What is the GRE and how do you prepare for it?

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Don’t these diverse people look happy about standardized testing?

The Graduate Record Examination, aka the GRE, is just a standardized test used as part of most graduate school and graduate fellowship applications. Like the SAT and ACT, it is created and administered by a corporation, in this case, Educational Testing Service (ETS).

If you are considering applying for graduate school, particularly Ph.D. programs and associated fellowships, such as the Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, then you will probably need to take the GRE before you apply (scores are valid for up to 5 years after you take the test). This post is specifically about the GRE General Test, but there are also specific subject tests which you may need to take depending on the field you are trying to apply to (See this page for more information on GRE Subject tests)

GRE test scores, though they are widely asked for, are rarely going to be a make or break factor in any application. Most things look at your application holistically and will not hyper focus on your score. That being said, a better score can also only help your chances. Further there is no definite breakdown of what a good or bad score looks like, especially given the range of things and fields people apply to with these scores (There is no minimum score for being admitted to a graduate program at Harvard). The only thing that will be able to give you some context for your scores is the percentiles. These show you what percentage of test takers got a score lower than yours. But ultimately that accounts for very little since the GRE, like all standardized tests, is only based on how well you can take the test, not anything about you as a person.

What is it and how do you register?

The GRE is administered by computer (though you can take the test on paper or with other accommodations) at select testing facilities and lasts around 4-5 hours.  On test day you show up with your registration materials, your ID, and maybe a snack. Then you sit at the computer and get started when they tell you to. They should have some sort of headphones available at your desk in case you get distracted by the sounds of other people typing. Be aware the testing centers have pretty strict security rules like passing you through a metal detector, forms you have to sign, and verification of your identity with your ID and signature. You will want to show up at least 45 minutes before your test is scheduled so you can do all these extra bits and pieces.

To register for the test you will just need to follow the instructions on the GRE website. The things to bear in mind is:

  • Are you taking the paper or computer exam? There are some differences between the computer and paper exams so you may prefer one or another, especially if you can’t look at a computer screen that long. More info about the paper exam. More info about the computer exam.
  • Where will you be taking the test? The exam is also only offered in specific locations, especially if you are taking the paper exam which is offered in some areas where the computer exam is not. Check to see what testing centers you would be able to take the exam at.
  • Do you need a fee waiver? In general the exam costs $220, though this is subject to change in the future (check here for full pricing information). There are specific procedures and restrictions on getting a fee waiver or reduction including both citizenship requirements and demonstration of financial need. You may also be eligible if you are part of some programs like Gates Millennium Scholars and the McNair Scholars Program. I recommend requesting a waiver as early as possible as the process involves getting in contact with the office of financial aid, getting them to issue forms, mailing them, and waiting. For Brown students you can use this link to see the specific requirements of Brown’s Office of Financial Aid, but if you attend a different school you should check your own school’s Office of Financial Aid page.
  • Do you need accommodations? If you have a disability or another reason for seeking accommodations there are specific procedures for this as well. They say documentation can take around six weeks so I urge you to begin this process as early as possible so you will be able to schedule your exam.

What is the test like?

The actual test consist of 6 sections. First is the essay section where you will be expected to write two essays and you get a half hour for each. In the essay section you are typing  in response to two prompts. Beware that there is NO SPELL CHECK for these essays, so you will need to give yourself time to check your writing before time is up on each essay.

Student - Test AnxietyAfter the essays are 5 (mostly) multiple choice sections which are broken up into alternating Quantitative (Math) and Verbal (Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension) sections. It can either be 3 Math and 2 Verbal (Math, Verbal, Math, Verbal, Math) or 3 Verbal and 2 Math (Verbal, Math, Verbal, Math, Verbal). For each of these you get about a half hour.

In either case only two of each section is actually being graded. This means that whichever one you have three of, one of these sections is Experimental; it is only there for ETS to test questions. You have no way of knowing however, which sections are being graded, so you must try your best on every section of the test.

The Verbal sections consist of questions that test your understanding of vocabulary words, and your ability to figure out what they mean based on context clues, as well as reading comprehension questions about short passages. The Verbal section is all multiple choice. The Quantitative section is based on a level of “high school equivalent” mathematics (You can look here for what topics are covered). These questions are mostly multiple choice with a few fill in the answer questions (where you will have to type in the answer). Between each section you get a very short break to rest your eyes or try to go to the bathroom.

The other dynamic of the test is that the difficulty of each Verbal and Quantitative section is adjusted based on how well you did on the previous section of that type. They can do this because the software can check how many you got correct as soon as you submit each section. It seems like they do this to try to make the test more representative of your knowledge. For example, if you did very well on the first math section, your second math section will have more difficult questions. If you didn’t do so well on your first verbal section, the next section will have easier questions.

However, the trick to this is that you, as the test taker, actually can’t properly judge how easy and hard the questions are since the difficulty is based solely on what ETS, the company who makes the test, thinks about the questions. For example let’s say there are two questions:

  1. 2+2=?
  2. 5-4=?

If you know both addition and subtraction very well, these questions might both be very easy to you. However, if you know addition much better than subtraction, the second question might be much more difficult to you. But to ETS, the maker of the test, they might judge both questions to be very basic and thus very easy. Let’s say you didn’t do very well on the first math section, so in the second math section they ask you some subtraction questions because they have ranked these questions as much easier. In this scenario you can’t tell whether you previously did better or worse, all you know is they’ve given you some questions which are more difficult for you to solve.

