Wednesday, November 28

My GRE experience

I wrote GRE, the Graduate Record Examination, an year and half ago. Recently, some one asked via e-mail, for advice and tips. I started to write the reply, but it turned out to be too long. I thought it would be better if I put this somewhere on the web, and send the URL, so that it would be useful later. So, this is my place on the web, and here is my GRE story. Skip this, if you don't care about GRE. And I wrote this in the blog, so that if someone thinks I am blockhead for writing this or whatever, they can do so in the comments section.

So, What is my score ?

Yes, I should tell my score first, so you know the credentials I have to talk about the Exam. Verbal was good : 660 (93 percentile) Quans was, lets say, "not bad" : 730 (78 percentile). Analytical writing was pathetic : 4.0 (32 percentile). Having written GRE qualifies me to write advice for every one else. And hence for the benefit of everyone writing GRE, here are my pearls. (Of course, If the pattern changes, this is useless). That also induced me into thinking that I would write all these standardized exams just to pass on advice and tips. Yeah, seriously... (only,if some one could give me money)

My preparation was just 3 months, well actually 3 months and 2 weeks (Because my car radiator burst three days before my initial GRE's date. So, I had to re-schedule.)

Plan of Study:

To make the plan of study, I used Google Calendar. I, probably, did not stick to my calendar like 40% of the time. But at least, it would be there in my face - questioning those things I do, not suggested by the calendar. I try to keep the plan as rigid as it was possible, and as flexible as it was needed. I used three books - an used Kaplan GRE prep book/CD, a new Barrons GRE prep book/CD and a used Kaplan GRE verbal workbook.

I was trying to write the exam, while I was working full time. Work was 8-5 every day, and doesn't usually exceed that. Hence, on week days, I planned 2 hours in the morning, 2.5 hours in the evening for word list learning, and a 15-min flash card session in the afternoon just after the lunch (Courtesy: Flash Card Exchange ). In the weekends, I mostly do math exercises, and verbal practice tests. In the beginning, I also learnt word lists during weekends, but later I just had revisions. I am almost certain that, I never worked more than 14 hours of study each weekend(Sat and Sun), and that includes time for practice tests.

I used my work as my distraction for GRE prep. I felt work was a better distraction. In other words, I felt my work helped, rather than, hurt my preparation for GRE. So, lets start with...

Mastering the word list.

Mastering the word list is useful for Analogues and Antonyms. This task alone consumed around 70% of my preparation time. I felt, there were three issues/caveats in mastering the list.

  • The sheer size of Barron's word list(around 4000 words) is enough to kill any sane human being's confidence that, they know English. So, I felt that Barron's word list is a wrong place to start. I felt, I should start with some sub-set of words, and incrementally add new words. In that way, I would have a better coverage of words from A-Z, then add new words, as they come to me. At the least, I would not feel bad that I never got to those words starting with 'S' or 'T'.
  • Words are related. But every word list doesn't show these relationships. If I ask you 10 difficult words you know, you wouldn't start with 'A'. You would start with one of the difficult words you know, and look for words that are related to it. Our brain stores words in a non-linear fashion, but word lists, like dictionaries are linear representation. I need to some-how build a non-linear way of storing the information using the linear input. (so that I can revise the word relationships easily)
  • Words are easy to forget. Forgetting is so easy that I don't remember any of the new words, I learned for GRE anymore. I have to find some ways to remember them. What should I do to remember them ?
These were my solutions...
  • I started with the word list in the Kaplan GRE Verbal workbook. They weren't as much as Barrons (Actually the whole of Kaplan had less than half of what Barrons had!!!). Another advantage with the words in Kaplan was, the word list was given in a non-linear fashion. For each word, the related words are listed just below, along with them. That would be really easy way to build my non-linear notebook. After I completed that, I then finished the words list given in suffixes, and prefixes section. After that, I went on the root words and words with similar meanings... (Barrons List comes later - Only after 5-6 weeks!!!)
  • While I did those things in Step 1, I wanted to build this corpus of information - word, meaning, its usage and its relationships- into a non-linear method of storage. I used tiddlywiki to store them. It is a reusable non-linear personal note-book. It is actually a Wiki in a single HTML file. As the description in the page says, "It contains the entire text of the wiki, and all the JavaScript, CSS and HTML goodness to be able to display it, and let you edit it or search it. Without needing a server."
    For example, If I store the word "veracity" in a page, then I add a links to other words such as "mendacious", "verity", just below the description of "veracity". When I click on "verity", it opens up information contained in same file, in the same window, and shows its description. Its all Javascript magic. I use this to just browse related words, without having to open a thesaurus. I need to make this on my own, so that focus is only on GRE words. Also that everything is contained in a single page. Aint that cool ?
  • I thought that I should listen to lot of words. I learnt a lot of words, just by listening radio/video/audio books on the Internet. Idea is that, if these words were reach my other senses, I would remember. Remember, the idea is to build associations.
  • iPod solution: I recorded myself learning the words, made into to small MP3 files, and stored in my iPod. For example, I can never forget the few words I made play lists interspersed with songs. My play list looked like this
    • "Mississippi" - Bob Dylan.
    • Words that approximately mean "sadness" - GRE.
    • "I am not crazy" - Rob Thomas.
    • Words that approximately mean "craziness" - GRE and so on.... I was just trying to associate vocals with meanings.
  • Classical solution : Flash Cards. I make sure that, I spend at least one hour every day entirely for flash cards. I made my own flash cards. I made 3x2.5 cards(almost looks like a square) out of 3x5 index cards, and wrote each word I learn, and the meaning behind the card. Every time I go through them, I separate into three parts of cards.
    • Words I think, I would never forget.
    • Words I think, I might forget.
    • Words I think, I just don't remember. I try to spend more time covering the third division, allocating time proportionately from there on.
Did my solution work ?
  • The idea of making smaller steps first, and then slowly growing confidence worked. I was able to lean enough words, and feel confident that I can learn more, if I work at this pace. I could see that I completed something (which was more important that what was in-complete). After 4-5 weeks, I completed all the words in Kaplan (almost 2000), and then I started working on Barrons list. I, then, used a DOS program from the internet called Advanced Vocabulary Enhancer or AVE to update new words to my learning. It is a flash card program, that keep track of what words you make mistakes, and what words you are OK with. I used the program during the whole second half of my preparation. It was just unbelievable. I have the link, but the link is broken. I do have the copy of the program. If I could find a hosting service for uploading that some where, I would do and update the link here. I also wanted to re-write the program in a easy to port manner, but I never go to do that.
  • Tiddly wiki was not as useful as I thought it would be. In the end, I had a single HTML file of size almost 600 KB, and the browser would just cry to load it. Firefox would say that Javascript is not responsive, and call 911. Still, it was useful to revise word-relationships. Probably, more could have been done to keep track of coverage and frequency, while browsing a network of words. If I had enough time, I would have done some hacking to make the wiki better suited for my purpose. But Firefox/IE is no emacs, and javacript is no e-lisp. I might try this, some time in the future.
  • iPod Solution: Listening to my own voice for a sustained period of time is one of the most dreadful thing, I ever did. But still, it was quite helpful. I added a few passages from a websites and articles (from Newyorker etc.) gathered using google search of difficult words. After a few words, my mouth went dry. I mean, every word has a fascinating history of its own. 3 months is too short. If I had 6 months to work, I would have done this better. I had to reduce the content of my reading. I used to hear, when there is nothing on TV. Since, I no longer wanted anyone to listen to that drudge - not even me, I deleted everything. World is a safe place now.
  • Flash Cards: One thing that works without any problem is Flash Cards. It really works. I can not recommend it enough. It is easier to control, easier to change - very flexible. For example, in case of the iPod recordings, I was not able to skip to next word, or discard a word forever easily. But using Flash cards, takes time of flipping a card. Splitting them was easier, and focus was clear. I vote flash cards as the ultimate study tool ever.
Probably, one might feel that these novel techniques are completely useless. Not really. I had fun while making them, and I was learning those words too. Every word I learn, I record it, Enter into the tiddly, and write down on the flash card. So, not everything was lost. If possible, I might use the Youtube as a study tool next time :)!!!

