Updated: May 26, 2020
Below is a screenshot of my GRE Test Taker Score Report. As you can see, I completed the General GRE Test on August 13th, 2016, scoring a 165 (96th %ile) in Verbal Reasoning, a 167 (90th %ile) in Quantitative Reasoning, and a 5.0 (92nd %ile) in Analytical Writing. Near the bottom of the page, you can see my score and percentile ranking in the Psychology Subject GRE Test from an October test date later that year.
I wish I could say that reaching these scores was easy and that I barely studied, but unfortunately, however, that is far from my experience! Achieving these scores took four months of an intensive, iterative preparation process that included (a) organizing my studying plans, (b) actually studying, and (c) taking practice tests to evaluate my progress. When I was preparing, I wanted to attain scores that would stand out and be a strength in my application package during my future Ph.D. admissions process. My goal was to rank in the 90thpercentile [or higher] of test-takers in all three components of the GRE. In this article, I want to share the “big picture”-aspects of my approach to reaching my GRE goals. In the next article in this GRE Series, I’ll be discussing the more fine-grained details for acing Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning questions as well as the two essays in the Analytical Writing section.
The Big Picture
As was just alluded to in the paragraph above, attaining impressive GRE scores requires more than commitment, discipline, and hard work—you must also “work smart.” This means having an overarching approach or model to your GRE preparation that is organized and well-structured. One framework from Educational Psychology that helps us understand this notion is “Self-Regulated Learning.” Take a look at this visual depiction of Self-Regulated Learning (SRL):
As you can see, Educational Psychology scholars conceptualize SRL as an iterative (i.e., repeating cycle) process comprised of three phases: (i) Forethought; (ii) Performance; Self-Reflection. The layman’s terminology I used to describe this concept was “(a) organizing my studying plans, (b) actually studying, and (c) evaluating my progress via practice tests.” No matter what terminology you use, an SRL-approach to GRE studying is undoubtedly beneficial.
SRL’s three phases can be further segmented into more specified steps. In order to better describe each of these steps in detail, I’m going to pick a specific facet of the GRE to use as an example throughout. Let’s take the Quantitative Reasoning section for instance—what tasks are you faced within this part of the GRE? There are numerous ways to answer this question, but in the spirit of being parsimonious, let’s use the most common of the 4 Quantitative Reasoning Question Types, “Quantitative Comparison Questions” as an example. GRE Quant Comparison Questions look like this:
Using Quantitative Comparison Questions as a topic, here are some examples of how to pursue a self-regulated learning approach to successfully studying this type of GRE Quantitative Reasoning question:
a. Task Analysis: These questions are asking me to apply basic knowledge of the rules of mathematical operations (PEMDAS), algebra, and/or geometry to compare 2 values and decide whether one is greater, their equal, or there's not enough information to tell.
Task Analysis: These questions require quickly applying basic knowledge of the rules of mathematical operations (i.e., "PEMDAS"), algebra (e.g., Substitution), and/or geometry (e.g., Total Internal Angle of a Shape = N - 2 (180), where N is # of sides) to compare 2 values and decide whether they are equal, one is greater, or there's not enough information to tell.
Goal Setting: I want to memorize 10 geometry-related formulas (e.g., Pythagorean theorem for a triangle, for a cube, etc.) and be able to apply them quickly by solving 20 geometry-based Quantitative Comparison Questions in 15 minutes or less.
Planning: I'm going to spend 1 hour per day over the next week on memorizing the formulas and practicing using them in geometry-based Quantitative Comparison Questions.
Self-Motivation: [Here is where you drink your red bull, coffee, laté, etc.!, lol]
Execution of Task: Here's your 1 hour of studying per day on these geometry-based Quantitative Comparison Questions.
Monitoring: During your studying, take notes on the types of geometry formulas or other mathematical functions that are giving you the most trouble, so you can put extra focus on them during your next planned round of studying.
Self-Evaluation: At the end of the week, select 20 geometry-based Quantitative Comparison GRE Practice Questions, set a timer for 15 minutes, and test yourself.
Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) Is Intentional, Iterative, & Consistent
The above discussion of Quantitative Comparison Questions represents just one example of how you can implement ant SRL approach within your plans for GRE preparation. What I've found to be the key for myself and for my clients is that this process truly needs to be intentional, iterative, and consistent.
Firstly, by intentional, what I mean is to be thorough, engaged, and not skip any steps in this process. For example, doing a task analysis, unfortunately, doesn't sound like the most fun thing in the world, right? However, conducting a thorough task analysis provides the foundation for making the remaining SRL steps effective—it would be hard to set goals and plan for reaching them when you are uncertain about the specifics of your task.
Secondly, this process also must be iterative. Your second round in this studying process will be so much more effective once you've used the Monitoring and Self-Evaluation steps to identify areas of particular challenge. The first run through the SRL-cycle helps you identify where your ongoing learning needs are, and subsequent repetitions through the cycle enable you to iron out any issues.
Third and finally, GRE preparation requires consistency as if you are learning a new language. In fact, given the large amount of new vocabulary and math formulas you'll be learning along the way, one could argue you really are acquiring a new lingo—a GRE language. My experience shows that most folks benefit from studying frequency mores than studying volume. Stated otherwise, try spreading out your studying into briefer (i.e., 30-90 minutes), multiple sessions (optimally, 5-7) per week instead of a smaller number of marathon study sessions.
I hope this article provides—in broad strokes—a starting point for thinking about how you might organize your own GRE preparation plans. In the next posts, I'll be discussing some more fine-grained details about what types of problems/questions comprise each of the GRE sections, and appropriate approaches to solving/answering them.
Part 2 of this series is now available here.