Haseeeb Sheikh

“Turn right towards the wind and press on the left rudder pedal”, instructed my flying trainer, as we approached the runway with a crosswind blowing. Instead, I did neither and flew over the runway to circle around and try again. Because I was afraid. I was afraid of trying such a delicate balancing act for the first time ever so close to the ground.

Fear. Fear is the biggest issue people have with the GRE. Tests like the GRE are not experienced by students throughout their academic careers. So, when they get to the stage of giving the GRE, the alien nature of the test puts them on the backfoot. Add to that the massive books and the hefty price tag, the GRE can feel like a tough and scary task.

I am here to shred, destroy, obliterate, demolish, shatter, and crush that notion. Because it is not true. I gave the GRE general test in May 2017, getting a 170 in the quantitative section, 168 in the verbal section, and a 5.0 in writing. These are the lessons I have derived from my own experience and the experiences of tens of others I have talked to or helped over the years:
————–Stop being afraid:Why do people fear the GRE and why should they not? Personally, I was never afraid of the GRE because that is just who I am – I do not look at tests that way because I have always been a high-achiever. But, this is not true for everybody. So, I understand why some people do fear the GRE:

1. Big books: Books for GRE are mostly very big. They are that big because no one will feel the need for a book if they were only 50-pages long. Size matters – at least to impose and to develop perceptions, if for nothing else. But, remember: the GRE is a business and so are these books – if they do not make the GRE seem tough, no one will feel the need to buy those books.
In reality, the highest level of concepts tested by the GRE are from the high school, with most concepts having been covered up to Grade 8 of all schooling systems. So, you don’t really need their books to prepare for the GRE, even though they do help and have their place (more on this later).

2. Other people: Most people spend a lot of time preparing for the GRE, but do not get a good score. The historically low average score of people around the globe feeds the perception that the GRE is a test only aliens can do well on. Here’s the big idea: the GRE is not as tough as people say it is – they just do not know how to prepare for it. What’s the right way? Keep reading to find out.

3. Investment: The GRE costs money and it asks for time. Because it takes a lot of both, just to sit in a test, people feel bogged down by the idea of the money and the time getting wasted. Well, guess what? There is no way around this. So there is no point in thinking about it. It has to be done and that is all there is to it.
————Be in-charge:Most people follow. That is true of any and every situation in life.

They buy a book and follow it through from the first page to the last. They go to a GRE coaching class and follow everything the instructor says. They go online and read an article just like this one, and follow everything it says. Don’t. That applies to this article too. You do not need to follow it word for word.

Consult different resources, think for yourself, see what works for you, and do that. Understand what you need in order to be successful on the GRE. Your conceptual understanding of mathematics is not the same as any other person in the class you are taking or any other person who is reading that Manhattan book. So, you do not need to follow the same pattern of instruction or preparation as everyone else.

For most things in life, it is really hard to figure out what you need in order to be at your best. But, for the GRE, it is actually quite simple. And that is because preparation for GRE gives you a lot of data to tell you how you are doing and what you need to improve on.

————-Use data and use online tools:

There are two categories of data available when you are preparing for the GRE:1. Numerical data points and tools:Data comes from practicing. Once you attempt practice/diagnostic tests, you get a score. You also get to learn how many questions you got wrong and how much time you spent on the questions overall. Looking at these numbers helps: People use these numbers to gauge how far they are from their target score, to gauge the amount of work they need.

A good way to build a data-set for yourself is to use online tools to practice instead of using books. That is because they record the data on your attempts, allowing you to look back and see your progress.

Personally, I did not buy or use any books. Instead, I used QSLeap.com to prepare. The website allowed me to attempt ~750 questions, keeping track of every question I solved and the time I took to solve each question. I did the same for vocabulary preparation. I used number2.com’s vocabulary builder, which tracks your correct and incorrect attempts and allows you to revise them separately to improve on your weaknesses and fortify your strengths.

But, here is what you need to know about these numerical data points – they give you information on where you are at; they do not tell you how to get from where you are at to where you want to be. They do not define strategy. Consider two people with a practice test score of 155 on the Quantitative section. Are their weaknesses the same? Surely not. So, they cannot use the same strategy to get to a score of 165. What do they look at, then, to figure out how to improve their scores? That question brings us to the next section on non-numerical data.

