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Chapter One: An Introduction to the GRE
This book will explain more than just a few basic strategies. It will cover practically everything that's ever on the GRE.
We can do this because we don't explain questions in isolation or focus on particular problems. Instead, we explain the underlying principles behind all of the questions on the GRE. We give you the big picture.
Understanding the GRE CAT
One of the keys to getting the big picture is knowing how the test is constructed. Why should you care how the GRE is constructed? Because if you understand the difficulties that the people at ETS have when they make this test, you'll understand what it is you have to do to overcome it. As someone famous once said, "Know thine enemy." And you need to know firsthand the way this test is put together if you want to take it apart.
Before you begin, though, remember that the test makers sometimes change the content, administration, and scheduling of the GRE too quickly for a published guide to keep up with. For the latest, up-to-the-minute news about the GRE, visit Kaplan's website at kaptest.com, or use AOL keyword: Kaplan.
The Secret Code
There is a sort of unwritten formula at the heart of the GRE. First, there's psychometrics, a peculiar kind of science used to write standardized tests. Also, ETS bases its questions on a certain body of knowledge, which doesn't change. ETS tests the same concepts in every GRE. The useful thinking skills and shortcuts that succeed on one exam -- the exam that you're signing up to take, for instance -- have already succeeded and will continue to succeed, time and time again.
Play the Game
There are a great many people who think of these exams as cruel exercises in futility, as the oppressive instruments of a faceless societal machine. People who think this way usually don't do very well on these tests.
The key discovery that people who ace standardized tests have made, though, is that fighting the machine doesn't hurt it. If that's what you choose to do, you will just waste your energy. So, instead, they choose to think of the test as a game. Not an instrument of punishment, but an opportunity for reward. And like any game, if you play it enough times, you get really good at it.
Acquire the Skills
You may think that the GRE isn't fair or decent, but that attitude won't help you get into graduate school.
None of the GRE experts who work at Kaplan were born acing the GRE. No one is. That's because these tests do not measure innate skills; they measure acquired skills. People who are good at standardized tests are, quite simply, people who've already acquired the necessary skills. Maybe they acquired them in math class, or by reading a lot, or by studying logic in college, or perhaps the easiest way -- in one of Kaplan's GRE classes. But they have, perhaps without realizing it, acquired the skills that bring success on tests like the GRE. And if you haven't, you have nothing whatsoever to feel bad about. You simply must acquire them now.
Same Problems -- but Different
We know it sounds incredible, but it's true: The test makers use the same problems on every GRE. Only the words and the numbers change. They test the same principles over and over.
Here's an example: This is a type of math problem known as a Quantitative Comparison. (Look familiar? These are also on the SAT.) Your job is to pick (A) if the term in Column A is bigger, (B) if the term in Column B is bigger, (C) if they're equal, or (D) if there is not enough information given to solve the problem.
Column A Column B
2x2 = 32
Most people answer (C), that they're equal. They divide both sides of the equation by 2 and then take the square root of both sides.
Wrong. The answer isn't (C), because x doesn't have to be 4. It could be 4 or -4. Both work. If you just solve for 4 you'll get this problem -- and every one like it -- wrong. ETS figures that if you get burned here, you'll get burned again next time. Only next time it won't be 2x2 = 32; it will be y2 = 36 or s4 = 81.
The concepts that are tested on any particular GRE -- Pythagorean triangles, simple logic, word relationships, and so forth -- are the underlying concepts at the heart of every GRE.
ETS makes changes only after testing them exhaustively. This process is called norming, which means taking a normal test and a changed test and administering them to a random group of students. As long as the group is large enough for the purposes of statistical validity and the students get consistent scores from one test to the next, then the revised test is just as valid and consistent as any other GRE.
That may sound technical, but norming is actually quite an easy process. We do it at Kaplan all the time -- for the tests that we write for our students. The test at the back of this book, for instance, is a normed exam. While the interactive, computer-based test experience of the GRE is impossible to reproduce on paper, the paper-based test in our book is a normed exam that will produce an equivalent score.
How the GRE is Organized
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is administered on computer and is between two and three-quarters and three and a quarter hours long. The exam consists of three scored sections, with different amounts of time allotted for you to complete each section.
