You normally start building a house by getting with an architect to plan the building.
Taking a prep course is like talking to an experienced architect first. They can help you make sure that none of your time and effort is wasted.
A GRE prep course can raise a student’s combined score an average of 13 points. Of that, 7 or 8 points comes in the quantitative (math) section, and the rest is in the verbal section.
In the class I teach (consider that full disclosure) we spend time on the quantitative section; the verbal section; the written analytical section; and on other factors such as test layout, the testing center, and test anxiety.
Each of those sections contributes to that increased score, so let’s look at how prep courses can help with each of those sections, the cost in time and money of those courses, when to take a course, and how to pick a good one.
The Quantitative Section
In the quantitative section of the GRE there is a lot of very specific material to cover (prime factoring, quadratic expressions, area of a circle segment, permutations, etc.), but most of it students have seen before. In fact, at one time, they probably would have had no trouble doing those problems. But prime factoring in sixth grade was a loooong time ago.
Although most students will already know how to do the majority of the math, they will need to go over all of it. They need to see how it will actually be tested and decide at that point how much time to spend time studying and practicing each problem type.
I spend probably 40% of the time in my prep class on going over the GRE math. The goal is not to give students mastery of each math concept, but to show them exactly what they are most likely to see and to help them identify those areas on which they need to spend their time reviewing and practicing. I (and most other GRE prep courses) also show them how to use the structure of the test questions to help identify the answer that is most probably correct even when they don’t know how (or don’t have enough time) to complete the problem. For most students, those guessing techniques can raise their scores significantly!
The Verbal Section
The verbal section is relatively straightforward and easy to teach in a classroom setting, and I spend probably 20% of class time on that section. Learning all the helpful techniques for each type of verbal problem (sentence completion, antonyms, reading comprehension, and analogies) can easily be accomplished in a few hours.
However, the bulk of student work on the verbal section takes place outside the prep class as they learn new vocabulary. Learning new vocabulary is the single most important thing that can be done for enhancing the GRE verbal score.
In my prep classes, I tell my students to learn AT LEAST 300 new vocabulary words in order to have a reasonable chance of seeing enough of those words on their GRE for it to make an actual difference in their scores. However, 300 new vocabulary words is really the bare minimum. Many of the more serious students aim at learning 1000 to 3000 new words. Obviously, that means a significant investment of time and mental energy!
Many prep courses tell students, “Here’s the word list. Go learn it.” I do not do that to my students. There are many techniques that can make learning that vocabulary much faster and easier! We work on those skills in our class, and I give a step-by-step formula to follow that makes memorizing vocabulary much easier and less time consuming than it would otherwise be. In fact, knowing proper techniques can easily reduce overall vocabulary learning time by thirty percent. That adds up to a lot of time on 1000 words! Moreover, the techniques can easily be applied to any subject that requires memorization (biochemistry, anatomy, history, business, and more).
The Written Analytical (Essay) Section
The written analytical section of the GRE is not generally a key portion of the test for most test takers. It is less important to many grad schools, the scoring is less fine-grained (the difference between a score of 4 and a score of 4.5 on the writing is like the difference between a 150 and a 153 on the quantitative or verbal sections), and most students are not as concerned about that section. For those reasons I spend about 20% of class time on the written analytical portion of the GRE, and I don’t recommend that students spend too much time practicing outside of class.
Writing five to ten of each of the essays before taking the GRE usually gives students a good time to payoff ratio. Students who really need to raise their score in this area may need further help outside of class and continued practice over months. I offer that help and practice for free for those who require it, and most test prep companies offer extra help as well, although such help can be pricey.
While I have never seen any research to show exactly what sorts of improvements prep classes make in the written analytical scores, I do believe the techniques they teach can make a significant difference in the strength of students’ writings. The difference in their before and after essays is obvious. With such clear improvement, their scores should be increasing correspondingly, but again, I have no research to back that up.
