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Achieving an exceptional GRE Verbal score.


charles mingus
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Hello all.

I have around a year to prepare for the GRE and want to get a very high score (750+) on the verbal section.

My circumstances (no-name UG school, only 3.4 GPA) mean that a very high score might dramatically enhance my application. I know, of course, that my LORs and especially SOP and writing sample are the most essential elements in my app, but feel that excellent test results will push AdComms at top-tier programs in English literature/film studies to allow these items to overwhelm my negatives as an applicant.

With regards to reading comprehension questions, I've read Harper's and the NY Review of Books nearly cover-to-cover for a few months and am frequently engaged with very difficult academic writing (I'm the founding president of a critical theory reading group at my school.) As for vocabulary, I have Barron's High Frequency list down pat and have been making flashcards for Barron's Master List words that I don't know, aiming to learn 20 per week. Also, I've launched a campaign to look up every unknown word I encounter in whatever novel or newspaper I'm reading (thank God for my outstanding iPhone OED app.)

Any other ideas for long term, ambitious studying techniques?

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I did study vocab for the Verbal section, but nowhere near as intensively as you plan to. I think the reason that my Verbal score was so high (790) was that I read a LOT (10+ books a week for the 15 years between undergrad and grad app time...you do the math). I think your plan for looking up unknown words is the best thing you can do.

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What iPhone app?

You can easily learn many more than 20 per week. I was doing 50 a day for a month or two before I took the verbal section. Keep in mind that the vocabulary only takes you so far. I didn't run across a single word that I didn't know the meaning for, but I still only got a 720.

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the iPhone app is the Oxford American College Dictionary and Thesaurus. It costs $20 but is a massive step up from the many free dictionary apps in terms of content and interface.

Thanks for the suggestions. 20 words per week is very minimal; I've actually been doing closer to 100 and badly misestimated in my original post.

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Why do you think getting such a high verbal GRE will "dramatically" increase your odds of getting into your top choice? Did they tell you exactly how much they weigh the verbal GRE vs. GPA and SOP?

Let's be honest - no one knows for sure how much GREs are weighed. The whole process is completely opaque and we can only offer our best guess.

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I studied one word list a day (about 75 words daily).

However - here is my advice to you.

ready ?

RELAX !

It doesn't help knowing all the words and being hyped about reading comprehension and whatever if you arrive stressed out to the test and mess it up.

relaxtation helps concentration. that in turn helps grades.

but that's my take on it.

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One bit of advice is to take a few practice tests and see what kind of questions you are missing. Boning up on grammar is completely different than vocab or interpretation prep. Also, getting some practice scores in will give you (and us) an idea of the amount of work needed - if your first few tests average 550 then getting 750 will be very tough.

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HisRoyalHighness: I didn't write that a high score would dramatically increase my chances of getting in to my top choice. Rather, I said that it might enhance my application. Of course I know that no scores will get me in anywhere by themselves and that the SoP and writing sample are the must crucial aspects of the app.

elenlin & shai: Points well taken.

twocosmicfish: I have taken two practice tests (though not CATs) and scored 720 and 730. I seemed to be missing a few analogies and antonyms. I feel very confident on comprehension questions.

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I've got to be honest . . .making sure you have a nice vocab list is awesome, but the GRE is not a memorization game. If you're willing to put this much time and effort into making sure your Verbal score is strong, I'd suggest a program of study focused around the roots of words so that in case you get a word you don't know, you understand enough about it to make an educated guess.

Also - focus on reading comprehension questions. Vocab doesn't really help you all that much there, and they easily consume the majority of your test-taking time. Having a good strategy to work through them quickly will make the rest of the test a much more comfortable and relaxed experience, which can only help.

Finally, you are wrong. Sure any program want you to score "well" on the GRE, and most programs have their own idea of what exactly that means, but scoring beyond that point isn't that big a deal. I think I speak for just about everybody when I say that a program of graduate-level study that would weigh the score of a test totally unrelated to your field so heavily as to affect your chances of admission is not a program that you should have much if any interest in joining. Where your GRE score MIGHT pay off is after they've decided to take you, as it's one of several criteria that programs like to check over in determining the kind of financial package they'll offer you.

