This week we're spotlighting Helena, who joined the Cambridge Coaching team in 2014. Helena is a great believer in individualized study, and since 2005 has helped countless students from middle school to graduate school with their academic goals, standardized test preparation, and college and graduate school admissions processes. Find out what Helena has to say about GRE coaching approaches!
What’s helpful about working with a private tutor for the GRE?
The GRE can seem daunting, and a tutor can help make it manageable. A tutor will first assess your strengths and weaknesses and let you know, from an expert perspective, on what you need to focus. Then they'll help you with repeatable strategies for each question type, so that the test becomes something known and conquerable, where you're never at a loss for "oh no, how do I do this one?"
What’s your overall philosophy to teaching the GRE?
I believe that GRE coaching appraches, almost more than any other type of coaching, must be tailored to the specific student. This is because students come from such disparate backgrounds and have such a wide variety of goals. I believe in coming up with an achievable goal and then attacking weaknesses strategically. I also stress a small, consistent amount of work each day as opposed to long cramming sessions.
What’s your approach to teaching the verbal section?
The verbal section is harder than it looks, particularly the vocabulary questions. It's partly the format of the questions that makes them so difficult, not just the vocabulary itself (though that's hard, too). I encourage students to do a few practice questions every day, along with using some kind of GRE vocab app on their phone that they can do a few times a day whenever they have downtime (on the subway, etc), so that this material is never far from the front of their mind.
With the reading comprehension questions, similarly I encourage them to practice the methods we learn for extracting key information by doing at least a few problems a day and, ideally, slowly building up to doing whole practice sections a day. I also recommend increasing the amount of high-level nonfiction reading (publications such as The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic) they do in their daily lives, so that reading on this level feels more natural by the time they take the test. The verbal approach works best when it's immersive rather than just isolated in intensive sessions.
What’s your approach to teaching the math section?
First, stressing that the Math is easier than it seems, and that a surprisingly large portion of it deals more with logic than Math. Most students who seek GRE tutoring don't think of math as a strength, and often have not taken a math class in quite some time. I begin with problem sets of the types of questions that really are just logic and require almost no math. From there, I work concept by concept, doing quick reviews of some basic math rules and equations and stressing memorization through repetition. Depending on how this goes, we proceed into reviewing and repeating yet more complex math concepts, working methodically, and not moving on to a harder area until the easy one is flawless.
What’s your approach to teaching the essay?
The two keys to the essay are time and focus. What makes the essay difficult for students is the time constraints, and so I try to start incorporating time drills and other ways to work on and strategize the time constraint almost immediately. The other key point is having a clear thesis (argument) and keeping that argument consistently the focal point of the essay - making sure that each sentence written contributes to the argument.
What are some common misconceptions about the GRE?
That the math section is hard and the verbal section easy. Even as someone who comes from a heavily Verbal background, I find this to be entirely the opposite, and know that that experience is echoed by many others in my position. Lots of strong verbal-based candidates make the mistake of thinking they won't have to review or prepare for the Verbal section at all, and are unpleasantly surprised by its difficulty level on test day. The math, on the other hand, is conquerable even for students who haven't done math in years, and is much less intimidating than many students assume.
What are the three most important things you think all GRE students should know?
1. A small amount of consistent work on test material every day is more effective than long cramming sessions a couple times a week.
2. The math section is extremely repetitive and logic-based.
3. The vocabulary section is much, much more difficult than the vocabulary section you remember from the SAT.
What’s the most common GRE fear you see among incoming students?
I think there are two. The first is students from non-math-based fields having to do the math section. These students will panic over encountering math for the first time in years, and that anxiety tends to be much more what gets in their way than any real inability to learn (enough of) the math required by the test.
The second is the fear that they're starting their preparation too late, which can be a bit more merited. Students often come to GRE preparation at the last minute, and they're aware they haven't done themselves any favors with this choice. However, it's crucial to stress that there are always ways to improve their chances of a good score, no matter how late they begin their preparation - it just means being realistic about goals and very honest about strengths vs weaknesses.
How much time should I dedicate to studying for the GRE?
I think in an ideal world, a student would start studying for the GRE with a tutor two - three months before they take the test, beginning with only once and week meetings to introduce the material and begin incorporating study habits and dismantling misconceptions about the test, and the ramping up to more frequent meetings and more intensive review as the test approaches. This provides a long enough timeline that the kind of anxiety that gets in the way for many students doesn't become an issue (or is less likely to, anyway). However, many students start later than that, and very effective progress can be made in anywhere between eight and four weeks of tutoring and study. Students should devote, cumulatively, about an hour and a half to two hours of study time per day to the test material.
Read Helena's tutor biography:
Helena Fitzgerald has been tutoring numerous academic and standardized testing subjects since early 2005. Over the last nearly ten years, she has helped students from middle school to graduate school with their academic goals, standardized test preparation, and college and graduate school admissions processes. Her areas of specialization include the GMAT and the SAT, intensive courses in SSAT and ISEE, most SAT subject tests and many AP exams. She focuses particularly on helping strong Verbal students to whom Math comes less easily raise their Math scores on the SAT and GMAT. Academically, she specializes in English literature, American and European History, Latin, essay-writing, as well as one-on-one guidance through the college application process. Graduate and undergraduate applicants whom she has coached in their standardized tests and applications processes have gone on to be accepted to Yale, Wesleyan, NYU, Stanford, and Harvard, among many other schools.
Helena was born in New York City and studied at Columbia University and New York University, completing an Honors English Literature thesis on James Joyce's Ulysses. When not tutoring, Helena has also pursued a career as an author and served as a Contributing Editor and Senior Contributor at The New Inquiry, a journal of literary and cultural criticism. Her work for The New Inquiry has been excerpted or cited in The Atlantic, Harper's, Bookforum, Inside Higher Education, The New York Times, and The Nation, among many others.
Helena is a great believer in individualized study, one-on-one attention for students, and the benefits of developing a curriculum based on a student's specific learning style. She is deeply passionate about helping students unlock their full academic abilities and achieve higher scores of which they’re capable.
Looking to work with our admissions coach Helena in New York ? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.