Preparing for GRE and TOEFL

My previous post described briefly the general procedure involved in applying for MS in US. Today I will elaborate on one the most important aspect of your application – your GRE and TOEFL scores. You should understand that to get into a reputed institution, it is a must to take these tests. There are institutions that do not require them but I would rather suggest you don’t waste your time on those since in the long run you might face difficulties.

Both GRE and TOEFL are required to be taken because of the type of abilities they test. People have often asked me why it is required to take TOEFL also even though GRE has a verbal part in addition to the quantitative. Well, my answer is simple. They test two different kinds of English. TOEFL is taken to prove that despite your mother tongue, you can still handle English fairly well. GRE Verbal on the other hand tests whether you can utilize complicated sentence structures and recognize them if seen. It also tests whether you can decipher a fairly technical document, analyze it and derive conclusions. It is a quality expected in every master’s degree aspirant in USA.

From personal experience, I feel that taking TOEFL before GRE is better. I think this will maintain the flow of your preparation. Besides taking TOEFL (which is easy) will give you a firm understanding of how to take an online computer adaptive test in a controlled environment so that you can be mentally prepared while taking GRE (which is harder.)

TOEFL

TOEFL as you know stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is taken to prove your abilities to handle the language in reading, writing, listening and speaking. My advice is not to spend too much time preparing for TOEFL if you had English as a functional component of your employment or in your daily life. In my case, I had a call center experience and it was really not a big deal for me to take TOEFL.

The maximum time I spent in preparing for TOEFL was 3-4 hours. I borrowed the Kaplan TOEFL preparation guide from my friend. It had a CD inside. And I ran the CD to simulate the test in my computer. It gave me sufficient drill work and that was more than enough.

The Test

As I said, if you run the software from Kaplan or Barrons or any other syllabus, you will do just fine in the test. That’s all the training you need. Do not panic even if you get a long prose to analyze in the reading section. Just concentrate and you will find the answers to the questions given on the right side. While taking the speaking section, do not try to put an accent. Try neutralizing your accent and that’s more than enough. While speaking English, keep the jaw relaxed and speak slowly and clearly. You will get 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to deliver your speech. Keep your cool and note down your points of speech in the 15 seconds you get and start speaking freely based on the points you noted.

If your functional usage is not English or you do not have sufficient fluency in the language, then you will need extra training. In those cases, workout the questions in the books and then practice using the software and you will get good results.

GRE

The Graduate Record Examination is actually quite simple when compared to other exams like GATE, JEST, JAM etc. But it is tougher than TOEFL and requires rigorous preparation. Spend sufficient time reading the theoretical part of each section. Most of the things have been covered in your high school. This is just an application of those concepts but they need to be revised nonetheless.

Verbal

This is an analytic version of English as I explained before. You have to build your vocabulary in order to survive this test. Use both Barrons and Kaplan for your preparation. I suggest you join some coaching center since they give you additional materials to improve vocabulary such as flashcards. My favorite method is using software known as Anki. It is an amazing software that helps in improving your vocabulary using a virtual flash card system. Install Anki today and download its flashcard decks and start working out. A person with sufficient level of intelligence can get through the analogies and antonyms section. You also should practice writing the essay and arguments. If you are used to writing in simple English like me, you ought to change that. They are looking for people who can make shorter, crisper sentences with sufficiently superior vocabulary. Instead of saying, “I strongly dislike crime”, if you say, “I abhor crime”, it would have a different impact on the reader. The first paragraph of any essay is called the thesis. That is where you briefly describe what the remaining essay is all about. It must contain roughly five sentences. It is a good idea to write the thesis paragraph and summary paragraph after you write your main body. That way you will have better control on the flow of your prose and will present clarity of thought to the reader.