2. Non-numerical data points:These are the real moneymakers. But most people are not in-charge of their own preparation and are looking for books or tutors to create plans for them, so these data points get ignored. Because of that, personalized strategies for improvement do not get formulated.

The data points I am talking about arethe result of analyzing your mistakes. What are the types of questions you are getting wrong – conceptual, lengthy, or common sense ones (to name a few categories)? What topic are you getting most questions wrong on? What is the reason you get certain questions wrong? Where are you wasting time? Why are you having trouble understanding a specific topic? And, most importantly, what can you do to improve?

I will share my own experience here – specific strategies for specific people can be discussed later. 6 years ago I gave the GRE and got 159V, 164Q, and 5W. Comparing that to what I got now, I improve on the quantitative section by 6 points and by 9 points on the verbal section. In what follows, I break down how I improved on the quantitative section. (I will write about the verbal section later, depending upon the level of interest generated by this article.)

I never understood what I got wrong on the quantitative section back then. This time, when I started preparing, I realized that I got questions wrong sometimes when I quickly applied a concept I knew, mentally formulated the answer, and selected an option to move ahead.

So I started analyzing those questions to figure out what was the source of my mistakes. One of the reasons was that I was making silly mistakes in calculations like 3×3=6 (my most common mistake ever since I was born). But that was not all. I also checked if I was making conceptual mistakes. Turns out that my concepts were fine, but that the GRE is not all about concepts. Some questions do not involve standard concepts that you would expect. Try the following question, as an example:

How many roots does the equation x^2 + 8x + 21 = 5 have?

The answer should be 2, right? Because quadratic equations have 2 roots? Apply the basic concept and the question is done in 5 seconds. But, if you solve the question on paper, it turns out that the equation represents the perfect square (x+4)^2 = 0. Both the roots, in this case, are same (both are -4). So the equation has 1 root, not 2. It is an exasperating question that makes you ask “what is the point of asking this question?” What is the point, exactly? Before I explain, look at the next question:

The number 25 is divisible by its unit’s digit (25 is divisible by 5). How many such numbers exist between 30 and 70 which are divisible by their unit’s digits?

This is an easy question. Anyone can solve it without knowing any mathematical concept beyond basic division and counting. But, again, what is this question really testing? Does it really tell a university how good you will be at doing Master’s level mathematics? Not really. So, why does the GRE have such questions? Here’s the answer I think makes sense:

“The GRE is about testing how well you can adjust to a random array of information: whether you can judge that a question is stupid and adjust to it; whether you can pick and choose the right concepts to apply to an unknown/new situation; whether you can analyze an argument, instead of just absorbing what is being said, because people at the Master’s/PhD level study and work on the latest research and information which can be incorrect. Critical analysis is important. So, that is the main aim of the GRE, beyond testing very basic knowledge of English and Mathematics.”

Once I realized that, I knew that I would face a variety of questions in my test – stupid ones, common sense ones, and those requiring regular conceptual mathematics. So, I had to create a strategy that would help me adjust to the type/level of question.

I also had to create a strategy that helped root out the silly calculation mistakes I was making. I made them more often when I did lots of quick calculations in my head while thinking about next steps, or when I skipped multiple steps while solving questions on paper.

Interestingly enough, the solution to both my problems was the same – I decided to solve every question on paper, without skipping any steps. Doing every question on paper ensured that I did not assume anything about the type of the question before panning it out on paper. And it also ensured that I did not make any silly mistakes. I knew I could use this strategy because I had not been having any problem with time – I would always end up with 5-10 minutes saved if I did questions quickly, skipping steps and doing them in my head mostly.

I came up with this strategy at the end of the final practice test that I took, a couple days before my actual test. So, the strategy got tested for the first time during the test itself. And it helped me get from a score of ~165 in practice attempts to 170 on test day.

———So, to conclude, here’s the big idea: – The GRE is not scary. Stop listening to those who say so. Start believing otherwise. – Use 21st century tools. Books and in-person tutors are great, but there are hundreds of online tools available now, both free and for some amount of money. – Be in-charge of your own preparation. No one else can help you get to your best possible score, even if they can help you improve to a certain extent. – Practice a lot and look at your data. This will help you figure out where you are at and how you can get to where you want to be. – Develop personalized strategies. Some people are bad at concepts. Some are bad at calculations. Some have other issues. General strategies and opinions do not matter. What matters is what you need. Find it out. Do it.