The good and bad news about taking the GRE is that it’s not a skill that’s taught directly in school, though it does draw on skills that are. This is bad news, because it means that most of us have to do some work to adapt to the test. It’s also good news, because it means that anyone can master this skill, no matter how long they’ve been out of school.
That said, students’ backgrounds in different subjects and preferences for different types of tasks can inform what they find harder or easier on the test. Here are a few ideas on how your favorite subject in school might shape your strengths and weaknesses as a GRE student.
ENGLISH – You’ll likely feel a lot more comfortable on the Verbal sections of the GRE. In fact, you might find that you tend to finish early. One challenge will be making sure that you don’t go so fast that you make careless errors. Writing down a few notes could help with this. You also might find yourself inclined to argue with the correct answer—couldn’t it also be this? If this happens, ask yourself: what kind of mindset would I need to be in to see this as the only right answer? The more you adjust yourself to the mind of the test, the faster you’ll boost your Verbal score.
Quant, on the other hand, could seem more daunting. It’s important that you re-familiarize yourself with the GRE math content as quickly as possible; flashcards are a great tool for this, as are simple math drills. The good news in Quant is that your strong Verbal skills will help you. Data Interpretation (DI) problems, the ones that ask about graphs, are actually very similar to Reading Comprehension (RC). Both DI and RC require that you stay focused while sorting through dense information. Word problems, too, will be made easier thanks to your Verbal strength.
MATH – You’ll be excited to see that, in terms of conceptual content, the GRE Quant section is a breeze. The topics tested are limited to materials you probably covered in middle school or early in high school, so no trigonometry, advanced algebra, or calculus.
For you, the challenge will be adapting your strong math skills to the format of the test. While the GRE Quant sections draw on math concepts, they’re using this material to test broader reasoning and decision-making skills. Make sure that you learn the tricks and strategies that save time on GRE question formats; the “proper” algebraic solution won’t always be the best.
You can also apply some of your quantitative skill to the Verbal sections. Try breaking down the fill-in-the-blank vocab sentences into simple, equation-like patterns. A similar technique can work for analyzing details in reading passages. If you make your approach to Verbal as methodical and analytical as your approach to solving a math problem, you’ll find your accuracy improves quickly.
HISTORY – Your precision and focus (and possibly your ability to stay engaged with tasks others might find dull) will make you an ace when it comes to the Reading Comprehension questions that deal with specific details in the passages. You’ll also be able to assess the big picture, though you might struggle with spending too long on reading the passages themselves, wanting to be precise about every detail. Your interest in history could also make learning etymologies a fun way to grow your vocabulary, giving you an insight into the evolution of the language (and culture) as you learn new words.
Don’t let Quant intimidate you. Remember that this isn’t a math test like the ones you took (and maybe didn’t love) in high school. Rather, the GRE Quant sections are using math concepts to test the logical reasoning and critical thinking skills you’re already using in the Verbal sections.
SCIENCE – You already have a leg up when it comes to some of the hardest GRE Reading Comprehension passages. For many students, dense and technical science passages can be daunting, but your interest in and familiarity with the material will help you breeze through these. Your challenge will be not getting so bogged down in the minutiae that you miss the bigger picture. You might find the humanities passages less engaging; doing some additional reading in humanities and social science topics will boost your overall comfort with the reading content.
Your ability to reason logically, and to identify logical fallacies and problems with the evidence used to support an argument, will help you both with the logic-based reading questions and with the argument essay.
As with those who are drawn to math, don’t become overconfident in your quantitative skills. In particular, watch out for making snap judgements on the Quantitative Comparison (QC) questions. These are often designed to catch people with strong math skills who make quick assumptions rather than applying a rigorous process.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE – If you studied a Romance, Germanic, or classical language, you’re going to have a big leg up when it comes to vocab. You can use your knowledge of these languages to figure out the meanings of the many English words that have ancestors or relatives in other European languages.
If you studied a language further away from English, or if you speak English as a second or third language, you might find the vocabulary part of the Verbal section more challenging. However, your experiences with working in a second language can still be a real asset on the GRE. Learning a new language requires that you figure out how to decipher meaning without knowing every word used; you know how to get the big picture even if you miss some of the details. This is an essential skill for doing well on Reading Comprehension, and one you’ve already cultivated in your language learning.
You can apply this skill to Quant, too. The GRE likes to use math terminology to disguise what questions are really asking. Even if you find this language intimidating or unfamiliar, you can often figure out what a problem is saying by disregarding distractors and making practical inferences from the context and question format—just as you would when first reading or speaking a new language.
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Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.
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