Barron’s is a big name in test prep, and it’s no different for the GRE. You’ve probably seen or heard of their GRE prep book, Barron’s GRE (22nd edition!). And maybe you’re wondering: is it a good prep book choice?
In this comprehensive Barron’s GRE review, we’ll go over everything you need to know about the 22nd edition of this book. First, we’ll establish what makes a good prep book in the first place. Then we’ll discuss what you’ll find in Barron’s GRE, where it succeeds, and where it fails. We’ll wrap up with who should (and shouldn’t) consider getting this book and how to use it if you do get it.
What Makes a Good GRE Prep Book?
At the most basic and obvious level, a good GRE prep book will help you get a higher GRE score. However, there are some key characteristics that make a GRE prep book particularly likely to help you get that higher score you’re aiming for:
A good GRE prep book will have practice questions that are as much like real GRE questions as possible. This will allow you to become familiar with the style of GRE questions and practice the specific skills you need to develop for GRE success. Of course, the ideal is actual, real GRE questions—but you can only get those through ETS. Barring that, a good prep book will have questions that really resemble and test the same concepts as GRE questions. We’ll definitely be looking to see if Barron’s GRE has this.
Comprehensive Answer Explanations
The best practice questions in the world only have limited utility if they aren’t accompanied by solid explanations of how to arrive at the correct answer. So the best prep books won’t just have answer keys, they’ll have thorough, in-depth explanations of why particular answers are correct. This enables you to easily understand what you are struggling with and what skills and strategies to target in further practice.
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Sound Test-Taking Strategies
A good prep book offers genuinely good advice on how to navigate the test. This should include strategies for time management, making educated guesses, and quickly identifying correct answers. Ideally, there should be both overall and section-specific strategies.
Clear and Cogent Content Review
The best, most comprehensive GRE book will include clear, detailed content review sections to help you brush up on your skills for the different GRE areas. This should include help with GRE vocab and GRE math.
Guidance on Creating a Study Plan
Ideally, a prep book like Barron’s GRE should help you make a study plan. It will offer sound strategies for planning and spacing out your studying in a way that will help you use your time efficiently and maximize your score improvement.
Full-Length Practice Tests
Prep books should also have full-length practice tests, so you can practice getting the full test-taking experience. In a perfect world, these will be computer-based, since the GRE is (usually) computer-based.
Of course, all prep books can’t be all things to all people. A good prep book doesn’t necessarily have to have all of these qualities to be valuable. However, it does need to fulfill one or more specific purposes in your prep plan in a high-quality way. For example, you might have one prep book that’s full of amazing practice questions, and another that has a particularly good conceptual review of math. Both can fulfill an important function in your GRE prep, so both books can be worthwhile tools.
So, does Barron’s deliver as a worthwhile GRE tool?
What’s in Barron’s GRE: Quick Overview
The 22nd (and most recent) Barron’s GRE book will run you around $18. (The price is the same for the paperback and the digital version). The five-part guide covers:
- Part 1: An introduction to the GRE, some general test-taking strategies, and a diagnostic test
- Part 2: A deep dive on the Verbal section. This includes chapters on the different Verbal section question types and a sizable vocabulary list with definitions.
- Part 3: Goes over the Analytical Writing section.
- Part 4: Covers the Quantitative section. It gives general math strategies, chapters on different question types, and a review of math concepts.
- Part 5: Two full-length practice tests with answer keys.
When you purchase the book, you also receive access to two additional online practice tests with answer explanations for each question.
Where Barron’s GRE Succeeds
First, we’ll discuss the good things about Barron’s GRE book.
Lots of GRE-Style Practice Questions
One of the best things about Barron’s GRE is that it has lots of practice questions that pretty successfully mimic the look and feel of real GRE questions. In my experience, Barron’s questions are far superior in this way to those of many other prep book companies (especially Kaplan). This is particularly salient on Verbal, where passages and sentences are about topics the GRE test really uses.
So these practice questions are a good resource when you’ve used up all of your official ETS practice questions and are looking for more. The answer explanations are also pretty decent at explaining what makes correct answers correct.
A Very Robust Vocab Section
Another great thing about the Barron’s GRE book is that it has an incredibly robust vocab section. There’s both a list of 320 high-frequency words and an expanded section with a whopping 3000 vocabulary words and their definitions, as well as sentences using those words.
While it’s probably not terribly useful to devote yourself to memorizing 3000 words for your GRE prep, the list itself can give you a good sense of what level your vocabulary is at. If you are familiar with many of the words, you’re probably doing pretty well vocab-wise. If you haven’t heard of hardly any of them, well, you’ve got work to do. The sheer number of the words will also help you identify patterns between words, which will help you when you confront unfamiliar words on the GRE later. The 320 high-frequency words are also marked within the expanded list, so you can use that to easily make flash cards.
The master word list is almost 70 pages long. So if you’re looking for crazy-robust vocab, Barron’s is your book!
