A Guide to the GRE by Richard Davis, an Atlanta GRE tutor

What to Do Before Starting Studying for the GRE

There are several things you should do before you start studying for the GRE:

Understand the Test

The GRE consists of three main parts: Verbal, Quantitative (or “Math”), and Analytical Writing. Each main part is divided into two halves.

  • There are two 30-minute sections in Verbal, each with 20 questions.
  • There are two 35-minute sections in Quant, each with 20 questions.
  • There are 30-minute essays in Analytical Writing.

Verbal and Quant are each scored on a scale of 130 to 170, and Writing is scored from 0.0 to 6.0.

You will take the entire test in one visit to a GRE testing center, with short breaks between each section. You’ll get an unofficial score for Verbal and Quant immediately when you finish the test, and your official score will arrive about two weeks later. (The unofficial and official scores are usually the same.)

Identify Your Target Scores

1. To do this, contact each program to which you want to be admitted and ask them what scores they look for in their candidates for each section of the test.

2. Also ask which sections matter the most, or whether they all count equally.

Take an Online Practice Test

1. Don’t do this if you have already taken the GRE recently. In that case, you already know what you scored. Otherwise:

    1. Create an account at www.ets.org.
    2. Then go here to access the first free PowerPrep practice test. This is a legit, timed, full-length GRE test you can take from your home computer. It’s made by ETS, the folks who make the actual GRE.
    3. Set aside four hours of uninterrupted time; grab a water bottle, some snacks, some pencils, erasers, and scratch paper; and sit down to take the whole test.
    4. This may be a brutal experience! You’re taking the test without prepation, so you can only expect you won’t perform at your best! But that’s ok. What matters for now is that you’re achieving four goals:
      1. The practice tests boosts your familiarity with the GRE, which will help you take the test more efficiently and with less nervousness and stress later on.
      2. You can check back through the practice test question by question after you take it, so your results help you know which types of problems you need to study the most.
      3. The score you receive on the practice test will serve as your baseline. Since you took the test without any preparation, you know that from now on, once you’ve actually studied, your performance can only go up. This will be encouraging: it will prove that your efforts are actually working, because you’ll see that your practice scores on later tests (after you’ve invested real time and effort into studying) are higher than what you made this first time.
      4. Your score on the practice tests tells you know how far there is to go between your practice scores and your target scores. Knowing this helps you set a realistic study plan to reach your goal.

        Decide on How Much Study Time

        1. Determine how much time you realistically need to invest to reach your goals.
        2. This varies greatly from individual to individual.
        3. As a rule of thumb, if you study according to a well-designed plan, you’ll want to plan to invest about 20 hours of serious, uninterrupted study time for every 3 points improvement in Verbal or Quant.
        4. So for example, suppose you’re scoring 142 on Quant, and you want to bring that score up to 154. That’s a 12-point improvement, so you should plan to invest about 80 hours of study time to get there.
        5. With that said, be aware that the lower points are easier to gain than the higher points. Going from 155 to 160 is harder than going from 150 to 155.
        6. And once again, this is only a rule of thumb. It’s not a guarantee for every individual student. Some students will need more than 20 hours to raise their score by 3 points. Others will need considerably less.

          Make a Study Schedule

          1. Based on how many hours you need, make a study schedule in which you block out specific chunks of time to study for the GRE. Make this schedule in an actual written form. For example, you can use Google Calendar.
          2. Take this seriously, as if you were scheduling hours at your job. Once you’ve marked certain hours to be GRE time, you need to make a serious effort to stick to them.
          3. Be realistic. Practically no one can work a full-time job and also study the GRE 4-hours each week day. If you have a full-time job, a realistic plan for most students is 2-hours of legit, uninterrupted study time each week-day, with another 8 to 16 hours total over the weekend.
          4. Your brain needs rest in order to grow. I recommend you take one day each week completely off from GRE study. For me, it’s Sunday.

            Enroll for the Test at ets.org

            1. You have to wait 21 days after you’ve taken the test before you can take it again. So if you have a hard deadline for submitting your score, be sure you sign up for the GRE at least 21 days before that deadline. Just in case you need to take the test a second time (and many students do), you’ll need that window.