And finally

On any given day, if you ask me the opposite of word "baroque", I would say "elegant"/"simple". But if its a GRE question, I would ask, "What are the choices ?". GRE's Verbal Section is difficult, for the reason that "All human languages are ambiguous". So, the problem isn't just learning words, but to understand the meaning without ambiguity. The only way is to read some context along with learning the meaning of the word. In this sense, I liked the Free dictionary. Not only the dictionary lists the meanings of the given word, it also gives a section called "References in Classic Literature". It was quite helpful.

Quans Practices

The only way I prepared for quantitative section is by practice tests. It took less than two weeks to learn all the Math formulas and other concepts (Ratio, Geometry etc.). After that, its all just practice. I had enough number of practice questions in both the books and the CDs, and just do it all of them! Its pretty much what you learn in high school. I just have to do it as many times as possible, to get over those loopholes, where its get me.

Analytical Writing

I just wrote two essays each week during the three months of my preparations. The problem with this section is that you have no idea how your writing would be evaluated. And I don't know how to evaluate my essays. I don't know how good I was. I thought just mentioning the points would be sufficient. Looks like, one needs a lot more than a set of bullet points. I wonder, if buying an official advice would help. I am not sure.

Run-up to the finals

I did six full-length practice tests, starting in the final month. The run-up to the exam was mostly practice tests and flash-cards. You should not assume the score you get in practice tests to be anywhere near the final exams. In practice tests, I got around 520-550 in Verbal and 760-790 in Quantitative - way different from what I got in the finals.

The Exam

It was raining. So, I decided to take the local route, rather than the highway. I started early so that I can drive at half the speed of the allowed speed limit, which as 30mph. I played Enya while driving to the Exam Center.

The first mistake I did was being in the thinking that the initial section was an Experimental section. I didn't read the rules properly or something. But, I was doing the whole Quantitative section, thinking that this is an experimental section. I was doing it slow, and then later I had to catch up the time. Is it because of the Music I listened ? I don't know, if this is fair, but I still blame the music for my less than expected Quantitative score. Probably its not true, but psychologically, it helps. If I had to do the exam again, the only thing I would have done different is to choose hear this play list I read in ESPN Page 2, as I head for the Exam Center. It could be. The problem could be that that I was setup with the tempo of "Wild Child" by Enya rather than "LOSE YOURSELF" by Eminem. I wasn't very well pepped up.

My second section was Analytical Writing, which of course was a disaster. And When Verbal Section came, it was like a breeze. I finished Verbal in 21 minutes, 9 minutes earlier than the stipulated time. And just when I was getting ready to face the difficult questions, the exam was already over. It always happens in all of my exams. (Yes, almost every one of them) I don't know why. Probably I have a longer lead time or something.

Still, I have no idea how to solve my lead time problem. The exam was over, and the screen flashed my scores after the statutory warning. I blame it all on Enya. (Sorry Enya. I really like your voice. Only problem is that it didn't work before a GRE exam).

What I should have done ?

Read the instructions properly.

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