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Practice, take refresher course before big exam

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When I decided to take the plunge and apply to graduate school, I regarded the GRE as my worst enemy. Applying to graduate school is daunting enough without having to worry about a standardized test. Many potential graduate-school applicants worry about such nebulous areas as verbal ability, quantitative (math) ability and analytical skills.

I felt better about other aspects of my application. My grades were decent, and I felt they reflected the work I'd done in college. I could write a nice personal statement or research proposal; after all, writing is a lot of what grad school is about, so if I couldn't write something decent for my application, I probably didn't belong there. But what did the GRE have to do with anything? As I'd often heard others say, all a standardized test measures is how well you do on that standardized test.

Lesson No. 1: Take a preparatory course

I was a little leery of spending a wad of money to rehash information I'd supposedly learned in high school, but it turned out to be worth it. I decided against taking an outrageously expensive commercial course and instead took the highly recommended course taught through the Division of Continuing Education at the University of Utah. Our instructor, Jay Behrman, was more than competent. He was cheerful, enthusiastic and positive - and he knew his stuff. We went over strategies for each section and worked stacks of practice problems.

One of the best reasons to take a prep class is that instructors are trained in teaching students how to diagram analytical-section problems, also known as "logic games." These questions go something like this: "If Johnny is wearing the red coat, and the person wearing the blue coat is not sitting next to Linda, what color is Larry's umbrella?" Logic games can seem tough at first, but they are generally the easiest part of the score to improve. Having someone explain strategies is often the only way to get started on the road to progress.

The most helpful aspect of the the course, though, was the "official" GRE preparation manual, which came with the course. It included six full practice exams, with answers. Which brings me to my second lesson.

Lesson No. 2: Practice, practice

The best way to prepare for the GRE, after reviewing information (math formulas, strategies for diagramming analytical problems), is to practice. There are two reasons for this. First, practice allows you to better remember information and skills. Second, it also allows you to become more comfortable with the test and its format and reduces chances of a panic-induced brain freeze on test day.

Math and analytical are the easiest sections to improve through practice. The verbal section, which tests vocabulary and reading comprehension, is more likely to test skills which take a lifetime to acquire. Still, practice helps improve even the verbal-section scores, especially if you take time to study vocabulary words.

Lesson No. 3: Beware the CAT

The CAT is not a hairy beast. Not literally, anyway, although that may be a good way to describe it. CAT stands for Computer-Adapted Test. The pencil-and-paper version of the GRE has been phased out over the past few years, replaced by a test taken on computer. Although experts claim that CAT and pencil-and-paper test scores are statistically comparable, that wasn't the case for me at all. My scores on the CAT were dramatically lower.

For those who are completely computer-phobic or just suspicious of newfangled technology, one more paper GRE test will be offered in April. Those interested in taking it must register in February, so now is the time to think about it. If you need to take the GRE sooner, call now (1-800-GRE-CALL) to register to take the computer test. If you take the CAT, use software (the course I took provided access to some) and practice on computer.

I took the CAT a few weeks ago, and my scores were decent but not great. Because I had spent weeks practicing on paper, I wasn't very ready for the computer version of the test.

Other tips

As a veteran test-taker (I took the PSAT, the PACT, several SATs and three ACTs in high school, plus the LSAT in college - don't ask me why), I learned some strategies to come out ahead on test day. First make sure you get plenty of sleep on the night before the test - and several weeks beforehand, too. The brain-draining effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative. Second, try to go on the least stressful day possible. Don't take a few hours off work to rush in and take the computer GRE. Third, listen to classical music (studies have shown it helps; hey, why not?). Eat a light breakfast. Don't go in hungry or too full. When you practice for the exam, do it under conditions that simulate, as closely as possible, the actual conditions of the test.

Bottom line? Take the GRE seriously. Many schools use it to determine not only who gets in, but also who gets the best financial aid packages, according to Jay Berman. You can use a good GRE score as a bargaining tool to get the best offer from the best school. The GRE is not an exam you want to leave thinking, "I could have done better than that!"

Oh, and by the way, if you do decide to take the April pencil-and-paper exam, you'll see me there. I'll be the one with three sharpened No. 2 pencils in my hand and a grim smile on my face.> *****

Additional Information

Diagram helps solve GRE analytical game: An actor is doing a week, Monday-Friday, of Shakespearean soliloquys. The five characters are Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello and Prospero. He will wear a different color pair of tights each night: brown, green, red, white and yellow. His schedule must conform to the following: Othello on Wednesday or Friday; green tights on either the night before or the night immediately following Julius Caesar; Hamlet and Macbeth on consecutive nights; brown tights while portraying Prospero; red tights worn earlier in the week than the white tights are worn.