I just finished a decent experience with the GRE. I have a few lessons learned from the studying as well. Just put together this rather thorough debrief.
Potential GRE takers,
Ask yourself this:
1. Am I looking for a 90th+ percentile score
2. No kidding, is it within my reach (honest self-assessment)
3. Am I considering a Prep course or a private tutor to commit to the studying?
If you answered “YES” you are in my category. I am admittedly, not one of those gifted test takers that can do a month of light studying and then breeze through to a 330 GRE or a 760 GMAT. I can probably break the 90th percentile but I will have to work to get there.
So here’s my story:
I am active duty military and my schedule SUCKS for a studying routine but I had about two open months in my schedule. I have been researching both Policy and MBA programs for years now but only recently made a decision on the GRE or GMAT. I decided on the GRE after much deliberation and I quickly signed up for a Princeton Review GRE prep course. I am happy to provide more details on why the GRE over the GMAT but I’ll leave that for another day. Anyway, the 6-week course met every Saturday for four hours. This is a pretty standard format for a prep course targeted towards working adults who have their weekends free. The teacher was very accomplished and clearly commanded a deep understanding of the test and pitfalls for her students.
Very shortly after we got started though, I realized I was in the wrong class and this was not a good investment. I quickly progressed through the material with little or no challenges. By that I mean I understood all the testing concepts and still made errors but they were careless and more a product of getting back into test taking shape. My errors also diminished rapidly with time and I found myself having no problems with the homework assigned. You would think that’s a good thing but for me, it was not. I realized I was under-challenged by the material presented. Nowhere was this more evident than my practice tests. I consistently hovered in the low 600s. So what gives?
The truth is I needed more than the course could offer. These prep courses, rightfully so, are tailored towards students who are looking to gain a “respectable” score, as several of the students self-admitted. As examples, three of the other students were seeking mid-tier local graduate degrees in education, and another had aspirations of getting a masters in art history at a small school that I had never heard of. When we started getting into the meat of the class, these students fundamentally did not understand the Math concepts on the test and the first 1.5 hours of each class was devoted to homework review. I was careful not to be disrespectful but I literally sat there and waited for the teacher to get through everyone’s questions. When I finally spoke to my teacher about my situation she was very understanding and recognized that I was probably moving along faster than the other students. She was refreshingly honest though and said there’s nothing she could do because she would leave the other students behind if she picked up the pace. Completely understandable.
The lesson here was to take a hard look at the course you are signing up for. Understand that the big names like Princeton Review and Kaplan
are businesses themselves and have a target consumer that is the mid-level test taker. If you are looking for a top score, and are willing invest some serious time and money to get there, you should go with a private tutor. I essentially wasted about $1,200 and I only had myself to blame. Ultimately, I decided not to sit for the actual test following the prep course.
Moving on, I took some time off from the course because of a period of intense training in my work. I picked it back up about 9 months later with a fresh perspective. During these 9 months, the GRE underwent its recent revision.
From there I decided to go with a private tutor only for the verbal section. The consummate self-promoter, my tutor told me upfront that anyone who claims they can tutor both sections is full of sh*%, and shouldn’t be trusted. I don’t know if I would go that far but I think there is some validity to that. Getting a good score on both sections does not mean you can tutor someone how to beat it. I did four sessions with this guy and I was very happy. His technique for the RC sections was especially helpful. Finding key words and concession points in the passage, really identifying the tone and purpose of the author, and critically looking at the role of each paragraph. Instantly, I realized, this is the instruction I was lacking in a larger prep course setting. In addition, he encouraged a comprehensive study of vocabulary that focuses not only on rote memorization, but roots as well.
Lastly, this guy simply lite a fire under my rump and was candid when he saw mistakes. Several times, he told me I had no excuse to miss certain questions and it’s completely unacceptable. This is a personal preference, but I respond well to tough standards like that and a teacher in a prep course just cannot say that to a student.
Due to short notice military deployment, tutoring was cut short and I only had three sessions with him. In this short time though, I made huge improvement. I decided to just take the test and go through the test taking experience in a testing center. I had never taken a full-length practice test before and I was going in pretty cold. With this help though, I left with a 321 cumulative score that comes out to about a 680 on the GMAT converter. It was 88th percentile and I am happy with it given the abbreviated prep. When I return from deployment, I will actually have 2 months that I can commit to studying and I know I can hit 325-330.
LESSON LEARNED: Everyone has his or her own studying techniques and everyone’s situation is different. If you are looking for a top score and targeting some competitive programs, I would strongly consider a private tutor over a prep course. Had I heard this going in, I would have not wasted my time in the class.
*3.2/4.0 from a top 30. History Major, Geophysics minor
*Varsity Lacrosse, ROTC
*GRE: 321 (161 V, 160 Q). On the ETS converter that comes to a 680 GMAT
Work Experience: 7 Years Navy SEAL Officer. 5 Deployments to date with combat.
-Combat leadership in a variety of austere and high profile locations.
-Senior level coordination within DOD
-Excellent lessons from garrison personnel management.
-Task Unit commander in charge of $25M in equipment overseas.
-Consistent high performance in my service record. Ranked #1 of 16 peers (also SEAL Officers) on most recent eval period
Extra Curricular: Involved heavily in several charity foundations and recruiting campaigns in support of the SEAL community.
-Repeated visitor to my Alma Mater as a speaker on Leadership for the Athletic Department.
-Lead food drives at work
-Volunteered at foundation events for the Wounded Warrior Foundation.