By Justin Dubé
People will tell you there is no way to study for the GRE. They are wrong. The GRE is a puzzle and, like any puzzle, it can be solved. Although there are likely many ways to prepare for the test, I found practicing the GRE (over and over, multiplied by 5, or 6) to be very helpful. Below, I will share some practice tips and other strategies that helped me tackle the test.
The GRE prep course I took recommended writing a full practice test before studying. The experience was a bit alarming (my score was dismal), but it helped me establish a baseline score and identify my strengths and weaknesses. For example, after writing the test with no prep, I discovered each math formula I had learned between grades 5 and 12 had been replaced with Simpsons quotes.
Learning my weaknesses helped to transform an ambiguous problem (i.e., how to get an acceptable GRE score) into a concrete problem (e.g., relearn how to calculate the area of a circle, learn how to calculate how much debt you will accrue over the course of grad school, etc…). Also, establishing a baseline of my abilities revealed the discrepancy between where I was (grade 4 level math) and where I wanted to be (getting an acceptable quant score) which motivated me to practice. If you’re anything like me (or the people in this study: Regulating goal pursuit through Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions) writing a GRE practice test before studying will motivate you to improve your weak areas and spur you to practice more.
Another GRE prep tip that I found useful was to schedule my practice tests. There are several benefits to doing this. First, you will (hopefully) actually write the practice tests. Second, knowing when you will practice will allow you to block the 4 hours (!!!) needed to complete the test. Regarding interval of practice, I found writing one test per week until the exam worked well for me; whether this will generalize to your situation will depend on how much time you have to prepare and how many practice tests you have access to. Practicing once a week gave me enough time to recover from writing, review the tests, and then work on my weaknesses. Other GRE prep strategies and pieces of advice which I found helpful were the following:
Schedule your actual test! You may be inclined to postpone scheduling your test until after you feel you’re prepared to write. However, I found scheduling my test motivated me to practice and helped me remember that “this too shall pass”.
Practice the whole test, in order. This means even practicing the analytical writing portion, at the beginning. Doing so will help you get into the flow of the test and build your stamina. If you have a bunch of practice tests, but no writing prompts, ETS has a bank of topics here: https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/prepare/analytical_writing/issue/pool
Practice under timed conditions. It may be tempting to give yourself a little more time, or take an extra-long break between sections, but replicating the timed testing conditions will give you a more accurate gauge of your performance.
Practice writing at the same time of day as your scheduled test. This is particularly helpful if, for example, you’re a night owl who will be writing a morning test. Two weeks before I wrote, I started setting my alarm to the time I would need to wake on test day. It was terrible, but helpful.
In the end, remember to keep it in perspective! The GRE is one small portion of your application. In many cases, your score is nothing more than a screening tool, not a guarantee of admission into a program. Remember this and you may feel a little less stressed when preparing for, and writing, the test. Like many others, I felt my test didn’t go as well as it could have and was considering writing again. Fortunately, I had a mentor who was able to redirect my focus. Instead of re-writing the test, I spent time strengthening my application, which I believe served me well. And really, who wants to write the GRE more than once? In some cases, good enough is good enough.
Oettingen, G., Wittchen, M., & Gollwitzer, P. (2013). Regulating goal pursuit through mental contrasting with implementation intentions. In Taylor and Francis.
Image credit: Flickr user ray_lac