Quantitative

Many students spend too much time on verbal thinking that it is going to be tough and neglect quantitative. That should not happen. Allocate equal amount of time for both. You should work with two separate syllabi if you want to get through GRE quantitative. You MUST do all the problems given in all the sections of both the books. Do not leave even a single problem unsolved. Get help from your instructor if you are in a coaching center or try online to find solutions. Quantitative follows arithmetic, algebra, Euclidean geometry, coordinate geometry, probability and statistics. You don’t need to know trigonometry or calculus but if you can use them in simplifying the problems, it would be great.

Joining discussion groups is something I didn’t do myself. I did join a group but never discussed anything. You don’t actually need it. You can find solutions otherwise. You have practice software with the GRE book that gives you sufficient drill on the test scenario. Also you can try websites such as www.majortests.com and practice the questions there. Remember, this is a computer adaptive test. If you get one question right, the next question will be tougher. And if you get a question wrong, the next question will be easier. The problem is that tougher questions carry higher marks than easier ones.

It is true that you don’t have to answer all the questions to have a good score. You have to answer the questions that appear earlier better. That will ensure that you get tougher and tougher questions to answer which will get you good marks.

Drawing a diagram is a good way to tackle your quantitative problems. Unless you can visualize what exactly they are asking, there is no point in answering. You might end up calculating it wrong. In addition to Barrons and Kaplan, you can try quantitative aptitude books of other authors as well.

The Testing Center

Your choice of testing center is very important. My suggestion is to choose a center that is away from your city. May be an adjoining city would do. The reason is to have a more silent environment. Most testing centers are flooded with candidates and seeing “tensed” faces itself would wash your confidence away. In my case, I was lucky to have just two other cheerful guys for my TOEFL test.

The same thing applies to GRE testing centers as well but the number of Prometric centers that conduct GRE tests are less in number compared to TOEFL centers. So, you might not get as many choices as you would in the case of TOEFL. Nevertheless, try to get a center that doesn’t usually get much rush as much as possible.

You will be subjected to a thorough security check. You MUST carry your passport. They do not accept any other type of identification. Also carry your test confirmation receipt. You don’t basically have to carry anything else. If you do, you will be asked to lock them up in the locker outside. You have to pull out your pockets and show them that there is nothing inside. Also you will be asked to undergo a biometric scan. Keep this in mind to avoid surprises on the test day.

Do not chew chewing gum. They will be monitoring you during the test and if they have the slightest hint of you doing it, you will be asked to go out and throw it away. Also if you are a fast typist, you will be asked to slow down since the typing sound is considered a disturbance to other people.

Breaks

When you take the tests, you will be given a 10 minutes break after the first two sections. You MUST take that break. Go outside, get some fresh air. Have coffee or tea and snacks. I had an egg puff and tea. Make sure that you don’t exceed the 10 minutes time. Refreshment will help you handle the second half of the test with the same amount of confidence that you had in the first half.

Miscellaneous

A score above 1250 in GRE and 100 in TOEFL would be enough for you to get in to fairly reputed institutes. But if you can make above 1350 and 110, it would be excellent! Your test results for TOEFL will take about 15 days to reach you. GRE scores are immediately calculated after the test except for the essay type questions. You will be asked to choose the universities that you need to send the scores to. If you haven’t decided yet, just put some dummy university name for the time being and get out of the testing center. You can login to the ETS website and send the scores to your favorite universities from the convenience of your home. Mind you, it will cost you money to send scores to universities. So, if you are sure about the universities, then try mentioning them at the test center itself to avoid extra charges.

Be sure to get the details of the department before sending the scores. Sometimes the department you want might not be listed in the ETS website. In those cases, it is better to check with the department to see where you need to send the scores. Sometimes they will ask you to send it to the Graduate School without any specific department mentioned. Send the scores and inform the department of the same so that they can have a lookout.

I think I have covered all the necessary details regarding both GRE and TOEFL. If there is anything I have left out, do let me know and I will add those. Thanks for your time and all the best with your GRE and TOEFL!