Rating my GRE study materials

Part I dealt with how I prepared for the GRE. This is Part II.

  • Flash cards. The best thing I did was create my own flash cards. I used the Princeton Review book as my basis, but any of the books would have done. This made the learning more personal, and I could put page references to the book on the card, in case I needed to refresh my memory. (All of the GRE books seem to not believe in indexes, and the tables of content seem undernourished.) I referred to these when waiting for the bus to take me to class and found myself really liking them. They’re a useful tool if you believe in the “little and often” strategy.
  • Sample tests. The best thing about the CDs that come with the practice books are the sample tests. They’re timed to resemble the actual test, and the Kaplan and PowerPrep tests mimic the actual interface used on the actual GRE test. It’s great rehearsal for what happens. They don’t operate exactly the same as the real GRE; the real GRE questions calibrate to your answers, pushing harder questions on you when you answer correctly and easier questions when you get them wrong. But it’s good enough so the experience on test day isn’t so alien.
  • Practice books. The best tell you what to expect, explain the basics behind the math concepts, and offer sample tests. After you’ve read about the concepts and the formulas, really the only thing you can do is practice practice practice, and that’s the value these books provide. But why in God’s name are they so frickin’ oversized? What’s the idea? The smaller-sized Barron’s Passkey book was much friendlier and more portable for just that reason.
  • GRE PowerPrep software and GRE 10th edition book. Written by the makers of the GRE test, the book was OK, but is official orthodoxy and so its rules are not to be taken too literally. The non-ETS books emphasize shortcuts and tactics rather than recommend full-bore seriousness.
    • The first two sample tests in the book are best because they contain answer explanations. I stopped doing the book’s tests after that because they did not explain how to derive the math answers–how can I identify what I’m doing wrong unless I’m told where I went off track?
    • The PowerPrep software was OK, but very primitive; it took over the video to render a 640x480 resolution. Fortunately, the sample tests offer explanations and look like the real thing.
    • I believe in 2007 the GRE will debut new test formats and sections, so a lot that’s familiar now to the GRE aftermarket may need significant rethinking.
  • Princeton Review book and CD. Rani loaned me these and was complimentary about the book. It’s written more irreverently than any of the others, which I liked a lot, and was a good place to start. I actually laughed out loud here and there.
    • No index, and the TOC could be better–good luck finding the section on permutations and combinations. Great answer explanations.
    • The CD is fair; it links to the Princeton website where they try to hook you with offers for more prep and tutoring. Contains 4 sample tests but these do NOT mimic the actual GRE test interface, so a demerit there; no other prep materials, so another demerit.
    • Nevertheless, a good and friendly place to start and I used the book’s tactics quite a lot as I worked through the GRE today. It’s got a great procedure for handling the quantitative comparison questions, including the best explanation of permutation and combination questions I’ve read. I also appreciated its templates for the essay questions.
    • The CD sample tests track your scores so you can see how they improve (or decline, in my case) as you progress. I found these scores to be similar to the actual scores I got.
  • Arco. I think this is the name of it (I’ve already returned it to the library). Fair explanation of math concepts, OK math questions and explanations. Good for extra practice but not serious study.
  • Barrons. I had the big book from the library, which I wound up not using because I ran out of time.
    • However, I bought a smaller trade paper, the Passkey to the GRE, from B&N and found that very useful; it seemed to include most of the important material from its big brother and took up less room in my bag so I could carry it to work and read it at lunch. (The Passkey book does not include a CD.) Its math section condensed all the math facts you needed to know and memorize in one section, which I found myself constantly referring back to when I needed the formula for figuring the area of a trapezoid. 12 points for convenience right there.
    • The Passkey contains 3 sample tests and lots of math practice questions with good explanations. I found the math problems REALLY hard, and they seem to favor really tough geometry figures–find the area of the non-shaded portion of a square filled with four shaded semi-circles, that kind of thing.
    • One of the interesting things about my personal learning process was discovering that sometimes I did way too much calculation, and other times I used shortcuts to get an answer that Barrons would explain in the most elaborate way. It’s an odd thing: most of these books say “don’t waste time calculating,” yet they explain the answers to their questions in ways that involve elaborate calculation.
  • Kaplan 2004 GRE review. Richard at work loaned me this book/CD. Of them all, I’d place this at the top of the heap. The book had great advice, somewhat different from the Princeton book, and I liked reading the differences. For example, Princeton provides sample templates for the essay questions. Kaplan instead recommends writing the body of the essay first, and finishing with the intro and conclusion, which I found to be excellent advice.
    • They also had great test-day advice, such as avoiding coffee, eating lightly, and bringing a small snack to stave hunger.
    • The book contains good explanations of math concepts and good sample questions and vocabulary.
    • The CD is good and bad. It has lots of helpful resources for refreshing yourself on math, including a flashcard program for math and vocabulary, good overview of the basic math strategies, and a diagnostic test that highlights your problem areas so you can create a personalized study plan.
    • The CD includes 3 sample tests that mimic the GRE interface and provide an amazing amount of detail on your test-taking style. For example, after finishing a test, Kaplan shows you the five questions where you spent the longest periods of “think-time” plus whether you answered the question rightly or not, questions where you changed your answer (and whether you switched from incorrect to correct or correct to incorrect), and a brief estimation of your performance.
    • One of the eye-openers for me was its observation that I tended to spend lots of time on questions where taking the time didn’t make a difference–I tended to get those questions wrong anyway. This played into how I handled tough questions on the actual test.
    • So lots of great resources are on the CD. Unfortunately, the CD is mired in the worst of late-‘90s multimedia production: cutesy animation, overly clever script-writing, plonky music, video snippets of actors giving you test advice, etc. And the UI takes over the monitor–there’s no way to skip these damn videos once they start. So to get to the great content, you have to suffer through excruciating UI design. Perhaps the more recent editions are better; I hope so, because the material is excellent.
  • Exambusters GRE study cards. Business card-sized flash cards; probably best for studying vocabulary. I didn’t find them as helpful to me as my homemade flash cards and rarely used them.
I learned too late that my local technical college offers a GRE math prep course. Had I known about it beforehand, I’d have surely signed up for it.

But I think there comes a point where, you know, I’m not going to progress much further than where I am right now. When I found myself consistently missing about half of my questions and getting well below 600 on my math questions, I figured that I’d hit the wall. Carbo-loading wasn’t going to help. So I hoped to get at least a 580 so I’d meet the minimum grad school requirements. To get 640 exceeded what I dreamed I could do.

My standard reply to this is: the questions must have been easy. But maybe a more uplifting answer is that I was exceptional today – and lucky.