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.

V:800 Q:640

Tremble before my mighty godlike intellect, puny humans….

Atlastatlastatlastatlastatlast … After a week and a half of anxiety-producing study, cramming, and practice tests, I took the GRE General test this morning and received the above preliminary verbal and quantitative scores. (The final scores arrive in a few weeks.) My brain is still throbbing from the effort, but moreso from being gob-smacked by my scores, which were way way WAY higher than I expected. (For those who don’t know, nor care, the highest scores you can receive are 800.)

Here are my various thoughts on the GRE experience in random order:

  • I really wish I’d started earlier and worked more steadily. I learned through this and a recent oral presentation in class that when i get anxious and nervous, I get mightily distracted from everyday life around me. I need to feel that I’m on top of the situation to feel OK about how things will go. In this case, though I’d started studying in May, by dedicating my Sundays to the cause, it was too much to load onto one day. I should have instead picked sections to work on throughout the week, and dedicated 2 or 3 sessions of math to every one verbal session.
  • Thank goodness for friends who have taken the GRE and saved their prep materials. Mike had taken it earlier this year and felt so unprepared that he said he froze for 10 minutes when he saw the first math problem; he recommended I concentrate on studying the math. Rani and Richard passed along their GRE prep books and accompanying CDs, which came in handy when it was time to do practice tests simulating the GRE experience. I also checked out 2 books from the library and bought a small Barron’s Passkey book for the GRE. This was overload, no doubt, but having them close by made me feel better.
  • What helped the most? Making my own flash cards. I used these a lot when riding the bus to school last month. I stopped using them in the last 2 weeks when I turned to the CD-based review tests, but I think now I would have benefited by continuing to test my memory. One of the things that makes the GRE less worrisome is knowing the square root of 3 and knowing on cue what 4/5 is as a decimal and a percentage without having to do the math.
  • My god, I never realized how big the GRE aftermarket is, what with all the books, and online prep, and other materials. I even discovered too late that Durham Tech has a GRE math prep course, which I surely would have taken had I known about it.
  • I didn’t worry too much about the essay questions: I had general templates in mind for each type of question and trusted I’d be able to spew usable material when needed, as this is what I do for a living, folks. I think I did pretty well here. My own strategy: using the last 5 minutes to read through the essay and make sure the intro and conclusion line up, and sprinkling keywords throughout that tie everything together.
  • Since my summer class ended, I’ve spent most of my free time doing GRE math problems and taking the sample tests from the prep CDs. I’d take a GRE book to work and do 10 or 20 problems at lunch. Before I went to bed, I’d take a GRE book downstairs and work a page or two of problems. I was consistently getting about half wrong and half right. This is when it hit me that, you know, I’m only going to get to a certain level of good with this stuff, and that’s it. When will knowing the formula for finding the area of a cone ever get me out of a jam? I also finally crystallized why self-discipline is such a self-defeating strategy. Self-discipline requires imposing your will on yourself, and this constant fighting with yourself wears you out. It’s just too tiring. But when the goal means something to you, is important to you, self-discipline is not an issue at all. You just do what you have to do and suffer what you have to suffer until it’s done, so get on with it. Liz says cancer survivors are the same way; does it take self-discipline to go through chemo? No. You just know that you have to do it, no matter how painful it is. When you’re not fighting yourself, I think half the battle is won.
  • Luck is not a bad thing either. There’s a great quote from Jimmy Dean that goes, “You should push your luck every day. Because you might be walking around lucky and not know it.” On the drive to the testing center, I was going a little too fast and saw a patrolman sitting in the median, pointed in our direction. I moved to tap the brake to turn off the cruise control and tapped the gas instead. (The car is still new to me.) I swerved a bit before I regained control and expected to see flashing lights in my rearview. But no. I continued on my merry way and the cop either didn’t see me or didn’t care. As I sped along, I thought of Jimmy Dean’s quote and smiled to myself. I was walking around lucky today. This occurred to me again during the verbal test; one of the reading comprehension pieces (a test I’ve not done well on in practice) was on jazz and I enjoyed reading it. What luck, to have a piece on jazz as part of the test. Answering the questions was easy.
  • Liz wanted to see Tres Chicas the night before the test. I left work at noon, worked another practice test (on which I performed abysmally), and walked with her to the concert at American Tobacco. Although my thoughts strayed to the problems of combinations and ratios and percentage comparisons, it was good to get away from the computer, sit in the open air, and just chill. There’s more to life than the GRE and at a certain point, I realized I was not going to see major improvements in my math performance even if I worked problems for the next 12 hours straight. So I gave my mind a break and relaxed.
  • On the day of the test, I ate lightly, did treadmill for about 20 minutes, and avoided coffee. I felt pretty good, and there’s enough adrenaline anyway that more stimulant isn’t needed.
  • Liz and my co-workers will no doubt be relieved that I will now stop obsessing and talking about the GRE.
  • Well…the scores I got flabbergasted me. I honestly didn’t think I did that well. The verbal is way, way better than I thought I’d get, and the math is at least 100 points or more over what I expected. I really don’t know how it happened, because the questions were at least as difficult as the ones I’ve been working this past week. On some, I was plainly guessing, going with gut instinct. The Kaplan prep CD keeps lots of statistics on the sample test scores, and one of them that impressed me was that I spent lots of time deliberating on some questions when the final result really didn’t matter–I usually spent lots of time on questions I got wrong. So when I felt the time running long, I’d go with my best guess and move on.
  • Lessons learned: Is it possible to logically convince oneself not to worry too much? Or is that hard-wired? I noticed a big decrease in anxiety when I adopted the idea, “Let’s assume I’ll get into grad school no matter what I score. Let’s assume I win.” For whatever reason, that cut away a good bit of anxiety. Also: start early and adopt the strategy “little and often.” Chip away at this stuff and let understanding grow, if it wants to. Also: maybe I should believe in myself more. On my last two big challenges, I’ve exceeded what I thought I could do. So perhaps the GRE tested me in ways I hadn’t expected.
Part II: Rating my GRE study materials.

