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Making sense of GRE prep technology

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One of the biggest challenges of studying on your own for the GRE is the wealth of materials out there. A quick Amazon search for "GRE" yields hundreds of books, software programs and flashcards, each of which claims to provide an easy DIY path to your goal score. Technology has only made matters even more confusing. The spread of smartphones and tablets now offers GRE prep at your finger tips and both brand name publishers and small software developers have flooded the App Store and Android Marketplace with hundreds of offerings. The purpose of this article is to make sense of the technology's role in GRE prep and to offer a few recommendations of cheap and effective electronic study aids.

Books versus EBooks

If you've never prepared for GRE before, you're probably going to need to invest in a text book. But should you by a paper text or an EBook? Without manufacturing or shipping costs, EBooks are cheaper. They are light and portable. You also can't write on the pages of an EBook. This is important because the GRE is a computerized exam. Doing homework or practice tests in an EBook forces you to do scratch work on paper, just like the real test.

The usefulness of an EBook to your study plans depends on two things: the platform on which you plan to read it and your level of self discipline. First, don't try to read an EBook on your phone. It's not going to work. EBooks are more practical on a dedicated EReader, like the Kindle or Nook, but only if the screen is large enough that you can read the text without squinting and can see charts and diagrams in their entirety on a single page. EPaper displays are also easier on the eyes. A tablet or computer will work fine as well.

A major downside of EBooks has to do with your study habits. If you're having a hard time disciplining yourself to follow the curriculum laid out in a paper GRE prep book, an EBook isn't going to help matters.

Smartphone Apps vs Flashcards

This is an area where technology wins handily. In my years as a student, I never took to flashcards as a study method. One of the main reasons is that I didn't have the patience to create them. The GRE prep industry offers a way around that, however, by selling premade sets of flash cards for vocabulary and math concepts. Even here, though, what the flashcard method lacks is a system. Flashcards may turn daunting lists of words into bite-sized chunks but they don't necessarily provide a classification scheme, unless you work one out yourself. They can't randomize the display and testing of words in such a way as to respond to a student's strengths and weaknesses or to maximize retention. They are also cumbersome, easy to forget and easy to lose.

Smartphone apps solve most of these problems. As I am fond of telling my own students, your phone is with you at all times (if you're like me). So there's no excuse not to study. The best apps are also built with algorithms that present and randomize words in such a ways as to maximize retention.

GRE Vocab Genius, by Brainscape, was developed through collaboration between test prep veterans and computer programmers. It divides GRE vocabulary into 200 word sets. Words are displayed without their definitions. Your job is to guess the meaning and then tap the screen to see if you're right. The critical innovation comes when you are asked to rate your confidence in your knowledge of the word on a scale of 1-5. Words that you know well are deprioritized and repeated only rarely while words with a low rating are tested more frequently. The app also has a shuffle function that you can use to test your knowledge of any of the 2000+ words it contains. While at $9.99, it's not exactly cheap for an app, it costs significantly less than most paper flashcards, which range from $15 to $50.

Another, highly regarded app is GRE Vocabulary Flashcards by Magoosh, which is free. It has similar programming to Vocab Genius but has only 1000 words and only allows users to classify words into those they know and those they don't. Knowji also produces an app for $9.99 that provides a bit more information about words (synonyms, antonyms, use of words in a sentence), however it is not a dedicated GRE application and, at 45 MB, is a hefty file. The easiest way to choose an app is to browse the customer reviews to get a sense of quality, reliability and difficulty. You could also test drive free apps or the free Lite versions of paid apps.

Rating Practice Tests

Taking practice GRE tests is one of the most important components of an effective preparation regimen. The problem is, how do you amass enough practice tests and how do you decide which ones are any good? By far the most important criterion here is how much the practice test is able to recreate the experience of the real GRE. The Power Prep II software produced by ETS is a must-have for anyone serious about their success.

The only problem is there are only two of these tests. Obviously you're going to want to practice more than that, so you're going to need to pick up a set of third party practice tests. When choosing practice tests, always go with computerized materials over paper tests. Make sure your test was created in 2011 or later (when the current version of the GRE was implemented). Try to choose tests that are computer adaptive. The real GRE adapts to your performance by section. If you have to choose among non-adaptive tests, at least pick a test that mimics the functionality of the real GRE. PDF tests are little better than paper tests.

Rich Carriero has worked in the standardized test prep industry since 1999. He is currently the Director for GRE and GMAT tutoring at Next Step Test Preparation.

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