              Find a Coach, Cheer Team, and Study Partner

              1. These are optional. Some students “go it alone” successfully. But for most students, they really help!
              2. Your coach should someone who’s able to explain GRE questions to you when you get stuck. He or she can also help keep you accountable to sticking to your study schedule. A professional tutor or a smart colleague from school may be the best choice. See “When to Find a GRE Tutor” below for more information.
              3. Your cheer team are people who know you’re working as hard as you can to prepare for the test. They are there to encourage you to stick with it! I recommend letting your best friends know what you’re up to and asking them to check in with you once a week or so. Or you might bring in your family, coworkers, or boss. Choose those people in your life whose input is most likely to be affirming and encouraging.
              4. As for the study partner, if you can find someone else who’s also preparing for the GRE and plan study time with them, this can be a great source of motivation. But be selective: only choose a study partner who will actually help you stay motivated and focused. Someone who will drain your time and energy (because they talk too much, or they’d expect you to spend all your study time tutoring them) is not a good choice.

                Purchase Materials

                1. I recommend Manhattan Prep’s Set of 8 GRE Study Guides. But be aware: there are eight short guides in this set, and you’ll want to set aside about 10 hours per guide to work through them all. You may not need to purchase or work through all of them, if you’re only looking to improve certain areas of the test.
                2. You may also want to purchase (or else make) a set of GRE flashcards for vocabulary words and key equations.

                   

                  How to Study for the GRE

                  Start working through your study materials the day they arrive.

                  For many students, getting started is the single hardest step. So.. crack open your new book and work through at least a single section the very day it arrives. This will get those rusty gears turning.

                  Stick to your study schedule.

                  1. There are no ‘buts’ about it: the only way to improve your score is to put in serious study time. The very best study times available are probably the hours you’ve blocked out for it on your calendar.
                  2. Try sticking tightly to your schedule for a single week. This will prove to yourself that you can do it. It will also form the roots of a habit to carry you through the rest of your study period.
                  3. If you miss a scheduled hour or session, don’t be discouraged. What’s important here isn’t perfection, but as much consistency as possible. Identify what made you miss your scheduled session this one time, and immediately take steps to prevent that problem from arising again.
                  4. You may discover that the schedule you initially blocked out was overly ambitious. That’s ok. If after a couple days of trying it, you find you can’t put in as much study time as you planned, then scale your plan back to something you can do. Don’t guilt yourself by trying to stick to a schedule that’s unrealistic. Instead, dial your schedule down to something realistic – even if it’s just a single hour on a typical weekday and three to six on weekends.

                    Disconnect from distractions.

                    1. For most of us, this means putting the cell phone on silent. Better: if you can, turn it off.
                    2. Some of us can’t completely disconnect – especially if you’re raising young kids. (And if you are, then kudos to you! That may be the most important and meaningful job in the world.) Just do the best you can.
                    3. You’ll also want to make sure you’re in a pleasant, quiet place with lighting you find conducive to study. Having a water bottle and a healthy snack (an apple, protein bars) on hand tends to help.
                    4. Some students find that soft background music is better than total silence. Try Mozart, nature sounds, or non-lyrical instrumental.

                      Be thorough and methodical.

                      1. Work through your chosen textbooks slowly, start to finish. Work every problem. Try not to skip the hard parts. You’re not aiming at speed – that will come later. For now, you’re aiming at thorough comprehension of the material.
                      2. When you encounter a concept or problem you don’t know how to solve (not even after reading the explanations in your book), make a note of it. Take that problem to your coach, or research it on the Internet.
                        1. If you’ve scheduled regular study sessions with your coach, then store up these ‘hard problems’ and let your coach know about them before you meet so he or she can prepare to help you with them one by one.

                          Begin studying vocabulary, right away.

                          1. Your vocabulary is most important factor in your Verbal score. It’s important to work on this daily. See below for tips on how to learn new words effectively.

                            Take one timed practice every week, if possible. If that’s not possible, then take one every two weeks.

                            1. Here are some places where you can find free practice tests (still need to do this).
                            2. Note on your study schedule when you’ll take these tests. Weekends work well for many students.
                            3. These practice test are a good time to work on your speed. Figure out how much time you have available for each question (about 90 seconds, depending on the problem type) and try to stick to this during the timed sections.

                              Make an error log.

                              1. Here’s a link for how to set up a GRE error log.

                                Be healthy.

