Once upon a time, not so long ago and yet eons away from the techno-centered, instant information, global environment into which graduates now enter the job market, a high school diploma was as much education as the average person needed to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. Manufacturing jobs paid well, most households were single-income, and merely to have a bachelor’s degree was the pinnacle of academic achievement.
That era might look picturesque if Norman Rockwell were still illustrating covers for the Saturday Evening Post, but for most of today’s high school graduates, some level of post-secondary education or training is needed if they have hopes of rising above the minimum-wage, fast-food jobs that employ them now for after-school and weekend work.
The same revolution that has made the high school diploma merely the first rung on the ladder of economic prosperity has effected the bachelor’s degree’s ranking as well.
In a July 8, 2013 article in U.S. News and World Report, writer Lindsay Olson debated the value of a master’s degree. According to Brian D. Kelley, Chief Information Officer at the Portage County Information Technology Services, “Having a master’s degree can increase your annual earning potential beyond your annual compensation without a master’s.” While a person with a four-year degree earns on average $51,000 a year, advanced degrees can double that amount.
But don’t put a down payment on that summer home yet. Before you pick up the bigger paycheck, you need to acquire the degree. And before you’re accepted at a university to pursue your master’s degree, you’ll need to take the Graduate Record Examination.
Statistics show that the Graduate Record Exam, the entrance exam for graduate school, is taken by over 700,000 annually. The GRE has much in common with the SAT, the college entrance exam taken by people who are planning to attend college. But they’re not identical.
If you’re heading to graduate school straight from your bachelor’s degree, you’re still in test mode. But if you’ve been out of school for a few years, or if you’re applying to a competitive graduate school program which only accepts a limited number of applicants, you want to make sure you’re ready to excel.
The designers of the GRE claim that the exam measures only your general ability and doesn’t require studying in advance, but if you’re ready to go to graduate school, you’re smart enough to see holes in that theory. If you want to do well in an exam, especially one on this level, you need to prepare for it.
Background on the GRE The first step is to become comfortable with the computer interface for the exam. You can learn more about the system at the GRE Web site when you’re looking for information on scheduling the exam.
Verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are graded on a 130-170 point scale in one-point increments. The analytical writing section is scored on a scale of 0-6 in half-point increments.
The GRE assesses an applicant’s skills in three areas:
Verbal The verbal segment of the exam consists of two 30-minute sections that test reading comprehension, vocabulary and grammar, using text completion, sentence equivalence and comprehension.
Quantitative The quantitative segment is made up of two 35-minute sections that measure skills in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis by testing your ability to compare values, solve word problems, and analysis data.
Analytical Writing The writing segment includes two 30-minute essays that test your ability to write clearly and effectively. The first segment of the exam requires you to express and then defend your opinion on a particular issue; the second segment calls on you to evaluate a written argument.
Most places that offer the exam will have the test on a computer, so the verbal and quantitative sections use computer-adaptive testing, which means that if you answer the first set of 20 questions correctly, the computer will generate more difficult questions for the next sequence. If you are unable to answer these challenging questions, you’ll receive easier ones. But before you decide that you’ve sussed out the formula for a no-stress test, keep in mind that answering the harder questions correctly boosts your score more.
How to do GREat on the GRE
1. Even if you’re currently a college student, classes that relate to your major may be far removed from the basics of basic algebra and geometry. The math section of the GRE is similar to what the SAT covers. Before a return to fractions completely frazzles your brain during the test, you need to get re-introduced to the subjects you studied in high school. One GRE tutor recommends brushing up with Algebra for Dummies or Geometry for Dummies.
2. The GRE assumes that your vocabulary has advanced from your SAT days. So if you’re planning to go to grad school after you get your bachelor’s degree, make sure you take time to read during the four years. Textbooks aren’t enough; throw in a classic now and then, along with contemporary books that are getting good reviews for their literary merit.
3. You may be a great writer. But chances are that you could brush up on your writing skills, and in order to do well on the GRE, testing experts recommend taking a high-level English or writing class some time during your senior year. The essays make up one-third of your test-taking time, and writing is a process, not multiple choice, so a little extra vocabulary will help.
When in Doubt, ask the Dummies The popular “for Dummies” series offers some practical advice for doing well on the individual sections of the GRE.
- Verbal Section Tips Not finishing a section is worse than answering the questions wrong, so if you don’t know the answer, just guess and move on.
- Just because an answer is true, that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for what the question is asking. Don’t be fooled.
- For sentence completion questions, search for the connector words like “although” and “however” because they can be the meaning-changers.
- Computerized GRE Tips Take your time to answer the first five or so questions; these are critical.
- Don’t skip a question; answer and move on.
- If you’re running out of time, fill in the answers and move to the end before test time is up.
Math Section GRE Tips
- Know the formulas before the test so you can use them when the problem shows up.
- When working on the problem-solving questions, read the answer choices before you begin working; sometimes you’ll come up with the answer without having to do the work.
Analytical Writing Section GRE Tips
- Express your opinion specifically in the introductory paragraph Summarize in the final paragraph, don’t repeat the points.
- When analyzing the argument section, strengthen or weaken the article by providing counterexamples or supporting information.
- Don’t give your opinion on the argument; the objective is to prove whether the argument is coherent and sound.
- Take advantage of the ETS GRE software which will review the guidelines that will be in the test. The tutorial will provide some shortcuts.
Old School Rules Still Apply
Just because you’re en route to becoming a grad student doesn’t mean that your mom’s advice is out of date. There are holistic ways to prepare for the GRE by making sure you’re in prime test-taking condition.
- Eat breakfast; this isn’t a morning to start things off with your favorite Frosted Flakes cereal and a can of soda. Choose something nourishing and healthy, and Include juice with your breakfast. Your brain will thank you.
- Know where you’re going and leave yourself enough driving time to allow for traffic, GPS mishaps, and parking.
- Bring a jacket or sweater; the test centers are often chilly.
- Arrive early so that you have time to locate the closest bathroom, scout out the water fountains, and take care of the preliminary paperwork and check-in procedures.
At the end of the exam, you’re given the option to list four universities
where your scores can be sent; know in advance which schools you want to attend. You can select the “Most Recent” option to send the scores from the Subject Test you are registering to take, or you can select the “All” option and send scores from all the times you have taken the exam in the last five years. You can decide which option to use for each of your four free score reports.
Practice Makes Perfect Once you’ve scheduled your exam, start your studying from four to 12 weeks before the date. Comprehensive study guides are published by Kaplan and Princeton Review, which also offer online and in-person classes all over the country. Free software is provided by ETS; Powerprep Software is available on the official GRE website. The software will help you understand what’s being tested; give you familiarity with the different types of questions; demonstrate the testing tools, including the on-screen calculator; practice taking the timed test; and review scored Analytical Writing responses and comments.
A tip for your preparation: the software comes with two complete practice exams. Take one before you begin your studying, and then take the second one when you’re finished so that you can gauge your mastery of the material.
The SAT tests what you learned in high school; the GRE measures a college graduate’s aptitude for critical thinking. If you have the money for it, taking a prep course can refresh your skills. Critical thinking is a lifelong skill that can’t be taught, but taking a course can familiarize the student with the process that will be needed to take the test. Be warned, though; GRE prep courses aren’t cheap.
It’s natural to think of the GRE as a make-or-break step in your future. But try to think beyond the exam. Pursuing a master’s degree in a
career field that interests you is much more than an exam. It’s a wise life choice. The GRE is one of the vehicles that will get you to where you want to be. Enjoy the journey!