Sakib Haque '18
Sakib's GRE Advice:
There are various facets to a good graduate school application. So, instead of touching base on all of them in this article, I will focus solely on one of them, in detail. The strongest part of my college application was my GRE scores. So, this is the area on which I believe I can give the best advice. My first and foremost advice to anyone taking the GREs is to get rid of the mentality that the exams can be taken as many time as you want. The exam costs $205 and you spend months preparing and learning vocabs that you will probably never encounter unless you are an English major. The only mantra in your head should be that you want to be done with exam in your first try and not have to face it again. Anyone who disagree need read no further.
The next important step is to figure out your target score. By this point, you should ideally have already picked out schools where you are going to apply. You should have an excel sheet with the name of each school, the 3 potential advisors you want to work with from each school, deadline for submitting the application and the cost of application, ranked according to your preference of school and advisor. Add a new column that lists the target GRE scores for each school. Every school's website has either the mean and standard deviation, or the three quartiles of GRE scores of admitted students. In the former case, I would always aim to score higher than the 75th percentile. In the latter case, I would add the standard deviation to the mean, which gives the 84th percentile. The goal then would be to score higher than that.
The next step is taking a diagnostic test. In my opinion, the diagnostic test should be taken under the same time constraint and should emulate the exam environment as much as possible. Personally, I skipped the analytical writing sections during the diagnostic test since there was no way of judging my grading my performance in that section. After the test and grading, you will have a clear idea about where you stand from your target scores. Very rarely does anyone achieve their target score in the diagnostic test. If you do, congratulations. Now go take at least three more practice tests to ensure that the first performance was not a fluke. But if you were like me and under achieved in both sections, the long journey begins now.
The best time to prepare for your GREs is the summer after Junior year. Throughout Winter and Spring of your Junior year, you should have picked out the schools where you are going to apply. The summer that follows is devoted to impressing your boss at your summer job and preparing for the GREs. Firstly, identify your weakest section. For me it was verbal. I was only a couple points away from my target quantitative score, so I spent most of my time preparing for the verbal section. In one fruitful summer, I raised my verbal score from 149 (diagnostic test) to 162 (official GRE verbal score). And it all began with learning vocabulary. Many GRE guide book will tell you that the verbal section is all about critical thinking and that it is possible to score high without memorizing fancy words. The best analogy for taking the GREs is running a marathon, where vocabulary is your shoes. You can definitely run a marathon without your shoes, but it significantly helps to have them.
Every morning, I would make a list of ten new words that I was going to learn by the end of the day. The next day, not only would I learn a new list of ten words, but also review the previous day's list. At this rate, 90 days of summer exposed me to 900 new words. I wish I could say that I remembered all 900 words at the time of the exam. But I did retain almost 600 of them, which significantly boosted my arsenal of vocabulary. It is very important to realize that sitting down for an hour a day to learn the words will not get you anywhere; you will forget them the next day. Rather, the smarter technique is to carve out numerous 10 to 15-minute sessions to review the words. During my summer internship, I would get 10-minute breaks after every two hours, and I would use them to stretch my legs and review the words. Another review during lunch, and I have already looked over my set of words thrice, before the end of my work day.
The next step is learning the exam techniques. The only money I spent in preparing for the exam was to buy the official GRE handbook for $20. While I never religiously read the book, I glossed over the sections that taught exam skills. Taking the diagnostic exam made me realize that the time offered to answer each question was scant. So, identifying key words in a sentence and key ideas of a paragraph were important to keep up with the time limit. Each verbal section had about 6 sentence completions, 4 sentence equivalences, and 10 multiple choice questions based off numerous passages. I would give myself 2 minutes per multiple choice question, and 1 minute per sentence completion and sentence equivalence question respectively.
An important part of preparing for the GREs are practice tests. Some people take structured practice tests once a week. On the other hand, I took "practice sections." Since I knew I needed to pay more attention to verbal than quantitative, I would attempt one verbal section almost every day. Coupled with one quantitative section a week, I started seeing improvements in my score within the sixth week of preparation. There are a multitude of free online tests available and a quick google search will help you find them all.
Once the exam is about a month away, it is time to start attempting full length practice tests. The Official GRE book gives you access to two practice tests and the GREPrep software has another two practice tests. Websites like Kaplan, Manhattan, PrincetonReview and McGraw Hill all have free practice tests. Taking one full length test every week for the last five weeks leading up to the exam should adequately prepare you for the big day. Take the exam under the time constraints, in an environment that is quiet yet has minimal distractions, to properly simulate the exam center environment. Wear noise cancelling headphones during all the exams to acclimate with the extra weight over your head and ears.
The essential parts of graduate school applications are your GRE scores, GPA, letters of recommendation and work/research experience as presented in the resume and cover letter. Barring the GRE, all the other aspects of your application are built over the three and a half years of your college career before you turn in your application. The GREs, however, can become a powerhouse of your application in three short months. An above average GRE score will set you apart from the rest of the applicants. So, it is important to take your time and prepare your best for the exam. I took all 14 weeks of summer to prepare for my exam and finally took it the Saturday before school started. This meant that by the time schools opened their applications, I had checked off a big aspect of it. It is easy to sleep on your GREs with the wrong attitude and the false sensation of time, and even easier to be daunted by it. But with the right mentality and a rigorous study schedule, you can be successful in achieving your target score.