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Why the GRE is hard for you

There are numerous reasons why many struggle with this grad school admissions test.
There are numerous reasons why many struggle with this grad school admissions test.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

You've earned a 3.8 grade point average and made Dean's list numerous times. You've been a whiz at your new job, earning promotion after promotion. You're smart, mature and hard working. So why is it, exactly, that you can't seem to break 160 on either section of the GRE? What is it about this test that is not compatible with your skill-set?

1) It's not an achievement test.
Most tests in high school or college are achievement tests. They are straightforward examinations of your understanding of a certain amount of material that was covered in class and reviewed in depth. As long as you did the prescribed work, you'll be fine. The GRE, on the other hand, is a test of your problem solving ability. For most test takers there is no new content to learn. In fact, the testmakers assume you know the material they're testing. So knowing "how to solve for X" is not the point of the GRE.

2) The GRE tests "out of the box" thinking.
Because the GRE is not an achievement test, you should be suspicious of any solution method that will require minutes of brute calculation. If it seems like a question cannot be solved in under 5 minutes the way you're doing it, then you're doing it the wrong way. There must be an alternative solution that you're missing. Perhaps you could plug in the answers or choose your own numbers. Perhaps the solution is logical or all but one answer is absurd.

3) Career and collegiate success don't improve your knowledge of geometry.
Unless you’re an engineer… Seriously, though, what about being a parent, or studying anthropology or being promoted to account manager is going to make you good at solving right triangle problems? If you haven't done something since high school, you're not going to be any better at it than you were in high school and you're going to have to study.

4) You look for the answer that sounds the best.
…which is the worst mistake you can make on verbal. Wrong answers are written to sound plausible. The simplest technique the test maker has for doing this is using the verbatim language from reading passages as camouflage for wrong answers. Right answers tend to be flat, paraphrased and thoroughly unattractive. The easy solution here is to always predict the answer to teach question before you look at your answer choices. You should then judge each answer based on how closely it matches your prediction, no on how "good" it sounds.

5) You don't know what an example is.
The single biggest and most common mistake students make when essay writing is not including specific, relevant examples to support their points. Slick argumentation and fancy language are all well and good when you're trying to prove a point but in term papers or a court of law, you don't get anywhere without evidence. It's the same in the Analytical Writing Assessment section of the GRE. You must use history, current events, science, literature and personal experience to buttress your arguments or you won't get above a 4 on your essay score.

The GRE is like no test you've ever had to take in high school or college so if you're struggling to improve your GRE score, chances are what you need is to complete adjust how you're approaching this test. Simply put, the GRE is not a trust-worthy test and so you need to become familiar with all the ways the GRE can trap you as well as the shortcuts built in to reward intuitive test takers.

Rich Carriero has been a standardized test prep teacher and tutor since 1999. In addition to his position as Academic Manager for Next Step Test Preparation’s GRE tutor and GMAT tutor programs, he is also a freelance writer.