Some of you may ask what use, other than in awarding financial aid that does not discriminate by the recipients’ fields, the general GRE have. Some people claim that it is a general test that test a common skillset that everyone contemplating graduate study, let alone a physics PhD, needs to master, and others claim that it measures one’s test-taking ability, if only that.
Given that many non-native English speakers, including the cram school graduates mentioned in an earlier post, will try to memorize a sizeable amount of words in order to do well on that test I don’t think it is about testing a basic skillset anymore. I think it does serve an additional purpose, though: test how well the examinee performs under pressure. That, even though the stakes aren’t as high as the LSAT for getting into a North American common law school (civil law schools trade the LSAT for consideration of subject difficulty); other than Yale, Stanford, Chicago and Northwestern in the US and Toronto, Windsor and McGill in Canada, common law schools care very little about what is termed “softs” in legal education parlance, and neither do civil law schools other than UQAM, where the softs are assessed once one gets to the interview.
But enough of the pressure cooker called the LSAT and its relation to legal education. There are nine pitfalls to avoid in one’s preparation for the GRE (and these pitfalls apply to both the general and the subject GRE):
- Overconfidence in your test-taking abilities. This is most commonly encountered when one went through undergrad with a GPA high enough to make her choices realistic in a university where multiple-choice items in tests or assignments are virtually nonexistent in her field (and my own undergrad is one of these as far as physics and mathematics are concerned). In these cases, one must not assume that one can take the GRE with little preparation and score high. Be forewarned: for each grad school hopeful with an undergrad devoid of multiple-choice items, there are grad school hopefuls whose undergrads contain a plethora of such items. And, of course, still others take the GGRE very, very seriously (too seriously for their own good sometimes; see #5 below).
- Overemphasis on certain areas at the expense of others. It is also equally tempting to put too much preparation weight on one area. Some will put more weight on their strong areas, others will put more weight on their weak areas. I could see why a mathematics or physics graduate would gloss over the quantitative section, though; their mathematical training is far more advanced than the math being tested. Because different test-users have different areas of emphasis, one should never report a GRE score as a composite score. You will be issued separate verbal, quantitative and analytical writing scores valid for five years; for the aforementionned reasons, even though your top choices do not ask for a high score in your weak area, this is not a reason to neglect it. I myself was guilty of this because all the quantitative prep I did was on the practice tests taken under exam conditions.
- Obsessing on troublesome practice questions. It’s one thing to review a practice question you got wrong in order to understand what went wrong, and that’s understandable. However, it’s quite another to dwell on a question you either take issue with or still don’t understand. Then you should ask for a second opinion; if that second opinion reveals the publisher’s fault, then alert the publisher and then, move on.
- Undue emphasis on practice test scores. Setting a target score based on one’s topmost choices is understandable. But try not to concern too much on your scores, if only because some test-takers do significantly better (or, less commonly, worse) on practice tests than on the real test; your concern then becomes how you would do your best on test day.
- Overprepraration. You should plan to take a significant amount of time to study for the GRE. It takes time to get rid of bad test-taking habits, and to get comfortable with the test content, format and time limits. But you never heard of the law of diminishing returns? This means that there will come a point where further preparation will become increasingly fruitless. So don’t drag out your preparation by spending an entire summer prepping for the test or by postponing your test sitting to give you more preparation time than what is actually necessary.
- Unrealistic expectations. Sometimes overpreparation stems from setting unrealistic expectations upon ourselves. It is true that you can do much better given a certain amount of effort, but there’s only so much you can do. Also be realistic with respect to the benefits of a book or a course; you can’t expect to go from getting 140-145s on your first practice test taken under exam conditions and end up with 160s on the real test with the aid of only one book.
- Insufficient practice under exam conditions. The test is 3 1/2 hours long; a common reason why some test-takers don’t do as well on the real test vs. practice tests is because they conducted these practice tests under conditions that do not, under any shape or form, resemble the real test. Endurance is very important; for this reason, I recommend using the full-length feature of PowerPrep II. Then again, do not expect feedback on the essays using this software, which leads to the next pitfall.
- Not taking the essays seriously enough. In my humble opinion, this pitfall is more common if the examinee desires to attend graduate school in a field where the writing done in the program bears no resemblance to what’s tested on the GRE. It is true that graduate schools in some fields do not look at writing scores beyond a certain point, while in others, it bears some weight. But the “reach” schools could be a school where you’re a borderline candidate and often borderline candidates are the ones most intensely scrutinized and this includes, unfortunately, writing scores.
- Fatalistic thinking and poor date planning. One can, for a reason or another tell herself: “I’ll give the GRE one shot and if I do poorly, I may as well just forget about graduate school”. It’s understandable if one cannot afford to take the GRE more than once but that sort of fatalistic thinking can also be due to poor date planning. More precisely, having scheduled to take the test too late for you to retake in a timely manner in such a way that the scores would still get to the departments before the deadlines. Some guidelines to this end: count 10-15 business days after the day you took the test for the scores to get to the admissions office, if you took the computer-based test, and count at least 60 calendar days from the first sitting if you want to retake. That said, if you can afford to take the GRE twice, register for and take the GRE once as a dress rehearsal; that way, you can get the butterflies out of your system and you’ll be more relaxed next time. In fact, per ETS’ research, most retakers improve their scores on their second try.