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Preparing for the GRE: Practical Tips from a Test Prep Pro

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a test that is a standard admission requirement for many master’s and doctoral-level graduate programs at colleges and universities both nationally and internationally. Preparing for the GRE may not only seem challenging, it may seem formidable. Conquering the world might seem easier at times.

When most people think of test preparation of any kind, their stomachs turn and stress levels rise. The pressure of performing well on a four-hour exam—especially one that’s a qualifying competency for admission to a desired graduate-level program—ought to make anyone anxious. For those who arrive on test day prepared, however, with their superhero capes on, and the proper strategies and tools for tackling test questions in their possession, the challenge is surmountable. (Note: In case you didn’t already figure it out, the words listed in bold are worth knowing and remembering…you might see them on the GRE!)

Having taken the GRE myself, and having taught GRE test preparation courses, I am happy to share some sound advice to set you on the path to achieving success in preparing for the GRE, and to avoid stupefaction during the exam.

First, let me shed some light on this exam. The exam is created by the Educational Testing Service (ETS); information about the GRE, logistics, testing fees, and more can be found at the ETS website, The exam measures your verbal and quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. You likely remember being told by teachers that reading, writing, and math skills were very important in school; to prove your teachers right, these three skills in particular are foundational to the GRE as well.

The GRE is a computer-based test that consists of the following:

  • You begin by writing two analytical essays for which you are given 30 minutes each. Writing prompts are provided to you, one asking you to analyze an issue, and one asking you to analyze an argument.
  • You are given two sections of verbal reasoning (30 minutes each), which include 20 questions per section. Verbal reasoning includes text completion and sentence equivalence (fill-in-the-blank questions), and reading comprehension (containing critical reasoning questions that usually ask you to find the gap or flaw in an argument).
  • You are given two sections of quantitative reasoning (35 minutes each), which include 20 questions per section. Quantitative reasoning includes questions about math conventions and the language of math. There is no calculus on the exam. Please take a deep sigh of relief now!
  • You might also be given an unidentified section in your test that is not scored. However, you won’t know this until the end of the test when you have been given five sections instead of four. Also, at the end of the test, you may be asked to take an additional section for ETS research purposes; you can decline to take this.

And, that’s it! That’s all there is to it! …Is that an “ugh” I hear? I don’t blame you. You are likely looking at the list above with incredulity. But fear not, there are specific strategies for approaching each section of the GRE that will help you prepare.

Do Your Research
My first recommendation for GRE preparation is to research the programs in which you are interested, and confirm that the GRE is indeed required.

Also, it is a really good idea to inquire about how much weight your GRE scores are given in the consideration of your application in your particular programs of interest. Sometimes the GRE is considered a formality in the application process, and sometimes it is heavily weighted. Other application materials may be more important, such as grade point average (GPA), letters of recommendation, or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores for non-native English speakers, for example. Additionally, the Analytical Writing section is not required for all programs, so check to see if you even have to take that section. Likewise, some programs require a GRE subject test, so you will want to inquire about that as well.

During my time as a graduate programs coordinator at Arizona State University in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, I reviewed graduate applicants’ materials with a committee of professors to determine admission status. The entire student application packet was reviewed as a whole, and often the deciding factors for admission came down to the following: (1) which students made connections with faculty members prior to applying, (2) who had the best letters of recommendation that indicated the propensity to be most successful in the program, and, (3) for international applicants, TOEFL scores were of the highest importance. The GRE scores were definitely factors, but were not the main focus.

I strongly recommend contacting faculty members in your department of interest prior to applying. Engage them in conversation about their research, either via email, phone, or in person. Ask if you can speak with a current graduate student in the program so you can get a feel for what it is like. Then, be sure to follow through. This behavior demonstrates initiative and motivation, and can make you a “shoe in” to the program above other applicants.

Get a Guide
A second recommendation is to purchase a study guide book (see book suggestions below). The book will serve as a resource to guide you through the sections of the GRE, and it will provide you with actual practice sets, so you can time yourself while you become familiar with the types of questions you’ll encounter. The absolute best way to prepare for the GRE, and improve your score, is to practice, practice, PRACTICE! I know you have heard it before, but it is an age-old principle that has withstood the “tests” of time, literally and figuratively!

