GRE, GMAT & Graduate School

To get into graduate school you will need to take a standardized test as part of the admissions process ... Here's my experience ...

GRE, GMAT & Graduate School

To get into graduate school you will need to take a standardized test as part of the admissions process. The Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas accepts scores from the GMAT and the GRE, and I've taken both. Both tests have an analytical writing section, a verbal reasoning section, and a quantitative reasoning (math) section. Basically they are used to see how well you read, write and crunch numbers - according to their style of testing. It will cost you $250 to take the GMAT and $200 to take the GRE. Both organizations allow you to take two practice tests when you register, and I used them to establish a baseline.

I found the GMAT a bit convoluted. The majority of verbal reasoning questions involve sentence correction performed the GMAT way. The objective is to make the sentences as concise as possible without changing the meaning of the sentence by choosing one of four possible changes. The quantitative section in the GRE was easier for me, and I liked having an awkward in-test calculator at my disposal, although not all of the geometric shapes are drawn to scale like they are in the GMAT. I suggest registering on both platforms and taking a practice test from each before deciding which course of study to pursue.

In addition to the organizations that conduct the tests, there are a number of test preparation outfits out there who can help you prepare for either the GRE or the GMAT. The Princeton Review and Kaplan Academy have good study materials for both tests and offer materials online and in print. There are apps for Android and Apple for those of you on the go.

If you're short on coin, go to the library and borrow the study materials they have on hand. Beware they may be designated as reference materials, meaning you can't take them home with you. Check out the GRE Forum and Beat the GMAT if you don't want to buy a study plan or a book.

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Write Like a Boss

Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. Both the GMAT and the GRE will have you write an essay where you are tasked to refute a presented argument in 30 minutes or less. Ideally you should be able to write 4 to 6 paragraphs that refute at least three fallacies or weak lines of reasoning that are construed in the argument presented in this amount of time.

You need to be able to type fairly quickly and with a high degree of accuracy, so if your typing skills are weak, start practicing them now. I found it best to practice "free typing" and just type whatever train of thought I was on at the moment. Then I practiced typing full essays in the 30 minute time frame three times a week until I felt I was proficient at it. I used Notepad because it's limited in functionality and is similar to the type of text editor used in testing. I also saved my practice essays for later review.

The weak spots in the argument presented are fairly easy to spot, and I started my essays by typing them down as I came across them. This kept me from wasting time writing them down on scratch paper and allowed me to simply look up to keep my train of thought on track. The Princeton Review and a number of other sources recommend utilizing a conceptual template or outline, where you present your reasons why the argument is weak, expand upon your reasoning in the following paragraphs (a paragraph per reason) and wrap things up with a final, summary paragraph.

Using an outline speeds up the composition process and provides a few extra precious minutes to review before you submit. I don't know how much of a difference it makes, but I indented my paragraphs and used an extra line break in between them to make for easier reading. The <tab> button doesn't work in either of the editors, so you need to whack the space bar five times.

The GRE has an additional analytical writing section where you argue for or against a method, process or idea. The trick is to pick a side and argue for or against it in five or six paragraphs. Don't forget to refute competing points of view in your arguments.

Using this method I scored a 6 on the argumentative essay in the GMAT and 5.5 on the essays in the GRE.

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It's All About the Numbers

If you're a little rusty at math then you need to start practicing now. The math tested on the GRE and the GMAT isn't rocket science, but it's not simple addition and subtraction either. If you're good at math then you need to focus on the tricks the test makers use when developing questions. Khan Academy has a pretty comprehensive review for the GMAT, but nothing dedicated to the GRE.

The biggest problem I encountered was failing to RTFQ (read the frickin' question), getting frustrated, and getting into a rush. I took enough practice tests and worked through enough practice problems to realize when I was getting frustrated or in a rush. Failing to RTFQ or misinterpreting the question took repeated exposure to practice problems for me. The biggest help to me was going back through problems I missed, seeing why I missed them and then practicing similar problems.

Math Facts to Memorize

Finding the cube root of a number using the GRE calculator

If you get panicked and want to see what the cube root of a number is with certainty you will need a workaround. The built in calculator on the GRE doesn't have a cube root function and you will have to improvise. There is no calculator on the quant section of the GMAT.

Here's the trick: Type in your number, hit the SqRt (v) button twice, hit multiply (x), SqRt (v) four times, hit multiply (x), hit SqRt (v) eight times, hit multiply (x), hit SqRt (v) twice, hit enter. All you have to do is remember 2,4,8,2. The key sequence will look like this: #  v v,  x  v v v v,  x  v v v v v v v v,  x  v v, = where # is the number under the cube root sign, v is the square root button, x is the multiply button and = is the equals button on the built in calculator.

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Finding Your Way Through the Word Salad

The GMAT and the GRE have two very different verbal reasoning sections, and your mileage may vary. I found the "sentence" questions in the GRE more agreeable than those in the GMAT, and I found the reading comprehension questions in the GMAT more to my liking than those in the GRE. There is a higher degree of variety in the vocabulary used in the GRE compared to the GMAT, and some of the passages are thick, doctorate level professional journal, lose your place types of passages.

The GMAT verbal reasoning section covers Sentence Correction, Reading Comprehension, and Critical Reasoning.

