Ψ*Ψ's (unorthodox) GRE survival guide

Fair enough, disclaimer first: I don't have anything to do with ETS or its testing centers. But standardized tests are my one saving grace amidst the many things I fuck up on a daily basis. (Left or right? I don't know! Triangle geometry? All good!) Since I only took the (insert expletive of choice) computer-based general test--my chemistry subject isn't scheduled until November--my advice is limited. It's GRE season, though, so I'll give my $0.02 if it'll put some other poor undergrad's mind to rest.
Quantitative. I'm gonna assume (for the sake of my sanity?) that there are only a few biologists in the audience. For the rest of us--who had to suffer through entirely too much calculus--this should be the easy section.[1] That doesn't mean it's not a pain in the ass. Since you can't use a calculator (unless they changed the rules), it will help you a lot to re-learn how to do basic arithmetic on paper. Yeah, yeah, and go over high school math as well, because that's pretty much the hardest stuff on there. But the most useful advice I can give you is: finish the section. (If they haven't changed it) the scoring is based mostly on how you do on the first bunch of questions. It's entirely possible to guess on about the last 8 questions and not miss any points. If you run low on time, just pick random answers and hope you're lucky.

Sharp & pointy!

Verbal. This is brutal. If the SAT verbal was cake for you...don't expect the same here. It's the vocabulary that will kill you, because--if you're a chemist--you've spent three or four years learning very long and obscure words.[2] Unfortunately, they're not the ones you're tested on. Number2 has some (arguably) useful free vocabulary quizzes. I'd give them a try if I were you--ETS is supposed to send you free software to prepare for the monster, and usually they do, but in many cases it arrives well after the test date.[3] But the best advice I can give you is METAL. The scary-looking Scandinavian men in the picture above are here to guide you.[4] They use big words (if you can pick them out of the screaming). I'll credit Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth (among others, of course) for a good chunk of my verbal score.
Writing. This one's hard to prepare for. Your lab reports may be nice for technical writing, but that isn't really what they want from you. Last I checked, they were looking for well-structured essayish stuff. I'd definitely be lying if I said I wrote essays to practice questions to prepare for this. Pfffft. I'm too lazy for that. A good way to learn how to write decent essays is to read them. Chuck Palahniuk (wrote Fight Club, remember?) has a book of essayish writings out. No promises here--I write a lot in the first place (and usually it's more structurally, um, cohesive than what you read on CBC) so I don't know exactly how much it helped. It's hella entertaining, though. Fun stories.

That's everything I did, anyway. It's not like the exam actually matters THAT much. But if you were looking for an excuse to listen to black metal...well...I have many excuses for that.[5]

[1] I haven't had to deal with the curly S of death for a year or so now. I think I've mostly recovered from it.
[2] Can't tell you how many engineers I saw stare at chemical names and shake their heads this summer during their presentations. "I'm not gonna try to pronounce that."
[3] I'm not sure whether this is accident or eeeeevil. I stand by my statement because it happened to me and several friends.
[4] Postdoc: "They're angry because they're really cold."

[5] And my labmates hear them. Often.


Excimer said...

i rocked the writing part and did fine enough on the math and verbal. But lord i ROCKED the writing part. I hope it shows on this blog. probably not. I can write coherently now and then. I know, right?

My biggest advice for the writing section: basically argue something crazy, just completely batty, out of left field. It doesn't even have to be relevant. Spend the rest of the time tying it in and if it's beautiful enough, you will get a top score. Better yet, argue with the prompt. Say that the prompt doesn't mentions A and B, but why not AB? Or C? Whoever wrote this prompt is a racist.

Basically, take Uncle Al's cynicism and channel it into what they think they want to see. Then grow some benzil crystals. There. Insta-genius.

Dennis said...

"But standardized tests are my one saving grace amidst the many things I fuck up on a daily basis."

Ha Ha Ha, I'm a senior chemistry major and you routinely make me cry because of how insanely smart you are.

"For the rest of us--who had to suffer through entirely too much calculus--this should be the easy section."

I tried doing the practice test on my tiny laptop yesterday, I could not read the graphs and got that entire section wrong. As a chemist, I obviously know how to read a graph, but they really need to make those things bigger.

I am angry.

Ψ*Ψ said...

The GRE is good for making people angry, and not much else. I've heard that most places are looking for +1000 or +1100ish. (Confirm or deny, readers?)
I like these things more on paper so I can scribble everywhere. I'm a big fan of scribbling (to the dismay of anyone who ever has to read my lab notebook).

milkshake said...

I did the old format GRE on paper, the pen and pencil was great in the sense that you could go back and work on a section that you did not finish on time (you were not supposed to).