Test Structure and Tactics
Finally, in my prep class we usually spend 20% of our time discussing the actual test itself; structure, background, timing, general study techniques, actual test-day do’s and don’ts, and stress management. It can be difficult to convince most people that such subjects are worthy of their time, but my experience is that this can be one of the most valuable sections of a prep course for many students.
Most test prep courses don’t address test anxiety issues at all, but they definitely should, especially for the 15 to 20% of students for whom this is a major issue. Indeed, the twenty or thirty minutes we spend in my classes on learning to control test anxiety, combined with practicing the techniques after the course, can make a 3 to 10(!) point difference in some students scores. I’ve seen it happen. Combine that with the huge gains many students see when they learn to manage their time on the test, and the importance of this part of test preparation is undeniable.
When Should You Start Preparing?
Many students ask when they should begin preparing for the GRE or how far in advance ot test day they should take a prep course. The answer really depends on the individual student. Students who are diligent about studying, even when the test is in the far distant future, would benefit from starting their studying years in advance! Just think; learning 1000 new words over three years works out to less than one new word per day. Learning the same 1000 words in three months works out to over ten per day!
Most students are not beginning the GRE studies three years ahead of time, though, and will spend only about a month prepping for the GRE. That’s all most of my students do, and again, I see average gains of around 13 points. Some of my students come and take the class three days before the test. Their invariable response is, “Wow. The class really helped! But I sure wish I had started studying a month ago.”
The Cost of a Test Prep Course
The main objection many students have to taking a test prep course is the cost. With the big companies charging upwards of $1,200 for their courses, the objection certainly deserves consideration. A course like mine, which is offered through a university, is less expensive ($395 in my case), but it’s still a considerable investment for most college students. However, when students consider the potential return on their investment, even expensive courses make sense. Just think about how much students spend on college over the course of their four (or five, or six) year undergraduate career. Yet in some cases, this one test can have as great an impact on admissions to grad schools (not to mention scholarships) as your entire undergraduate GPA!
Which Test Prep Course Should I Take?
Test prep classes are more than worth the time and money for most students. The potential payoffs far outweigh the costs for the majority of students, but choose your prep course carefully.
While most courses teach exactly the same techniques (more on that in a minute) there may be some key areas that they don’t address. If test anxiety is a problem for you, make sure that they will be covering that area. If learning a thousand new vocabulary words sounds impossible, make sure they will be doing more than just giving you a big long list of words. Do you struggle with some key math technique that they only mentioned in passing? Make sure you can get help outside of class if you need it.
You should also consider the instructors they have teaching the course. Getting some part-timer who’s teaching the course for the next six months while they finish up their masters at the local college can make for a very boring (and much less helpful) classroom experience.
Finally, neither course length nor expense should be the main criteria by which you judge a course. Most GRE prep courses teach pretty much the same basic techniques with different names! That’s because they all publish books with these techniques. All the other companies read those books and integrate any new and useful techniques from the other companies into their own courses.
I’ve been teaching GRE Prep since 2000, and in that time I’ve been through the majority of the other test prep books several times over. Rarely do I find ANY new techniques, although some companies definitely do a better job of explaining certain things than do others. So the difference between a $1200 course and a $600 course is NOT in the key GRE techniques they are teaching.
Time is not really a key distinguishing factor between test prep courses either. Many companies will tell you their course is 20 or even 40 hours long. It sounds like you are getting more for your money, but actual class room instruction time may only vary by an hour or two. The additional time is spent in having you take practice tests or in doing worksheets that you could easily do on your own for free. You should, however, look at how much they will charge for their time if you need extra help outside of class. Many of the big companies charge over $80 an hour for extra one-on-one attention outside of class. Others charge nothing!
To sum it all up, test prep courses can be hugely helpful for many, if not most, students. In general, they can help you know exactly how and where to spend your time in order to see really significant gains in your GRE scores. Although they can be expensive and time consuming, their potential payoff far outweighs their cost, BUT choose carefully. Not all test preps are created equal. You can spend $1200 for a very mediocre test prep and miss out on an excellent prep course that is half the price.© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.