The GRE Tutor: What Happens When a Tutor Takes the Test?

Posted by Sam Ashworth on 2/18/15 4:06 PM

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A few weeks ago, I very suddenly made the decision to apply to graduate school. The swiftness of my decision surprised me, but not as much as my realization that because I was about to leave the country, I had exactly three days to prepare for the GRE. I was pretty cocky, though: after all, I’d been an SAT and GRE verbal tutor in NYC and Boston for almost a decade. Additionally, since I was applying to MFA programs in creative writing, I could pretty much punt on the quant section (and thank God, because I hadn’t done a math problem in 12 years). So how hard could this be?

There was just one problem: I’d never actually taken the test.

Of course, I’d taken a practice test to qualify to teach the GRE when the new test came out back in 2011. And even though I took that one on my couch, to be honest, I’d expected to be able to breeze through this one—I mean, I do this for a living! But once I was in the room, I realized how much harder it was than I’d expected, especially in the final sections where the difficulty increased. I found myself having to summon up all the strategies and mental conditioning that I teach my students, and think in ways that even my test-prep obsessed brain found bizarre. So today, I’d like to share some of those GRE strategies and tips for staying mentally alert with you. 

GRE Fill-in-the-Blank Question Strategies

The GRE is a strange test—since it is one of the most recently-overhauled US standardized tests, it’s designed to be somewhat coaching-resistant. Its verbal section is unpredictable and tricky in ways that the GMAT, its closest competitor, is not. One of the main reasons for this is that GRE questions tend to have two levels of difficulty. Let’s examine what this means for the fill-in-the-blank question types. (The reading comprehension passages will come in my next blog.)

Text Completions and Sentence Equivalencies

These are the technical terms for the two types of fill-in-the-blank question. Both are likely to be chock full of what a GRE writer, giggling insanely to himself, would call supererogatorily prolix pleonasm—in other words, a bunch of pointlessly big and irrelevant words which often mean more or less the same thing. The task for each question type, though, is slightly different. In TCs, you have to complete a sentence or paragraph with up to three blanks, which are not just single words, but sometimes phrases, like “the audacity of hope.” In these questions the two layers of difficulty are clear:

1)    Figure out exactly what point this inordinately-complicated text is making
2)    Figure out which of the inordinately-complicated answer choices lend themselves to making that point

SE’s are shorter, and answer choices are just one word. They present a slightly different challenge.

1)    Figure out exactly what this inordinately-complicated sentence really means.
2)    Among the answer choices find the two connected words which correspond to that prediction.

In each case, these are very different tasks. That’s why the key to the fill-in-the-blank questions is to break each one into two steps, with a linking bridge between them. The first step requires you to focus on the sentence or text itself—really suss out what the sentence is saying. The second step is to use logical reasoning and vocabulary knowledge to pick out the right answer. The link between these steps, the north star (or in GRE-speak, “cynosure”) that will guide you to the correct answer, is the prediction you make for the blank. This is a pretty basic strategy, but it works.

But that strategy can only take you so far—you still have to know all the words. But this is where the test gets nefarious to the point of being absurd: the GRE ignores connotation.

Connotation vs. Denotation on the GRE

This is where the testmakers really try to bamboozle you. Connotation is the commonly-associated, sometimes secondary meaning of a word; denotation is its hard-and-fast dictionary definition. Think of the various words we use for “thin”: “slender” and “svelte” have very positive meanings, “slim” is fairly neutral, and “gaunt” and “skinny” have more negative meanings. Their connotations are different. The denotation of all these words, however, is more or less the same: “thin.” The important thing to know is that the GRE has no compunctions (or reservations, qualms, hesitations, or doubts) about jettisoning connotation entirely, and insisting that “svelte” and “skinny” mean exactly the same thing. This gets very nasty indeed when you get into more complicated vocabulary, where connotation is often all we have to go on—and the correct answers do not always have to be synonyms. They just have to fulfill the sentence’s meaning. Someone’s eyesight can be both “undiminished” and “undamaged,” even though those are not synonyms. But at times, the connotations of the choices can be hugely confusing. On my test, “notoriety” and “reknown” were both viable answers to a question, even though they are patently not synonyms—their connotations are in direct opposition. I stared at that question for a long time, and in my head I called the people at ETS some truly unpublishable names. The takeaway here? Be very careful about distinguishing between the associated meanings of a word, and its dictionary definition.