Update: The final scores confirmed I got 800 on the verbal, 600 on the math, and 5.5 out of 6 on the two writing prompts.

Rules for Computer Use

Mike Shea’s latest essay in another in the trend of many of us who are sticking our heads up out of our neatly organized gopher holes to ask, “What was the point again?”

I prefer Copernic Desktop myself, but I really liked his very simple rules for computer use. I especially liked this one:

Don’t customize, optimize, or tinker - the result is never worth the effort.

I’m notorious even to myself for tweaking my computer, desktop, folders, etc.

I’d probably add, “Never make any changes to the computer after 11 p.m.”

I also like Reinhard’s Weekend Luddite system, though I usually need Sunday to back up the PC, run various maintenance programs, etc.

Stephen Colbert Commencement Address

Stephen Colbert’s 2006 Commencement Address at Knox College
In addition to very good advice I learned in my improv class earlier this year, he adds this:

I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.

Links 2006-05-30

Core Dump
“At first glance, technical writing and Disney don’t seem to have much of a connection, but their rides are complex machines, and they do need manuals. Here’s the Standard Operating Procedures for Pirates of the Caribbean from 1975. The page has links to scanned images of the manual.”

Four Types in ZhurnalWiki
“Someone once told me of a military strategist’s way to characterize people along the dimensions of intelligence and motivation:”

7-Zip
ZipCentral
Two freeware alternatives to winzip

No S Diet: No snacks, sweets, seconds, except on days that start with S.
“There are just three rules and one exception:
* No Snacks
* No Sweets
* No Seconds
Except (sometimes) on days that start with ’S’. That’s it.”
My diet of choice

Very cool illusion


Paper Sculpture - a photoset on Flickr


Erase permanent marker from your dry erase board - Lifehacker
“WikiHow has a simple method for removing permanent marker from dry erase boards:”

