How to Do Well on the GRE


Step 1: Take useful notes

As you know, I took the GRE twice last Fall.  And also once three years ago when I first knew I wanted to go to graduate school and then decided to wait, but that’s a different story.

Studying for the GRE is A Process, especially when you’ve been out of school for a few years and have lost those healthy study habits, not to mention have a full-time job and are faced with committing your precious evenings and weekends to relearning high school algebra.

By the time I retook the test for the final time, however, I had a good handle on what worked and what didn’t where the GRE is concerned.  I now pass this wisdom on to you, all ye who currently face the test. Take it with a grain of salt, of course; everyone learns and studies differently.  Here’s what helped me:


1. Use Magoosh.  Magoosh is an online test prep resource featuring a treasure trove of study tools: study schedules, lesson videos, flash cards, blog posts, practice tests, hundreds of practice questions, and even apps to test your math and vocabulary on the go.

The most daunting thing about the GRE for me was that I didn’t have a plan for how to study; I had no idea how much time to spend on each section, how many practice essays to write, or which strategies to adopt for a successful test day.  Magoosh’s personalized (based on your strengths, weaknesses, and how many months — or weeks — you want to study for) schedule gave me much-needed direction and focus, and the study tools they provided were extremely helpful. The math lesson videos, especially, were invaluable; even concepts that had alluded me in school (hello, I’m a writer, and word problems often make zero sense to me) were made clear.

Magoosh employees were quick to respond to my questions, and even emailed to make sure I was still alive the day before the test.

I tried really hard to not sound like an infomercial back there, and rest assured, Magoosh does not know I have a blog.  But they’re amazing, made an enormous difference in my test score, and are well worth the subscription cost.

2. Write a lot of practice essays. The analytical essay section, in my opinion, is the most daunting part of the GRE: brilliantly and gracefully crafted arguments are difficult to generate when time is tight. What’s more, these essays, while soundly argued, are not expected to be particularly sophisticated format-wise. That’s right, you’ll need to reteach yourself the five-paragraph essay. [Here we pause for a silent scream.]

To familiarize myself with the argument and issue essays’ formats, and to get used to writing them quickly, I wrote a lot of essays.  29, to be exact.  To make sure I was writing them under test-like conditions, I would select a free essay prompt from the GRE website without reading it (copying and pasting the prompt into a Word document), and then give myself a half hour to brainstorm, outline, and write an essay.

I persuaded my mom to grade my essays using the GRE rubric.  She retaliated by grading me so harshly that I actually began to learn from my mistakes.  Well played, mother.

3. Time yourself. This is something I didn’t often do before taking the GRE for the first time.  I would time my practice tests and essays, but not my daily verbal and quantitative questions.  This made for a stressful test day; I had little concept of how long I should be spending on each question, so I found myself strapped for time and forced to guess on questions I could have easily answered correctly.

4. Don’t study abstractly. Another mistake I made in my early test prep.  I spent too much time learning quantitative concepts and taking notes on them, and not enough time answering practice questions.  Most math concepts look very different in practice than they do in theory, so a more useful way to study is to learn a concept, answer several practice questions related to the concept, then evaluate which questions you got wrong and make sure you understand how to do them correctly, revisiting the lesson if needed.

5. Study where you’ll be motivated to study. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?  But I spent weeks trying to make studying happen in my bedroom, which at the time was an open loft above my apartment’s common living room.  A living room where my roommates liked to watch loud TV.

Finally, I conceded that as comfortable as my bed was, I just wasn’t able to focus there.  I began hanging around after work to study in my quiet office.  On the weekends, I utilized the public library’s private study rooms.

6. BUT understand that the test center will not be distraction-free.  If you’re used to studying in dead silence, you may be thrown off on test day when other people in the test center are finishing early and walking by you, papers are rustling, and mouses that aren’t yours are clicking. I made sure to regularly study somewhere a little more distracting to keep me on my toes (public library computer labs did the trick).

7. Use vocabulary flashcards.  I know you’re brilliant, and I know you’re well-read, but trust me, GRE vocabulary is nothing like you’ve ever seen before.  Buy flashcards or make flashcards, but use flashcards.

8. Make a schedule. Okay, so you didn’t take my advice and subscribe to Magoosh, where ready-made, personalized schedules are available.  It’s fine, we can still be friends.  Just be sure to make your own schedule to give direction to your studying.  I recommend taking a full practice test every weekend (they take time, man), writing one of each essay type once a week, and doing a little verbal practice, a little quantitative practice, and a little vocabulary drilling every day.  Adjust as needed so you’re spending more time on sections you struggle with.

9. Don’t study too much.  Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself.  Study, but not too much.  Between an hour and ninety minutes per day was sufficient for me (except on practice test day, when I buckled down for a four-hour marathon).  After three months of that, I felt ready to take the test.  And of course, leaving plenty of time for relaxation, friends, and general tomfoolery was vital to my sanity.

10. Keep your goal in mind! The GRE can feel irrelevant to your graduate school plans, but it’s a necessary part of the application process, and how you do on it does matter. You’ll be putting those scores on every single graduate school application you fill out, so trust me, you’ll want to be happy with them.


Taking the Test:

11. Schedule wisely.  If you’re a morning person, take the GRE in the morning.  If you think better in the evening, choose a later time.  Keep in mind mealtimes; the short break you’re allowed during the test is only enough time to eat a small snack.  Don’t choose a test time that coincides with the time of day when your body expects a meal.

Choose a test center that is in a familiar area, or at least scope out the location ahead of time so you know you can easily find it on test day.

Make sure you have no abutting events; you’ll want a low-key evening the night before, with plenty of time for a good night’s sleep.

12. Find your anthem.  “Club Can’t Handle Me” was mine. I played it loudly, and I played it shamelessly, and I felt like a boss.

13. Be Wonder Woman.  Do the pose in the bathroom as soon as you arrive at the test center. Visualize doing well on the test.  Imagine yourself getting dozens of acceptance letters. Tell yourself aloud how awesome you are. I get that this sounds ridiculous and vaguely humiliating, but it works.  I did the Wonder Woman before the GRE and immediately felt my confidence spike.

(Note: the Wonder Woman also works, well, wonders before stressful meetings, job interviews, and first dates.)

14. Keep your energy up and your thoughts positive during the test.  Even if you choke during an essay (it happened to me), force yourself to move past it and really focus on each section and each question.  Stretching during each short break and getting a drink and snack during the long break also helps.

15. Remember, you can retake the test.  If all doesn’t go as you had hoped, it’s not the end of the world.  Save your scores no matter what they are. Have your semi-public ugly cry, watch some comfort Netflix, and then determine whether you actually need to retake. If so, buckle down again.  You’ve got this!


Have you taken the GRE?  Any advice to add?

3 responses

  1. Hey Holly — please share your GRE post on the English website (if you’re willing, of course!). I’m sure many of our current students and recent alums could benefit from your wisdom!!

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