The GRE is a notoriously tricky test. Unfortunately, it’s also a test that most people applying to non-professional (e.g. MD, JD) graduate programs will have to take at some point. If you’ve already looked over a practice GRE exam, don’t despair: it is definitely intimidating at first glance, but there’s a lot you can do before your official exam day to master the test. After all, it is a standardized test, and follows a standard format and pattern of content. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top ten tips and tricks you can use to maximize your score on the GRE test.
- Schedule, schedule, schedule. So many test-takers want to know when the best time to take the GRE is, but in the end it comes down to your particular program deadlines. Be sure to research these well in advance of your anticipated entry date, then schedule your GRE test dates around it. Yes, test dates—because you should….
- Plan on a retake. ETS, the company that writes the GRE, has published data that shows that test-takers do better the second time they take the exam. However, you can only take the GRE once every 21 days, and only up to five times a year (although try to max out at no more than three). Remember—it takes 10-15 days to get your scores after the exam, and it’s a good idea to review them before sending them on to your programs, so make sure to allow time for that, as well.
- Know the format. One of the first steps any GRE test-taker should take is learning the format of the GRE. Particularly in the Quantitative section, you’ll see content that may be familiar, but tested in ways that you’ve never seen before. Taking GRE practice tests is a vital way to familiarize yourself with the GRE format in context.
- Be strict on timing. Students often find that the biggest stumbling block on the GRE isn’t the content of the test itself—it’s how little time you have to work through the problems (often just over a minute per question). This is important to work on in your practice, and then to be strict about on test day: if you’re spending more than two minutes on a problem, you should eliminate obviously wrong answer choices, take your best guess, and move on—no matter how close you think you are to solving it!
- Build your stamina. In all, the GRE test day experience will take around four hours. You can practice question sets or even individual sections of the test as you prepare—but unless you’re actually taking timed, full-length GRE practice tests, you’re not building up the stamina you’ll need for the official test. As you’ve probably heard before, this is a marathon—not a sprint.
- Know what you don’t know. Every time you take a GRE practice test, make sure you spend just as much time evaluating your answers as you did actually taking the test. Then, adapt your study plan to address your areas of weakness. Track how you do with different problem types (both in format and content) as you work your way through your GRE prep.
- Know you may have other options. If you’re considering taking the GRE for business school (an increasingly popular option), know that it’s not necessarily easier than the GMAT. The GRE is incredibly vocabulary heavy, making it a good choice for those with strong verbal skills; its math is also slightly easier than the GMATs. However, if your math skills are strong, the GMAT may be the better option. Take a practice test for each exam to see where you’re strongest. But be careful! This only applies to certain MBA programs, as some will still only take the GMAT; and graduate programs in other subject areas will NOT accept the GMAT in place of the GRE.
- Don’t study vocabulary. Well, don’t study vocabulary as such. Flashcards aren’t going to cut it for the GRE. Instead, work on improving your vocabulary in context by reading high-level materials from publications like The Economist and The New Yorker and taking note of words you don’t know. Then make flashcards that use GRE words in context—after all, that’s how they’ll be tested.
- Expect a plateau. At a certain point in GRE test prep, most students will hit a score plateau, where nothing you do seems to raise your score. Expect and plan for this, but also realize that if it lasts longer than a week or two, you may need to tweak your study plan in big or small ways to help you keep improving (additional lessons, studying wrong answers more, using better materials).
- Ignore the test…but only the day before your actual exam! The last, best thing you can do in your GRE prep is…nothing. You’re not going to learn anything you don’t already know, so relax, get some sleep, and think about the exercise and protein-based breakfast you’ll dive into in the morning. With that, you’ll be all set to get your best score on the GRE.
Rachel Kapelke-Dale blogs about graduate school admissions for Magoosh. She has a BA from Brown University, and did her own graduate work at the Université de Paris VII (Master Recherche) and University College London (PhD). She has taught and written about test preparation and admissions practices for eight years.