Suggested books include:

  • Cracking the GRE. (2014). New York, NY: Random House.
  • Educational Testing Service. (2012). The official guide to the GRE revised general test (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill

Be Diligent
A third recommendation is to create a study plan for preparing for the GRE. The most common feedback I receive from individuals in their GRE preparation endeavors is that finding time to study, with an already demanding schedule, is difficult, and sometimes impossible. Often times, people who seek graduate degrees are highly motivated individuals, who are likely involved in extracurricular activities, have families and careers, yet are seeking education to fulfill goals and advance their knowledge. If you are reading this article, you may be one of these people. This is a great quality to have for graduate school because a strong drive is needed to complete a graduate degree. This drive is also important in preparing for the GRE; diligence in completing practice sets, and writing practice essays, is paramount in studying for the GRE. So you MUST schedule time to study!

I recommend setting aside 1-2 hours a day to study, or at least every other day, for about 3-4 months in advance of taking the test. If you do not have this amount of time, try for at least 6 weeks in advance. After setting aside the time, schedule the time daily for specific tasks such as 30 minutes of vocabulary study, 45 minutes of verbal reasoning study, and 45 minutes of quantitative reasoning study. Within those time chunks, list the page numbers or websites of practice sets, problems, or words you plan to study, and include time for 5-10 minute breaks in which you take a break and reward your efforts with a short walk or a treat. Remember: breaks are important for optimal brain function and memory. Then, employ your sticktoitiveness and work through your practice time as you have it planned.

Take a Course
A final recommendation to assist you in preparing for taking the GRE is to enroll in a GRE test preparation course. Taking a course holds you accountable to studying for the GRE and it automatically plans study time into your schedule. Whether you choose to take a preparation course in person or online, there is likely to be a recommended schedule for you to follow when progressing through the materials. While it is possible to purchase a book, and work through the problem sets on your own, enrolling in a course is beneficial because it can help you focus your energy on one section at a time, and it allows you to ask questions and engage in the learning actively with others who have a similar goal. Additionally, the course lends itself to the opportunity for feedback from experienced professionals, such as your instructors, who have taken the GRE and have knowledge about the strategies for doing well.  It is important to plan additional study time in conjunction with your course time, however, because you will want to practice what you learn assiduously.

While the idea of taking the GRE may not be your favorite, with quality preparation and knowledge of specific strategies for each section of the test, it is an achievable goal. There are numerous ways to study including completing practice sets, playing games, perusing online resources, engaging with study partners/groups, making flash cards, and reading scholarly articles. Exploring the options, finding the ways that work best for you, and devising a specific study plan with dates and times, are keys to success. And, who knows, once you get the hang of it, you might even begin to enjoy GRE test preparation once you hone your superhero “skillz” and learn how to conquer the questions!

5 thoughts on “Preparing for the GRE: Practical Tips from a Test Prep Pro”

  1. wow! a nice guide i would say. I am taking GRE on 20th October 2014. I am spending about 3 hours a day. Is that enough? I started on 1st September.
    Do you really believe that TOEFL is THAT important for international students, because I haven’t even looked at it and I am planning to apply for fall the next year… And if i am applying only in the professional masters program then contact with professors doesn’t matter. does is?

    1. Hello Moni,
      Thanks. I am glad the article helped you. 3 hours a day is good – I recommend 1-2 hours a day for about 3 months prior to the exam. The more the better. TOEFL is important to some programs — it depends on your program. The best thing to do is to inquire with the programs in which you are interested to see how they weight the TOEFL. In my experience, it was hugely important because grad students who couldn’t write in English, or speak very well in English, struggled in the program and were likely to contribute to attrition rates. Grad admissions committees were very leary of those with low TOEFL scores. I think contact with professors is always a good idea no matter the program; they like to hear from grad students and the connections can only help you. Best wishes for your future!

  2. Pingback: Actually Accomplish Your Career and Academic Goals this Year

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