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Charles,

Forgive me if you've mentioned this elsewhere. What field are you in? I'm an English Ph.D student...and the verbal is really the only score that my programs will actually take into consideration. Even then--and I emphasize, this is for an ENGLISH program--700 is the highest bar that the most competitive programs (a handful of Ivy's) would like to see. If you were an applicant in my field (and this is probably true for most of the humanities), I'd tell you that aiming for a 750 is an absolute waste of your time, as long as your verbal score already breaks the 700 barrier (and even a score below 700 will not doom your chances at the top programs). The writing sample and SoP are about ten thousand times more important than the verbal score. If you have a full year to devote to this, spend it on the writing sample/SoP. THAT's what will get you into top schools...not the score.

I do understand that you're trying to enhance your application. I'm just trying to tell you that aiming for a sky-high GRE score is probably the LEAST inefficient way of doing so, especially if your verbal score is already above a 700. I know of applicants who got into top programs (Ivy's, top ten, etc) with full funding who scored less than a 650, and whose GPA's weren't so hot. I also know of applicants who were turned down across the board with a perfect verbal score...AND a summa cum laude from an Ivy. If you're in the humanities, it's really the writing sample, LoR's, and SoP that will count...the numbers mean very little as long as you hit certain thresholds, and exceptions are frequently made for stellar candidates whose numbers are below the thresholds.

*EDIT: I just re-read your post and saw that you are indeed in my field. Seriously...I'm not sure how to impress upon you just how unimportant the GRE score is, compared to the rest of your application. If you have a year, work on getting a publication and attend conferences....revise, revise, revise, revise that writing sample. Give yourself time and space to truly develop as a scholar and let that sophistication show in your SoP and writing sample. Learn a new language. DON'T focus on the GRE's. It's one thing if, say, you're struggling to break a 650...but it's insane to aim for a 750. I was accepted into ivys/top ten programs...with less than a 700, and I am by no means unique in that regard.

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Yes, you all are right. I've been convinced.

I will spend the bulk of my time between now and my application season (Fall '10) working on my SoP and writing sample.

Perhaps I got caught up in the GRE whirlwind because it seems like more of a tangible, measurable goal to work towards. Also, memorizing vocab requires a much different level of intellectual engagement -- and one that I'm able to offer more often after (read: during) work, as a break from school work, or before bed -- than does jumping in the ring with the critical literature of my field or distilling my academic personality into 2 immaculate pages.

I'm thinking that I'll casually review vocab and do practice tests when I'm feeling too burnt out to browse jstor or redraft my ws/sop.

Thanks everyone for nudging me back on track!

cm

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CM:

yay! One brief note: if you're scoring consistently above 700 verbal, you might want to take the GRE's now, just to get them over with. You CAN retake if necessary, and while all scores do show up, in my experience, most of the English Ph.D programs that I looked at only consider the highest score. (Few actually post this information, but most of the schools that accepted me didn't even know that I had taken the exam more than once. For the schools that I was looking at, when the ad-comms receive the "package," they don't look at the actual score report from ETS, but rather the information is transcribed, so that only the highest score was visible). This is a long-winded way of reassuring you that yes, taking it more than once probably won't hurt you.

The Lit GRE is an entirely different monster. While not every school require it, and even those who do require it do not always take it seriously, it actually does take a while to study for. If you have a year, consider taking the April exam rather than the October or November exams, so your lit GRE prep doesn't take time away from last minute SoP/writing sample/LoR-hunting tasks.

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  • 1 month later...

Whoever tells you that the GRE is not a memorization game is dead wrong, particularly on the verbal section.

There's a software program called GRE Bible that you might wanna check out. (It doesn't have to be purchased - bittorrent websites can be very helpful).

I got a 770 Verbal and I don't think that reading skills or experience mattered nearly as much as memorizing the patterns ETS likes to use, which you can find in Princeton Review or some other such company's study materials, and memorizing huge lists of commonly recurring words.

