I recently gave the GRE and TOEFL exams in preparation for MS / PhD applications. While there exist several excellent resources to help you prepare (Magoosh, GreenlightTestPrep, Princeton Review, Manhattan), I thought it would be useful to share my personal experience with both tests. I might write a blog on grad school admission in the future (of course, conditioned on the admits I get!)
This guide will focus on preparation for GRE, while the next guide will focus on TOEFL.
GRE and TOEFL are necessary exams for most graduate college applications abroad. GRE is a test of basic quantitive skills, verbal skills (primarily vocabulary, comprehension and inference) and essay writing. Most engineering students find the quantitive section really easy, but struggle with verbal and essay writing. TOEFL (iBT - internet Based Test) is a simple test of reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. TOEFL is generally a lot easier than GRE. People trained in an english-medium school or college generally sail through TOEFL without much preparation.
GRE - Graduate Record Exam
The GRE is scored out of 340 marks - 170 marks quant, 170 marks verbal. Additionally, your essay writing skills are manually evaluated out of 6 marks. For engineering graduate programs, a score of 325+ is considered safe, with close to full marks in quant. In essay writing, a score of 4+ is considered safe. How much does your GRE score matter? This varies a lot across universities, but popular opinion (and several admission guides like Philip Guo’s and Mor Harchol-Balter’s) says it’s just used as a threshold in higher ranked universities.
Additionally, a few streams (like Physics) might need a Subject GRE. This is not needed for Computer Science or Electrical Engineering programs.
Choosing a Date
I gave my GRE exam on 28th August, 2017 (for reference, my graduate applications were due in December 2017), and registered for it on 27th June, 2017. June to October are rush-hours, and it’s often hard to get weekend slots. Try to book 3-4 months in advanced. Payment require credit card (keep one handy, it is needed for graduate applications too), and the cost is a whopping 205$!
I tried to study for GRE during my summer internship, but couldn’t do much beyond understanding the exam pattern. I started off with these Magoosh / GreenlightTestPrep videos. I recommend fully understanding the different question types and exam pattern before venturing into hardcore preparation. I resumed my GRE preparation between 24th and 30th July, and finally 5th August to 27th August (examination day). I would have loved to prepare for 1-2 weeks more, but I am happy with the final outcome.
I used four books in all, the official ETS material and Barron’s books. Additionally, I used the two free online PowerPrep tests (everyone gets them during registration). If you are up for a challenge, I recommend the Manhattan verbal books. Besides this, I saw most of the Magoosh videos linked above.
I started my preparation with a diagnostic test (the one in Barron’s), a zero-preparation evaluation of where you stand. I would not recommend using the online PowerPrep tests as diagnostic, since they are full-length tests and close replicas to the actual GRE exam. The diagnostic test will give you a good idea about whether you need any preparation for the quant sections, and your weaknesses in the verbal section. In my case, the only errors in the quant section were due to sheer negligence, so I decided to focus all my preparation to verbal / essay writing.
The videos I linked above are good places to get started. They walk you through basic problem solving techniques and vocabulary building ideas. Verbal preparation needs two skills - quick inference and excellent vocabulary. Both skills are necessary to get a good verbal score.
If you are an avid reader (not textbooks!), your inference skills would be good. Unfortunately, GRE loves complicated sentences (quite unlike what we speak or type normally). Speed is critical in GRE, and many questions are non-trivial, often with ambiguous options at first glance. The best strategy here is PRACTICE and READING. Practice a lot of GRE-style questions. I personally practiced ALL the verbal questions from the first, second and fourth book (pictured above), and a few from “Essential Words for GRE”. The actual questions in GRE are very close to the questions in the first two books, so those are essentials.
To improve speed in comprehension questions, the Magoosh videos give you some great tips and tricks. Finally, I cannot stress enough on the importance of practice under a time limit. I found it significantly harder, and I was often forced to mark answers which I wasn’t sure of.
I also recommend reading good novels during your preparation. It’s relaxing, and helps improve both inference and vocabulary. I read one book close to the exam (Big Bang). Another advice I heard was temporary avoidance of instant messenger. I think this is useful advice, since we often use short and simple sentences in online chat.
Vocabulary Building - Be prepared for a lot of rote-learning. While word meanings aren’t tested directly, uncommon words are often used in questions, comprehension passages and MCQ options. There are roughly 3500 difficult words which GRE can potentially use. The “Essential Words for GRE” provides exercises for the 800 most frequent words, and provides a list of the 300 most frequent words. Your goal should be to master most of the 800 words atleast. Here “master” refers to a solid understanding of the word’s meaning and usage.
I adopted a somewhat unusual approach to learning GRE words. I maintained a list of all unusual words I encountered during verbal practice (Sheet 1 contains my original list, Sheet 2 was added by a friend). Most definitions and sample sentences can be obtained from Google Dictionary or wordnik. I installed a Chrome extension, and kept updating my list whenever I found a new word here.