                                1. Yes, seriously: you need to eat well, sleep well, and exercise in order to succeed on the GRE.
                                2. Why? Because your mental ability is tied to your physical health. Every hour you put into to GRE prep will be more efficient and effective if you have good nutrition, sleep, and exercise in the background. Don’t you want to get 90 minutes worth of progress for 60 minutes worth of studying? That’ll really add up if you’re putting in 15+ hours of prep per week!
                                3. Some simple steps to get there:
                                  1. Go to bed and wake up at about the same time each night.
                                  2. Go for a brisk walk each day, if you don’t already have a regular exercise plan.
                                  3. If your diet needs work (and whose doesn’t?), try eating fruit, nuts (or peanut butter), and protein bars. Bananas, apples, and Kind bars, for example, are easy and delicious.

                                    Meet with your GRE coach 2 to 6 hours a week.

                                    1. I recommend the “reverse studying” method: this means you try to learn the material on your own before you go over it with your tutor. That way, your tutor and you can spend those precious tutoring hours on the hardest parts: the ones you didn’t completely grasp in your individual studying.
                                       

                                       

                                      When to Get Online GRE Tutoring

                                      A great GRE tutor fills several important roles:

                                      1. No one textbook covers everything. An excellent tutor will identify techniques and strategies that you’re missing, and he or she can teach these to you one-on-one – in a way individualized for own learning style. This will improve your testing ability and saves you worlds of stress, time, and trouble.
                                      2. A good tutor saves you time. Your tutorial hours are the single most efficient way to crack the hardest concepts and problems. Your coach may teach you in thirty minutes what it would take you three hours to work out on your own.
                                      3. A great tutor is encouraging. They commend you for your progress and keep you from feeling isolated and alone in the hard work of GRE prepping.
                                      4. Great tutors help you stay on track. They’ll ask you about your error log and study schedule and provide a degree of accountablility.
                                      5. The best tutors give you energy. Let’s face it: you’ll be tired and want to quit during much of your GRE study period. A tutor can feed you focus and energy during your study time to keep you from burning out.

                                      If you possess exceptional self-discipline, you may be able to stick to your study schedule, make consistent progress, and crack every hard problem and concept on your own. If you can, that’s great! And something to be proud of. On the other hand, for most of us, seeking regular help from a tutor is part of our discipline, just like getting regular training from a great coach is part of up a dedicated athlete’s routine.

                                      I believe the idea scenario for most students is about 6 hours per week of tutoring; but if that’s financially out of reach, then even 2 hours weekly can make a healthy impact. I recommend you start tutoring early – at the beginning of your GRE prep period – so that your GRE coach can keep you at your best performance and help you make optimal use of your time. If at any point you feel your tutor isn’t actually helping, be up-front and honest about it. Ask your tutor if she can do things differently to help you get the most results from your tutoring time.

                                      For the record, whenever my schedule has openings, I offer any new student a conditionally free hour-long 1-on-1 tutoring session. I will give you a total refund if after that first 1-on-1 lesson, you decide you don’t want to have any further sessions. I want you to know for sure whether I’m the tutor that suits you, before you financially commit. If you decide I’m not, then we’ll part as friends, and I’ll hold no hard feelings about it at all.

                                      Strategies to Score Well on the GRE

                                      Some strategies work for both Verbal and Quant:

                                      In Verbal and Quant, every question counts for the same number of points, and you don’t lose any points for a wrong answer. That means there are two Golden Rules for taking the GRE:

                                      Golden Rule #1: Answer every single multiple choice question.

                                      Ideally, you’ll rule out any choices you know are wrong and guess among the remaining possibilities. But even if you take a totally blind guess among all the available choices, that still gives you a chance of getting the answer right, with no penalty for guessing wrong.

                                      Golden Rule #2: Prioritize easy questions over hard questions!

                                      For the same amount of time and energy it takes to answer one hard question, you can answer two or three easy ones. That nets you two or three times as many points! So when you encounter a problem that looks too hard, follow this procedure:

                                      (a) Note down the number of the question on your scratch paper in a column labeled “S” from “Skipped,”

                                      (b) fill in a random answer for the question immediately, and

                                      (c) move on to the next question on the test.

                                      (d) Return to these “skipped” questions at the end, once every easier question has been solved.

                                      “More to come soon. Please contact me directly with any questions! I’m happy to help.