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How I went from a 154Q/155V to a 166Q/160V (320+): story from Reddit GRE

How I went from a 154Q/155V to a 166Q/160V (320+): story from Reddit GRE

Related: a guide to studying for the GRE


The guy spent 3-4 weeks straight studying.

For quant: he used the detailed Manhattan books (green books), as he felt weak on math. He took notes on each book as he went through. Once he finished them, he went back and did all the questions in them. He wished he spent more effort on timing his first go-around. Then he reviewed all the questions and wrote notes on those, reviewing them regularly.

For verbal: he found vocab words through Magoosh, but then transferred them onto his own flashcards (nb: if you’re looking for flashcards, this is my rec). He felt good about reading.

His resources beyond those mentioned were the official ETS materials, as well as GRE Prep Club, which he thought was great.

At the end of his post, he does a really long debrief of the test day experience itself, which might be helpful.


Full post

Finished the test a few hours ago! To thank all those that helped and put up with me on the r/GRE thread, here’s my summary of how I studied, what I thought of the test, what mistakes I made in my studying, etc. (This is long, sorry sorry sorry)

Alright alright alright, so here’s the study rundown.

Timeline: Spent about 3-4 weeks studying. Granted, I am currently out of work (seasonal thing), so I had plenty of time to study, but I went through my study materials without any sense of urgency.

Study Materials:

Quant – Manhattan Prep GRE set of 8 Green BooksI loved these books. While I took AP classes in math most of my high school years for college credit, these were usually much more advanced content than the level that ETS is looking to test you on. No math in college, and I’ve been graduated for a year and a half – so 8ish years since those foundational math classes in freshman-sophomore of high school. The first 6 books of this set were essential. They were great in helping me recall all that old math and catching me on old rules and concepts that I had completely forgotten.

Verbal – Magoosh’s vocabulary app that they have = wrote all the common, basic and advanced words on physical flashcards. The app is great, but I wanted the process of writing the words down and working with flashcards in my hands. I was very confident on all the common and basic words, probably could be correct on 75% of the advanced words by the time I went to test. I skimmed some other high frequency lists online as well in the last couple days just to say I did in case one popped up and I had a small amount of familiarity with it or had at least seen it and had a good chance of guessing the correct definition. Know the Common and Basic of Magoosh.

Longer Explanation – I worked through the 6 MP books for quant pretty slowly and methodically to really nail them down one-by-one, taking little notes on a separate notepad for an extended review sheet. My recommendation: Don’t do all of the end of chapter questions or the Easy Medium Hard question sets in each book until you’ve done ALL of the 6 books! Because it took me a solid week plus to go through all the books, there were things in the first book I had forgotten by the time I was done with the 6th book. Once you’ve slowly gone through them all, THEN go back and skim chapters, work through the end of chapter questions, determine what you had forgotten, trying to go back through all the books in a much shorter time now that you are familiar. But DON’T do the end of book question sets yet! I wish I had waited! By now, you’ve gone through the books one time slow, one time skimming and doing end-of-chapter questions, then go on back to Book 1, and start doing the Easy, Medium and Hard question sets. My biggest issue on the actual GRE was TIMING. I was a little slow and wound up once or twice on the actual test having to rush to get questions done (like 5 questions left and 4 minutes do them rushing). Yikes. So, mix up the end-of-book questions (like 10 easy, 5 medium, 5 hard, yada yada then mix), set a timer to 35 minutes (or if you do less than 20 questions, multiply a minute and 45 seconds by the amount of questions you do) and mimic the testing timeline. That really stressed me out in the actual test, and I had even taken the two free ETS practice tests so I wasn’t unprepared for it! I had timed myself doing the end-of-book questions, but I did it very carefree and chill and only doing one section at a time. I didn’t even time myself doing the hard questions because I thought “there may only be a few on the test, if I’m fast on the other Qs, I’ll have plenty of time!” Yeah, no, mimic the testing environment. Then go back and take your time reviewing the questions you got wrong and why you got them wrong with their detailed solutions.

Once I had gone through the Manhattan books for Quant, I had a few pages of a notepad filled with little notes I took from the chapters of basic formulas, things I thought I needed reminding about, and then if there were questions that tripped me up in the back of the books, I made a note of why I missed them and what MP told me in their solution about how to do them (Note: I made some dumb mistakes in misreading questions or things I knew I knew but had just plain dumb overlooked, I didn’t bother making notes on my notepad about those unless I noticed I was missing a lot because of one dumb mistake I kept making). All in all, probably had 4-5 pages of stuff that was readily accessible to skim through and remind myself about. This was useful to look over the morning of the test before I went in.