It’s a good idea not to learn words in a particular fixed order, to avoid developing spatial memory cues. I used a simple shuffler script, and never did more than 100 words in one session. Recollecting words learnt more than 2-3 days ago is hard, especially if you have just seen its usage during formal GRE preparation. One useful exercise is talking to your friends using GRE english. Think of creative ways to use your newly learnt words! Another useful trick is reading novels or english newspapers like The New York Times. In retrospection, many GRE words aren’t so uncommon in literature! We often infer their meaning from context, but never actually look for the exact definition. However, now that you are actively looking to improve your vocabulary, you WILL notice these words while reading. The Big Bang book alone contained over 100 words listed in my sheet.
While my approach helped me learn words effectively, I believe it was a bit disorganized (as compared to following a list of frequent words). Towards the end, I only had about 450 words in my list. I added about 150 words from the “300 Most Frequent Words” in Barron’s “Essential Words for GRE”. In my final GRE exam, I knew the definition of roughly two-third difficult words.
If you have the time, I strongly recommend solving exercises from “Essential Words for GRE”, and adding the toughest words to your personal list (which also contains words encountered in other verbal tests), in addition to the tricks mentioned above. It’s a good idea to master ~1000-1500 words before your GRE exam.
If you sailed through the diagnostic test, don’t bother. Try to solve a few timed exercises, aiming to minimize negligent mistakes. You should aim at checking all your questions once, and 10 minutes should be sufficient for this exercise. A good idea to speed up checking is organized rough-work. Since you are given unlimited rough paper in GRE, try to organize rough work similar to an answer booklet, so that you can quickly check your steps when you are reviewing answers towards the end. Avoid using actual calculators, the basic Windows Desktop calculator is the closest to the actual exam’s calculator. I solved a few exercises from the first book, and finally solved quant questions in the practice test.
Many candidates generally ignore the AWA section (essay writing), and entirely focus their efforts on the verbal section. This is NOT a good idea, UNLESS you write essays or blogs regularly. High AWA scores will help you a lot more for graduate admission as compared to high verbal scores (LTI admission guideline, the Georgia Tech application explicitly asked for the AWA score in supplementary information). This is because good writing skills are essential for success as a graduate student.
There are two essay questions per exam, the Issue Task and Argumentative Task. All possible topics are listed online! (argumentative pool, issue pool) The argumentative essay is generally a lot easier, requiring more logical than creative thinking. The issue essay can be tougher, especially if you are out of practice.
I recommend thoroughly studying the essay sections of the first and fourth book. Your first five minutes are critical if you hope to write a good 400-500 word essay in just 30 minutes. I suggest practising a lot, writing down atleast 4-5 essays of each type with the time constraint. Additionally, you can practice building your essay sketches in five minutes for atleast 10-15 issue type tasks. Don’t try to memorize 6-point essays for all topics in the issue pool. Instead, you can try to learn some standard arguments used for each topic-type (education, government, environment etc.). Essay writing for GRE has to come naturally, via practice. The best issue type essays cite a lot of supporting examples and hence it’s a good idea to review daily news.
Again, do NOT leave this for the last minute. Give it the same importance (and more, if writing is not your forte) as the verbal section.
The two PowerPrep tests provided by ETS while registering are the closest to the actual examination. Solve them dilligently, do not cheat in any form. When you choose to give them are upto you. I personally gave my first exam five days before GRE, and my second exam two days before GRE. The score you receive in these tests are a good indication of the final score you will achieve. (I achieved 160V, 170Q in Test #1, 158V, 170Q in Test #2).
For Linux users, you don’t need to change your operating system while giving these tests (the website won’t allow you by default). The website only checks the
User-Agent field in HTTP requests, so simply spoof your browser information using this extension. I faced no issues during my test, even though my browser/OS was not “offically compatible”.
IMPORTANT - Do not attempt the un-timed PowerPrep test provided on the website. Its questions are identical to the timed Test #1. I almost made this mistake.
Exam Day Preparation
Make sure you carry your passport and snacks for the 10 minute break. Be sure you completely understand the exam pattern. Water is NOT ALLOWED in the exam room. The 10 minute break is the only time you will get to use the restroom, eat, or drink something. Carrying a jacket is ALLOWED, and a good idea since the exam hall is cold. The actual GRE exam has an extra experimental section, and takes about four hours in total. If you are well prepared, it should be like any other exam.
IMPORTANT - Make sure you have decided a list of 4 colleges to send your scores to. Do check whether the program requires GRE scores at all (MIT EECS and UIUC CS doesn’t, for instance). You will waste additional 108$ if you do not select 4 colleges immediately after your exam.
I finally scored 161 in Verbal, 170 in Quant and 5.5 in AWA. This was close to my expectation after the exam and I am pretty happy with these scores! Most of my friends got scores within 2 marks of their practice test scores.
TOEFL - Test of English as a Foreign Language
Please check the next guide.