Don't make the mistaken assumption that the GRE tests anything other than your ability to familiarize yourself with a particular format and memorize huge amounts of information. Any standardized test (which by definition doesn't ask just ANY questions but only particular kinds that generate results that can be statistically compared with other test-takers' results because of the questions' formulaic nature) can be studied via rote memorization as long as you can find past questions and study materials for that test, even IQ tests. Seriously.

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My advice is to be really careful on the first four to five questions. Those are really the ones that are going to determine whether you get above 750 or below. Also to be lucky.

THIS! I am surprised how infrequently this is urged, but I think it is the most important advice out there. Your first ten questions are worth *way* more, in terms of determining your final score.

I'd recommend freerice.com, because it is a fun way to procrastinate every ten minutes or so and it also emphasizes the first few quesitons in the same way the GRE does. (And it is the easiest way to donate imaginable.)

As others have said, and I think you yourself see, being calm and confident is the most important part.

Good luck!

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I've got to be honest . . .making sure you have a nice vocab list is awesome, but the GRE is not a memorization game. If you're willing to put this much time and effort into making sure your Verbal score is strong, I'd suggest a program of study focused around the roots of words so that in case you get a word you don't know, you understand enough about it to make an educated guess.

Also - focus on reading comprehension questions. Vocab doesn't really help you all that much there, and they easily consume the majority of your test-taking time. Having a good strategy to work through them quickly will make the rest of the test a much more comfortable and relaxed experience, which can only help.

Whoever tells you that the GRE is not a memorization game is dead wrong, particularly on the verbal section . . .I got a 770 Verbal and I don't think that reading skills or experience mattered nearly as much as memorizing the patterns ETS likes to use, which you can find in Princeton Review or some other such company's study materials, and memorizing huge lists of commonly recurring words.

Don't make the mistaken assumption that the GRE tests anything other than your ability to familiarize yourself with a particular format and memorize huge amounts of information. .

I took the GRE 6 months ago, I'd not taken a standardized (or non-standardized) tests in about twenty years. I was confident in my writing, pretty sure of my verbal and worried about Quant, so I focused 90% on quant. That said, when I did finally look at verbal, I'd realized pretty quickly that applying a formula to the verbal questions will be much easier and efficient than trying to memorize the potential words. Knowing roots was way more important than memorization in my opinion. I didn't get the scores that some of you guys got, but I broke 95th percentile having put a total of maybe four hours of worrying into verbal (twenty two years since I'd had any type of formal education mind you).

Sure, if you're cable of memorizing everything it's impossible to fail. But think of it this way, what's the most efficient way of answering the following: 478.53 x 36.002 = ?

A. Learning and applying a mathematical formula or process, such as simple multiplication

B. Memorizing your times tables up to 500 and the third decimal

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jrpk -

Language, particularly the English language, doesn't have a mathematically comparable logic to it, as it's a hodgepodge of several languages mixed together. Maybe my experience with the GRE is biased, as I also know latin, spanish, and french, which would cover the roots you name, but my point is that there are loads of words in the english language and on the GRE that are not from the roots of the latin tradition that entered the English language from 1066 onward. You can't know those without memorization. The analogy, antonym, and sentence completion (ESPECIALLY that one) have what you might call "answer molds" or a given set of patterns the GRE loves to repeat and there's a reason the GRE says to select the "best" answer and not the "correct answer." Even the reading comprehension questions basically have six types where the wording is a little different in various tests, but that's about it.

I'd agree with your example that it'd be a waste of time to memorize times tables that high, but that analogy doesn't come close to being relevant to the memorization tricks that work on the quant sections (such as how useful it'd be to just ignore the .002 unless what you get the first calculation doesn't fit an answer choice or the choices are too close) and is even more irrelevent with reference to how language is learned or represented on the GRE verbal.

You don't have to memorize EVERYTHING in the english language or that could be potential asked to be calculated - My point is that you just have to memorize the words/question types the GRE loves to use (tiny subset of english language) and the "tricks" (not real math skills) the quant section loves to use.

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