Monday, August 07, 2006


I blogged about my new Honda Fit earlier this summer. Given that I've seen so few Fits in the Durham area, I felt very pleased that I was the only one on my block with a Fit, and an orange one at that.

When Liz and I left the Carolina Theater recently, we walked to the side street where I'd parked the car. (As the offical "new car" in the family, the Fit is the default go-in vehicle for errands and trips.) As we walked, Liz thought she saw a Scion, also orange, parked across the street.

But no--parked directly across the street from my orange Fit was another orange Fit. WTF?!? I thought I was the only one with an orange Fit in Durham! It was spooky, let me tell you. And that neat feeling of being the only kid on the block with a new toy faded quickly away.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Rating my GRE study materials

Part I dealt with how I prepared for the GRE. This is Part II.

  • Flash cards. The best thing I did was create my own flash cards. I used the Princeton Review book as my basis, but any of the books would have done. This made the learning more personal, and I could put page references to the book on the card, in case I needed to refresh my memory. (All of the GRE books seem to not believe in indexes, and the tables of content seem undernourished.) I referred to these when waiting for the bus to take me to class and found myself really liking them. They're a useful tool if you believe in the "little and often" strategy.
  • Sample tests. The best thing about the CDs that come with the practice books are the sample tests. They're timed to resemble the actual test, and the Kaplan and PowerPrep tests mimic the actual interface used on the actual GRE test. It's great rehearsal for what happens. They don't operate exactly the same as the real GRE; the real GRE questions calibrate to your answers, pushing harder questions on you when you answer correctly and easier questions when you get them wrong. But it's good enough so the experience on test day isn't so alien.
  • Practice books. The best tell you what to expect, explain the basics behind the math concepts, and offer sample tests. After you've read about the concepts and the formulas, really the only thing you can do is practice practice practice, and that's the value these books provide. But why in God's name are they so frickin' oversized? What's the idea? The smaller-sized Barron's Passkey book was much friendlier and more portable for just that reason.
  • GRE PowerPrep software and GRE 10th edition book. Written by the makers of the GRE test, the book was OK, but is official orthodoxy and so its rules are not to be taken too literally. The non-ETS books emphasize shortcuts and tactics rather than recommend full-bore seriousness.
    • The first two sample tests in the book are best because they contain answer explanations. I stopped doing the book's tests after that because they did not explain how to derive the math answers--how can I identify what I'm doing wrong unless I'm told where I went off track?
    • The PowerPrep software was OK, but very primitive; it took over the video to render a 640x480 resolution. Fortunately, the sample tests offer explanations and look like the real thing.
    • I believe in 2007 the GRE will debut new test formats and sections, so a lot that's familiar now to the GRE aftermarket may need significant rethinking.
  • Princeton Review book and CD. Rani loaned me these and was complimentary about the book. It's written more irreverently than any of the others, which I liked a lot, and was a good place to start. I actually laughed out loud here and there.
    • No index, and the TOC could be better--good luck finding the section on permutations and combinations. Great answer explanations.
    • The CD is fair; it links to the Princeton website where they try to hook you with offers for more prep and tutoring. Contains 4 sample tests but these do NOT mimic the actual GRE test interface, so a demerit there; no other prep materials, so another demerit.
    • Nevertheless, a good and friendly place to start and I used the book's tactics quite a lot as I worked through the GRE today. It's got a great procedure for handling the quantitative comparison questions, including the best explanation of permutation and combination questions I've read. I also appreciated its templates for the essay questions.
