The GRE is a test that you will have to give for admission in postgraduate programs in most US universities (and some other ones around the world). There are two categories of the GRE – the subject test and the general test. The general test is required by most universities, and is the one we will discuss for now.

The GRE is, in most cases, given electronically, requiring you to type in answers and click on provided options. It is a test of your Mathematics and English reasoning and writing skills. These are known in the GRE terminology as Quantitative Reasoning, (often shortened to ‘Quant’), Verbal Reasoning (or simply ‘Verbal’) and Analytical Writing (or A/W) respectively. You are marked in the Quant and Verbal sections out of 170 (minimum score is 130) and in the A/W section out of 6 (in increments of 0.5).

So how to go about preparing for one of the most important standardized tests that you will ever give? The whole topic of how to prepare for the GRE is one on which entire books have been written. Here, you will get some quick pointers and techniques that I found really helpful while studying and on the test day.

1. The first thing you will need is time. I recommend at least 4-5 months of preparation time for the GRE. The very first thing that you should do is download the POWERPREP II software from the ETS website. It provides the exact interface that you will encounter while giving the actual test, and will therefore help remove a lot of confusion regarding the format of the test.

Be sure to be familiar with the GRE test layout beforehan
Be sure to be familiar with the test layout beforehan

2. The first section of the test comprises of the essays (the A/W section). You have to write 2 essays, one ‘argument’ essay and one ‘issue’ essay (you get 30 minutes for writing each essay). Most people swear by the 2-4-2-20-2 approach.

2 minutes to rewrite the issue or the argument presented (in the prompt) in your own words (This rewrite is then used in the opening paragraph of your essay)

4 minutes to brainstorm and come up with evidences/points/arguments that you will elucidate or critique in your essay

2 minutes to arrange these points in a proper sequence

20 minutes to actually write the essay

2 minutes to proofread

This approach worked pretty well for me. I actually found that this technique helped me get more than 20 minutes to write each essay, although in one of the essays I was not able to proofread the whole thing.

3. The issue essay relies mainly on your general knowledge, and can be scored high in if you back up your argument logically. The argument essay is a little trickier. In this essay, you are provided with an ‘argument’ written by an author. The author attempts to back up the argument with certain evidences or claims. You must identify these evidences and then critique them (point out their weaknesses). You must only critique the evidences provided by the author, and not assume anything that is not written. Use your general knowledge only if it helps you critique the evidence better. For example, here is a typical argument essay prompt:

“When Marion Park first opened, it was the largest, most popular park in town. While it is still the largest park, it is no longer as popular as it once was. Recently collected statistics reveal the park’s drop in popularity: On average, only 45 cars per day enter the park. Conversely, tiny Midtown Park in the center of downtown is visited by more than 125 people on a typical weekday. One obvious difference is that Midtown Park, unlike Marion Park, can utilize parking spaces along Main Street and along various side streets. Therefore, if Marion Park is to regain its popularity, then the town council will obviously need to approve funding for additional parking.”

Here, one of the evidences used to support the argument that the park’s popularity is declining is that ‘only 45 cars enter the park per day.’

We can point some weaknesses in this evidence straight away: what about the people entering the park on foot? What if the people inside the cars are actually greater than those entering Midtown Park? You must therefore

a. Identify evidences or assumptions

b. Find weaknesses in each of these

Take care to be moderate and logical in your critique. Look for technical errors, assumptions (which can almost always be proved wrong simply by discussing a ‘what if your assumption is wrong’ scenario) and for weaknesses in the solution provided by the author.

4. In both essays, remember to keep the tone of your writing neutral, giving the impression that you are aware of the merits and demerits of both sides of the issue or argument. Near the end of your essay, you can insert a few lines in which you demonstrate an understanding that there are some valid points raised by the opposing school of thought. Your writing appears more mature this way. Remember, it is a graduate test, and you must demonstrate the maturity expected of a graduate in your writing.

In the argument essay, the author’s argument is supposed to be critiqued, but the argument raised is almost always one that seeks to bring about a positive change (such as increase school attendance or, in the above example, boost a park’s popularity). If you vehemently lambast each and every evidence provided by the author, without acknowledging that the cause the author wishes to espouse is a worthy one, you risk appearing as  biased and narrow-minded. Similarly, the issues presented in the issue essay are always of an open-ended and balanced nature, with a supporting stance just as valid as an opposing one. Be sure to acknowledge this in your essay.

5. While practicing essay writing, always time yourself, turn all spell-check options on your wordprocessor off (there won’t be any spell-check in the test center computers!) and remember, U.S. English only. Get a good English teacher who knows what to look for in a GRE essay to read and give feedback on your essays, and keep a spacing of 1.5 between the lines so that your teacher can add comments/corrections in the appropriate places. Also, use the vocabulary that you have learned for your GRE as much as you can in your essay (although judiciously!)

6. Although this really does not need to be said, I will do so for the sake of completeness. Do not compromise on spelling, grammar and punctuation. Use well-structured sentences, competent vocabulary, sound logic and well-researched, credible and diverse examples to support your point. Avoid rambling and excessively rhetorical or flowery expressions. Read as many sample essays as you can to get an idea of what is expected. Find GRE essay prompts online and write frequently (you should, as a minimum, write at least 10 of both kinds of essays before your test).

There are no shortcuts or tricks to learn in order to do well in the GRE, no matter what you might hear. The test itself has changed a lot over years, and no topics or questions are ever repeated. Don’t be too concerned about which book you pick for your study, but do put in as much honest hard work as you can in your GRE preparation. In Part 2, we will discuss the remaining parts of the GRE – the Quant and Verbal sections.

The continuation of this article is on How to Score well in GRE (Part 2)

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