For many years, I didn’t know what to do when students asked me, “How much should I study?” I would cough and hem and always start some answer with, “Well, it depends …” Because it did depend! The population of GRE test takers is so diverse, and the range of ability they bring to the test so disparate, that a GRE test taker chosen at random might need anywhere between 0 and 200 hours of preparation to achieve her goal, and I say that without exaggeration.
But students would keep asking that question, class after class after class, and I realized that I needed to upgrade my answer. My hedging answers were technically true but not very helpful.
So here’s a practical, helpful answer to that question.
First of all, you should never study seven days a week. You need a day of rest to recharge, guard against burnout, and let your brain do some dot-connecting in the background. Once you’ve established your day of rest, study six days a week, 1-6 hours a day. If you study more than three hours at a stretch, take an extended break. And if you’re taking a class to prep for the GRE, remember that class time counts toward your daily limit!
This is a flexible framework that lets you ratchet anywhere between 6 and 36 hours a week. So what number of weekly hours should you reach for? I’d recommend 20. Consider the GRE a part-time job. However, while 20 hours is a good target to shoot for, you shouldn’t regard it as a ceiling. When you plan your study schedule for the week, add more or fewer than 20 hours as your professional and personal commitments allow (or don’t allow!).
Who else is waiting impatiently for Season 3 of the BBC’s Sherlock? Rumor has it that filming of the new season will begin on March 18. If you are Sherlocked like me and pacing the floors, desperate to find out how he survived, here’s something that can keep you occupied until our beloved Holmes and Watson return to us.
Find solace in what Sherlockians refer to as The Canon – the original works and writings by Arthur Conan Doyle. I recently read A Study in Scarlet (you can read it for free here) and not only was my Sherlockian soul sated, but I also discovered many gems of GRE vocabulary tucked into the text. Give it a read, and keep your vocabulary notebook nearby, as you’re sure to find plenty of words to add to your “To Be Looked Up” list.
Cases of mysterious vocab you will find within A Study in Scarlet include:
Next up: The Sign of Four. I’m eager to discover the lexicographic lovelies that await me there.
In closing, some words of wisdom for your prep:
“Study for the GRE if convenient. If inconvenient, study all the same.”
If you’re reading anything that has good GRE vocab in it, we’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments below.
Climate change is a very serious issue, but as a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, I sometimes grumble that global warming can’t come soon enough. It wouldn’t be a true Wisconsin winter if we didn’t get at least one blizzard in March, and I found myself last week shoveling desperately through a waist-high mound of heavy, densely packed snow deposited by snowplows at the foot of my driveway. My usual strategy in such situations is “stay in the house until the roommate has to go somewhere first.” Unfortunately, he was out of town, so I had to excavate the driveway myself if I wanted any shot of pulling my car out of the garage.
I get the feeling that many of you view the taking GRE the same way I view shoveling snow: as a chore. Something unpleasant that takes a lot of time and work, that you have no choice about, and that if you were king of the world, you’d never have to deal with.
You might expect that, as a professional GRE teacher, I’d be disappointed that so many of you are as excited to study for the GRE as you are to clean the bathroom. And in some respects, I am. As I wrote recently, I honestly believe that studying for the GRE is a valuable experience, and I’d like for more of my students to be excited by the prospect of becoming smarter and cleverer.
In another light, however, I actually wish that GRE students viewed the test more like a chore. Chores have something going for them: nobody doubts their ability to complete one. As much as I loathe shoveling snow, I knew after a set amount of unpleasant labor, my driveway would be clear and I could pull my car out and move on with my life. We all dread mowing the lawn, folding laundry, and unloading the dishwasher, but we never entertain for even a second the possibility that we won’t be able to bring any of these chores to a successful conclusion. Nobody approaches a loaded dishwasher thinking, “Oh man oh man oh man THIS MIGHT BE THE DISHWASHER THAT ENDS ME.”
By contrast, a staggering number of GRE students fear exactly this: that the GRE will be the end of them. Some of you call the GRE a “chore,” but in actuality you don’t view it as a chore at all. You view it as a trial. You think that, maybe, you won’t succeed. And I know that on some days, the “maybe” tilts dangerously toward a “probably.” Watching my students suffer because they fear their own potential is the most heartbreaking aspect of my job.
Yesterday morning I was lucky enough to TA a practice test for Jesse Evans, one of the best teachers in the whole company. While talking about the despair that shrouds a lot of students who take their first practice test, Jesse uttered a line that I and the other TA’s promptly confessed to each other we were going to steal. The line was this:
“Don’t confuse being uncomfortable with being incapable.”