    • The CD sample tests track your scores so you can see how they improve (or decline, in my case) as you progress. I found these scores to be similar to the actual scores I got.
  • Arco. I think this is the name of it (I've already returned it to the library). Fair explanation of math concepts, OK math questions and explanations. Good for extra practice but not serious study.
  • Barrons. I had the big book from the library, which I wound up not using because I ran out of time.
    • However, I bought a smaller trade paper, the Passkey to the GRE, from B&N and found that very useful; it seemed to include most of the important material from its big brother and took up less room in my bag so I could carry it to work and read it at lunch. (The Passkey book does not include a CD.) Its math section condensed all the math facts you needed to know and memorize in one section, which I found myself constantly referring back to when I needed the formula for figuring the area of a trapezoid. 12 points for convenience right there.
    • The Passkey contains 3 sample tests and lots of math practice questions with good explanations. I found the math problems REALLY hard, and they seem to favor really tough geometry figures--find the area of the non-shaded portion of a square filled with four shaded semi-circles, that kind of thing.
    • One of the interesting things about my personal learning process was discovering that sometimes I did way too much calculation, and other times I used shortcuts to get an answer that Barrons would explain in the most elaborate way. It's an odd thing: most of these books say "don't waste time calculating," yet they explain the answers to their questions in ways that involve elaborate calculation.
  • Kaplan 2004 GRE review. Richard at work loaned me this book/CD. Of them all, I'd place this at the top of the heap. The book had great advice, somewhat different from the Princeton book, and I liked reading the differences. For example, Princeton provides sample templates for the essay questions. Kaplan instead recommends writing the body of the essay first, and finishing with the intro and conclusion, which I found to be excellent advice.
    • They also had great test-day advice, such as avoiding coffee, eating lightly, and bringing a small snack to stave hunger.
    • The book contains good explanations of math concepts and good sample questions and vocabulary.
    • The CD is good and bad. It has lots of helpful resources for refreshing yourself on math, including a flashcard program for math and vocabulary, good overview of the basic math strategies, and a diagnostic test that highlights your problem areas so you can create a personalized study plan.
    • The CD includes 3 sample tests that mimic the GRE interface and provide an amazing amount of detail on your test-taking style. For example, after finishing a test, Kaplan shows you the five questions where you spent the longest periods of "think-time" plus whether you answered the question rightly or not, questions where you changed your answer (and whether you switched from incorrect to correct or correct to incorrect), and a brief estimation of your performance.
    • One of the eye-openers for me was its observation that I tended to spend lots of time on questions where taking the time didn't make a difference--I tended to get those questions wrong anyway. This played into how I handled tough questions on the actual test.
    • So lots of great resources are on the CD. Unfortunately, the CD is mired in the worst of late-'90s multimedia production: cutesy animation, overly clever script-writing, plonky music, video snippets of actors giving you test advice, etc. And the UI takes over the monitor--there's no way to skip these damn videos once they start. So to get to the great content, you have to suffer through excruciating UI design. Perhaps the more recent editions are better; I hope so, because the material is excellent.
  • Exambusters GRE study cards. Business card-sized flash cards; probably best for studying vocabulary. I didn't find them as helpful to me as my homemade flash cards and rarely used them.
I learned too late that my local technical college offers a GRE math prep course. Had I known about it beforehand, I'd have surely signed up for it.

