Passing the GRE with…SCIENCE! – Part 2

(Note: I wrote this post after I received my GRE score in November, 2017. However, I forgot to finish it and just now returned to my draft.)

Done and over with. The GRE that is. Back in July I formulated a plan on how I would study for the GRE, a test needed to apply to graduate school. My plan was based on the following ideas:

  1. Spaced repetition of vocabulary learning using Anki and Magoosh math practice, with reminders using Let’s Review.
  2. Retrieval practice through deliberate recall of information (reminded via Let’s Review)
  3. Interleaving – mixing verbal and quantitative practice within study sessions
  4. Exercise to improve general cognitive functioning
  5. Coffee after studying
  6. Adequate sleep to help consolidate what I learn

So, before I reveal how I did, I’d like to comment on how well each of these scientific principles worked out in practice:

Spaced Repitition

I staggered my vocabulary and math practice based on a 1-3-6-10-15-21 rotation, where I would learn a new skill (via Magoosh video or Manhattan GRE books) and do related practice, then repeat it the next day, then the third day, then the sixth, and so on. Eventually, however, study sessions collided and I had to review and repeat five or six different skills in one session, sometimes before learning something new. This sounds great, but it is very time-consuming. Review sessions began getting longer and longer. If I missed a day, the next sessions would be stacked even greater. When Let’s Review began reminding me that I had 8, 10, and even 16 reviews, I just stopped using it. I realized I was reviewing more than I was able to learn new skills.

This turned out to be an advantage and a disadvantage. As an advantage, I was able to apply these heavily practiced skills on other problems and during the GRE. I became quite fluent at them. The disadvantage was that the other skills I focused on after I had stopped spaced repetition were clearly not learned deeply enough. I wasn’t able to recall them during the test, or I wasn’t able to apply them to new problems. If I had altered my spaced repetition schedule to focus less on the heavily reviewed skills and more on the under-reviewed and just-learned skills, I may have done better. However, I had been overwhelmed by reviewing and felt too pressured by the remaining unknown material to continue that type of schedule.  So, I ditched the spaced repetition algorithm and began to review one or two subjects in my free time in the evening, 2-3 times a week, or, more commonly, just begin working on new material.

I still stuck more or less to a spaced repetition schedule with Anki, but I let Anki’s internal algorithm determine what to repeat and when, and I used it whenever I had time, not on a systematic basis. From my practice on Magoosh, verbal was clearly my strong area and I did not worry too much about this.

From this experience, I think spaced repetition is certainly effective, and if I had been reviewing for a test that covered less content (e.g. a typical university exam), I may have been able to handle it better. However, I had to relearn and review a lot of material: fractions, proportions, algebra, geometry, probability, statistics, and combinations. I had to not only learn it but practice it a lot alongside reading and verbal practice. It just became too much.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval is the deliberate recall of information. I found this skill a little bit difficult to execute. I had to create situations in which to do retrieval, and often times I would simply forget to do it. For vocabulary, I would try to use my new words during conversations with my wife and colleagues, slipping in words that were sometimes to big or clunky to fit the situation, but were sure fun to confuse people with! I felt this was a good way to recall and apply what I was learning – the very same technique I ask my students to do. And, for me, it seemed to work.

For math, I would at random times recall triangle properties, formula for area or cubic volume, probability equations, etc. Walking down the street, before I went to sleep, in the shower. Unlike the vocab retrieval, it was not very fun nor was it systematic. Therefore, I did not apply this technique as often as I maybe should have.


At first, I would make sure to mix the practice not only for the learning benefits but also to take a break from math. However, a few weeks in and it was clear most of my energy had to be spent on math, so I did not follow through on interleaving.


I more or less stuck to my regular kickboxing regimen but did not consciously connect this to studying except that I often studied an hour after exercising because my children would go to sleep once I returned and an hour later I was usually free.


I drank it in the morning and not after studying.


Yeah, right.

The Verdict

So, how did I do? Better and worse than expected.

I did much better than expected in my verbal reasoning, which is where I spent about 50% of my time at the beginning of preparing for the GRE and 20% at the end. I did way worse than I expected in my quantitative reasoning, which began at 50% of my time and ended with 80% of it. I was surprised at not only how difficult the questions were but how much I had suddenly forgotten about when the questions appeared. I knew very well the things that I had repeatedly practiced, but I stopped doing repeated practices of new information (spaced repetition), meaning a lot of the new skills never fully cemented. I think I performed decently on statistics questions because I actually use that in my daily life, and possibly geometry because I sincerely enjoyed learning it; but probability and combinations, which I probably spent only a week or so on, were quite difficult. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, I did remarkably well on writing, something that I never prepped for deliberately other than reading about the types of tasks included.


Trying to find an organized plan of study was important, and while I think mine was based on sound principles of learning, I was a bit overambitious in the beginning and that led to being overwhelmed by material to the point where I had to abandon most of my plan. Nevertheless, I feel like these strategies worked well and would have worked better had I retooled my plan and been more consistent with applying them.

For anyone studying for the GRE, I would recommend spaced repetition as a very effective tool, with the intervals more spaced out and the inclusion of short 5-minute review sessions, if possible, rather than longer reviews. I think, had I reconfigured my studying of math to review less often but more consistently, my quantitative reasoning score would have been higher. Perhaps if I had stuck with interleaving the material, or worked on interleaving quantitative skills more carefully, my score also would have been better.

One thought on “Passing the GRE with…SCIENCE! – Part 2

  1. Very interesting; spaced repetition seems like a v. powerful tool.

    I went to a website to do a sample GRE test and was impressed at the difficulty of the questions. I suspect that many of those doing MAs in TESOL and applied linguistics in the UK would fail. Are there similar tests in other countries?

Leave a Reply