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How to crack today's tough GRE?

I keep hearing that GRE has become unreasonably tougher of late.  They say that the days of 800 or a perfect score are gone forever.  There are even rumors that ETS has suddenly lost its cool and composure and it asks:

  • Very tough mathematics (for example differential and integral calculus)

  • Extremely lengthy questions in the analytical exams

  • Very difficult words in the verbal

Obviously these comments depressed me as I respect the ETS exams a lot.  So, I have decided to investigate this issue thoroughly.  I did my research in two steps. 

One is to learn it myself and the other one is to interview students who have taken the GRE exam recently.  

Off... went my marketing and research teams and came back with some interesting results.  In this kit, I am going to share those results with you.

My research team worked on the Power Prep questions provided by ETS (the latest version).  The idea here was not to practice for the exam but to get every question they were hiding out of their database. 

To our surprise, we did not find any of the questions more difficult.  It had the same Big Book standard and ETS is still as good as it only can be.  The only issue being that questions are in the CAT format.  

We decided to resolve this issue by working with students.

We printed out a set of questions on a paper and prepared a CBT (Computer Based Test) with questions of same difficulty level.  The source of both was of course the Power Prep, though we  did not reveal it to the students.

We had a mock test session on two different days with a set of 50 aspiring GRE students.

They all, get me here, all of them felt that the exam on the computer, the CBT, was more difficult.  When we queried on which was the most difficult section, more than 90% said it was either verbal or analytical.

This is when I realized that things are getting more interesting and I proved myself right with the next study. 

We asked a set of students to take the exam.  These were not the GRE aspirants.  They in fact did not know much about the exam.  I gave them a quantitative question paper.  Most of them did pretty well with an average at 738/800 (average over 19 students).

Now, I gave them questions of similar difficulty level (source again was Power Prep) and asked them to answer.  However, this time I warned them ahead that the questions were going to be a lot more difficult.

There was a drastic drop in the performance!  
This time the average was 664/800.

Remember, the questions of same difficulty level were given to the same set of students.  The only difference was that in the second attempt, they were looking for traps that were not there!

Let me give some examples here:

One of the questions was to find the total area under the curves: 

Almost every one attempted tried to solve it using integral calculus as they were expecting the exam to be difficult.

It is a simple problem of the area of two circles and two triangles.

Similarly, there was another question that said, 7 identical balls have to be distributed to 4 people such that each one gets at least one ball.  What are the number of ways of distribution such that at least one gets 3 balls?

Students tried to apply the theory of probability and failed. 

7 balls have to be distributed to 4 people such that each gets at least one.  So, only three are left after meeting this criteria.  Now these three can be distributed as 3,0,0; 2,1,0;1,1,1;  The last distribution does not result in three balls to any one and hence the answer is 2.

Remember, ETS is conducting an entrance exam for every graduating student.  In India most students who take this exam have a science back ground.  But, in US students from the arts, social sciences and other non-mathematical groups take the same exam. 

So, what they look for in a quantitative section is not your ability to do calculus or probability.  They want to see how you can handle a problem with numbers. If you know that, you don't make mistakes attributing difficulty to the questions.

Now, my marketing team has brought in a number of useful findings in this regard.  They interviewed 50 students who were coming out of the exam hall.  70% felt the exam got tougher.  95% of these felt that the Verbal and Analytical sections were tougher than their counter parts in the paper based tests.

When we asked them to tell the questions that actually got tougher, the words or sentence completions they gave were very much from the ETS pool.  They could not remember any questions from analytical section. 

When we asked how many of them knew that GRE was going to be difficult, 93% of the students who were told by their friends that the exam had gotten tougher found it to be tough.

Let us now look at one last source of difficulty in the GRE CAT.

There is built-in toughness in the CAT format.  In a PBT (paper based test), you get easier and tougher questions in a random order.  So, you get some relaxation automatically while working on the easier question after working on a tough question.

In a CAT, the questions get tougher as you perform better.  So, you will never end up meeting the easier questions and relaxing.  Hence, you feel the exam is now tougher than it used to be.  But, you do not really have to worry about it.  ETS has taken good care of this by

  • Reducing the number of questions in each section substantially (V from 38 to 30; Q from 30 to 28)

  • Increasing the time limits of each section (Q from 30 to 45 minutes and A from 30 to 60 minutes)

  • building an inertia in their algorithm such that your scores do not drop significantly after you do well on certain number of questions.

Now let us summarize all the reasons for the apparent difficulty in the GRE exam

  • There is built in difficulty due to the adaptivity of the exam

  • Most people go to the exam with a pre-conceived notion that GRE has become tougher.  Those who go with that feeling are making more mistakes in the exam looking for traps that were not there.

  • Most people find verbal and analytical sections to have become very difficult.  When the same exams were given on a paper, most of them found them easy. 


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