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Two Self-Defeating Approaches to GRE Preparation—and How to Overcome Them
(Continued from 1)

Self-Defeating Approach #2: Jumping in Without Testing the Water

Finding out exactly what your GRE practice scores are, what they need to be, and when you’ll take the test is only half the investigation you should make before putting in the long hours. People who study without a plan risk using prep materials that are inefficient and/or inappropriate for their learning styles. However, because the GRE has such potential to instill fear in people, many students often cling to the first plausible preparation suggestions they hear.

Let me give an example of a slightly misguided study scheme: in order to learn GRE vocabulary, many students will memorize roots, or parts of words with the same basic meaning, like “lum-” (light) in luminous and luminescent. The conventional wisdom is that learning Greek and Latin roots offers a great deal of leverage, each one unlocking many of the obscure, pedantic words that appear in the GRE Verbal Section’s antonym and analogy questions.

However, in my detailed review of words used on past GRE exams, I found that roots weren’t the effective solution I had thought them to be. Only a few roots on the handouts that I’d given my students actually showed up in more than two or three vocabulary words each. And some roots could be confused with others, as with ‘mor’ (death), which appears in ‘morbid’ and ‘morose,’ and ‘mord’ (bite), which is the root in ‘mordant.’

A friend I discussed this discovery with was incredulous; she said that the GRE prep course she took heavily emphasized Greek and Latin roots. “I studied pages and pages of them, and they totally helped me on the test,” she told me. She got the score she needed, but studying “pages and pages” of actual vocabulary words would probably have been more efficient.

Solution Strategies

The best prevention against using less effective material is to shop around. Don’t just grab your older brother’s dog-eared, five-year-old prep book; browse through the current manuals to get a feel for which one you trust—and interact with—best. Using recent resources is especially important for the GRE, since the entire Logical Reasoning section was replaced by the Analytical Writing section in October 2002.

Also, don’t just assume that your only study choice is among test prep manuals. Take a step back and ask yourself how you learn most effectively. If you work best alone, then by all means, get a good book or two and some helpful software. However, for people who need formal, structured study environments, test-prep courses are ideal. And for those who need structure but don’t learn well in large groups, an individual tutor works even better than a test-prep course. Obviously, the per-hour costs are greater for a tutor than for a prep course, but you get much more out of each hour with a tutor.

Finally, search for options online. An hour spent browsing through GRE resources on the Internet may save you many more hours—and dollars—by helping you find free resources that work for you. There are even sites dedicated to specific sections of the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT.

In closing, a word about study goals. They work to the extent that they’re personal. Are you driven by achievement? Set score-based goals and take practice tests until you reach those scores. Do you work well on a schedule? Set a time-based goal to study for a half-hour per day or three hours per week. Do you dislike doing things according to the clock? Set a content-based goal to study thirty vocabulary words a day or write two essays a week. Remember to make short-term goals with rewards along the way. In terms of motivation to study, the GRE test itself isn’t what you’d call positive reinforcement.

You might wish in vain for more time to study for the GRE, but there are definite ways to use the time you do have effectively. By making the extra initial effort to plan a study schedule, find out score requirements, and shop around for the most effective materials and methods that suit your learning style, you can conquer your acronymphobia and focus instead on the acronym at the end of the road: MS, MA, PhD, or EdD.


Kevin Klein taught composition and GRE preparation at Brigham Young University in Utah for five years before moving to Australia in 2003. He holds BA and MA degrees in English as well as a BS in psychology. Kevin's Web site, GREVocabulary.com, contains free downloadable documents with strategies for answering the antonym, analogy, and Analytical Writing questions, as well as a low-cost vocabulary-learning software program.

See also Are You Ready for the GRE?

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