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Saturday, January 19, 2008

An Intro to GRE

The Graduate Record Examination is held by the Educational Testing Service and is required for admissions into graduate programmes in universities in the United States of America and Singapore.

Being a Computer Adaptive Test, it can be taken any time of the year. All one has to do is book a date with the ETS to write the GRE.

The GRE has three sections:

i. Quantitative Reasoning: This mainly includes basic mathematics questions -- 28 questions to be attempted in 45 minutes. One can score a maximum of 800 in this section.
ii. Verbal Ability: 30 questions in 30 minutes is acknowledged by most to be the toughest section in the examination, especially for non-native English speakers. The highest score possible in this section is also 800.
iii. Analytical Writing Ability: This requires students to write two essays -- one expressing your opinion on a topic, and another in which you are expected to analyse an argument. This section is scored out of 6.

When to start
This is the question that plagues most students during their pre-final year.
Many believe the GRE requires close to six months of intensive preparation. This, I think, is a fallacy.

The GRE is not a particularly difficult examination. Really!

As an engineer/engineering student, the Quantitative Reasoning section of the GRE shouldn't be too difficult, especially after spending four years in the company of engineering mathematics.
But if you are like most engineers and have had a healthy disdain for English through school, Verbal Ability is unlikely to be a cakewalk.

Taking everything into consideration, cracking the GRE does not require more than a couple of months of hard work.

Pre-final year students have the advantage of having a summer break before the final year. This summer break can be put to good use, especially if you manage to cloister yourself in a room, away from distractions.

The best time, in my opinion, to book a date for writing the GRE is in the month of June or early July. After that, academic pressures may put a damper on your preparation for the exam.
If you postpone taking the exam to September, you could suddenly find yourself pressed for time. This is mainly because the official GRE scores do not arrive until three weeks after you take the examination.

More important, writing the GRE is merely a small part in the entire application process.

Booking a date
i. The easiest way to book a date to write the GRE is to call Prometric India on (011) 2651 1649.
Writing the examination will put you back by $140 (Rs 6,115 approximately).
ii. You need an international credit card to book your seat.
iii. Monday is a good day to choose to write the GRE because Saturday and Sunday are likely to be holidays, and so you miss fewer classes (or days of work).
Study material

The GRE guides on the planet are probably outnumbered only by the number of institutions claiming to give you a passport to the Indian Institutes of Management.

Choosing the right mix is not very easy and involves trial and error.

A few books and CDs that I, and a few of my acquaintances, found helpful are:

i. Barron's How to Prepare for the GRE: Graduate Record Examination, 14th edition.
This is a book every GRE aspirant is undoubtedly aware of.
It is most famous for its 50 word lists, containing arcane words the testers at ETS love to ask.
Read the book. You will totally believe that the people at ETS do not speak normal English like the rest of us.

ii. GRE Big Book, published by the Educational Testing Service.
The Big Book is little known. But it is one I found extremely useful.
It contains 27 question papers culled from the paper and pencil avatar of the GRE over several years, and is published by the same people who set the tests, ETS. Unfortunately, it is out of print and is very difficult to find. With a little perseverance, you can get hold of a photocopy of the same. If you are decent at Quantitative Reasoning, you can safely skip those sections here.

iii. Kaplan Higher Score on the GRE CD
This CD contains a diagnostic test, three full-length Computer Adaptive Tests and six sectional tests, in addition to a few nifty tools.
The Verbal Ability Section is much tougher than what one is likely to find elsewhere (and in the actual exam as well). The Quantitative Reasoning section is tougher as well.
So do not be surprised if you witness a terrible dip in your performance when you try this out.

iv. The Princeton Review CD
The Princeton Review CD has quite a few Computer Adaptive Tests which are a lot easier than the actual GRE, in my opinion.
Attempt to score a minimum of 1,450 or so in these tests. For a sample test online, click here.

v. The PowerPrep CD
When you book your date to write the GRE, you will receive this CD from ETS.
This CD does not have as much information as one might expect (shocking, especially when one looks at how much ETS charges the test taker!).
I strongly recommend preserving one of the two diagnostic tests on the CD for the day before the GRE. This is because repeated experiments with several people I know seem to indicate that what you score in the actual GRE will hover around your score in the PowerPrep test.
There are lots of other test prep CDs and books you can avail of. (Cambridge and Peterson's crop to mind), but it is best to stick to these.

If you have the time, inclination and money for the others, do give them a shot.

Note: Many wonder whether it is worth attending coaching classes to prepare for the GRE. To answer the question: No.

The coaching institutes charge the earth, and do not give you an edge over anyone else who has worked hard sitting at home.

Also: the practice tests that most of them promise you are merely CATs from some of the CDs I have mentioned above. Take it from one who has actually squandered a lot of money on these classes!