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Two Self-Defeating Approaches to GRE Preparation—and How to Overcome Them

Kevin Klineby Kevin Klein

In case this ever comes up on a grad-school admissions test, acrophobia means the fear of heights. The fear of standardized tests, incidentally, is called acronymphobia. It makes smart people study for the GRE, GMAT, or
LSAT with such dogged inefficiency that they fail to get the score they need despite being completely capable of reaching it.

You won’t see acronymphobia on any study word list, though, because I made it up. But believe me—the condition it describes is real. In four years as a test prep instructor for the GRE and tutor for the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, I’ve seen many students struggle with a variety of its symptoms. This article describes two major self-defeating approaches to exam preparation and offers specific strategies on how to overcome them. While written specifically for the GRE, its concepts apply to the GMAT and LSAT as well.

Basically, damaging study habits begin as a way to reduce the fear of failure. Unfortunately, the only true fix is to face that fear by actually failing: by missing practice questions, trying unsuccessfully to remember material you’ve studied, and accepting those results as an inevitable part of learning. As you challenge your inefficient defenses against failure, you not only increase your chances of success on the GRE, you also improve your ability to do the work required in your program. By using failure as a step in the success process, you’ll soon reach the point where the only thing you fear is developing acronymphomania, the perverse love of standardized tests that can cause people to sacrifice
relationships, sleep, and food in quest of the 99th percentile.

Self-Defeating Approach #1: Not Doing Your Homework Before Starting to Study

Many students think that getting ready for the GRE begins with buying a study manual or enrolling in a prep course. But without taking some preliminary steps, they’re liable to mismanage their time because they don’t know the areas of the test they need to focus the most on.

Solution Strategies

The first step is to find out the test-score expectations of the colleges you’ll apply to. It’s always surprised me how many students taking GRE prep courses have no idea how well they need to do to get into the schools they’re targeting. Some humanities-related graduate programs don’t care about the GRE’s Quantitative section; other programs may not even look at the Analytical Writing portion. Find out from the graduate secretary—or preferably, from a faculty member—if the admissions committee judges GRE scores based on percentiles of each section, individual scaled scores, combined scaled scores, or on some other criteria.

Next, take a practice test to find out your current performance.Yes, it’s usually disheartening to see just exactly how much you need to study, but how else are you going to know which areas you should focus on the most? The official GRE website offers a free download of its PowerPrep software, which comes with two practice tests. After you take each test, it will give you a scaled score for the Verbal and Quantitative sections. While the software doesn’t rate your Analytical Writing essay, you can have two essays graded online through ScoreItNow, a low-cost service provided by ETS, the makers of the GRE.

Finally, register for a test date. It’s important to do this a few months before you take the test for two reasons. First, you can set up your study routine with a solid deadline in mind, which should make it harder for you to procrastinate. Second, the GRE test-taking facility nearest you may be a small learning center, in which case the few spaces will fill up fast as application deadlines approach. Registering early will give you better scheduling options as well as an exact knowledge of how much time you have to prepare. Locations and cost can also be found on the GRE website.


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