For verbal, I didn’t really use Book 7 and 8 of Manhattan Prep – mainly because from what I had researched (good idea to read up on reddit postings and book reviews), people said it was more beneficial to use ETS stuff for Verbal questions. I skimmed book 7/8 and did the questions just to do the questions and I thought it was all good, they just go pretty lengthy on strategies and such that I didn’t feel was worth my time to go in-depth on. Background on me on Verbal: I am pretty confident in my writing ability, read a lot of books (not really high-end academic material), so I felt pretty good on Verbal except in Vocabulary. I needed those lists of words from Magoosh because when I initially went through them, I probably recognized only about 30% of common, 50% of basic, but just because I recognized them didn’t mean I really could recall exact definitions. I spend most of my Verbal study time on memorizing vocab. Over time, it became pretty easy to notice which words were synonyms, antonyms. Look – if you know the definitions really well, you don’t have to memorize lists of antonyms/synonyms. Those problems on the actually test aren’t fill-in-the-blank. You can eliminate a good number of them in the multiple choice format if you are super familiar with most of the choices and are confident on their definitions.

Verbal, what I wish I had done differently – I struggled on the actual test and even on the ETS practice tests in being able to read through those RC passages, especially the ones that were more than a few sentences and really absorb the info or generically understand it in ONE reading. I needed to read them a couple times then found myself rereading sections multiple times to eliminate answer choices and man, let me tell you, THAT KILLED MY TIME. I don’t think I guessed on more than one or two verbal total the whole test, but since the longer passages seem to be mostly prevalent in the end of the sections, I felt rushed for time and speed reading. Not great. Sooooooo….. I would recommend that you compile sample question passages from sources like the MP books (only the questions), from the ETS sources online, etc. and practice reading them through once, being focused, and not losing your train of thought. I felt rushed even when I had time on the test and that feeling made me occasionally read a whole paragraph but not understand it and having to re-read it again. Read AND Understand in one go. It’s easy to lose focus in the testing room, especially if other people are testing, or you are feeling stressed.

ETS Practice Tests: I only took the two free ones in the last several days before the test. My scores varied – 155-164 on verbal, 167-154 on quant. This was the first time I really experienced the effect of time on my thinking and test taking. It was a great reminder (my second test quant score was so different because I got hung up on a couple questions early, and wound up really really rushing the end and even not answering a couple questions I skipped because I ran out of time). I interpreted my verbal scores the first time being my introduction to how rush-reading a passage was counterproductive to actually understanding the passage. My second verbal score felt good, but I think it is a little bit about luck of the draw in verbal – I just happened to get questions and words that I knew pretty well and there were fewer long passages that threw me off that I understood in one reading fairly well.

While ETS does let you look through and see what you got wrong and tells you what the correct answer is supposed to be, they don’t tell you why. I found a lot of luck in finding decent solution explanations on this website:

PLUS, they provide you with access to the questions and the sections that you didn’t get to take (first section of verbal and quant is the same, but depending on your results, you take the easy, medium, or hard section of each verbal and quant for each second section in ETS). While some of the questions are similar to others in other sections, it’s another good thing to do to mimic timing to sit down, put 30:00 or 35:00 on the clock and work those other sections that ETS didn’t give you. You can’t reset the PowerPrep Tests and retake them (or there’s like a 90 day reset or something), so this is great to get all those extra Qs.

My study for essays: Honestly, didn’t practice write an essay before taking the actual GRE. Again, I’m confident in my essay ability even though I haven’t written essays like this since high school (took some AP English classes, so we wrote a lot of essays and I was sick of it by college). I knew how to do a 5-paragraph essay, how to structure it, how to write a decent thesis, etc. I struggle a bit coming up with strong valid examples, but I figured that would only be remedied with reading a lot of stuff and with only 3-4 weeks to study, I just didn’t want to mess with it. I’ve read in a lot of places that ArtsandLettersDaily is a great source to read academic stuff, so I’m sure it’s good. Again, I just didn’t think it was worth it in my short time of studying and with my previous experience.

The Sample essays that ETS provides in all the score ranges from 0-6 on the practice PowerPrep tests were a great resource! By reading through them, I knew what level I needed to reach (shooting for a 5) and if my writing capability without studying would have a shot at it. 4 and below, I felt I could beat fairly easily. And it gave me some feedback on how to write for their prompts and per their specific instructions. Yeah, length of essays looks to matter guys, even if they say they don’t, just by looking at those sample essays.

And that’s about it for my studying.


AWA Section: Thought my essays were pretty good, but I am curious to see my scores. I ran low on time and only ended up with one sentence in my concluding ‘paragraph’ that was super basic. The rest of my essays seemed really well done, so I’m curious how that will affect my scores. I’ll update this post when I know what I scored. I’m thinking 4-5 range, but *shrug* who knows. The prompts seemed fairly easy to respond to, maybe I got the more benign ones of those that are listed on their website (yes, ETS posts all of their prompts, like 350 worth, online that you can look at.)

Verbal Section 1: It was okay, I felt decent on it, not great. Definitely took me some time to settle down into reading the passages. The long passage I got went over my head initially because I was rushed and not reading ‘comprehensively.’ Knew a lot of the vocab and felt decent about placing them in sentences.

