There’s an aphorism attributed to Laozi, father of Taoism: “A journey of a thousand miles starts under one’s feet.” While it might seem trite, this cliché is applicable to preparation for the GRE.
Once you’ve made the commitment to apply to business school, grad school, or law school and are ready to prepare for the GRE, your next question might be: “So how exactly am I supposed to begin?”
Your first step should be to take an official ETS practice test.
Don’t worry about not knowing what to expect. Don’t worry about being rusty on your math or vocab. Jump in to learn how the test operates, to get a feel for the pacing, and to get a baseline score. In addition, by taking a practice test, you will identify strengths and weaknesses early. During your review, you’ll want to break down your performance so that you can shore up what you’re already doing well and target other areas for improvement.
Once you’ve taken your first practice test, you’re ready to study and prepare! In this post we’ll examine your first steps for preparation for the Quant (math) portion of the GRE.
Familiar Concepts in Unfamiliar Formats
The prerequisite for success on GRE Quant is a thorough command of the following math concepts:
- arithmetic operations
- properties of numbers and math definitions
- how to manipulate algebraic expressions
- order of operations
- rules of exponents and roots
- fractions, decimals, percents, and ratios
- lines and angles
- triangles and circles
- coordinate geometry
- charts and graphs
- basic statistics
- basic probability
While this list might appear overwhelming, upon closer inspection you might notice that none of these concepts surpasses high school mathematics. There’s no calculus and no trigonometry.
“Okay, great, but I’ve been out of high school for a long time!”
You have seen all the math on this test before, but many students haven’t done this kind of math in a decade or more. At age thirty-five, you might have lost some of the skills you had at age fifteen. You must get them back!
But here’s the good news: you don’t need to relearn everything. You just need to focus on the essentials for this test. Your goal should be to learn exactly what you need to know to succeed on the GRE and not spin your wheels on irrelevant math concepts or arcane facts that will not be tested.
Because of the structure of a lot of GRE prep courses, some students may find that there is insufficient time alotted for math review. Even if you’re already comfortable with the concepts enumerated above, almost all students will benefit from self-study and previewing these concepts as an initial step in GRE preparation.
So, how should you tackle these subjects?
Practice Makes Perfect!
The GRE is a “skills-based” test. In other words, unlike a final exam in college or some standardized tests (e.g. USMLE, ACT, MCAT), the GRE is not meant primarily to test your achievement level in higher mathematics or literature. Instead, it is written to test your problem solving skills and ability to think in an orderly fashion. In other words, success on GRE comes from more than just knowing the math facts. However, in order to use these test-taking skills effectively, you must have a strong foundation.
There are core concepts that you must know simply by rote memorization and practice.
Unfortunately, in many GRE texts, including the Official Guide put out by ETS, these concepts are sandwiched together in dense paragraphs of impenetrable text. Instead of elucidating these concepts for students, much official material makes it seem even more impenetrable.
There is no reason to be overwhelmed. Start by breaking this list of concepts into more manageable pieces. Attack each concept by first memorizing the basic information, then do basic problems targeted to test and reinforce these skills.
Example of How to Work from Simple to Complex
ETS puts out a free math review that lists out all the math concepts that can be tested. It’s pretty dry and technical, but you can use it to start your math review. Break down every concept into three steps:
- Review a rule or concept.
- Do basic problems that illustrate this concept.
- Attack more challenging problems to demonstrate content mastery.
For rules of exponents:
1. Start by learning
Then do problems, ranging from simple to moderately complex, to reinforce these concepts.
2. Begin with
3. Work your way up to
To make progress, you need to pick apart these topics and do them one at a time.
Help is Available!
This post is meant to discuss how to prepare to prepare. However, a mastery of these math concepts will not only permit you to get more out of the more advanced strategies covered in GRE courses. This mastery is also sufficient to get many quantitative problems right with no additional effort! Many GRE quant problems test nothing more than whether you have memorized some basic concepts. You can get halfway to success on Quantitative Reasoning just by relearning math you probably knew by heart when you were younger!
If you wish to self-study for the GRE, we recommend our complete self-study course along with our GRE Quant and Verbal Reasoning Bibles. We cover all the concepts you will need to know and present them in a structured curriculum to help you prepare effectively.