You may also see two more sections: an Experimental section and a Research section. The Experimental section is unscored. That means that if you could identify the Experimental section, you could doodle for half an hour, guess in a random pattern, or daydream and still get exactly the same score on the GRE. However, the Experimental section is disguised to look like a real section -- there is no way to identify it. All you will really know on the day of the test is that one of the subject areas will have two sections instead of one. Naturally, many people try to figure out which section is Experimental. But because ETS really wants you to try hard on it, they do their best to keep you guessing. If you guess wrong, you could blow the whole test, so we urge you to treat all sections as scored unless you are told otherwise.
The Research section is also unscored, and is not always included in the GRE. If you see a Research section on Test Day, ETS will be kind enough to tell you when it appears. So there is no reason whatsoever for you to complete it, unless you feel like doing ETS a favor, or unless they offer you some reward (which they have been known to do).
What's a CAT?
A CAT, or computer-adaptive test, is a computer-based test that you take at a special test center, by yourself, at a time you schedule. A CAT "adapts" to your performance. Each test taker is given a different mix of questions depending on how well he or she is doing on the test. This means the questions get harder or easier depending on whether you answer them correctly. Your score is not directly determined by how many questions you get right, but by how hard the questions you get right are.
When you start a section, the computer:
assumes you have an average score.
gives you a medium-difficulty question. About half the people who take the test would get this question right, and half would get it wrong.
What happens next depends on whether you answer the question correctly.
If you answer the question correctly:
your score goes up.
you are given a slightly harder question.
If you answer the question incorrectly:
your score goes down.
you are given a slightly easier question.
This continues for the rest of the test. Every time you get the question right, the computer raises your score, then gives you a slightly harder question. Every time you get a question wrong, the computer lowers your score, then gives you a slightly easier question. In this way, the computer is able to "hone in" on your score.
Why are we explaining all of this technical stuff, you ask? Because both the Verbal and Quantitative sections of the GRE are CATs. Don't panic: The process really isn't as confusing as it sounds! To learn more about the CAT, including CAT-specific test-taking strategies that will help maximize your score, be sure to read chapter 5 of this book, "Test Mechanics."
The Analytical Writing section is scored on a scale of 0-6 in half-point increments. (See chapter 4 for more information on this scoring process.) The Verbal and Quantitative sections each yield a scaled score within a range of 200 to 800. These scaled scores are like the scores that you received if you took the SAT. You cannot score higher than 800 on any one section, no matter how hard you try. Similarly, it's impossible (again, no matter how hard you try) to have a score lower than 200 on either section.
But you don't receive only scaled scores. You will also receive a percentile rank, which will place your performance relative to those of a large sample population of other GRE takers. Percentile scores tell graduate schools just what your scaled scores are worth. For instance, even if everyone got very high scaled scores, universities would still be able to differentiate candidates by their percentile score.
Percentile ranks match with scaled scores differently, depending on the measure. Let's imagine that our founder, Stanley H. Kaplan, were to take the GRE this year. He would (no doubt) get a perfect 800 on each measure type, but that would translate into different percentile ranks. In Verbal, he'd be scoring above 99 percent of the population, so that would be his percentile rank. But in the Quantitative section, many other people will score very high as well. Difficult as this section may seem, so many people score so well on it that high scaled scores are no big deal. Mr. Kaplan's percentile rank for Quantitative, even if he doesn't miss a single question, would be in only the 96th percentile. So many other people are scoring that high in Quantitative that no one can score above the 96th percentile!
What this means is that it's pretty easy to get good scaled scores on the GRE and much harder to get good percentile ranks. A Quantitative score of 600, for example, might be okay if you're applying to a humanities program; but if you're applying to science or engineering programs, it would be a handicap at most schools. Even a score of 700 in Quantitative is relatively low for many very selective programs in the sciences or engineering -- after all, it's only the 79th or 80th percentile.
