The Concept Behind the GRE and How to Approach the Verbal Section by Top Scorer (338/340)
What is it about the GRE that makes it so difficult that people are unable to get a good score even after months of preparation?
The answer is simple: people do not have a good idea about what the GRE really tests, so they do not prepare for it the right way. There are tons of guidebooks and websites that help with GRE preparation, but none of them tells you what the GRE is really about. I feel that is because no one has really figured it out.
When I had to give the test in May 2017, I prepared for a little over a month, mainly by practising. I attempted more than 800 practice questions, which gave me enough data to see patterns in the questions and to figure out the techniques that work for them. I scored 170 in the quantitative section and 168 in the verbal section. The reason I got those scores, I believe, is that I have figured out the GRE. And I am here to share that with you.
In this article, I will talk about the verbal section in particular, and talk about the broader theme behind the section, not the ways to solve particular questions.
The ETS website says that the verbal section measures “your ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information obtained from it, to analyze relationships among component parts of sentences, and to recognize relationships among words and concepts.”
Let’s break down that information into individual components:
1. Understanding and working with written material.
2. Knowing and understanding components of sentences.
3. Understanding relationships between words and concepts.
These points are logical. Words are the body of a language and, together with language concepts, you can form sentences. You can form different types of sentences when you learn how to weave together different components of a sentence. And when you put multiple sentences together, you get what ETS refers to as “written material” – essentially, paragraphs and passages.
Most test-prep books and guides cover the topic of “words” quite well. There are extensive tools and techniques for learning vocabulary. I will not talk about those here. Concepts about sentences are also covered to the extent that people can learn to do “text completion” and “sentence equivalence” questions. I will not discuss these in detail here, but there are some key points on this subject later in this article.
What I WILL talk about is the first point – how do you develop the skill of “understanding written material”?
Are there any concepts involved?
Everyone says that there is only one way to develop this skill: reading. Reading definitely helps, but there actually is a whole range of concepts which can help you learn how to read – and those concepts have to do with writing. There are certain principles involved in good writing. A good passage has an introduction, a body of discussion, and a conclusion. A good paragraph has an introduction, a body of discussion, and a conclusion. If you read any text with this in mind, you start to see how to read in order to extract information from written material. When I read articles or books, I sometimes read only the first and the last sentence of each paragraph to understand the topic and the main point of the paragraph. A lot of the time, reading those lines is enough for me to understand what the author wants me to know or what their angle is – so, I go on to the next paragraph, skipping the body of a paragraph. In case the concept discussed in the paragraph is new to me or if I feel I need an explanation, I read the rest of the paragraph as well. This helps me read fast and read only the information I feel is relevant and/or new to me. Using this method can help you in the GRE, in the reading comprehension portion.
A lot of people struggle with determining the main point of a passage, which is a frequent question on the test. You can figure that out easily just by reading the first and the last paragraphs of the passage while skipping the rest.
Test-takers also have frequent trouble with reading long passages – I have heard many people complain that they cannot absorb information from long passages and it ends up wasting a long of their time. Reading only the first and last lines of each paragraph attentively can help you understand the idea of the passage and the flow of information quickly, without saturating your brain. Once you do that, you can look at the questions associated with the passage and find answers quickly since you know how the information flow is structured in the passage. In my opinion, this strategy can work better than skimming the whole passage before reading questions.
There are other principles involved in writing as well – transitioning between paragraphs is one of the most important concepts which defines a logical flow of information and division of paragraphs. It can help you divide the theme of a passage into 3 or 4 connected points which makes it easy to predict what can come next in a paragraph and make comprehension easier. A word of caution here – you cannot expect to learn these principles just by reading this article. But you can use a proper source to learn the principles and then practice them while reading articles from sources like the New York Times and Washington Post.
Personally, I learnt these writing principles through a communications course I studied at Georgia Tech from Professor Amanda Gable (bless her) and the book “Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace”. Unsurprisingly, articles from sources like the Washington Post follow good writing principles. And it is my assumption that the GRE uses passages which are based on the same principles, which is why you can use these techniques to “analyze and evaluate written material” on that test.
Learning good writing principles will also help you with sentence completion. And guide will tell you that sentence completion/equivalence requires you to be good at two things – vocabulary and sentence structure. But there is a third concept involved which is not really discussed in any preparatory guides – the topic of a sentence. One of the main principles of writing is that everything you write needs to have a topic, whether it is a 10-page document, a 4-line paragraph, or a single sentence. Since the topic of a sentence is central to its existence, you need to figure out the topic (the main point) of a sentence before you do anything else. Interestingly enough, it is entirely possible to figure out the main point of the sentences given in GRE text completion/equivalence sections with the blanks unfilled. The way you figure it out is by reading the whole sentence or set of sentences (for multi-blank questions). I have seen people read one sentence up to the first blank of a three-blank question and just try to fill that before reading the rest of the sentences. Do not do that. Read the whole thing and figure out what it means. Once you do that, it makes it almost impossible to get the question wrong, as long as you know the meanings of the words that are offered as choices for the blanks.
1. Please learn these writing concepts properly, in order to be able to read. This article is just an introduction to the concepts – it is not meant to be an all-encompassing guide. And learning these techniques properly will help you in the Writing portion of the GRE as well.
2. Many people get bogged down by the newness of the information in GRE passages. You do not need to be afraid of new information – go into the GRE thinking that the passages will be an opportunity to learn something new about the world you inhabit. People also take new information on face value without thinking about it critically, which prevents them to absorb or feel connected to what they are reading. When I read something new, I assume it to be incorrect and leave it up to the author to prove their point of view. That approach helps me anticipate the author’s arguments and keeps me involved enough to keep absorbing new information.
3. If you know what the GRE is testing, you can do much better than you are doing right now. Take time out to understand that.