In short, there isn’t any real way to judge how easy ETS thinks the questions are, only how easy they are for you, and so you can’t really judge how well you are actually doing on the test while taking it. You have to do your best on every section.

Something that is actually in your favor is that, unlike the SAT, there is no penalty for guessing. So you should guess if you don’t know and come back to the question after you have answered the questions you do know.

How do I Prepare for this Test Then?

I recommend you begin preparing by taking a practice exam. They have a practice exam available on the ETS website that you can take for free (More info here). Try to clear time for yourself so you can actually take the whole thing and try your best on it. No matter how well or badly you do, this will help set your initial benchmark. Now you know what you need to focus on in the time leading up to you actually taking the exam.

How you study will really be up to you and what you feel like will work best. There are so very many materials available online and in bookstores for how to prepare for the GRE, and I recommend you look around for whatever you feel like will be helpful for you.

To me, I found three things to be most helpful

  1. Khan Academy. Khan Academy has instructional videos that explain many concepts,including a robust catalog of videos about mathematics concepts. To be honest, when I sat down to try a practice test the first time, I was floored by how little math I actually remembered since I stopped taking math classes. So the next thing I did was go on Khan Academy and look for the topics I didn’t know and start trying to relearn them (You can see ETS’s guide to what Khan Academy topics are covered on the GRE here).
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    Algebra 1 Mission on Khan Academy

    What is most helpful is to go through the self-study quizzes on specific areas like Arithmetic Essentials. These let you take quizzes to actually practice the math concepts and master them, keeping track of your progress. Each question also has links to the relevant videos on the concept needed to do the question. Khan Academy calls these self-study quizzes, Missions (You can find more information about how to access them here).

  2. Kaplan Test Prep. Kaplan has many many resources to spend your money on and I honestly don’t know if they are all particularly useful (considering how expensive they can be). Browse through them if you like, but the only one I used and the only one I can wholeheartedly recommend is their Premier book with access to the online and mobile materials (This is the link to the 2017 version). I think the book did a fairly good job explaining the ins and outs of the test and how best to approach it. Though what was most useful was access to 6 full practice tests (5 online and 1 in the book itself). The online software they use for the tests is virtually identical to the software used in the actual testing center. I recommend taking practice tests both so you can judge how well you are improving as you study, as well as seeing how to actually pace yourself in the exam. The first practice test I took, the math section had me sweating, but by the time I actually sat down to take the test I was surprised by how calm I was and how much more time I felt like I had.
  3. Not procrastinating. There’s no helpful resource for this unless you do a summer program that had GRE prep as part of it like I did ( Programs like this are Leadership Alliance and MURAP). If you aren’t in one of these programs then you will have to be self-disciplined enough to start your studying 1-2 months before you plan to actually take the test. I recommend this because it is the only way to give yourself time to build up your skills and knowledge, especially if your initial practice test score is not very close to what you are aiming to get on the test. But with a gradual approach you will be able to study a few hours each week over the course of a few weeks rather than cramming endlessly for a few days. And because the test costs 200 dollars (though you can apply for a fee waiver) I recommend giving yourself time to try your best. An additional tip is to also not procrastinate on when you try to get your fee waiver as the process can take some time.

 Any other tips?

In general this is a test that really relies on your ability to pace yourself and your timing. If you take the exam on the computer, in the Math section you will have 35 minutes to answer 20 questions. Initially this might not sound so bad, but really this means you would only have 1 minute and 45 seconds to do each question if you spent the same amount of time on each one. When you take that first practice test you may find some questions are simply more difficult or require more effort and so will take a bit longer. If you spend 5 minutes on one of the earlier questions, you wont have time to work out the answer for even the questions you know you should be able to solve, since they come afterwards.

The key strategy for both Math and Verbal is to first answer all the questions you know how to do and can do in less than 2 minutes. Within a specific section you can mark questions, skip them, and return to them easily (Though note once you submit a section there’s no going back and changing your answers).

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The review screen where you can see questions you marked or left incomplete and return to them easily.

If a question starts to take you longer than 2 minutes you should mark it, skip it, and return to it after you have gone through the exam and done all the questions you know how to do. Remember that the questions vary widely in how long they will take you to do and their difficulty, some taking only 15-30 seconds and others that might take you 3-5 minutes or even more if you really don’t know how to approach them.

Once you have answered the ones you do know you can come back to the ones you didn’t know and spend more time on them, as well as check your answers for questions you weren’t completely sure of. And as I mentioned above, there is no penalty for guessing. There were a few questions that I just did not know how to do on the test, and though I left them for last, I was still unable to figure out the answer. So I just guessed. And I’m sure some of those I got points for just by probability.

When you take the first practice exam it can be difficult to keep track of them time and force yourself to move on if a question is taking you too long to figure out. But that’s why I suggest taking practice exams, so that once you sit down on test day, you will be able to sweep through the exam and answer as much of it as you can.

For other tips there are many many resources. The GRE Wesbite’s tip page is not a bad place to start. If you know people who have already taken the test I also highly recommend asking them about it and their experience of the test.

This test is challenging and it can be overwhelming, but you can do this. Like any other standardized test, it is just an obstacle, but something you can overcome to make your way toward your goals, knowing that the test is not measuring your personal worth or your “intelligence,” it’s just another test.


Special thanks to Brian Acosta for helping edit this post.

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