I found the sentence correction questions to be convoluted, in that I've yet to meet anyone who constructs sentences as oddly as the ones you are asked to correct. To make these questions more difficult, they provide you with four "corrections" to the sentences as answer choices - in addition to choosing to say the sentence is already correct. I imagine anyone with measurable writing, proof-reading, copy writing, or editing experience would find these questions difficult without memorizing the "standards" set forth by the GMAT council. These particular questions and my aversion to them

The critical reasoning section on the GMAT is pretty straightforward, in that you are simply picking apart an argument; much like the essay you write at the beginning of the test. The vocabulary can be a little tricky, but there's usually enough clues strewn throughout the passage to infer meanings. The same goes for the reading comprehension section. Most of the passages are straightforward, and the questions relate to structure, idea and composition.

The GRE verbal reasoning section covers Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence.

Text completion is pretty straightforward, in that you pick the word that completes the sentence. Your vocabulary knowledge and ability to deduce root words will come into play here. Sentence equivalence is pretty much like text completion, only you need to select two words that best complete the sentence.

Reading comprehension in the GRE is a little tough. Many of the passages seemed to be deliberately thick and hard to follow, making it difficult to skim through a passage of text and answer the question. By the time you get to these questions in the second half of the exam you will probably find the reading to have become a chore. You can't quickly scan through the text and find your answer on most of these questions. I found it best to write down the information I needed as related to the question, especially when process or inference questions arose.

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My Testing Experience

Studying for both of these exams while attending classes was draining to say the least. I found that I needed to devote at least an hour a day to studying one of the aspects of the test to feel confident in my ability.

I studied for the GMAT for two months before taking it, and I had improved my practice scores from mid 30's in Verbal and high 20's in Quant to low 40's in Verbal and mid 30's in Quant. Integrated Reasoning was consistently between 9 and 10. I was fully expecting a combined score in the 650 range. I breezed through the Analytical Writing Assessment on test day, re-reading and making corrections as I composed my essay, although I only had about 45 seconds to check for flagrant spelling errors at the end.

I made it to the end of the Integrated Reasoning Section, performing calculations on the dry erase board they provided me at the test center when I realized it was the only section of the test with a calculator available for use.

I felt like an ass. Even worse, I let it affect the rest of my test. Worse yet, I knew that the admissions board didn't care about the Analytical Writing or the Integrated Reasoning sections of the test and I still felt I was failing. My frustration at my failure to utilize the calculator in the one section it was available led to a paltry overall score of 460, with a 30 Verbal,  25 Quant, 2 Integrated Reasoning, but a solid 6 on Analytical Writing.

A few words with the admissions advisor and I decided to give the GRE a try. The GRE was $50 cheaper to take, it measured Verbal and Quant a little differently, but you pay a penalty of typing an additional essay for the cost savings. I scored a 150 on the Verbal section and a 140 on the Quant section of the official practice test. I'm convinced this was due in part to my preparation for the GMAT over the preceding two months.

I continued my same routine with the GRE that I did with the GMAT for two weeks. I felt the GRE to be more draining than the GMAT not only because of the extra essay you have to write, but because there is an experimental section of questions thrown in for good measure. I walked in the testing center at noon and walked out at four. I ended up with an overall score of 311, with a 159 Verbal,  152 Quant, and a solid 5.5 on Analytical Writing.

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Key Takeaways + Advice for Deaf Ears

I'm not sure why the GMAT stuck out in my head as "the test to take" when I started down the path to apply to graduate school, but it did and that's the admissions test I chose to focus on. Hindsight would have me take both practice tests before deciding which test to take, because the admissions council didn't have a preference. The most important thing to ask the recruiter is "what do I need to do in order to be competitive with the other candidates?" This allows you to decide which admissions test is better suited towards your talents, where you stand in relation to your peer group, and it helps you focus your attention on your overall application.

Take advantage of breaks during the exam. If there's a 60 second break between sections you need to be stretching and moving around a little bit. The testing center might get alarmed if you decide to do jumping jacks in front of your little testing cubicle, but nobody will care if you stretch in place on the crappy office chair provided. Roll your head from side to side and look away from the computer monitor. Adjust your chair, kick your shoes off, get comfy. Go to the bathroom and get your stretch on in the lobby when you get the 10 minute break between major sections of the exam. Wash your face, drink water, have a little snack-a-roo, crack the front door or a window for some fresh air if you can. Wake yourself up and get your synapses firing again, go into round two awake and alive.

Study as soon as possible. This allows you start slowly and build up to getting a top score that brings in top scholarship offers to the top schools. You aren't going to have a strategy in place to break into the top 5% if you try and cram two months ahead of time. Seniors looking to go to grad school should treat the GMAT and the GRE like an elective in their Fall and Spring semesters.

Utilize free resources before spending any money on test preparation materials. Take the free practice tests from the test administrators to see which one works best with your ability. Exhaust your local library, local study groups and the online forums for tips, tricks and techniques before purchasing any preparation materials.

Use practice questions to determine what your fundamental strengths and weaknesses are. Spend the time to see where you went wrong, what led you to be wrong, and how to answer the question correctly when you get practice questions wrong. Becoming familiar with the answers to 25 different practice questions on a single topic doesn't do you any good if you don't know why you fundamentally got them wrong in the first place.

Remember that these tests are part of your overall application to graduate school and (hopefully) not the determinant factor. The admissions board will consider your application in its entirety and your score on these tests will be one of the criteria they use to determine the next cohort. Test scores that are competitive with the other applicants (+/- 10%) to your graduate program will be just fine if you have a more competitive edge on the other parts of your application. When applying to business school this can mean having a solid resume that covers five to ten years of professional experience backed up by three letters of recommendation from local captains of industry as opposed to the documents undergraduates are submitting. In this case the board is more likely to admit the professional who has stellar references and work experience than the undergraduate whose resume is full of positions related to Greek life.