Neill Seltzer, GRE Test Expert

Neill SeltzerNeill Seltzer has been teaching GRE students and training GRE teachers for nearly 20 years. He holds a master of architecture degree and says that the graphics and design training he received in architecture school changed the way he thinks about coaching students for the GRE. He’s developed a series of graphic set-ups students can use to organize their information and succeed comfortably on difficult questions. Neill is responsible for the content of the Princeton Review’s GRE Preparation Courses and is the author of Cracking the GRE, 2009 Edition; 1,014 GRE Practice Problems; and The 500 Best Ways for Teens to Spend the Summer: Learn About Programs for College-Bound High School Students.

What do grad school admissions teams want to see from a GRE score? How does it affect a prospective student’s total application?
I wish there were a simple answer to this, but there’s not. Some programs consider the GRE very important, and others view it as more of a formality. Because the GRE is used for such a wide range of graduate studies, the relative weight given to it will vary from field to field, from school to school, even from student to student. A master’s program in English literature will not evaluate the GRE in the same way that a Ph.D. program in physics will, but it’s hard to predict what the differences will be. A physics department may care more about the math score than the verbal score, but given that nearly all of its applicants will have extremely high math scores, a strong verbal score might be the factor that gives one applicant the edge over another.

Scores and GPA may matter more for students right out of college who don’t have a lot of work experience. On the flip side, they may be used as a more recent snapshot of academic ability for adult students returning to school after ten years in the field.

The best thing to do is to call your target programs and ask them specific questions about how the GRE scores will be used and what parts of the score the school cares about the most.

What is the biggest mistake aspiring grad students make before taking the GRE?
Not knowing their target scores. If you have a 600 on the math two weeks before your test date, how do you know whether to redouble your efforts on the math or to change your focus to verbal? Knowing what scores you need to get into your first choice programs determines how you prep for the exam. It’s the difference between spending 50 hours and $1,000 and spending 5 hours and $25. You might already be at or near your target score!

How much time should students spend preparing for the exam before test day?
Any student can log onto and take a practice test. You can do this today. That will give you your starting score. Then call the programs you are applying to and find out what kind of scores you need to get in. That gives you your target score. The gap between these two numbers represents the amount of time you need to spend on the GRE between now and test day. If you need 50 points, take a practice test, buy a book, adjust your pacing and you should be fine. If you need 100 points, you may need to review some math, bulk up your vocab, and take a few more practice tests. If you need 200 points or more, you’ll need some help. I’ve had lots of students go up 300 and 400 points, but it happened because they listened to advice and put in a lot of time practicing.

How much time should they give themselves when registering?
Start the process early!!! It always takes longer than you think. Also, there is no law that says that you have to get your application in the day before the deadline. That’s what everyone else will do. It may be to your advantage to get your application in the day they start accepting applications. You have a much better chance to stand out if you are one of two applications they receive that week as opposed to one of 200.

Should students plan enough time between the test date and application deadline to take the test a second time if their scores aren’t high enough?
Yes, absolutely. Look, if you don’t get the score you need first time out; you’re going to have to take it again no matter what. Leave yourself enough time to do that in this application cycle rather than a year from now. Furthermore, most people don’t hit their ideal score the first time out. The test center has a way of messing with people’s brains on the first try, but scores tend to pop back up on the second sitting, even if it’s a week later.

In your opinion, what is the best way for one to prepare for the GRE? There are many books, classes, practice tests, etc., available. Is one method preferable to another? Why?
It all comes back to target score, the relative weight of a GRE score on your application and your starting score. You can spend thousands of dollars prepping for this exam or you can prep for free. The difference is, how many points do you need?

The other difference is your learning style. Almost all of the techniques you will learn in a prep class are available in test prep books by the same companies. Will you do the work on your own, or do you need a schedule and a teacher there to give you assignments and check your work? For some students the structure of a class or tutor is necessary. For others, it is not.

What should students look for in a GRE tutor? Class? Workbook or study guide?
One thing you can’t get on your own is practice tests. Specifically computer adaptive practice tests as opposed to linear ones. If you’re not practicing on an adaptive test, you’re not practicing for the CAT. ETS has two that are available for test takers. The only other ones on the market come from commercial test prep companies. Practice tests are key.

Also, make sure your tutor or teacher has actually taken the real GRE CAT. You can’t trust someone who hasn’t been through the process.

The last thing is that they have to have a process for answering different question types. Just walking you through the math on any given problem is useless because you’ll never see that problem again. You have to have an approach that students can use on all problems of that type.

What advice do you have for students the night before and during the test?
Put away your prep books. Rent a movie. There is nothing more you can do at this point except relax and get a good night’s sleep.

The MAT is often accepted in place of the GRE. If students have a choice between the two, is one preferable than the other?
The best thing to do is to take a practice test from each. If you do better on one than the other, go that route. In truth, the MAT is really hard and most schools that accept it, require it. It will be harder to raise an MAT score and there’s not a lot of practice material on the market. It’s actually not a choice all that often.

What else do you think is important for test candidates to consider before taking the GRE?
Actually, the most important thing is for students to be able to clearly articulate their reasons for wanting to go to grad school. It’s a long, hard, and very expensive road. Unless you are committed to the end game, don’t go. If you are committed to the end-game, then the GRE is just a small hurdle standing between you and your dream career. If you’re not committed to the end game, you’re likely to drop out of the process somewhere along the way. This is bad for you and bad for the schools. “Why go?” is the first question you need to ask yourself and the first question schools will ask you.

For more information about the GRE, please read our GRE Test Guide. To find GRE preparation materials, visit our GRE Test Directory.


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