Quant Section 1: Felt really good. Solid 19 out of 20 I felt were easy and I was as sure as sure can be about (this is the easy section after all). One I guessed on at the end because it was a data interpretation question, and while I bet it was easy, I for some crazy reason couldn’t understand what they were asking. I skipped it, did the last couple questions on the same data, came back and still was stumped. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what they were asking about the data. I bet if I was looking at it now, it would be really easy, but in that moment, I blanked.

10 Minute Break (Note on the breaks: those 60 second breaks between the other sections, while you probably don’t want to leave the room, are nice. And on the instruction and section title pages, there is no timer, so you can technically use those as a break to stretch out a bit and re-center yourself. You don’t want to get up, but you can chill.)

Quant Section 2: Shit started hitting the fan here. There were plenty of straightforward ones but enough that took me extra time in the first half that by the time I got to my last several questions, I was down to only like 5:00 minutes (for 6-7 questions, that’s not much, especially since data interpretation questions are near the end of the section). I had skipped one or two at the start because they weren’t super easy and I thought I could return to them with a few minutes at the end, reboot, and read them with a new perspective, which usually works and they are easy to solve. Noooope, I ran out of time. Thankfully, I had at least put down a quick best guess before marking them and skipping so it’s not like I never even answered them at all. Those last several questions weren’t hard, but running out of time made me have to speed work which opened me up for mistakes. Got to Question 20, knew exactly how to solve it, but had to do a few calculator straightforward calculations to get there, was literally typing in the calculator for the last solution and the time ran out on me. So of the 20 questions, I guessed on a couple early ones that I didn’t get to return to, rushed a few easy ones and had no chance to really be sure on them or double check I didn’t misread a detail in the question, and didn’t answer 1 question at all, so yeah. Yikes.

I was a bit demoralized with how I felt that section go over my little break between sections and harping on myself until the thought occurred to me – if I got another quant section in addition to my second verbal, that would mean I had a 50% chance that the Quant I had just finished had been the “unscored” section, so not all hope was lost. With that little light of hope, I was feeling a bit better.

Verbal 2nd Section: I actually felt pretty good on this one. I would guess that it wasn’t the hard section, probably the medium one since I didn’t feel over the moon about my first Verbal section and probably didn’t ace it enough to qualify for the adapted Hard section. I think I got a little lucky and all of the passages seemed to read well in one go. Still had to re-read parts, but I wasn’t having to reread big chunks. This helped with time. Like I had assumed in my practice tests with ETS PowerPrep, it is a bit luck of the draw with verbal. But with two sections, I really felt like I was able to grasp the majority of vocab words and most of the passages – really only got caught up in the education jargon of one or two passages in the first Verbal section that made me uneasy about answering questions well on them. The Magoosh Vocab seemed to cover 95% of the vocab I encountered on the actual GRE. That’s a really good sign! Highly, highly, highly recommend those! There’s no way of knowing all the possibilities for vocabulary words on the GRE, but finding quality lists like Magoosh’s that cover a lot of the high frequency and common gre words are super helpful.

Quant 3rd Section: Yes, I said to myself! Maybe that last Quant section won’t count! While this section did end up flowing better than the other one, I still found myself a little rushed at the end. Not too bad and well within the average test-taker’s experience I’d expect, but I’d still say it was unsettling. That’s why I recommend mimicking the testing time standards in your studying quite a bit! There were still several questions that I was sticky on – I think I ended up putting down 2-3 answers that were more like guesses than sure answers on questions at the end that I had marked because of time constraints. I could cross off one or two multiple choice answers on each, but needed more time to really be sure on an answer. So not great, but maybe a bit better performance than that 2nd Quant section! I at least answered every question versus not answering one at all like before!

Aaaaaaand, finished! So that was my experience. I was a bit suprised at my scores, because of how rushed I felt at times, I thought they would be 4-5 points lower in each than what they ended up being. I certainly felt capable of these scores, but my test experience had me believing I had performed below my average. Maybe it was just the stress of taking the test making things seem a lot more difficult than they actually are or maybe this is was a harder than average GRE test and the scores adjusted to fit the percentiles of test takers better. On a different GRE test, I could have felt much better about the sections and still scored the same or worse because it is based on the performance of all the test takers. Who knows. I could have gotten lucky, but I do believe that those things cancel themselves out – if I got lucky and got a correct answer on a question that I guessed on, then there is probably another question that I thought I for sure answered correctly and ended up getting wrong because of a dumb mistake or simple, easily fixable error. What’s crazy is that the chillest part of the test for me was the essay portion and I ‘studied’ less than a day for it (maybe because typing word-vomit calms me *facepalm*).

Biggest piece of advice: Just Breathe. These tests don’t define who you are, and in the scheme of the world, they really don’t matter all that much in importance. It’s great to score high, but certainly not indicative of who you are, whether you do well or get a score below your expectations.

Sorry for this post being so long! Once I started typing, it just flowed! Hopefully, someone can find good things in all the word vomit that can benefit them in their prep and on test day. PM me or Reply if you have questions for me or need advice or just someone to vent to – I’m certainly not an expert, but I’m happy to be a shoulder to lean on or provide you with someone to bounce ideas off of.

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