Birthday Calculator
Enter your birthdate, click on Submit, and then scroll down for fun statistics and your astrological data (such as your age in dog years, estimated date of conception, the BTUs produced by the candles on your next birthday cake, and so on)

In Our TIme - Faeries

From Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter on the Mythology of Faeries:

Two of the things we missed out this morning might be of interest to you. The first is related from the 13th century chronicle of Gerald of Wales. Gerald of Wales was travelling around Wales preaching the Crusades, and while he did so was chronicling encounters along his way. Fairy mythology tends to track uncertainty, to flare up around times of anxiety, and here it is accompanying the upheaval of the Crusades. Gerald records how on his travels he meets a monk called Eliodorus, who tells him that when he was a child he used to visit the fairies. They were little people (the ones he met were men), vegetarians, and they don’t live the way we do. Gerald is a man who is both very well educated and also extremely proud of this – he is not at all a credulous man, but he relates Eliodorus’ tale in good faith, he doesn’t say ‘I believe in fairies’, but he does accept Eliodorus as an honest educated Christian man relating a true personal experience.

Eliodorus told his mother, who asked him to bring back proof of their existence, to steal something from them and bring it back, so he steals a golden ball from them to take home. The fairies chase him, catch him just before he crosses the boundary to the homestead and steal the golden ball back. They disappear and he never sees them again. This is core tradition for fairy lore – the fairies symbolically are associated with the wild outside, unstructured nature and childhood – they can’t cross his mother’s threshold which represents the structured human adult world, and Eliodorus can’t take the fairy trinket into that world.

Eliodorus says it’s all for the better really that he never saw them again, they had been distracting him from his studies and after this he settled down, concentrated on his studies, and eventually became a monk. Again it is significant that the fairies were distracting him from becoming an adult, from his studies, from serious and sober Christianity.

I was very disappointed not to get round to the Cottingley Fairies. This is a fascinating story which we discussed at some length in the Green Room afterwards. However, the only satisfying way to tell it is to tell it at some length which Nicola Bown told us in preparation for the programme. The Cottingley Fairies concerned a photograph taken during the First World War by a couple of young working class girls. Nicola told me that the original picture was taken in 1917 during the war. There were poems by Rose Fileman published in Punch about fairies, the first with the line ‘there are fairies at the bottom of the garden’, and the next week ‘there used to be fairies in Germany’ – with the implication they had been driven out by the war.

The family of the girls who took the pictures took Punch, so it’s likely the girls were influenced by these. The older girl, Elsie, was working in a photographic studio, so she had the techniques to take the pictures and develop them. She made models on card of fairies and propped them on hatpins and dusted them with chalk to make them seem translucent. They took the photo for their parents, but also because Elsie wanted to take artistic photos, which was common at the time – and that’s where the story should have ended.

About 3 years later Elsie showed an elder woman friend who was a theosophist, who sent the picture to Edmund Gardner, a leading theosophist in London. He took it as proof of his beliefs, took it to a professional trick photographer to authenticate it, and asked him to touch it up for use in a magic lantern show. This is when the perspectives and sizes were changed, and the image we now know came into being. He then took it to Conan Doyle, who had been a spiritualist since his son was killed in WWI. Gardner asked him to publish the picture in The Strand Magazine, where the Holmes stories were published. Conan Doyle agreed, and published them in 1920.

Both men were middle class establishment men, the girls were working class young girls. When Gardner asked the girls for more photos how could they say they made it up? There’s an immediate press furore, the girls are ‘outed’, Elsie loses her job, they spend the rest of their lives tainted by the argument about whether they had attempted to defraud the public. Gardner also made them sign away the copyright on the pictures to him. He was going to be their protector.

In a way the girls have to take the pictures on Gardner’s behalf because of the 19th Century invention of childhood – these stories about innocence, childhood as a special time unsullied by the awful realities of adulthood – so it wouldn’t have worked if the photos had been taken by a middle aged gentleman.

And you might enjoy revisiting a few lines of this by William Allingham, a poem, The Fairies:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home–
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain-lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

The rest is mystery.