Some Solid GRE Test-Taking Strategies
Barron’s GRE also offers several genuinely useful strategies for the overall test and the individual sections. They give some great advice on the Verbal section about considering the secondary meanings of words as well as the primary meanings, and on identifying signal words in sentences and passages. Strategies for the overall test are also pretty solid, including answering all questions and not trying to guess which part of the test is the experimental section.
However, while they offer some genuinely useful advice on how to approach the test, I want to stress that not every single one of the strategies offered up by Barron’s is solid—see the next section for info on the strategies you should ignore.
Where Barron’s GRE Fails
Now that we’ve covered the good, here are the not-so-stellar elements of the Barron’s GRE book:
Practice Questions Don’t Quite Reach GRE Max Difficulty Level
While Barron’s is great at creating questions that look and feel like real GRE questions, the hardest GRE Barron’s questions don’t quite reach the difficulty level of the hardest GRE questions. So while Barron’s GRE questions will prepare you for most GRE questions, you won’t get good practice for the most difficult GRE questions through Barron’s. This was one of the most common complaints in student reviews.
Some Strategies Are Confusing
Most of the strategies in the Barron’s GRE book are solid and can be deployed to help you do your best on test day. Unfortunately, though, there are a few strategies that are either confusing or downright questionable.
Here’s a breakdown of strategies by section from Barron’s GRE that you should ignore:
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Bad gre Verbal strategies
On sentence equivalence questions, Barron’s advises you to scan the answers for synonyms before reading the sentence. Then they immediately tell you to be careful with this strategy because the test writers often place synonyms in the answer choices to trick you!
This is contradictory advice. It’s also pretty clear that identifying synonyms first doesn’t benefit you and may just throw you off before you’ve read the sentence for context. I would advise you instead to read the sentence first, then consider if any synonym pairs you see in the answers match up.
bad Analytical Writing strategies
One strategy they advise is using cut and paste to make your essay longer, especially when crafting your conclusion. While this is something you could theoretically do, the cut and paste functionality in the GRE test-taking software means that you would have to cut, paste back into the original location, and then paste again wherever you want to repeat the text.
Not only is this awkward and laborious, cutting and pasting is an easy way to introduce unnecessary error and awkward repetition into your essay if not deployed exactly correctly. By the time you cut, paste, paste again, and adjust accordingly, you’ve probably saved barely any time compared to just typing out the similar sentence(s)!
Frankly, if you are worried about time constraints, and you want to boost your Analytical Writing score, you’d be much better off investing a little time into becoming a faster typist. (That’s a skill that will serve you well in graduate school, anyways.)
bad Quantitative strategies
The final questionable strategy put forth by Barron’s GRE book is advising you to assume that images are drawn to scale on math questions. They advise you to do this if you are stumped on a question that has a figure.
In general, this is not a great idea unless you’re in a state of total desperation over a question. The GRE states that unless an image is specifically identified as drawn to scale, it’s not. In fact, sometimes ETS will specifically use misleading figures for questions like this. This means that if you use the image to guess the answer, you will invariably get the answer wrong.
If you struggle with the kinds of geometry questions where figures are involved, you’re much better off identifying that in advance and learning the underlying math rather than hoping images are drawn to scale and guessing based on that. So this is definitely a last-resort strategy.
Some Organization and Formatting Issues
This is a comparatively minor concern, but some of the organization and formatting of this prep book make it a little less user-friendly than it could be.
For example, the quantitative comparison practice questions are listed in a chart format without the answer choices being repeated for each question. While the answer choices are the same for all quantitative comparison questions, the odd format makes the page a little hard to navigate visually. Additionally, the GRE itself repeats the choices for each question, so this is forcing you to do extra work that you don’t really need to do.
Also, the math concept review is organized awkwardly. Instead of placing the content review first, we get question types first. The explanations for various sample question types then have parenthetical references to the codes for particular concepts explicated in the conceptual review. (These are hyperlinked to the relevant concept in the Kindle edition, but still very awkward).
It would be much simpler and clearer if the conceptual review came first, and then concepts were referenced by name (instead of with bizarre codes) in the chapters on the different question types. Thus, the math content review is not terribly user-friendly.
Is Barron’s GRE Right for You?
So, you’ve heard the pros and the cons. What’s the verdict? Do I think everyone needs this book?
In short, no.
However, do I think this book will be really useful to some test-takers? Yes! Especially for under twenty bucks. It’s got some great features and the questions alone make it pretty good value at that price point.
Who Should Get This Book?
- Someone who anticipates performing fairly highly on the test (in the 155-165 range on each section) and wants a comprehensive skills brush-up all in one easy book package. Barron’s GRE will orient you to all sections of the test, help you briefly review concepts you don’t fully remember, and give you a bunch of practice questions and vocab.
- This book is also good for someone looking for a solid source of additional practice questions for any section beyond what ETS offers. As we’ve mentioned, these questions don’t get quite up to ETS max difficulty. But they will definitely help you drill for the section and prepare you for most (but not all) GRE questions.
