In Focus: The GRE English Subject Test

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why of GRE Subject Tests

  • Who?  You are an aspiring graduate school student applying to a program in one of many STEM fields, in Psychology, or in English Literature.
  • What? In addition to the basic GRE score, many programs (especially highly competitive ones) either recommend or require a particular GRE Subject test. The tests are knowledge-based. In other words, they test broadly your achievement levels in particular subjects. The standardized scores range from 200-990, though the highest score on different administrations of the tests can vary (e.g. the highest score might sometimes be 830; at other times it might be 910). Some of these tests include subscores in different subject areas. The tests are one section each and 2 hours 50 minutes in length. 
    • The tests offered are as follows:
      • Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology
      • Biology
      • Chemistry
      • Literature in English
      • Mathematics
      • Physics
      • Psychology
      • (A Computer Science subject test was formerly offered but was retired in April 2013)
  • Where? The subject tests are paper-and-pencil Scantron based tests offered at designated test centers.
  • When? All the tests are administered simultaneously on three different dates (usually) every year (usually).
  • Why? While flawed, these tests offer an indication of how broad and deep your knowledge is in particular subjects relevant to graduate studies. As a former literature graduate student myself, I can attest to how the GRE English Subject test levels the playing field somewhat for applicants, since many students even with identical undergraduate coursework and grades may have different achievement levels in the subject they wish to pursue. Further, students who may not have the coursework background in a subject can demonstrate an aptitude in Mathematics, for instance, with a high score on the relevant GRE Subject test.

In this post, I will discuss the structure and composition of the GRE English Subject Test and offer some tips and resources for preparation.

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Topics: Grad School Admissions, GRE prep

The Essential Steps of Standardized Test Preparation

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

In the Beginning was Stanford-Binet:

How is it possible that some people seem to excel at all manners of standardized tests? Is success on standardized tests the result of innate ability or achieved through practice and preparation? Are there any common skills or strategies that span preparation for different standardized tests?

Much more than a rhetorical lede to a lone blog post on the GRE, these questions are the focus of intense and ongoing study and debate (c.f. here, here, and here just to begin), of which the answers hold lifelong consequences for individuals and profound social and economic implications.  

Preparing and administering standardized testing is also big business, and not only for the big college, professional, and graduate entrance exams but also for professional certifications and, most important since No Child Left Behind, a bonanza for companies like Pearson. Among parents of young children, one of the most frequent topics that comes up inter nos is which school to send our kids to, and a top concern is how prominent and frequent standardized testing will be. Indeed, the future of standardized testing appears to be nearing an inflection point in education policy

As the French say—Revenons à nos moutons ("Return to our sheep")—let's get back to the question at hand: What are the common, essential steps to preparation for standardized tests? To answer this question, it is essential to consider the origin of modern standardized testing, the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales, an IQ test first introduced in 1916; its legacy endures in the philosophy and approach of many, if not most, standardized tests. You might even recognize some of the factors used to generate the ultimate IQ score:

  • Fluid Reasoning, including Verbal Absurdities and Verbal Analogies
  • Knowledge, including Vocabulary
  • Quantitative Reasoning, including both Verbal and Non-Verbal Quantitative Reasoning

Sound familiar? To someone who has prepared students for the SAT, ACT, MCAT Verbal, GMAT, GRE, and LSAT, Stanford-Binet represents a veritable Rosetta Stone of standardized tests.

Considering the common threads that connect many of these tests and how students prepare successfully for them, I'd like to share some of the commonalities I've observed to help you prepare a schedule, plan, and strategy for success on the GRE.  

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Topics: GRE prep

EdTech and the GRE

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

What is EdTech?

While you may have never heard the term, you have almost certainly used "EdTech." Short for Educational Technology, according to the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, EdTech is "the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources." Everything from trendy quiz apps to educational software classics like The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? falls under the EdTech umbrella. In fact, as a computer based test, the GRE itself could be considered a form of EdTech. 

If you're anything like me, your eyes are probably glazing over already. The very name EdTech conjures up a second-rate Ted Talk given by a C-list entrepreneur trying to hawk his latest startup to jet-setting angel investors. Indeed, EdTech has been a source of controversy in many forms of education. Are MOOCs all they’re cracked up to be? Are iPads in classrooms anything more than an excuse for kids to spend hours more staring at screens instead of engaging with each other in class?

Putting aside all the hype and debates, let’s consider some of the EdTech resources available to help you prepare for the GRE and how you can make the best use of them.

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Topics: Verbal, Grad School Admissions, GRE prep

Vocab Journaling: Let's Do It!

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

In my last post I discussed the importance of vocabulary, not as an exercise to be done in isolation but instead as a habitual tool for learning and reinforcing unknown or unfamiliar words you come across. As I noted, this skill translates not only into improvements on Sentence Completion and Equivalence problems but also on Reading Comprehension, Short Passages, and your writing skill on the essays. 

One tried-and-true vocabulary-building tool is an old fashioned journal, either in the form of a spiral notebook or (if you want to be fancy) as a note-taking app on your smartphone or tablet. Personally, I am a big fan of legal pads, but probably more because of nostalgia than utility.

For this post, I thought I would recap a couple vocab entries I wrote for our PowerScore GRE Facebook Page as examples of the kind of entries you can write for yourself, if you are feeling enterprising about your journaling. I would like to emphasize the importance of both learning the exact dictionary definition of each word as well as producing a sentence in which you use the word in an appropriate context. Since your work with difficult vocabulary on the GRE is heavily context dependent, your practice with these words should also reflect the kinds of scenarios you will encounter on the test.

