The GRE Tutor: Katie's Tutoring Approaches

Posted by Katie Van Shaik on 9/7/15 11:00 AM

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Meet Katie! An expert GRE tutor with Cambridge Coaching since 2014.

Katie is an MD PhD student at Harvard who is in her sixth year of combined graduate study.  She’s completing her MD at Harvard Medical School and her PhD in Ancient History with the Harvard Department of the Classics.  Katie is an accomplished test taker, who enjoy helping her students prepare for exams like the MCAT and the GRE.  Check out the great advice she has to give after spending countless hours tutoring for the GRE!

What’s helpful about working with a private tutor for the GRE?

Private tutors are helpful for all tests and subjects, because they can focus exclusively on your personal strengths and weaknesses.  In the context of Cambridge Coaching’s customized, syllabus-based approach, having a private tutor for a standardized test means that on-the-spot adjustments can be made to your individual syllabus – this, in turn, means that your study time is as focused and specific as it can be.  

A private tutor for the GRE exam is especially useful because the GRE tests ‘test-taking skills and strategies’ as much as it tests content.  It can be a sneaky exam, and while test prep books can teach generic ‘tricks’, not all of these strategies work for everyone.  A book or a class teaches the aggregate, while a private tutor teaches you.

What’s your overall philosophy to teaching the GRE?

I like to teach the GRE because the students taking it have diverse backgrounds and PhD program goals.  They also want a post-graduate degree, which means that they are passionate about long-term dedication to a particular subject.  My overall philosophy to the GRE is that this is simply a hurdle you have to jump over so that you can move on to bigger and better pursuits.  Let’s work together to get you where you want to go!

What are some common misconceptions about the GRE?

A common misconception about the GRE exam that I’ve heard is that “it’s like the SAT, only harder.”  To a certain extent, this is true: like the SAT, the GRE is a standardized test with math and verbal sections, and the GRE is, in fact, harder than the SAT (this is more true of the verbal section).  However, the two tests are different and require different test-taking strategies for success.

What are the three most important things you think all GRE students should know?

1. YOU CAN BEAT THIS TEST! A lot of what I see in the students I’ve tutored for standardized tests is fear or anxiety that they can’t learn the material, or that it’s been a long time since they’ve taken a square root or read a complicated expository essay.  It’s important for students to know that with effort and a will to do so, they CAN learn the material and the test.

2. Having said #1, I’ll add:  you can’t beat the test without effort.  I can and will teach you content and test taking strategies, but the only way the content and strategies will stick in the long run (and on test day) will be for you to apply the content and strategies in homework assignments outside of tutoring sessions. The good part of having a private tutor, though, is that all of the homework is ultra-focused on your practice needs – you won’t be doing sentence completions ad nauseam if you’re already great at them!

3. Read. The content of the math section can be taught fairly quickly, and then, it’s just a matter of repeated practice for improvement.  It takes much longer to acquire the vocabulary needed for success on the verbal section of the GRE exam, and much of the test focuses on how the vocabulary words work in context.  This means that the best way to prepare for the verbal section is to read quality literature daily – I’ve read a lot of it, so we can work together to find a book you’ll want to read.

What’s the most common GRE fear you see among incoming students?

Among students with strong backgrounds in the humanities, math is terrifying.  For students with backgrounds in math or science, the verbal section is a monster from a nightmare.  I’m completing a medical degree at Harvard Medical School and a PhD in Ancient History with the Harvard Department of the Classics, so I really do understand the concerns and cognitive challenges of both sides!  My background in both science and the humanities at the postgraduate level means that I can help coach students who struggle with either section.

How do I get the most out of tutoring?

1. Be honest with your tutor – we’re here to help you, and we care a lot about where you’re struggling to learn, where you feel confident, and what you’re worried about!

2. Complete the assigned homework. As mentioned above, the homework is focused on you and your needs, so there’s no ‘busywork’!  A sure way to an improved score (just like improvements in any activity in life) is practice outside of tutoring sessions.

How much time should I dedicate to studying for the GRE?

There is no one answer to this question, because the answer depends on your starting diagnostic score, your personal target score, and your own strengths and weaknesses.  Most students, though, should plan to devote at least 40 hours of time outside of tutoring sessions to practice and preparation.

What's your recommended reading list for students looking to improve their GRE vocab?

"The New Yorker" is great for shorter essays. For books, I'd recommend Huxley's Brave New World or London's The Sea Wolf. Both are (I think) compelling reads.

Katie's Biography:

Katie is an MD PhD student at Harvard who is in her sixth year of combined graduate study.  She’s completing her MD at Harvard Medical School and her PhD in Ancient History with the Harvard Department of the Classics. Katie graduated from Harvard College in 2008 summa cum Laude with a primary concentration in Classics and a secondary field certificate in Molecular and Cellular Biology.  Having been accepted into HMS while a senior in Harvard College, Katie deferred medical school for a year to accept a Knox Fellowship to earn an MA (with Distinction, UK equivalent to Summa cum Laude) in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of London. 

Katie enjoys research and writing, and helps high school and college students develop their expository writing skills with Cambridge Coaching. Katie is also an accomplished test taker, who enjoys helping students prepare for a range of tests from the PSAT, SAT, AP exams in school, to the GRE and MCAT for aspiring graduate students.

In her free time, Katie can be found running along the Charles, enjoying Central and Kendall Square restaurants with friends, and traveling.

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our GRE tutors: How to Prep for the GRE at the Last Minute, A Secret Weapon for Learning Vocab, Tutoring Spotlight: Ainsley Tucker. Looking to work with Katie Van Shaik? 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.

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