Who Should Not Get This Book?
- Someone who needs a lot of help with either section, and especially those who need extra help with math. While this book does provide some useful concept review, it is mostly in a GRE-centric context and may just confuse you if you have any serious content gaps. Additionally, the poor organization of the math section will make a student who already needs extra help with math feel very lost.
- Someone who anticipates performing at the very top of the GRE range (166+) and just wants to hone their chances of those 170 scores probably won’t get a whole lot out of this book. You presumably already know most of the concepts. So what you really need is to drill the most challenging question types. Barron’s GRE doesn’t have a whole lot to offer you in this case.
Overall, if you feel like you are already set up to do fairly well on the GRE, you aren’t aiming for a tippy-top score, and you really want a prep book, Barron’s GRE is a pretty good choice. It’s got clear but brief conceptual review for each section and a lot of solid practice questions.
How to Use This Book
So if you do get this book, how should you best use it? This book really fulfills three main purposes:
1. GRE-Focused Conceptual Review
If what you’re looking for is a GRE-focused review of concepts, this Barron’s GRE book has got you. For both Verbal and Math, most review is pretty much presented in the context of how you’ll encounter the concept in the actual GRE. So if you already have a decent foundation and just want a GRE-focused tune-up, go ahead and work through the chapters on the sections that are relevant to you. (Keep in mind that while the content of the math review is decent, the organization is sub-par).
2. Targeted Question Practice
Regardless of whether or not you need or want to use Barron’s conceptual review, you can also use the book to get targeted question practice in areas where you need to do more work. No matter what, I advise you to start with an ETS Powerprep II test to get a sense of what sections/question types you are likely to struggle with on the GRE. From there, you can use Barron’s GRE (and, of course, official ETS) practice questions to drill the areas you need to do the most work on. But don’t just glance at what you got wrong and mark a red “x” on your paper. Instead, really work through questions you didn’t get correctly to figure out exactly where you went astray.
3. Additional Full-Test Practice Runs
While the gold-standard for full-test practice runs is ETS (and the Powerprep software in particular), you might want extra full-test practice runs beyond what ETS offers. You may especially want to do this if you struggle with test time management.
Barron’s GRE offers two full-length practice tests in the paperback book, plus access to two additional tests online.
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How Not to Use This Book
There are also a few ways you should not use this book.
1. As Your Main Diagnostic Test
While Barron’s GRE offers you a diagnostic test, I don’t advise using its diagnostic test as your primary way of establishing a starting score baseline. Use a Powerprep II test (or other ETS practice test) to get a sense of your baseline score level. This will help you see what sections you are struggling with and where you need to improve. If you feel like you want more diagnostic information after you do that about what specific question types you are frequently missing, you could perhaps turn to Barron’s diagnostic test then.
2. To Get Oriented to GRE Software
Barron’s GRE includes lots of screenshots of what the computer screen for the GRE will look like. But since it’s a book, it really can’t give you a sense of what it feels like to take the GRE on a computer. So I would pretty much skip over those parts. Instead, use Powerprep to get a sense of what the GRE software is like.
3. For Practice Essay Prompts
While Barron’s offers a number of very GRE-like essay prompts, there is no reason to use them. Why is that? Because ETS has released the entire bank of GRE analytical writing prompts online. (You can see issue topics here and argument topics here.) If you want to practice, draw from those. Why use a decent counterfeit when you can use the real deal?
4. As Your Only Vocab Resource
As impressive (and useful) the 3000 words that Barron’s offers are, if you try to use Barron’s GRE latest edition as your only vocab resource, you’ll be totally lost and overwhelmed. I recommend first learning the 320 high-frequency words flagged by Barron’s. Then you can further hone in on more words to learn using lists offered by other sources. For example, we have our own 357-word GRE vocab list! You can use Barron’s to define and learn more about many of these words, but you shouldn’t just be trying to drill 3000 words.
Barron’s GRE Review: Closing Thoughts
Overall, Barron’s GRE is a pretty solid prep book. Some of its benefits include:
- Lots of GRE-style practice questions
- A robust vocab section
- Some solid test-taking strategies
Some of its drawbacks are:
- The hardest practice questions aren’t quite as hard as the most difficult GRE questions.
- A small number of the strategies advanced by Barron’s for test-taking are either confusing or downright questionable.
- There are some formatting and organization issues, especially in the math section of the book.
Should you get this book?
Yes: If you are aiming to score fairly high (155-165) and just need a one-stop shop for some conceptual review. Also yes if you are looking for more practice questions and you have exhausted ETS practice question resources.
No: If you need lots of conceptual help on any one section. Also no if you are going for a top score and you need to drill the most difficult questions to get that 170 mark.
Overall, at just about ten dollars, Barron’s GRE could be a valuable part of GRE prep plan for the right student.
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