As many older siblings can tell you, sometimes your younger siblings would rather go hiking in Antarctica before they ask for the tiniest bit of help or advice. So you can imagine my surprise when I got this message from my youngest sister a few months ago:
Sis : i’m finally kinda trying to maybe somewhat get more serious about gre prep
Sis : i’ve avoided it for a while
Sis : any helpful tips you’ve gained from tutoring? aside from like practicing and getting more familiar? any strategies you've figured out or resources that were surprisingly useful, xyz?
Me (replying within 5 seconds): OMG YES I’VE GOT THIS
The truth is, there’s no big secret to beating the GRE test. No one is so strong in all sections that they can ace the test without prep, and there’s no one perfect way to study for it that will guarantee you an amazing score. However, just asking those kinds of questions a few months out from your test is already a great start.
So, here is exactly what I told my sister (some of it literally word-for-word) about the basics of beginning to prep for the GRE.
Starting your vocab review early is KEY
The #1 tip I can give about the GRE is to start studying vocab now. By the time most of my students start working with me, they are two months out from the test, and that’s just not enough time.
I started studying vocab four months out from my test. These days there are tons of apps you can use to review vocab, but I used and personally recommend physical flash cards. Making flash cards and just carrying them around with you and reviewing a little every day works wonders, and is much better than trying to schedule 1 hour cram periods.
Every prep book includes its own set of recommended vocab words, and every tutor will swear by their personal favorites, but there is no one perfect list. Just pick one and start memorizing! The next question is always “how many should I memorize?” but there isn’t a perfect answer for that either. Everyone starts at a different place. What I can say is that at the end of the day what matters is that you really, really know each word because being kinda sure or going off of context is not going be enough.
Finally, just try to keep your eyes and ears open throughout the day for words you don’t recognize. There are plenty of words that I’ve picked up, not from deliberate study, but from hearing it on TV or reading it in a book. Being able to associate a word with a unique scene or memory is a lot more powerful than associating it with just another flash card.
Should you take a review course, study alone, or work with a tutor?
The next message I got from her was -
Sis: i’m thinking about signing up for gre review course (prob online) do you have recs?
My response? Something along the lines of “not really.”
The truth is, I haven’t taken any review courses in a classroom setting since my mom made me do one for the SAT, and I couldn’t stand it! It’s a bland, broad general review of all the material, that isn’t capable of accounting for what a student is already comfortable with and what they might need more time to review.
At the same time, studying privately out of a prep book is really hard. There’s no one keeping you on task, there’s no one to ask questions, and if the explanation for a concept isn’t clear, you’re out of luck.
Now, I’m definitely biased (since this is my job), but my recommendation is always going to be to work with a tutor, whether it’s one short consultation session, or weekly meetings, online or in-person. A tutor can put together a lesson plan that is personalized to both your strengths and weaknesses AND they can also take into account what kind of score you’re aiming for.
(And for the record, in case you’re wondering, my little sister may be willing to ask for advice, but she won’t let me tutor her. Ever. There are some older/younger sibling dynamics you never get over!)
So that’s the advice I’d give to someone just starting to think about the GRE and how to prep for it. My sister may not have taken her exam yet, but she’s on the path to be prepared and ready when the day comes. Unlike me, when I got her next set of messages later that week…
Sis: Um, so how does credit work? And how do I know what credit card to pick?
Me: What do I look like, an adult?
Me: Ask Dad.
Are you interested in working with a GRE tutor like Sarah, either in person in New York or online?
Want to read more on the subject? Check out some of our other blogs on GRE tips and tricks!