Studying for any standardized test can be stressful, especially when English is your second language. Sometimes that stress can drive you to try the most unusual strategies for acing the test, and it can even tempt you towards unethical approaches to beating the test. But trust me, there’s only one way to “beat” the test, although it took me some trial and error to figure it out.
After my OPT ended, I had to decide whether to return home or try to stay in the U.S. and advance my education further. My country was in a period of political and economic instability at the time, so I decided it would be better to pursue a graduate education, extending my stay in the U.S. for a few more years.
I enrolled at the Kaplan Institute, which would issue me an I-20 if I took a GRE prep class. It was a great solution, since I needed to study for the GRE anyway if I wanted to get into a graduate program for the following year, and this way I didn’t have to return to my country in the meantime.
However, getting a satisfactory GRE score proved a difficult challenge. My first practice test score was atrocious, especially for the verbal section. I needed to drastically improve my score within a few months. Even though I was taking prep classes, I suddenly began to feel that I needed to find a trick to beat the test.
A friend of mine recommended memorizing 5,000 words that were likely to show up in the verbal section. It sounded absurd, but I was willing to give it a try. A few months after studying the words, it was time for me to take the actual test to see if I had made any progress. Sadly, my results showed the opposite – my verbal test score actually dropped.
See, the GRE requires students to evaluate written materials and synthesize information contained in the test. What happened to me was that I wasn’t able to finish the questions in the given timeframe. I had lost my analytical ability to extract the right answer when faced with difficult questions.
That’s when someone recommended to me another way to beat the GRE. Apparently, students who had taken the test were memorizing the questions and then posting them online, meaning test-takers could use the questions posted by other students to ace their own exam. A look at one of these websites and I could have access to questions and answers that might end up on my actual test.
This was 2010, back before the Educational Testing Service updated the GRE to a new format. Students, particularly in parts of Asia, were exploiting the fact that many types of questions were easy to memorize and that the computer-based test reused some of the same questions across test-takers. According to Reuters, Chinese students in particular had formed a coordinated online effort to share questions and help fellow test-takers game the exam. The ETS actually suspended the computer-based test in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea in 2002 after noticing that verbal scores in those countries had risen significantly thanks to this scheme.
When the revised test was launched in 2011, the computer-based version was reintroduced to those countries, and an ETS spokeswoman told Reuters that new security measures had been implemented to combat cheating. Happy Schools Blog also pointed out that the new question types are harder to memorize, since they focus more on reading comprehension.
But in 2010 the question-sharing website my fellow student was offering me was a tempting proposition, a gold mine even; one that could end my struggle to reach the score I was aiming for. He gave me the link and, I have to admit, I opened it.
Thank goodness the first page I came to was completely in Korean, a language I don’t speak at all. I couldn’t have used the site even if I wanted to. At that point the paranoia of getting caught by the ETS took over anyway, and I realized how much worse that would be than getting a less-than-optimal score.
The thought of getting banned from all universities due to an unethical approach consumed me and I never looked into any of those sites ever again. I would rather take an ethical route to success.
As my second official test date drew closer, I decided to stick to a more traditional method – constant and regular practice. I started reviewing the methods I was learning in my GRE class and working on practice tests. And guess what? These approaches eventually proved to be effective. I started to see a steady progression in my test scores. I learned to use strategic educated guesses when I was thrown a question I didn’t know, and was able to finish each section in the allotted time.
I ended up taking the test one more time. My math score took a bit of a hit – I had spent so much time focusing on verbal that I had barely studied math at all – but my verbal score improved drastically. The experience taught me that practice is indeed the path to success. Take as many sample tests as possible, and practice doing them in the time limits. That’s the real way to “beat” the test.