The one thing I found out was that one can prepare himself well for the test - by practicing the published examples from the previous years. I bought a 2 inch thick book of this goddamned stuff and practiced with a stopwatch. (Lots of people lose their point because thy get stuck on one question and run out of time. We had to churn out 2-3 answers per minute.) We luckily had no assay to write, we just had to read a pagefull of crap assay and do multiple choice answers on it.

Disclaimer: I have no relation to FTS except that many times I wished them to get herpes.

Liquidcarbon said...

Oh yeah? Listen to "Gilded Cunt" thrice a day and get prepared? :)

Mike said...

In theory one could write through all the essay topics over the summer. The last time I look (obviously faaar too late) they were all online on the ETS website. There're "only" 160 topics in total, so it shouldn't be too difficult, though probably the biggest waste of time ever.

I used record cards for the verbal part. There are plenty available with a good value for money ratio. The books published by ETS contain many examples, so it might be work buying them as well.

Oh, the subject tests are usually a breeze. I downloaded two papers and finished them easily without preparation.

A good advice is that you take two pullovers into the examination room. Those morons yank the AC to the maximum (at least they did in my test centre in London). Also remember the first four universities you wanna have the transcripts sent to.

Don't rush too quickly through the paper, since you can't "forward" time into another section (yet one more idiocy in the test design). Take a toilet brake if you must ;)

>> It's not like the exam actually matters THAT much.
Unless you screw up one of the section you're probably right. I still have no idea how I managed to write that badly. I think the essay part is certainly picking the wrong skills for scientists - you don't wanna have people who pull ideas out of their ass and tell you how true they are (sorry Excimer).

Ψ*Ψ said...

LiqC: Gilded Cunt is too recent for my tastes--I liked the old CoF much better (Cruelty & the Beast era)

Mike said...

Sheesh, so many typos in my post...

Jeremy said...

I took the GRE before the writing section was added. I got a perfect score in analytical, 760 quant, and something like 590 verbal without taking a practice test. My friend Jen spent a month studying a vocab list of GRE words and ended up w/ a 740 verbal. Yikes!

So, after rocking the general GRE, I took the chemistry GRE. Talk about a beat-down. Hands down the hardest test I had ever taken in my life up to that point, topped only by the 8-hour quantum mechanics final I had in grad school. 3 people took it that year from my undergrad institution (a liberal arts college), and I had by far the best score, coming in at the 41st percentile. I'm usually at around the 99th percentile in standardized tests, so this was a pretty major ego blow. Nonetheless, I made it into my school of choice, so they couldn't have put too much emphasis on the subject score.

Anonymous said...

I'll be taking the GRE this summer but I'm not too worried aobut it yet. Hopefully my high school math hasn't totally seeped out of my brain. My writing is usually ok so now all I need to do is get a word of the day calendar...

Hurray for dimmu borgir. Do you like their new album?

Hap said...

I did well on the GREs (the pencil-and-paper kind) - unfortunately, better than I did in grad school. The math part seemed no harder than the SATs/Achievement Tests, which was fine, since I did well on those. The vocabulary for the verbal section seemed harder than the SAT verbal, though not obscenely so. I didn't like the quantitative section, since I hadn't seen it before and don't have logic skills as strong as they should be. There wasn't a writing section.

The chemistry GRE seemed to have lots of analytical questions. which would not have been so good since my school didn't have a discrete qualitative or quantitative analysis course. The practice book that the chemistry dept. had was a help.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Haven't heard the new Dimmu album. My brother says it's pretty awesome, and he's supposed to burn it for me, but he hasn't yet.

mevans said...

OMGZ are you scheduled for the chem GRE on November 3rd (or so)? That's the same day I'm taking it!

Ψ*Ψ said...

OMGZ!!one!!11!!! yes. Where are you scheduled to take it? Do you know if it's crazy-early in the morning? Boooo. Do not like mornings.

dennis said...

I had forgotten that there was such a things as Saturday mornings until I signed up for that test.

Uncle Al said...

Uncle Al scored 750/750 on the old GRE, 99%-tile chem. The school now targets around 1200. GRE/10 = IQ. PhD chemist ~120 IQ, PhD physicist ~130 IQ, PhD mathematician starts around 160 IQ. An IQ test is increasingly poor away from its midrange score. Try a Mensa RG or AG Treasure Hunt.

A cm benzil single crystal cannot be shaped with a razor blade. Sears to the rescue. Discrete enantiomorphic space group growth is easy, JOC 1971 (struggle - it's good for you).

mevans said...

Yep, it's bright and early at 8:30.