GRE Mental Strategies

As any GRE coaching student will tell you, taking a practice test in the warmth and comfort of your own home is rather different from taking the real thing in an airless room in an office building, with a pair of plastic headphones clapped over your ears, staring at a computer running Windows 98. We’ve talked a good deal on this blog about the importance of approaching the GRE, as well as other tests, as a psychological and physical trial as well as an intellectual one. This is a nearly four-hour test that gets harder as you proceed; learning how to condition oneself to stay alert and game for the duration is a crucial part of any GRE prep. Each person should take his or her own approach to this, but I wanted to share some of my methods, and methods I’ve learned from students in the past.

During the breaks

On the GRE, there are 1-minute and 10-minutes breaks between sections. You can waive these breaks if you like, but I don’t recommend it. Also, should you finish a section early, you can leave the room for the remaining time. At certain points, when I felt I was cooking with gas, I would forfeit some of the 1-minute breaks or even end the section early just so I could get to the next one. It’s up to you how you’d like to roll, but I did make sure that I was taking breaks before I felt tired. Don’t wait until you feel fatigued, anticipate this (practice tests are the best way to figure out your ideal rhythm), and take breaks before that fatigue sets in.

The only thing to remember, of course, is that every time you take a break you have to sign out, empty your pockets, retrieve whatever you’ve brought to eat or drink from your locker (don’t touch your phone), and then on the way back in, show ID, get swiped with a metal detector, and hike up your pant legs again. It’s a pain, but it’s worth doing it two or three times throughout the test. And what do you do once you’re out of the room? Obviously, use the bathroom. Splash water on your face. But beyond that, exercise. You’re sitting at that terminal, hunched over a keyboard, totally stressed. Do whatever makes your body happy! It doesn’t matter whether it’s stretching, jumping jacks, push-ups, or parkour, move your body.

During the test

The testing room is dull. You sit at a bank of terminals, each separated by a beige divider. The monitors are also beige, as are the walls and probably the ceiling. Everything is beige. You are beige. You are given a few pencils and scrap paper, as well as a pair of noise-canceling headphones (not beige), which reduce the quiet hum of the room to an even quieter hum. The headphones are not exactly luxury cans (you don’t have to wear them, they’re not comfortable). The whole test unfurls on a very simple screen. There is, thus, the potential during this test to feel both stressed and bored at the same time, which is a toxic combination for test-takers. Thus, you need to combat the stress and the boredom on two different fronts.

For me, the key to dealing with stress is to always know your approach to each question. This is one of the major advantages of working with a GRE verbal tutor: we make sure that you never encounter a question that you do not immediately know how to begin. If you have a practiced an approach for each question type, it is far, far harder for the testmakers to throw you a curveball.

As for the boredom, well…relax. Literally. If you find yourself rereading the same question four times and the letters are starting to look like Viking runes, stop reading. Take a second. Take off the headphones. Lean back in your chair and look around at all the other suckers hunched like monks over their keyboards. Massage your shoulders and neck. Close your eyes for ten seconds. You can afford this time. Then crack your knuckles and get back to work. You have a test to cream.

That, in short, is what worked for me. And it can work for you too. These are simple techniques, but some of them take a lot of practice to master. If you’re looking for private GRE tutors in NYC, Boston, or online, think about giving Cambridge Coaching a call. We have expert tutors with years of experience helping students through every kind of test prep issue. Let us show you what we can do!

For more helpful blogs on GRE prep, check out these other blog posts, written by GRE tutors in New York and Boston: How Rusty Test-Takers Can Combat Anxiety, No Sweat Study Habits for Busy People, and How to Keep the Test Strategy Fresh in Your Head.

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Tags: GRE