Matt Cohn, GRE Test Expert

Matt Cohn has been a professional tutor for six years and specializes in all three sections of the GRE. In 2003, he earned perfect scores on the quantitative and analytical writing sections and scored above the 90th percentile on the verbal section.

Tutoring through Bay Tutoring is Matt’s full-time job. Matt says that when he’s not with students, he’s researching the GRE and other tests to finding new ways to help his students succeed.

What do college admissions teams want to see from a GRE score? How does it affect a prospective student’s total application?
There’s one good answer to this question - ask! If you’re applying to grad school, you’re applying to a specialized program that might value one section of the test more than others. Call or email the faculty and ask them directly. I recently worked with a student who was applying to an engineering program; when she called the admissions office, she was told that her 450 verbal score was fine, but that her 750 quantitative score was not sufficient! A student in a history or literature program might receive the opposite answer, which would obviously change how that student would prepare for the test. In summary: research, ask questions and plan appropriately.

What is the biggest mistake aspiring grad students make before taking the GRE?
Maybe I’m biased in saying that too many students try to “go it alone.” The fact is, though, that like pretty much anything else in life, the best way to succeed is with a coach who can offer not only personalized help, but also personalized feedback on your performance. That’s the real difference - no book or website can watch you work, listen to your questions and come up with new ways to help you understand concepts and improve your score. Only a tutor can do that, and it’s the best way to succeed on the GRE.

How much time should students spend preparing for the exam before test day? How much time should they give themselves when registering? 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?
The amount of time necessary to prepare for the GRE varies with each student, depending on his or her skills, learning style and goals for the test. As a general guide, comprehensively preparing for all three sections of the test involves 30-60 hours over the course of 1-3 months. Students working with a tutor should plan to spend 12-24 hours with their tutor and several hours each week studying and taking practice tests. Overall, the more time a student spends practicing, the higher he or she is likely to score. Certainly it's important to allow for a second or third chance, and realistically, most people don't do their best the first time they try anything. That said, it's also valuable to put 100% effort into every test administration, including the first one.

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?
Preparing with a tutor is the best way to go. There’s no substitute for the personalized instruction and feedback that only a tutor can provide. If your budget is tight, work conscientiously through a GRE prep book from one of the big companies, and use the money you save to spend a handful of hours with a private tutor for the stuff you just can’t figure out - or wouldn’t know to look for! - on your own.

I’m not a fan of the big classes. For a lot of money, they offer you the same material that’s in all the books without much in the way of personalized instruction. The one benefit I see to classes is that they provide guidance and structure to students who might otherwise feel overwhelmed working alone - of course, a good tutor will do the same thing, with all of the other benefits suggested above.

What should students look for in a GRE tutor? Class? Workbook or study guide?
Every industry has its secrets; one of the secrets of the tutoring industry is that most tutors and instructors, particularly at large agencies, have little experience. If you take a class there’s a strong chance that your instructor will have less than one year of experience with the GRE. It doesn’t matter if a company has been around for 30 years if your instructor has never taught a class before! The first two questions you should ask a potential tutor are, “What makes you an expert at teaching?” and “What makes you an expert at the GRE?” The answers to those two questions are different. Most people who get great scores on the GRE aren’t qualified to teach it, and most people who are great teachers don’t know much about the GRE. Your tutor should be an expert at both.

What advice do you have for students the night before and during the test?
Preparing for the GRE is a weeks- or months-long process; hopefully, the night before is for some review, some practice questions and maybe working on that one last difficult concept - but just one.

As far as during the test, I remind my students that no matter how the test seems to be going, their best chance to get questions right is to stick with the techniques and strategies they’ve learned through their study. I also remind them that if the test feels really hard, that’s a good sign: it means they’ve answered lots of questions correctly and the computer is giving them tougher ones!

In summary, Matt recommends that students research what scores they need, prepare conscientiously and with the best help their budget allows, and then use what they’ve learned during the test, no matter what.

For more on the GRE, please see our GRE and MAT Test Guide. To find a tutor or study aid, please visit the GRE Test Directory.

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