The No-Nonsense Guide to the GRE

If you want to go to graduate school, then it’s time to start thinking about the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). But before ruining weeks of your life studying and then wasting four hours of your life taking the test, make sure you even need to take it. Do your research! Some schools don’t require it, some care more about certain parts of your score, and some require extra sections. Whatever the case, just make sure you need to take it.
Great. Now let’s say you do need to take it. Unlike the ACT/SAT, which a lot of people didn’t bother studying for back in the day, the GRE tests you on what Educational Testing Services think graduate students should know before grad school. This means you will actually have to study. Remember probability, slope-intercept form, and all those equations from math you thought you were done with years ago? Remember analogies and memorizing flash cards and five paragraph essays? You better hope so, because the GRE brings it all back with a vengeance.
There’s four sections on this bad boy:

  1. Verbal – Vocab. Lots and lots of vocab. Go buy some flash cards right now – they will be your best friends soon.
  2. Quantitative – Not calculus, thank gosh. But they’re talking all the way back to math you learned in middle school. This includes arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and quantitative comparison.
  3. Analytical Writing – Haven’t taken a writing class since freshman year? You may want to refresh your writing skills because you’ll have to write two essays in one sitting: one argumentative and one issue.
  4. Experimental (maybe) – This experimental section might show up on your GRE exam, but it won’t count toward your score. ETS wants to do research on future questions on you, and they unfortunately do not let you know. So basically, you might end up taking two Verbal sections and not knowing which was the random experimental part that didn’t count. I was devastated to hear that I would be wasting my time in this manner, but there’s really nothing we can do about it.

Deciding which study materials to use is entirely up to personal preference. I bought three books to study with because I hate math, I need a great score on verbal, and I didn’t want to shell out the extra cash for a Princeton Review or Kaplan prep course. The reviews on Amazon really helped me understand how effective a book would be or how boring it might be before buying it – some are definitely easier to read than others. If it’s not your learning style, you obviously won’t learn as much. Oh, and make sure you’re buying a NEW book if they promise access to free online practice tests, or else the codes might not work!
In terms of freebies, all Windows users out there can also take advantage of free PowerPrep software from ETS. You should start reading the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or sign up for Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day emails to help expand your vocabulary. You can always do prep classes if you want to spend more money and if you need a more structured study schedule, but with a calendar and some willpower you should be fine!
One of the most important things you should do is familiarize yourself with how the GRE works. It’s a Computer Adaptive Test, which means that the difficulty of the questions change as you answer questions correctly or incorrectly. To get a feel for the test, you should do as many electronic practice tests as you can! For example, you need to be more cautious at the beginning of the test because those early questions have greater weight in terms of your score.
In terms of scheduling, you should know a few important facts:

  • Most test prep materials recommend 1-2 months to study a few hours everyday
  • Remember that you can’t take the GRE more than once a month
  • On average, it takes about 4-6 weeks for scores to get to the grad school of your choice
  • Your GRE scores are valid for five years after taking the test

Once you’ve got the test scheduled and you’re prepared, here are some tips for actually taking the GRE:

  • Arrive to the testing site early and bring a legit photo ID
  • Know which schools you want to send your scores to (the first four schools are free!)
  • Bring a snack – four hours is a long time to go without food when your brain is working that hard
  • Be careful on the early questions!
  • Pay attention to time
  • Answer EVERY question – on the GRE, guessing is always better than nothing
  • Use your scratch paper wisely

Most importantly, don’t stress – they’re testing how well you can take a GRE, not how smart you are or how successful you will be in a master’s program. Grad schools realize this, and typically take your GRE score into account along with your GPA, resume experience, and personal statement.
Hope this helps you get ready for the GRE! What’s helping you study?

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