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 nonmathematical 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 builtin
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 preconceived 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.
