Prep Tips from GRE Topper John Stephen who scored 331 out of 340


John Stephen currently works as a Business Analyst for an Analytics company in Bangalore. Following a respectable 331/340 on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), John is heading to the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities for a Master's degree in Data Science. In his spare time, John plays terrible chess games and creates memes that only his co-workers can understand!

The GRE is a standardized examination conducted by Educational Testing Services (ETS), based in the U.S. It is a qualification exam for admissions to most U.S. graduate schools and for some other countries.

In this interview article with, John shares his prep tips and strategies he adopted to ace the GRE.

Congratulations on scoring 331/340 on the GRE! How does it feel? Did you expect to score this high?

John : Thanks! I was pretty surprised when my scores flashed on the screen at the end of the test. I scored 330 on both my PowerPrep practice tests but I felt far less confident during the exam on test day. So it was a very pleasant surprise to see the same number pop up the screen on the day it mattered.

On what date did you take your GRE and when did you start preparing for it? What would be a good time to start preparing for the GRE?

John : I took my exam on the 2nd of October and I prepared for close to three months.

The duration of preparation depends on the strengths and weaknesses for a given candidate. But 4 to 6 months would be a good enough time span to develop good test-taking skills.

How did you prepare for the GRE Quantitative Reasoning (Math) Section? What was your score in this section?

John : I maintained a habit of solving at least an hour of quant questions on a daily basis during the weekday and three hours each on Saturday and Sunday. The key wasn’t necessarily working on difficult questions but to develop the stamina to face a lot of easy questions. More often than not, the GRE Quantitative section challenges you more by trying to tire you with a long series of intermediate questions rather than stumping you with one ultra-difficult monster. It is also important to solve questions with a limit on time, even on subjects you feel you’re strong at. Time-bound practice is the most crucial factor when it comes to Math prep.

I ended up with 164 out of 170 for the Math Section. I was a little disappointed with my marks in this section given that I was going to apply to quantitatively rigorous MS programs later on, but thankfully it didn’t make much of a difference in the end.

(Also Read : Tips and Tricks to Crack the GRE Math Section )

How did you prepare for the GRE Verbal Reasoning Measure Section?

John : I scored 167 out of 170 in the Verbal section. I have always enjoyed the English language and that helped me quite a bit for the GRE Verbal section. Vocabulary was my strong suit so I spent comparatively less time on those questions. I think Verbal is about targeting your weakness and working on turning them into strengths. If you tend to shy away from vocabulary, it’s good to dive into vocabulary lists. My weakness was always the RC questions, so I went about working on as many passages as I could during my preparation. It also helps to approach every RC passage as something you want to read. Strangely enough, I found passages easier to manage when I pretended to read them out of my own interest rather than treating them as fodder for open-book questions. Vocabulary and its usage can be strengthened by studying lists and writing out sentences that use these words so that they’re easier to remember.

( Also Read : Tips and Tricks to Prepare well for the GRE Verbal Section )

Any tips and tricks for the Analytical Writing Section (Essay)?

John : The GRE AWA section asks for simple essays based on simple prompts. I’d suggest spending five minutes on each question just to note down salient points that you’d like to incorporate into your answer. Based on these skeletal points, composing a well-structured essay becomes easier. Given that vocabulary is heavily tested in the Verbal section, the AW section is more interested in the candidate’s ability to express logical thoughts rather than long sentences or impressive vocabulary. So I would recommend uncomplicated sentences conveying concrete ideas.

(Also Read : Tips and Tricks to Prepare Well for the GRE AWA Section )

What books would you recommend to prepare for each section of the GRE?

John : I didn’t use books very much thanks to Magoosh’s curriculum. But I found Manhattan’s 5 lb book of problems helpful as supplemental practice.

(Also Read : Best Study Material for GRE )

How important are mock tests in GRE preparation? Can you suggest some good resources for mock tests?

John : I believe that taking mock tests correctly is a very important aspect of GRE prep. Early on, I found that I was overestimating my preparedness when I could solve a problem during my regular prep time. This was the case because the very same problem was a different beast when it popped up in the middle of a mock test. This is because of two main reasons. Firstly, the GRE is designed to induce fatigue in its takers. The long series of questions alternating between math and prose erodes the energy of aspirants. Successful candidates are ready for this kind of fatigue and develop stamina beforehand. Secondly, the time bound nature of the GRE adds an additional level of difficulty to any given test question. Calculating the area of a circle given 5 minutes and doing the same in 15 seconds are essentially two different tasks. While anyone can do the former, only time-bound practice can help you prepare for situations like the latter. In any case, mock tests help bring your prep into perspective and can help pin-point areas that you may be traditionally strong in, but can be improved upon to tailor to the GRE’s special needs.

I used Magoosh’s mock exams but I’ve heard good things about Kaplan and Manhattan as well. It goes without saying that ETS’ PowerPrep is mandatory for the serious GRE aspirant.

How difficult was it to balance work and GRE Preparation? What was your strategy and how did you manage it?

John : I didn’t find much difficulty balancing work and GRE prep. Oftentimes, people lose interest in the GRE because, in the midst of initial difficulty and temporary failure, they forget why they’re taking it. In order to maintain motivation, it is best to understand why the GRE is key to your profile and always reminding yourself of the reason. For me, I wanted to develop a part of my profile that expressed that my mediocre undergrad GPA was a one-off incident. I was driven to prepare consistently because of my purpose. The stronger and more urgent your purpose, the easier it will be to balance your prep with other aspects of your life.

Did you take any coaching classes? Are coaching classes necessary to prepare for the GRE?

John : Most of my preparation was based on the online Magoosh GRE course I enrolled in. The choice of going for coaching classes is a purely personal one. Those of us who can sustain resolve and energy required for self-study can make do with an online course like Magoosh, but others might feel they need the personal touch of a coach to maintain consistent effort. I’d suggest aspirants begin their studies on their own and then make a decision about enrolling for additional classes after having gauged their progress based on self-study.

How was the actual exam day like? Any last moment tips for GRE aspirants?

John : I did feel a little nervous on exam day but I managed to put that aside when I began my exam. As you begin the exam, it helps to remind yourself of the possible decline of your mental energy as the test progresses and to mentally prepare for the rigour of the test. Reaffirm the effort and practice you’ve put in to your prep and wade into the waters with confidence. You have more than enough time after the exam to feel nervous, if you like.

How has your GRE score helped you with your study abroad application?

John : More than anything else, I approached my GRE as an attempt at redeeming what I believe is a subpar profile. Given a lacklustre undergraduate record, I understood that other parts of my profile had to cover for this shortcoming. In this regard, I believe my GRE score has helped improve my profile and has also added more credibility to my work experience.

What general advice would you give to future GRE takers?

John : The GRE is not an accurate estimation of intelligence. It is an accurate estimation of how to take the GRE. This means that the most intelligent among us are not automatically assured of an excellent score, but such scores most often belong to those who work smartly and consistently on their prep. Always work on your weaknesses. Often, if you’re feeling very comfortable prepping for the GRE, you’re most probably not doing it right. You may have to take a masochistic pleasure in pushing yourself into working on stuff you find painful. It’ll be tough in the beginning, but it’ll be worth it, trust me.


About Ashwed Patil

Ashwed is a prospective MS student with interests in Computer Science, Content Writing and Geography. He has secured 8 admissions out of 10 U.S. universities he has applied to. His experience with the arduous MS application process motivated him to guide fellow applicants through online articles and blogs. He has also been deeply involved in teaching underprivileged kids in his hometown, Nasik. An interesting fact about Ashwed - he likes to make imaginary countries out of someone’s personality traits!

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