But I think there comes a point where, you know, I'm not going to progress much further than where I am right now. When I found myself consistently missing about half of my questions and getting well below 600 on my math questions, I figured that I'd hit the wall. Carbo-loading wasn't going to help. So I hoped to get at least a 580 so I'd meet the minimum grad school requirements. To get 640 exceeded what I dreamed I could do.

My standard reply to this is: the questions must have been easy. But maybe a more uplifting answer is that I was exceptional today -- and lucky.

V:800 Q:640

Tremble before my mighty godlike intellect, puny humans....

Atlastatlastatlastatlastatlast ... After a week and a half of anxiety-producing study, cramming, and practice tests, I took the GRE General test this morning and received the above preliminary verbal and quantitative scores. (The final scores arrive in a few weeks.) My brain is still throbbing from the effort, but moreso from being gob-smacked by my scores, which were way way WAY higher than I expected. (For those who don't know, nor care, the highest scores you can receive are 800.)

Here are my various thoughts on the GRE experience in random order:
  • I really wish I'd started earlier and worked more steadily. I learned through this and a recent oral presentation in class that when i get anxious and nervous, I get mightily distracted from everyday life around me. I need to feel that I'm on top of the situation to feel OK about how things will go. In this case, though I'd started studying in May, by dedicating my Sundays to the cause, it was too much to load onto one day. I should have instead picked sections to work on throughout the week, and dedicated 2 or 3 sessions of math to every one verbal session.
  • Thank goodness for friends who have taken the GRE and saved their prep materials. Mike had taken it earlier this year and felt so unprepared that he said he froze for 10 minutes when he saw the first math problem; he recommended I concentrate on studying the math. Rani and Richard passed along their GRE prep books and accompanying CDs, which came in handy when it was time to do practice tests simulating the GRE experience. I also checked out 2 books from the library and bought a small Barron's Passkey book for the GRE. This was overload, no doubt, but having them close by made me feel better.
  • What helped the most? Making my own flash cards. I used these a lot when riding the bus to school last month. I stopped using them in the last 2 weeks when I turned to the CD-based review tests, but I think now I would have benefited by continuing to test my memory. One of the things that makes the GRE less worrisome is knowing the square root of 3 and knowing on cue what 4/5 is as a decimal and a percentage without having to do the math.
  • My god, I never realized how big the GRE aftermarket is, what with all the books, and online prep, and other materials. I even discovered too late that Durham Tech has a GRE math prep course, which I surely would have taken had I known about it.
  • I didn't worry too much about the essay questions: I had general templates in mind for each type of question and trusted I'd be able to spew usable material when needed, as this is what I do for a living, folks. I think I did pretty well here. My own strategy: using the last 5 minutes to read through the essay and make sure the intro and conclusion line up, and sprinkling keywords throughout that tie everything together.
  • Since my summer class ended, I've spent most of my free time doing GRE math problems and taking the sample tests from the prep CDs. I'd take a GRE book to work and do 10 or 20 problems at lunch. Before I went to bed, I'd take a GRE book downstairs and work a page or two of problems. I was consistently getting about half wrong and half right. This is when it hit me that, you know, I'm only going to get to a certain level of good with this stuff, and that's it. When will knowing the formula for finding the area of a cone ever get me out of a jam? I also finally crystallized why self-discipline is such a self-defeating strategy. Self-discipline requires imposing your will on yourself, and this constant fighting with yourself wears you out. It's just too tiring. But when the goal means something to you, is important to you, self-discipline is not an issue at all. You just do what you have to do and suffer what you have to suffer until it's done, so get on with it. Liz says cancer survivors are the same way; does it take self-discipline to go through chemo? No. You just know that you have to do it, no matter how painful it is. When you're not fighting yourself, I think half the battle is won.
  • Luck is not a bad thing either. There's a great quote from Jimmy Dean that goes, "You should push your luck every day. Because you might be walking around lucky and not know it." On the drive to the testing center, I was going a little too fast and saw a patrolman sitting in the median, pointed in our direction. I moved to tap the brake to turn off the cruise control and tapped the gas instead. (The car is still new to me.) I swerved a bit before I regained control and expected to see flashing lights in my rearview. But no. I continued on my merry way and the cop either didn't see me or didn't care. As I sped along, I thought of Jimmy Dean's quote and smiled to myself. I was walking around lucky today. This occurred to me again during the verbal test; one of the reading comprehension pieces (a test I've not done well on in practice) was on jazz and I enjoyed reading it. What luck, to have a piece on jazz as part of the test. Answering the questions was easy.
  • Liz wanted to see Tres Chicas the night before the test. I left work at noon, worked another practice test (on which I performed abysmally), and walked with her to the concert at American Tobacco. Although my thoughts strayed to the problems of combinations and ratios and percentage comparisons, it was good to get away from the computer, sit in the open air, and just chill. There's more to life than the GRE and at a certain point, I realized I was not going to see major improvements in my math performance even if I worked problems for the next 12 hours straight. So I gave my mind a break and relaxed.
  • On the day of the test, I ate lightly, did treadmill for about 20 minutes, and avoided coffee. I felt pretty good, and there's enough adrenaline anyway that more stimulant isn't needed.
  • Liz and my co-workers will no doubt be relieved that I will now stop obsessing and talking about the GRE.
  • Well...the scores I got flabbergasted me. I honestly didn't think I did that well. The verbal is way, way better than I thought I'd get, and the math is at least 100 points or more over what I expected. I really don't know how it happened, because the questions were at least as difficult as the ones I've been working this past week. On some, I was plainly guessing, going with gut instinct. The Kaplan prep CD keeps lots of statistics on the sample test scores, and one of them that impressed me was that I spent lots of time deliberating on some questions when the final result really didn't matter--I usually spent lots of time on questions I got wrong. So when I felt the time running long, I'd go with my best guess and move on.
  • Lessons learned: Is it possible to logically convince oneself not to worry too much? Or is that hard-wired? I noticed a big decrease in anxiety when I adopted the idea, "Let's assume I'll get into grad school no matter what I score. Let's assume I win." For whatever reason, that cut away a good bit of anxiety. Also: start early and adopt the strategy "little and often." Chip away at this stuff and let understanding grow, if it wants to. Also: maybe I should believe in myself more. On my last two big challenges, I've exceeded what I thought I could do. So perhaps the GRE tested me in ways I hadn't expected.
Part II: Rating my GRE study materials.

Update: The final scores confirmed I got 800 on the verbal, 600 on the math, and 5.5 out of 6 on the two writing prompts.