This was such a simple statement that I was simultaneously blown away by Jesse’s wisdom and stunned that I hadn’t come up with it myself. When you take the GRE, many things about it make you feel uncomfortable: using math you haven’t touched in eight years; reading prose full of words you don’t know; working with question formats you’ve never seen before, and the list goes on. But just because you’re uncomfortable with something doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. If you knew the formulas once, you can learn them again. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you can memorize it. If a question format seems weird now, it won’t seem weird after you’ve done a hundred problems that use it.
Outside, in the bitter cold, with my nose running and my muscles burning, I felt the keenest discomfort as I hacked through several feet of hard, nasty snow. But I never doubted for a second that someday my ordeal would be over and I’d be able to say, “I did that!” as I got in my car and caromed triumphantly through the gap in the snowdrift. Don’t read too much into your own discomfort on the GRE. Just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you’re incapable.
Today I got an email from a student who was perplexed that his GRE quantitative score was dropping on his tests. Toward the end of the email the student said:
I have been doing all the homework and a lot of practice problems [that] I’m doing fairly well on. I have been getting 70-90% correct in the quiz bank and on homework.
Many of you do exactly what this student does: when you do your GRE homework, you keep tallies of your right/wrong answers, then compare your homework performance to your MST performance. And then you get discouraged because your MST performance is worse.
But hang on a sec. Your homework problems are untimed, non-adaptive, and done in small chunks. Your MST problems are timed, adaptive, and done in the context of a grueling 4-hour exam. Of course you’ll do worse on the MST! That’s not a sign you’re doing something wrong. That’s not surprising. It’s downright commonplace.
When you finish a problem set, review it thoroughly to reinforce what you did right, and identify and squelch what you did wrong. But don’t keep score. “I got X questions right” is a thoroughly useless piece of information; all it can do is discourage you. Keep score when it counts: on Test Day.
A friend of mine works as a product leader at a medical software company. He gets to design software and make strategic decisions about its development — which features to include, which not to, that kind of stuff. That seems like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, because he’s a high-level dude, he has to deal with some unpleasant stuff as well, such as disciplining (and sometimes firing) bad employees.
One of the things he learned in his role is that people are surprisingly bad at articulating solutions to problem behaviors. For example, one of his employees missed a lot of deadlines because he kept getting distracted, and the reason for his persistent distraction was email: whenever a “new message” notification popped up in Outlook, the employee would drop whatever he was doing to read the email.
My friend asked him, “What are you going to do to stop getting distracted from your work?”
And the employee said, “I’m not going to read my emails as they come in from now on.”
Sound like a sensible thing to say to your boss? I thought so. My friend didn’t. He pointed out that “not getting distracted by email” is the goal. Saying “I won’t read incoming emails” is essentially a restatement of the goal; it doesn’t say how that goal will be achieved. A better answer would have been, “I will turn off my email when I’m coding and only answer it at designated points in the day,” or, “I’m going to turn off popup email notifications.”
I don’t think I know a single person — myself included — who doesn’t waste unholy amounts of time reading Facebook, texting, watching Netflix, or whatever. Everybody talks about how “busy” they are, yet it seems to be an open secret that no matter how busy someone claims to be, they still find ways to kill half their week doodling around Pinterest. Think about your own life: have I just described it, or haven’t I?
Our tendency to distract ourselves may be okay in general, but it’s a bit tragic where the GRE is concerned, because it means that many of you are effectively impeding yourselves from getting the score that you deserve. The hours you spend re-watching Game of Thrones instead of studying knock points off your Test Day score, and as awesome as that TV show is, you’ll surely agree it’s not as awesome as your dreams.
And so I find myself asking my students, “What are you going to do to stop getting distracted from your work?”
And they say to me, “I’m not going to get distracted from now on! I’m going to study so hard!”
And I’m here today to tell you: that doesn’t work. Saying, “I will work! I won’t get distracted!” is a restatement of your goal. It doesn’t say how you will achieve that goal. Once you identify behaviors that are actively reducing your future GRE score, you have to devise concrete, specific solutions. You have to figure out how you’re going to stop those behaviors.
Say, “I’m going to cancel my Netflix account for the next three months,” or, “I’m going to turn my phone off when I study,” or, “I’m going to download ‘self control‘ programs and block my favorite websites when I study,” or, “I’m going to tell my roommate/girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/parents/some hobo I just met to hide my Game of Thrones DVDs and only give them back after the GRE is over.”
Then you can confidently say you’ve solved your problem are on the path to the GRE score you deserve.