Test Prep: 7 Tips for Success on the GRE

Each year, over 700,000 graduate school aspirants take the Graduate Record Exam, better known as the GRE. Although you might notice some similarities between this test and the college-entrance SAT exam, you should be aware of their distinctions.

For one thing, while the SAT involves using a No. 2 pencil and filling out a bubble sheet, the GRE is taken on a computer. It is also important to note that the GRE has a progressive and regressive element: the better you do on the first 20 verbal and quant reasoning questions, the more difficult the following 20 questions will become and vice versa.

There are three sections to the GRE: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. The verbal reasoning part is split into two sections, each containing 20 questions with an allotted time of 30 minutes to complete each. Likewise, the quantitative reasoning section contains two sets of 20 questions as well, with 35 minutes allotted to each. The analytical writing part requires the test-taker to answer two essay questions, and they receive 30 minutes for each. The verbal and quant sections are scored 130 to 170 in 1-point increments while the writing section is graded 0-6 in ½ point increments.

Even if you did well on the SAT and ended up with a solid GPA in college, this is no guarantee that you will succeed on the GRE. However, if you study the right way, you will do just fine.

Seven Strategies That Can Help You Succeed

  1. Relive your high school days. You might be surprised to discover that the quant section of the GRE is heavy on algebra and geometry. It is not so much that these exercises are exceedingly difficult, it's just that high school was a long time ago. If you have not opened your geometry book in a few years, you would be best served by brushing up on these skills.
  2. Get yourself a good dictionary. Although the quant section of the GRE is not much harder than what you encountered when you took the SAT, the same case cannot be made as it relates to the verbal section. If you slacked off during your English Lit classes while in college or used Cliffnotes when you should have been reading the assigned books, you might find yourself struggling on this section of the GRE. Your best bet is to read as much as you can and expand your vocabulary since you will undoubtedly uncover unfamiliar words on the GRE. If you are still early into your college career, make the most of all your readings! If you are near the end, you will need to play catch up. Spend several months learning new words and consult GRE study guides to determine some of the most common vocabulary words that could come up on the test.
  3. Consider investing in a GRE prep course. Note that the GRE is created different from most other types of exams. The purpose is not to assess what you have been learning in college but instead how well you can think critically. Critically thinking skills have to be honed over time, they cannot simply be acquired through cramming and memorizing content. Through classes, you can learn how to unlock your critical thinking abilities and at the same time familiarize yourself with the test. At $1,000 for eight on-site sessions, the cost of Kaplan prep courses is steep. You can also pay $3,000 for 25 hours with a private GRE tutor if you can afford it. If you really do not have that kind of money to spend, Education Test Services (which puts together the GRE) offers free sample questions and other study materials for free on their website.
  4. Take several practice tests. You might think that you have an amazing vocabulary, professional-level writing skills and are a math wiz, but if you are not familiar with the way the GRE is formatted, you are likely to struggle mightily regardless. Test-takers who go into the test center and assume they can take it with their eyes closed are really fooling themselves. Education Testing Service, Kaplan, and Princeton Review all offer free online-based computer adaptive practice tests. It should be noted that the GRE really does differ enough from the SAT that it can really throw test-takers off. Having the ability to take practice exams on the computer can make a huge difference in the results.
  5. If necessary, take the exam again. If you are disappointed in your GRE score, do not fret. You can register and take it again three weeks after you had previously taken it. Your GRE scores are good for five years, but when you apply to graduate school, most of them only seem to care about your highest score. Although this does not apply to every university, the fact is that the majority of admissions officers will only pass along your highest score to the committee when they are assessing your suitability as a candidate for graduate school.
  6. Choose a high-level English or writing class. No matter what you are majoring in, if you want to do well on the GRE you should strongly consider taking an English or writing course during your senior year. While the challenge of this class might leave a slight mark on your cumulative GPA, it is a small price to pay for the skills that you will acquire as you conquer the GRE. Being able to write well and comprehend vocabulary words are extremely important skills that will determine how well you do on the test. Keep in mind that the two sets of analytical questions compromise around 1/3 of the entire time allotted to the GRE.
  7. Start prepping early. You should think of studying for the GRE in the same way that you would train for a marathon. You should give yourself several months to get ready for it. Create a study schedule and stick to it. While a lot of people use their busy weekday schedule as an excuse to only prep for the GRE on weekends, this strategy will do you about as good as sitting on a sofa for 5 days and only conditioning yourself for the marathon on Saturday and Sunday. Focus on a different segment of the exam everyday and take a practice test about once a week based on the actual exam conditions. At some point, it will become a routine habit and once it is time to take the real test, it will not seem like anything but another practice one!