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Topics: Verbal, GRE prep, Reading Comprehension

GRE Vocabulary: The Saga Continues

Posted by Jonathan Evans on


There were some pretty strange children's movies when I was a kid. Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, the so-bad-it's-good Ron Howard movie Willow  (featuring Real Genius and Top Gun star Val Kilmer), and the still-disturbing leporine epic Watership DownBut insofar as capturing the imagination of the archetypical misunderstood eight-year-old (imagine the eighties version of Harry Potter), nothing surpassed The Neverending Story, a child's acid trip literary fantasy Mi'raj  on the back of a Cocker Spaniel dragon, featuring a theme song by Kajagoogoo lead singer Limahl

Buried amidst this B-movie esoterica there is a point germane to your GRE preparation. In my previous blog post, I discussed how to prepare to prepare for the GRE Quantitative Reasoning section. I emphasized the importance of a seamless grasp of math definitions and fundamentals as stepping-stones for success with more sophisticated test-taking strategies. With this blog post, let's shift our attention to GRE Verbal, specifically the importance of a strong vocabulary. 

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Topics: Verbal, Grad School Admissions, GRE prep, Analytical Writing

GRE Quantitative Reasoning: Where to Begin

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

There's an aphorism attributed to Laozi, father of Taoism: "A journey of a thousand miles starts under one's feet."

I could certainly apply this wisdom to doing my dishes, cleaning my house, filing my taxes, or writing a blog post. However, while this dusty old saw might strike you as clichéd, it is clichéd by dint of its truth and is applicable to preparation for the GRE.

Now that you're enthusiastic about embarking on this journey, cracking the books, and putting in the effort to succeed at the GRE, your next question might be: "So how exactly am I supposed to begin?"

Assuming that you've taken a practice test and have a pretty good gauge of where you are and where you want to be, many might suggest borrowing a prep book from the library, hiring a tutor, or registering for a course. All these are reasonable strategies depending on your personality and learning style, but especially if you intend to pursue a GRE class or private tutoring, I would like to emphasize one strategy for ensuring you get the most out of this structured instruction.  

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Topics: GRE prep, Quantitative

No Vocab No Cry

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

Let's be honest: No one can memorize all the vocabulary you might encounter on the GRE. There are lists of words everywhere, so much so that it's become a cliché, "SAT words." Most of the lists of "GRE words" are just "SAT words" on steroids, and prep books frequently instruct students to keep a vocabulary diary, make flash cards, or do a lot of reading to expand your working vocabulary and familiarity with the scholarly or academic jargon and style of the GRE. All that is great advice! By all means, read more and keep track of words you learn. It will serve you well on the GRE, in grad school, and in life in general. 

Fortunately for those of us who struggle with difficult vocabulary, the GRE has become less vocabulary intensive than it used to be. When I first started teaching GRE preparation, the test included Antonyms and Analogies problems, both of which were pretty much make-or-break vocab questions. If you didn't know the definition of the words, you could employ some ingenious strategies and logical deduction to improve your odds of getting the answers right, but you could never really be sure.

While the test now includes fewer problems that are outright vocabulary questions, Sentence Completion and Sentence Equivalence problems still require a strong working vocabulary. So does Reading Comprehension but in more of a passive sense. A great knowledge of the definitions of difficult words still helps a lot, but let's discuss what to do when you're stuck on unfamiliar language.

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Topics: Verbal, GRE prep, SAT Prep, GRE Challenge

Everything Counts

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

Have you ever seen this formula?What about this one?These are combinatorial formulas, used to solve counting problems, and if you’ve been preparing for the GRE, you might be familiar with them as the formulas for permutations and combinations, two of the most misunderstood and most fun concepts tested in the Quantitative Reasoning section.

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Topics: Grad School Admissions, GRE prep, Quantitative, GMAT

The Increasingly Versatile GRE

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

In September, I spoke at an LSAT clinic at a North Texas law school. Before my presentation, the Dean of Admissions addressed the attendees and spoke about her own experience with the LSAT and her desire to emphasize the importance of well-rounded students. She downplayed the significance of the LSAT, suggesting that while an excellent LSAT score is important, a low score should not prevent otherwise qualified candidates from applying.

Truth be told, the LSAT is the gold standard in law school admissions, and a high LSAT score correlates with good performance in law school. Law schools are also invested in ensuring that their students have high average LSAT scores because, along with high average undergraduate GPAs, these averages are an important factor in determining law school rankings.

Therefore if you are an applicant considering only law school, I wholeheartedly recommend that you focus your attention exclusively on preparing for the LSAT. However, if you are a student who is considering other options, including grad school, business school, or a dual degree program, the GRE may be worth your consideration as well.  

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Topics: Grad School Admissions, GRE prep, Law School Admissions, lsat, GMAT

How do "Implicit Associations" Affect Your Performance on the GRE?

Posted by Jonathan Evans on

Two students are identical in most respects. They have identical SAT scores, identical GPAs, and are both preparing to take the GRE. They both say they're very motivated to get a top score. Which of them is likely to earn a higher score? 

A fascinating new article by Melissa J. Ferguson, Professor of Psychology at Cornell, and Clayton R. Critcher, Assoc. Professor of Marketing, Cognitive Science, & Psychology at UC Berkeley, describes significant research they conducted into "implicit associations" and how measurements of these automatic associations can predict success or failure at a variety of important tasks, including the GRE.

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Topics: Grad School Admissions, GRE prep