any concept you need to work on using Khan Academy, GregMat YouTube channel, Vince Kotchian YouTube channel, or any other YouTube video.
Answer GMAT math questions under 90 seconds each. I used the GMAT review book for this phase. This is to gain practice doing well written questions. Skip the data sufficiency questions. Answer 30 questions per night. Time yourself and keep track of it in a spreadsheet. Check your answers. Analyze any questions that you got wrong or took longer than 90 seconds by using the GRE Prep Journal. The question analysis part is crucial! That's where the learning happens.
Answer GRE Big Book math questions under 90 seconds each. Same as GMAT math questions, except using old GRE tests. Only answer questions that at least 50% of people got incorrect. Spreadsheets are useful for keeping organized. Do this for the quant sections in the first 10 GRE practice tests. Again, question analysis is crucial!
Answer GRE Quantitative Reasoning Practice Questions under 90 seconds each. Same as phase 4, except using the recent GRE book. Only answer questions that at least 50% of people got incorrect. Spreadsheets are useful for keeping organized. Do this for the quant sections in the first 10-15 GRE practice tests. If you didn't figure it out already, question analysis is crucial!
Practice tests (in parallel with the final few phases). Within the last month and a half leading up to the test, do at least 2 to 3 Official GRE Practice Tests. Once every 2 weeks is good spacing. Do the final practice test at least 1 week before the actual test.
This plan is heavily based off of the Vince Kotchian 3-month study plan, another great approach to how to study. I also watched a lot of GregMat quant videos. They are super helpful for developing a process for solving problems.
I didn't put as much effort into the verbal side since I was already pretty good at it. I tried to keep it simple.
The phases of my verbal study plan in chronological order are...
Do the Vince Kotchian Verbal Precision course. I know it's expensive, but it's quality content and comprehensive. Having a single course to rely on made the study plan simple. Take notes while watching the videos.
Increase vocabulary. GRE vocabulary can be obscure. I used flash cards to learn vocabulary. I recommend using any method that works best for you. I like the GregMat Quizlet Flashcards because I could review them anytime on my phone. The Manhattan Prep flashcards are also useful.
Use the Official GRE material. Use the GRE Official Guide and Practice Questions. Analyze mistakes using the GRE Prep Journal.
Increase understanding on how to approach the type of questions where you are weak. For example, I wasn't very good at doing the Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion questions, so I watched GregMat and Vince Kotchian YouTube videos on how to approach those types of questions.
Practice tests! See practice test section description in quant study plan above.
Some of the most helpful videos I watched on GregMat's YouTube channel are so informative that I think they are worth singling out. I tried to place the videos in a useful order because the videos aren't very well organized:
GregMat Reading Passage videos
- GRE Verbal Toolkit
- Technique 1: Simplify
- Technique 2: Simplify on Steriods
- Technique 3: Some Words are More Important
- Technique 4, part 1: Long Passages, 6 methods we use that don't really work
- Technique 4, part 2: Long Passages, Efficiently working through Long Passages
- 3 Reading Strategies Used Simultaneously
GregMat Critical Reasoning videos
GregMat Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence videos
- Text Completion Technique 1: Treat the sentence like a 'math' problem
- Text Completion Technique 2: The 'Block of Four'
- Text Completion Technique 3: Time Contrast
- Sentence Equivalence: The Pairing Strategy, the GRE's Weakness
...what about the essay section?
I didn't put much effort into the AWA section and ended up with a 5.0. You can do pretty well on the essays by merely having a strong essay structure. The only thing I recommend doing is understanding how you should structure both the Issue Essay and Argument Essay. The Verbal Precision course goes over that in-depth, as well as these three helpful GregMat videos:
- Writing the GRE Issue Essay - Step-by-step Guide
- GRE Argument Essay Step-by-step Guide and Example
- Writing an Argument Essay 'Live' Start to Finish -- No tricks, no gimmicks, no video editing
That more-or-less sums up my advice, resources, and study plan for the GRE. Stick with it and believe in yourself. Godspeed!