The relative frequency of high scaled scores means that universities pay great attention to percentile rank. What you need to realize is that scores that seemed good to you when you took the SAT might not be all that good on the GRE. It's important that you do some real research into the programs you're thinking about. Many schools have cut-off scores below which they don't even consider applicants. But be careful! If a school tells you they look for applicants scoring 600 average per section, that doesn't mean they think those are good scores. That 600 may be the baseline. You owe it to yourself to find out what kinds of scores impress the schools you're interested in and work hard until you get those scores. You can definitely get there if you want to and if you work hard enough. We see it every day.
A final note about percentile rank: The sample population that you are compared against in order to determine your percentile is not everyone else who takes the test the same day as you do. ETS doesn't want to penalize an unlucky candidate who takes the GRE on a date when everyone else happens to be a rocket scientist. So they compare your performance with those of a random three-year population of recent GRE test takers. Your score will not in any way be affected by the other people who take the exam on the same day as you. We often tell our students, "Your only competition in this classroom is yourself."
Canceling Your Scores
At the end of the exam, you'll be asked if you want to see and keep your score or not. If you answer "yes," you are given your score right then and there on the computer screen and it is entered into your ETS record. If you answer "no," you are not given your score and no score is entered. However, the fact that you took the test on that date and canceled the scores will still be listed in your ETS record.
Requested score reports are sent to schools within 10-15 days after the exam. All GRE testing administrations will be listed (and usable) in your ETS record for 5 years.
The GRE is offered the first three weeks of every month. To register for and schedule your GRE, use one of the options below. (If you live outside the United States, Canada, American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, visit gre.org for instructions on how to register.)
You should first obtain a copy of the GRE Registration Bulletin. This booklet contains information on scheduling, pricing, repeat testing, cancellation policies, and more. You can receive the booklet by calling the Educational Testing Service at (609) 771-7670, or by downloading it from gre.org.
Register by Phone
Call 1-800-GRE-CALL or 1-800-529-3590 (TTY). A confirmation number, reporting time, and test center location will be given to you when you call. Though you can register by phone up to two days before the exam, registering earlier is strongly recommended since spaces often fill quickly. Payments can be made with a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express card.
Register by Mail
Complete the Authorization Voucher Request Form found in the GRE Registration Bulletin. Mail the fee and voucher request form in the CBT envelope to the address printed on the voucher.
ETS advises that you allow two to four weeks for processing before you receive your voucher in the mail. When you receive your voucher, call to schedule an appointment. Vouchers are valid for one year from the date of issue.
The Kaplan Three-Level Master Plan
To give your best performance on the GRE, you'll need to have the right kind of approach for the entire test as a whole. We've developed a plan to help you, which we call (cleverly enough) "The Kaplan Three-Level Master Plan for the GRE." You should use this plan as your guide to preparing for and taking the GRE. The three levels of the plan are: test content, test mechanics, and test mentality.
Level 1: Test Content
In the first part of the book, we'll teach you how to deal with individual short verbal questions, reading passages, math problems, and analytical essays. For success on the GRE, you'll need to understand how to work through each of these question types. What's the difference between antonym and analogy questions? What are the best ways of handling each? What's a sentence completion and how do I approach it? How should I read a reading comprehension passage and what should I focus on? What's the best way to approach quantitative comparisons? Our instruction in Level 1 will provide you with all of the information, strategies, and techniques you'll need to answer these questions and more.
Level 2: Test Mechanics
Next, we'll move up the ladder from individual question types to a discussion of how to handle the GRE's unique computer-adaptive testing format. We'll reveal the test mechanics that will help you to use the strategies you learned in Level 1 to maximum effect.
Level 3: Test Mentality
On this final level, we'll help you pull everything you've learned together. By combining the question strategies and test mechanics, you'll be in control of the entire test experience. With a good test mentality, you can have everything at your fingertips -- from building good bridges to gridding techniques, from writing good outlines to pacing methods. We'll also outline all of the subtle attitudinal factors that will help you perform your absolute best on the day of the test.
Understanding the three levels, and how they interrelate, is the first step in taking control of the GRE. We'll start, in the next chapter, with the first level: test content.
Copyright © 2004 by Kaplan, Inc.
Excerpted from Kaplan GRE Exam 2005 with CD-ROM by Kaplan Copyright © 2004 by Kaplan. Excerpted by permission.
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